Spoiler Alert: Contains spoilers for ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ If you haven’t read a book from 1891 by now, do you need a spoiler alert?
Content Warning: There will be discussion of sexual violence, rape and possibly mental health issues and suicide.
NOTE: The following is not the opinion of a qualified medical professional. If you are experiencing problems with trauma, depression or thoughts of self-harm please seek a medical professional.
The second article inspired by my reading of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the first is available here, and another one leaning more bio-psychological than anywhere else. It seems to be the way with this particular novel that it inspires me to think on nature and society and how ill-suited a couple those two are.
How often do you see the outline of a town, nestled, rudely, in the rolling hills around it and think “That looks like it belongs?” There is something of society that tries to master nature, dominate it, to prove the power of immediate mind, of willful intent, over that of billions of years of happenstance and accident.
And in those towns, and in that countryside, there are people, mostly invisible to one another, definitely invisible to town and country, all desperate to feel important.
So we ‘be’. We act, we do, we feel, we think and in so doing we come to know one another. In this coming to know we adopt many masks, many personas, who someone ‘truly’ is – that is something for them and them alone to know but there’s nothing stopping them being as honest as possible with others.
“I am only a peasant by position, not by nature!”
Tess barks at her newly-wedded dickhead who, up until that point, had been busy wearing a completely different persona himself.
I haven’t finished the book yet, being only about halfway through but so far we have reached a peak, a mountaintop of – I’m not even sure I could call it sympathy or empathy – of understanding between Tess and myself.
Not only does that above quoted line resonate so much with this unemployed, disabled, working-class would-be explorer of all things academic – to the extent I might just translate it to Latin and make it We Lack Discipline’s fucking motto! But she says it after she and her newly-wed Husband the, presumably ironically named, Angel have confessed their wrong-doings to one another.
His wrong-doing, as far as I can untangle from the florid language of Thomas Hardy, is to have spent a couple of days on a bit of a bender happily banging some chick. Her wrong-doing, as far as I could untangle from the florid language of Thomas Hardy, is to have been raped, impregnated and had the baby die, all before she was a legal adult.
By the social standing of 1891 for some reason her crime is significantly greater than his and he gets in a huff.
What really gut-punched me about this, though, is the notion of the damage done to you coming back to hurt you, through others.
Experience is acquired over time and not all experience is positive. Much like we can’t see what our own faces look like without the aid of a mirror, often damage done, the scars we wear, we learn to just live with until someone reflects them back at us.
I don’t want to get too much into my life but it’s been hard lived for a soft number of years. I don’t begrudge that. Some storms I have weathered with grace, others I have woken up in hospital beds giddy from the previous day’s deliberate staggered overdose.
Regardless of my own mind, attempts or intentions, here I stand.
Some people, wishy people, think that’s because there’s ‘a reason’. Some grand plan that still has a role for me. Me, I just think I’m too strong, like it or not, to die just yet. But either way I carry scars, wounds, I wear them on parts of myself I cannot see regularly. The only time they are truly felt is when someone else brings them forward, and then disregards them.
Angel himself admits of Tess that she is “more sinned against than sinning.” Itself a damning line given his level of education, I would suspect he knows the irony of the lifting of this line from Shakespeare. It is uttered by King Lear, a man who it is debatable that he is the agent of his own downfall. Does Angel believe Tess, though she couldn’t have known what would happen, should have suspected more? Been more cautious? Is there an air of victim blaming going on?
Without those scars, without those wounds, she could never know. Without feeling the heat from the flame for the first time one can never know how painful a burn is.
But even someone who hasn’t felt the heat can remind another just how painful it is.
I have not been through what Tess has been through. Outside of things I disregard because they had little to no bearing on me, voyeurism and random acts of stupid, daring groping, and having been used by someone I trusted, I do not know what it is to be sexually abused.
I do know what it means to be hurt, though, in so many ways. More ways than many people of my age should and yet, fewer than others.
I also know how it feels to have the damage from that hurt cast back. To have your scars so disregarded that you feel to blame for having been hurt at all.
There is a term that I have been using for a long time, I don’t know if I’ve read it somewhere or if I coined it but it is ‘pain relativity’.
I specifically use it to counter people who try to guilt depressed people into feeling better by suggesting there are people who have it much worse, “people starving in Africa…” and all that nonsense.
The example I always give is stubbing your toe. In that specific moment, as you experience what is a disproportionate amount of pain for so minor an injury, you couldn’t care if your neighbour next door was having their hand sliced off with a rusty spoon. Your pain is always more prominent, because relative to you, it is the bigger pain! Indeed it is the only one you, directly, feel.
I don’t think we take this into account in our thinking as much as we should, and certainly in heated conversations or arguments, I think one of the main points of conflict does become a jousting of ‘pain relativity’.
In Tess of the d’Urbervilles we see an example of this. Tess has been through tremendous pain, and has long since had her scars obscured from her.
Angel has been through significantly less pain, although not entirely without, indeed betrayal by his family weighs heavily on his mind. In that moment it feels as though the wife in front of him, and the woman he married are two separate entities, maybe it calls to mind his father and brothers.
They both experience pain, and the difference in their behaviours is that Tess, in her eternal guilt, tries to put his pain above her own. In my experience something done by people who have experienced a tremendous burden of visceral, – I’m trying to find the right term to use but all I can think of is ‘natural’ – pain. The pain of having been abused, having had your infant die. The kinds of pain that make social isolation seem a bonus more than a burden.
Angel, meanwhile, selfishly considers himself, his reputation, his social standing. Something done by people whose pain is mainly related to community, to shunning, to ostracism and bullying. His is a social pain.
In reflecting her pains, he reminds Tess of those wounds, that betrayal, in a way he rewinds her feelings to that assault that happened years ago when she felt she could trust and found out, most rudely, most offensively, that she couldn’t.
Likewise, even though she is no doubt the most tragic figure in this tale, her having kept this potentially socially damning secret from him, the harm it could do his reputation, brings up all the hurt he has felt over the years.
Tess, objectively, has had the worse time of things. But in their own minds, in those same moments, each individual’s pain is the greatest.
We would do well, as people, to remember that we are the mirrors in which other people see their damage. We are the panes that can reflect their pains. We should be mindful of this in our treatment of others, and, most importantly, to communicate openly and forgive willingly.
It is, of course, easier said than done.
At the end of the day we are all, on a cosmic scale insignificant, on a global scale barely perceptible, on a nationwide scale only potentially noticeable, on a local scale able to make a difference but usually invisible, on a familiar scale of importance but on an individual scale the only thing you will ever, truly, know.
Yet the cosmos can damage the individual, and a society can reflect that damage back to them. One stranger can inflict a harm upon another stranger that passes down the line to someone they may love, cherish beyond all other things in the world, but that reflected harm could damage their relationship beyond repair. Two insignificant specks colliding can cause a chain reaction that harm the balance of everything.