I recently revisited a novel I read over thirty years ago. I didn’t remember a thing about it, to the point that I wondered if I ever really read it before. I must have been a bit distracted or clueless when I read it the first time. I was a teenager then. There have been at least a thousand books I’ve read since, so I should cut myself some slack, I guess.
This was a Thomas Hardy novel. You can’t go wrong with a classic, I figured. What I wasn’t expecting was to be so caught up in the story that I was outraged at the characters.
Aggravation set in right away at Tess’s father for being so ridiculously full of pride and so shallow. Then I wanted to yell at her mother for being even more shallow and empty-headed than her silly husband. Where do these people learn their poor communication skills? And poor Tess, thrown to the wolves trying to make up for a mistake that never would have happened if her dumb dad hadn’t gotten drunk and been a lazy fool.
Enter Gabriel Angel and you falsely hope that he’s going to save Tess from herself and her sad little life. (“I’ll take poor assumptions for 800, Alex.”– see Finding Forrester.) I consider him one of the most dangerous kinds of characters ever to have been created on paper. Self-righteous, relentless in getting what he wants, unforgiving. He’s painted as a sweet guy, on the surface, to the point that all the girls on the farm are senselessly in love with him. “Run!” I wanted to yell at Tess. “Stay away from this guy! Listen to your gut and run far, far away!”
But no, Tess was generous to a fault. She gave and gave and gave. She gave everything she was to everyone else and had no thought for herself. She gave herself to death, literally.
Why am I discussing my aggravation with this tragic story? I didn’t expect to find myself caring so much about a character. I mean, she’s just a made up paper person! Most of the fiction I read lets me keep my distance. Oh sure, I’m interested in the plot, the story line, the what happens next. But I’m not usually invested in the characters to the point of being incensed for them, being afraid for them. To hear myself chat with my friends about this book made me sound like a raving lunatic.
Maybe, what it really is goes like this. I’ve known some people like Tess. You know the type. They can’t seem to catch a break from life. Every thing they try turns out strangely out of whack. If life gives them oranges they end up with grapefruit juice. If life gives them lemons they end up in jail due to their involvement in a pyramid scheme. The people in a position to really help someone like this end up doing the most damage. It hurts to watch. You want to turn your head, close the book and not pick it up again. It’s a real-life tragedy that keeps being written and nothing you try to do changes how that person’s life is unraveling, tangling and disintegrating.
Once in a while I go back and open up one of those books, check on those real, living characters, hoping to find the plot line has changed. Oh, how I wish the author of those stories could rewrite things a bit. Sometimes the scenery has changed, various minor characters come and go, but the heartache and loss and hopelessness are unrelenting.
I guess that explains why I like to try to lose myself in a work of fiction. The very nature of the made up story makes it safe and distances me from the difficulties in real life. Or better, the author manages to paint insight into the human situation, giving me a new perspective I hadn’t yet considered.
The very best books will leave you breathless, or deep in thought, or changed somehow. I guess Tess of d’Urberville is one of those books. Hardy managed to break down one of my little walls of defense I’d constructed as a shield against caring for and hurting about the heartache in others lives.
How many other books have changed something inside me? More than I care to acknowledge. Have you read a book that rocked your world? Has an author sent a seismic tremor rumbling beneath your feet? Or is it just me?
(Apologies or kudos to Mike Rich, the author of “Finding Forrester” for the title of this blog, borrowed from a quote from William Forrester’s book.)