Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tess: A Modern Heroine

I am currently reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (really, I should have the review done next week) and I came across this quote by the author as narrator, describing his heroine, "She was expressing in her own native phrases--assisted a little by her Sixth Standard training--feelings which might almost have been called those of the age--the ache of modernism." This is in reference to a passage where Tess tells Angel, "And you seem to see numbers of tomorrows just all in a line, the first of them the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel and as if they said, 'I'm coming! Beware of me!' . . . "

I never thought of Tess as a "Modern" character before now. Hardy published Tess toward the end of the Victorian age--but still well within it. Yet she does pre-date some of the modern feelings of discontent, disillusionment and conflict seen across the western world in the decades to follow.

Marx wrote about the modern world, "In our days everything seems pregnant with its contrary.” The same could be said of Tess, who inspired such fierce criticism as well as praise by the Victorian world. I think it is the contrairies in Tess that continue to make her an intriguing character for contermporary audiences. She was neither an angel nor a whore--she was a good woman who lived through incredibly difficult experiences and in the end succumbed to them.

Marx further states, "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face . . . the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.” Tess certainly challenged the assumptions of the world in which Hardy introduced her--indeed I believe she continues to challenge the close reader of the text today with the complexity of her character. When she takes it upon herself to baptize her own infant, she at once contradicts the church and reaffirms her faith in it--a complex moral conundrum that theologians have puzzled over to which she finds a straightforward, "modern" approach.

Marshall Berman described the Marxist approach to contemporary life as, “ironic and contradictory, polyphonic and dialectical, denouncing modern life in the name of values that modernity itself has created, hoping–often against hope–that the modernities of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow will heal the wounds that wreck the modern men and women today.” Tess, a modern heroine juxtaposed against the ancients of her family--those fallen d'Urbervilles who haunt her throughout the novel and contribute to her downfall--can be seen throughout the novel adapting, hoping for the "modernities of tomorrow" to help her solve the problems of yesterday that linger into her present.

For those who have read the novel, how does Tess speak to you as a "modern" character? Do you think she fulfills the definition of modernity, or is she still a product of Victorian society?
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