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Alexia Nader: A Lesson from Thomas Hardy on Sex and Drama

August 3, 2012

Character study vs. flimsy romance in Fifty Shades of Grey, Trishna, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

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Image from Flickr via Wolverhampton Arts + Heritage

By Alexia Nader

In writing Fifty Shades of Grey, author EL James performed a surprising act of kindness towards a classic English novel heretofore abandoned by most, excepting literature majors and BBC screenwriters. Between the vampire motifs and sex toys of Grey, the first book of a trilogy, James slipped in a handful of allusions to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented and claimed it as an inspiration for her story. At the beginning of Fifty, the male protagonist, Christian, gives the narrator, Ana, an expensive first edition of Tess along with a card oddly quoting the book without any context. This is when Ana (and James) begin to draw tenuous parallels between Hardy’s story and their own:

Written on one side, in black ink in neat cursive handwriting is ‘Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks…’ I recognize the quote from Tess. I am stunned by the irony as I’ve just spent three hours writing about the novels of Thomas Hardy in my final examination.

Fans of the Fifty series weren’t deterred by the bizarre nature of James’ references. After discovering them, they kicked into gear, powering a 300 percent increase in sales of Tess on Amazon, according to the Guardian. In the midst of this summer surge, writer and director Michael Winterbottom released his new movie, Trishna, based explicitly on Tess and set in contemporary India. These coincidentally timed pop renewals have brought an English milkmaid’s somber story more widespread attention probably than it has received since its debut.

Tess is full of both Victorian and folk melodramatic tropes—a fallen woman who was once a sensuous milkmaid, a rakish aristocrat with a hidden prosaic lineage, a repressed parson’s son….

People looking for a style resembling that of Fifty in Tess will be disappointed. Hardy traffics in sexual innuendo (and not of the most obvious type), and his work is unrushed, featuring a prim narrator prone to philosophizing for paragraphs. The curious yet impatient should see Winterbottom’s film, which compresses a few of Tess’s characters, skips over slow moments in its plot, has lovely sweeping scenes of the Indian countryside, and plenty of movement in the form of Bollywood-style dancing. But reading Tess again, or for the first time, while keeping in mind Grey or Trishna, one realizes that Hardy had a rare ability among storytellers that can’t be imitated easily. It’s a skill that contemporary novelists, TV and movie writers alike would kill for: he could fill in the gaps of a melodrama, rendering it a fully human story.

It makes sense that a movie director and a writer of a semi-erotic romance novel would be interested in Hardy’s novel. Tess is full of both Victorian and folk melodramatic tropes—a fallen woman who was once a sensuous milkmaid, a rakish aristocrat with a hidden prosaic lineage, a repressed parson’s son—and the power dynamics between these characters shift starkly, making for emphatic dramatic scenes. At the beginning of the story, Alec rapes Tess, exerting physical power over her, but ultimately ends up the target of her violence, killing him at the end of the book. Before that, Tess becomes involved in a second relationship, a mirror of the first. She captivates the attention of Angel Clare, a parson’s son, whom she meets while working on a dairy farm and trying to make sense of what happened to her with Alec. He idealizes her and treats her well at first, but when he finds out that she has had a child with another man, he scorns her and leaves for Brazil.

Both Winterbottom and James combine the Alec and Angel characters in their works, creating male protagonists that have almost comically split personalities. In Fifty, on one page Christian drags Ana to the bedroom for punishment after she rolls her eyes at him and on another he begs her like a teenage girl to explain why she doesn’t like him. In Trishna, Jay is the spoiled son of an Indian businessman who rapes the title character at the start of the film. There are a few weak attempts to explain abrupt changes in his behavior. For the second third of the movie, which takes place in Mumbai, Jay treats Trishna tenderly, as if she were his girlfriend: we see them walking along the beach hand in hand at sunset, and cuddling in bed in their shared apartment. But when Trishna tells him she aborted his child, his inner monster emerges and he emotionally and sexually abuses her until she finally puts and end to it by stabbing him.

Tess is a character study disguised as a bawdy romance. Hardy’s great project was to painstakingly mold Tess to be both what Irving Howe once called “the archetype of feminine strength,” and a conflicted, modern individual.

Another Hardy student, D.H. Lawrence, was fascinated with the Alec and Angel interplay in Tess. He didn’t consider it as a simple plot mechanism but a way for Hardy to take up “the power of sexuality and the conflicts it produces … the conflict between powerful social conventions and a still more powerful sexual impulse, the sudden intrusion of sexuality into the more placid of the body’s rhythms, its interference with conceptions of the self.” In his essay “Study of Thomas Hardy,” Lawrence ties Tess’s melodrama to the book’s main drive: the development of Tess as a female character. He understood something that James and Winterbottom evidently don’t, or chose to ignore: Tess is a character study disguised as a bawdy romance. Hardy’s great project was to painstakingly mold Tess to be both what Irving Howe once called “the archetype of feminine strength,” and a conflicted, modern individual. The story’s relationships are not its subjects, but rather ways to set Tess’s internal contradictions and sensibilities into relief; the plot is simply a way to cast light and shadows around Hardy’s ultimate form.

EL James clearly had a different purpose in mind than Hardy’s when writing Fifty, which she created as a piece of fan fiction, an erotic tribute to the teenage vampire series Twilight. Still, she attempts to create her version of Tess by giving the reader access to the character’s express thoughts through first-person narration. Having successfully and powerfully adapted Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge to the screen, Winterbottom has clearly examined Hardy’s work closely, and could have used his knowledge to better effect in this latest work. He did achieve some of the believable presence of a complex woman, though, by casting the radiant actress Freida Pinto as Trishna.

But neither of Tess’s new pop counterparts measures up. James provided Ana with the emotional intelligence of a fifteen-year-old—all unexamined angst and lust and no specific sexual or spiritual desires. Ana often says in the book that she “wants” Christian, but how? He is the one who dictates the particular terms of their relationship, sexual or otherwise. She either agrees to his demands, or leaves the scenes of conflict, crying in frustration. Winterbottom treats Trishna like an exquisite bird that can be transported and petted, but has no impulse or means for sophisticated expression. This is intentional on Winterbottom’s part: Trishna’s most artful scene shows her framed by—trapped in—the wrought-iron bars of a menagerie as Jay teaches her how to whistle. However, the movie leaves us wanting Trishna to transcend, or at least test the metaphor—to show some of Tess’s spirit and resilience.

In Fifty and Trishna, we can perceive the storms of sexual conflict around the two characters, but not those within them. Their creators took the easy route to embodying Hardy: they stole his country tales, and left unexplored his true achievement: portraiture as literature. That’s for the lucky Fifty reader who opens Tess for the first time to appreciate.

Alexia Nader is a writer in New York and a recent graduate of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.

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