This is a post about Tess of the D’Urbervilles. But it’s not really about the story, or themes, or issues. It’s about the book, and how I am finally reading it for the first time. Enjoying it, too, if that’s not too odd a word to apply to such a tragic, disturbing novel. The enjoyment springs from discovering Hardy’s writing: how an already-known plot unfolds; how Hardy uses nature to show character moods; how the characters are drawn and shaded and brought to life.
Years ago, I had an ill-fated encounter with The Return of the Native; it was summer reading for high school, and either I was too immature to appreciate the work or too inclined to roll my eyes at my Christian school’s summer reading selections. Either way, I shunned Hardy’s work because I loathed that one book. But someone mentioned Tess in a blog comment, and I decided that it was high time to read it.
I’m thankful that I didn’t read this in high school. One of two things would’ve happened.
First, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it. Although I’d suffered depression for years, I still hadn’t reached the acute stage of mental crisis that I did in college and later. I hadn’t been through my own harrowing experience of darkness, my own crisis of faith, my own experiences of rejection and loneliness. Sometimes we have to go through things before we can empathize with certain characters (or real people!); other times, the characters evoke our empathy for their fictional trials, and that empathy extends beyond the page into the real world.
Second, my high school teachers would’ve ruined it. Don’t get me wrong; I mean no disrespect. My English teachers were fine Christian women, trying to stuff literature and grammar and writing into the chemically-imbalanced, hormonally-out-of-whack brains of teenagers. But they weren’t necessarily well-informed on literature. Being a book-crazy girl, I saw and was disgusted by the ignorance.
For me, their thinking had two major faults.
Too censored. As if embarrassed by the disturbing themes in classic novels, the teachers and administrators avoided these books entirely and picked safe (and inferior) works to study. My senior year of high school, we read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, an overview of the major Greek and Roman myths. My teacher told us to skip two chapters—the myths of Oedipus and Clytemnestra—because we “didn’t need to read it.”
I read these chapters anyway. For pity’s sake, it’s not like the guy acted intentionally, so why make a fuss? And if we can’t maturely (if awkwardly) discuss Clytemnestra’s affair and subsequent killing of her husband, then are we really mature enough for college?
Why be flustered by bawdiness in certain of The Canterbury Tales to the extent that they go unread? Why not address it in a Christian classroom to a group of college-bound seniors? We were going to encounter even more disturbing things at a secular university. So why not prepare us now, when we can learn how to think through the issues with a teacher who believes in moral absolutes and not moral relativism? Give a disclaimer or acknowledge the problematic contents, and work with the students through these issues.
Too narrowly-defined in their Christianity. For them, there was one Christian view of just about any subject. They didn’t want to stray from The Christian View of whatever. But Christians don’t all think alike—shocking, I know—and Christians are allowed to have different interpretations of Hamlet or Moby-Dick. Really. You don’t have to agree with me.
Even as a high schooler, I wanted to devour the texts: sniff out the potentials, dig deep into the dirt and grit of the novel, sink my teeth into the words until I tasted the truth amid the flavors, a dog ripping meat from a bone. But only the meaty texts. Not throwaway junk food.
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
–Sir Francis Bacon
Reading too much of those junk novels is like eating too much junk food; it kills the taste for anything else. Artificial and sugary and chemical and salted to induce addiction: that’s junk food. That’s junk reading. That’s junk thinking.
I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but it illustrates my point. Years ago, when I ditched my favorite Diet Coke, I went for a year without another soft drink. I had to learn what water tasted like. Strange, but true. After a while, I preferred water, and I didn’t crave soft drinks.
Water tasted real.
Nothing settled my thirst like water.
Then one night at my daughter’s track meet, there was nothing but Diet Coke to drink. My husband handed me a cup. I took a sip. Stopped. Stared at the styrofoam cup. “Are you sure? Taste this—” I thrust the straw at him “Does this taste right to you?”
“Tastes like Diet Coke.” He shrugged.
I was shocked. That was what I had been drinking: this nasty chemical concoction? I had preferred this over other beverages? I gave the drink to my husband and found a water bottle for myself. All those years, I had been quenching my thirst with something artificial, when the really satisfying object was just a water fountain away.
When we satisfy and satiate ourselves on inferior things, the junk food of thought, and read and swallow and listen to these things to the exclusion of all else, we kill our taste for the real.
And when our taste for the real is dead, we have difficulty thinking for ourselves, and thinking (and acting) in the radical, turn-the-world-inside-out manner that Jesus demands.
And that includes having empathy for those who suffer like the fictional Tess.