I just finished reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. I picked it up a few months ago, and saw that on the backside of the front cover, a long time ago in a land far away, I had written “Began 6-9-94.” That was the summer after I graduated high school. My handwriting was still puffy. I had read The Return of the Native the summer before and, even though I don’t remember it now, I liked it a lot. I didn’t get very far with Tess, though. She didn’t pull me in.
This time, however, I fell hard. I became so involved that I had to put the book down for several weeks because of my distress over the potential disaster that was about to devour my poor Tess.
I wrote a paper in college about why sadness is appealing in literature. I said that readers (although I can really only speak for myself) are drawn to sadness in art because it is such an intense emotion. When we are sad we are bare, and we usually stay in that state much longer than in joy or hot anger. Also, I think we tend to relate to others’ sadness more than their joy and anger. We may sometimes secretly envy their joy. Their anger makes us frightened or at least uncomfortable. But their sadness pulls us close to them.
Tess is a sad story. I’ve always loved sad stories, but come on, I thought, about three quarters of the way through, right before I took my little vacation from that world. Is that bad a life really probable? I remember learning that Hardy was one of the grand naturalists, who insisted that a human has no real choice, no benevolent aide, that life is tossed around like a feather on the wind. If he were alive now, he might say “like litter on the interstate.” While I don’t share Hardy’s worldview, I hate Hollywood stories. By this time, however, I was beginning to think that Tess was the true opposite of Hollywood, and just as contrived and fake. Just as manipulative.
Then I picked it up again. Oh how I love this book. Yes, it tugged, no tore, at my heartstrings, but at least I wasn’t crying “happy” tears because it all worked out with a ribbon on top. I was crying because I loved Tess and Angel and because they were sad. I don’t know if the events in their lives are realistic. Everything that could go wrong for them did, but I think that life works like that for some people, sometimes, even in the real world. I get the point. I see how cruelly the conventions of culture can make us behave towards each other. But really, I don’t love the book for its point. I love the people. How refreshing it is to truly love the people in a book—to feel their joy and sadness and to forgive them for their faults—to feel more than just a gooey sensation for their happy outcomes.
Well, it looks like I’ll be reading Jude the Obscure soon. I saw the movie several years ago, and yes I wept at the end. I think it is the only movie that has ever made me weep. I’m sure it is the same kind of book as Tess, but I’ll get to meet some new people. I’ll probably love them too.