Saturday, July 6, 2013

No Thanks, Thomas Hardy

I may never have hated a book, while reading it, as much as I hated Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

I don't care if Hardy's point was feminist for his time. The occasionally beautiful pastoralist writing does not make up for the dense characters, overwrought emotions, manipulative plotting, and general verboseness.

Reading a story about a rape, a rapist who blames his victim (even telling her to wear a veil to stop tempting him), and a husband who also blames her was too much for me, echoing the Steubenville rape case as it does. As one blogger put it, "That book and everything that happens in it fill me with an impotent rage against the whole history of the world and against that inclination that may occur naturally in females or may be cultivated in us to internalize all the horrible things that may or may not happen to us and conclude that they are our fault. Blech."

Which apparently was Hardy's intention, but it wasn't worth it for me because I already know that. Maybe the book has a salutary effect on the occasional member of the Taliban who slogs his way through 500 turgid pages, I don't know, but it's not something the average woman needs to hear anymore.

Coincidentally, as I was working toward the book's melodramatic and dissatisfying climax, I listened to an old Sweet Honey in the Rock song I had forgotten about called Joann Little. You may not remember the Joan (pronounced Joann) Little case from the mid-1970s. She was a young black woman, held in a North Carolina county jail for property crimes, who killed a jailer who forced her to have sex. He had brought an ice pick along to threaten her, and she killed him with it and escaped.

Her trial was a feminist and anti-death-penalty cause for several years, and she was acquitted of homicide charges. Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey wrote this song about her:
Joann Little, she’s my sister
Joann Little, she’s our mama
Joann Little, she’s your lover
Joann the woman who’s gonna carry your child.

I’ve always been told since the day I was born
Leave those no-good women alone
Child you better keep your nose clean
keep your butt off the street
You gonna be judged by the company you keep
Said I always walked by the golden rule
Steered clear of controversy I stayed real cool
Till along come this woman little over five feet tall
Charged and jailed with breaking the law
And the next thing I heard as it came over the news
First degree murder she was on the loose

Now I ain’t talking bout the roaring west
This is 1975 at its most oppressive best
North Carolina state, the pride of this land
Made her an outlaw hunted on everyhand
Tell me what she did to deserve this name
Killed a man who thought she was fair game
When I heard the news I screamed inside
Lost all my cool my anger I could not hide
Cause now Joann is you and Joann is me
Our prison is the whole society
Cause we live in a land that’ll bring all pressure to bear
on the head of a woman whose position we share
Tell me who is this girl --
and who is she to you?
The song addresses the way social causes look for "deserving victims" to advance their agendas. Joan Little was not a perfect victim for feminists or civil rights activists because she was in jail for real if minor crimes, and so in that way her case seems to me a high-water mark for human rights in the U.S. It's not only perfect people who deserve civil rights protections, after all.

Reagon's lyrics make the connection to every woman in a rape culture when she writes, "We live in a land that'll bring all pressure to bear / on the head of a woman whose position we share."

Little was tried because she "killed a man who thought that she was fair game," just like Tess Durbeyfield. And in 1975 America, Little fought like hell and was acquitted, while Hardy's fictional Tess was executed. And happy about it, according to the author.


Now that I think of it, there was one other book I probably hated as much while reading it.

1 comment:

Gina said...

Hmmmm...not a big Hardy fan anyway. I read "Far From the Madding Crowd" and don't remember a thing about it. I watched the movie "Tess" a long time ago based on Hardy's book, and I do remember thinking that Tess was an absolute idiot somehow. None of the characters were likeable as I remember.....