Sunday, October 2, 2016

She was not an existence, an experience - the narrator versus Tess - plus bonus layer of live rats

Writing yesterday about Tess of the d’Urbervilles at its wildest, I stopped before using the scene with this line: “But there was another hour’s work before the layer of live rats at the base of the stack would be reached; and [nice description of the moon]” (Ch. 48).  I have not yet found a book blogger quoting this line.  What novel were they reading?

I am hopping back to the Criticism in my outstanding Norton Critical Edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  What drives Dorothy Van Ghent crazy (from her book The English Novel: Form and Function (1953)), the “elements resistant to aesthetic cohesion” – she is so polite – that most bothers her, are the narrator’s invocations of poems.  Quotes from Wordsworth or Browning or Swinburne or whomever.  Tess, though she is reduced to swede-grubbing, is not uneducated. She could handle the quotations.  It is the surrounding lecture that “belongs to an intellectual battlefield alien from the novel’s imaginative concretions” (p. 428).

Tess and her family are moving – the subsequent scene, the description of the country-wide moving day, is outstanding – and they are singing a hymn that is sad but offers the hope of heaven.  Tess has spent the length of the novel suffering, so she does not share their hope:

for to Tess, as to not a few millions of others, there was a ghastly satire in the poet’s lines–
                Not in utter nakedness
                But trailing clouds of glory do we come.  [“Ode. Intimations of Immortality,” ll. 63-4]
To her and her like, birth itself was an ordeal of degrading personal compulsion, whose gratuitousness nothing in the result seemed to justify, and at best could only palliate.  (Ch. 51)

A classic statement of Hardyan pessimism.  What needles Van Ghent is not just the intrusion of the philosophical statement, but the anti-novelistic introduction of the “millions” and “her like.”  “[I]n what way do these statistical generalizations add to the already sufficient meaning of Tess’s situation?” (p. 429).  The novel is about Tess, Tess, Tess.  Any philosophical work needs to be done through her.  If Wordsworth is helpful, show us Tess reading Wordsworth.

Not that the narrator needs Wordsworth.  Nor does Tess.  Much earlier in the novel, after Tess has suffered her second, I think, great trauma, she is recovering.  She has resolved “to be useful again”; she has made some peace with an indifferent world.

The past was past; whatever it had been it was no more at hand.  Whatever its consequences, time would close over them; they would all in a few years be as if they had never been, and she herself grassed down and forgotten.  (Ch. 14)

A little jolt there at the end.  It is all pretty clearly Tess.  Yet the narrator is not satisfied.  She has not gone far enough for him.

She might have seen that what had bowed her head so profoundly – the thought of the world’s concern at her situation [unmarried mother] – was founded on an illusion.  She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself.  To all humankind besides Tess was only a passing thought…  Most of her misery had been generated by her conventional aspect, and not by her innate sensations.

I suppose it would be hard to find readers now who think badly of Tess because she had a child out of wedlock.  The “conventional aspect” has changed a lot.  But the narrator is after something else.  This is the side that Van Ghent finds bullying.  I do, too.  I found myself fighting with the narrator a lot, and not with his artlessness, whatever that might mean.  This structure, the narrator who tells the story but becomes frustrated that it does not say exactly what he wants it to say, is pretty interesting.

The narrator is fundamentally wrong.  He mistakes the illusion.  Tess was an existence, rather more than a passing thought, to me, while reading the novel.


  1. As I mentioned, I'm doing a seminar on Tess in January; we're using the Penguin edition, but I've ordered the Norton so I can consult some of your references. But I found this review on Amazon that makes everything clear:

    "I really had expectations when reading this I was just looking for a good book. This is not a typical romance there are so many fascists to the story and characters. If you like a story that is unexpected read this but this is not a light hearted story by any means."

    So maybe the live rats are just the fascists getting out of the way of the intrusive narrator?

    I'm actually re-reading "Adam Bede," which I remember as my favorite of the "fallen women" novels of the 19th century (whether it remains so will be determined).

    But Eliot at least equals Hardy in narrator intrusiveness. Point of view has never been the same since James (although I read that omniscience is making a comeback, even if judgmental narration is likely gone forever--if only second person narrators could be obliterated!)

    I love your angled approach to Hardy, as with all the works you analyze. You come at authors so differently from the way I approach them that, even when I disagree, I learn something.

  2. Fascists! Now that I did not notice. Oh that reviewer means "facets."

    I will warn you that the Third Edition of the Norton has been completely revamped. Three essays on Hardy and Darwin; Raymond Williams. The Second Edition is the deconstructionist edition, thank goodness.

    Eliot is enormously intrusive, always guiding us with her gentle wisdom.

    It would be hard to do a straight omniscient narrator at this point without some attempt to address the "who is this guy, how does he know this stuff" question. In a certain kind of literature at least, with an audience conscious of the fictionality of the fiction. The omniscient narrator just becomes another kind of unreliable first-person narrator.