ArtSunday: Tess of the Boomervilles

The new season of PBS’s long running series Masterpiece Theatre, now known simply as Masterpiece, kicked   off last Sunday with a new adaptation of Thomas Hardy‘s brilliant examination of gender relations and cultural  mores, Tess of the d’Urbervilles.


The production is first rate. The actors, young and earnest as they are, seem to have a clear grasp of the key issues of the novel, quaint as they may seem to sophisticated Post-Sexual Revolution viewers. I can recommend it without reservation, something I couldn’t do for last year’s Complete Jane Austen.

In fact, a useful question for us to consider is whether it makes sense for Masterpiece to offer such a production of Tess.  Who would get an exploration of the double standard in these times?

The subtitle of Hardy’s novel is a simple phrase: A Pure Woman.

What the novel (and this fine production) attempts to examine is what Hardy’s (or any) culture means when it uses such a phrase.  As I mentioned above, maybe what makes even a thoughtful presentation of Tess seem irrelevant, perhaps even fatuous, in these same days of this our life is that we’re now two generations removed from the rise of the Women’s Movement (for lack of a better term).  And as we have been wont to do with racism, environmentalism, and class warfare, we have spent so much time wonking about these issues that we have come to think we have addressed them with more than words.

This relegates, in ways we don’t always consciously grasp, Hardy’s powerful depiction of the duplicity of our treatment of male and female sexuality to a sort of Antiques Roadshow valuation – its historical significance carries more weight than its artistic/social value.


The last generation with significant experience of a pre “Women’s Liberation” culture are The Boomers, those aging self admirers. For us (and I’m as Boomer as it gets) Tess of the dUrbervilles presents a world we know well – a world where a woman was either a “good girl” or “damaged goods” –  a world  that we sought to redefine through our embracing of Free Love.

But as with most Boomer efforts, what we did was glom those cultural sensibilities we claimed so hard to reject onto our practice of the rejection of those sensibilities – guys “knew” that “hippie chicks” were “easy,” for example – useful for getting laid, but not women we’d seriously consider marrying. Even the free and easy sexuality of our college days often wound up as a series of monogamous relationships that “allowed” us to engage in “pre-marital intercourse” which we thought of as leading to a serious end (marriage, family) even when subconsciously we knew otherwise.

What we wrought with such a convoluted mindset, which books like Tess (and the Polanski (!) adaptation) allowed us to talk about without talking about our true selves, was a weird, confused and confusing melange of ideas and beliefs about male/female relations that has given our generation a divorce rate unlikely to be equalled in human history.

Boomer women may, then,  occasionally harbor notions of themselves as  Tess Durbeyfields. They’ve spent their lives since puberty arguing Hardy’s assertion that purity comes from somewhere besides an unbroken hymen. But if so, most Boomer men, at least in their rare moments of honesty,  would have to admit to being afflicted with a kind of gender relations MPD – they are both Angel Clares and Alec d’Urbervilles. They want their good girls bad and their bad girls made somehow pure again at the same time.


Whether Xers or Millenials experience Tess of the d’Urbervilles with a similar troubled ambivalence about gender relations seems unlikely. For them, Tess will seem more like historical fiction than a key for coded discussions of their gender relationship confusions. Their insights will likely be deeper in some ways, shallower in others as a result of their Post-Sexual Revolution orientation. They will certainly be different.

But Tess speaks in a striking way to the Boomer generation – and thus this new PBS rendering of Hardy’s opus might be called “Tess of the Boomervilles.”

14 replies »

  1. Jim,

    As usual, great post. However, the hippie chicks I ran around with weren’t THAT easy, at least for me:)


  2. Whether Xers or Millennials experience Tess of the d’Urbervilles with a similar troubled ambivalence about gender relations seems unlikely.

    Does it? Speaking only for those Millennials I’ve watched grapple with texts like this, I’d say your perspective is a little dim. Remember, you’ve had a lifetime of “wonking” and navel-gazing about these issues… they haven’t. The same? No. Similar, at least in pertinence and immediacy? Oh yes.

    For them, Tess will seem more like historical fiction than a key for coded discussions of their gender relationship confusions.

    Now I’m laughing, because a significant number of my “Gen X” compatriots now inhabit Women’s Studies departments due to their facility for endlessly discussing things like Hardy’s relevance to gender relationships today… the code may have changed, but the underlying issues haven’t really gone anywhere, and obfuscation still reigns over plain speaking. Wait, maybe it’s Gender Studies. Wait, do we still use “gender?”

    a weird, confused and confusing melange of ideas and beliefs about male/female relations that has given our generation a divorce rate unlikely to be equalled in human history.

    I’m not sure that a high divorce rate is a bad thing compared to the alternatives… but I’ll certainly grant Boomer men the “weird and confusing melange” burden. Living on the cusp of change is hell, especially when the change is at your general expense. You got whacked in the gonads with the sharp edge of the pendulum, but successive generations are in line to be knocked down with every swing. You’d probably be more amazed at the similarities than shocked by the differences (at least in this area) if you were forced to spend time around those crazy Millennials. We’re all rutting monkeys with unfortunately complicated brains.

    By the way, Xers are the most self-absorbed, not Boomers. We win.

  3. Ann,

    You can argue about Millenials all you want, but I’ve watched both Xers and Millenials “struggle” with TESS, and neither group struggles the way Boomers do with the issue of whether Tess is a “bad girl.” Oh, and that “dim perspective” pot shot is typical Xer code for “don’t you Boomers realize you’re old and in the way” isn’t it? 🙂

    Yes, a high divorce rate is a bad thing. Looking at how our divorces have fucked up our kids has taught me that bitter lesson…. And I’ve spent plenty of time among Millenials – it’s in my job description….

    Xers are not more self absorbed than Boomers. They’re just determined to be loud about their every feeling/emotion because they lack strength of numbers…. 😉

  4. Yay he liked it.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the series! She was a woman deserving of my understanding and sympathy.

    I live, work, volunteer, breathe and share words with people who still think loose morals are just that: loose morals. Bed-hopping with free abandon is something that I, as a parent and backed up by school teaching, advise against. But if you’re you are going to do it then do it right……with a condom, a thorough feelings check (his and yours) and hope the bloody thing doesn’t burst!

    …teenagers are hopeful always to land a hole in one but tend to treat with utter contempt their “slapper” peers.

    Nice to see one of your posts again. Been too long since you penned an article. 😉

  5. I still contend that they struggle with it in a different way. Perhaps your filter is set a little too high, or perhaps we simply have different experiences with different groups of people. Or maybe you’re hearing the new code and interpreting it according to a different key. Gender is an issue, as well, as is empathy and accessibility. If you really think the Madonna/whore issue is dead, it might be better to stick to generalizing about your own generation.

    And really, I don’t consider anyone whose mind remains open “old and in the way.” Certainly not my mother, or my stepfather, or my favorite people here.

    One more thing – high divorce rates don’t “fuck up” kids, Jim. Stupid people who marry and breed without thinking do. If they’re dumb enough to spawn before they’re ready to be parents, their kids are screwed no matter what – and if one parent is significantly more capable than the other, a divorce can be the best possible option. Not to mention, oh, being able to divorce a spouse for abuse of various kinds, rather than being condemned to a life sentence. Again, a Boomer may have fucked up his kids – but it’s not divorce that did it. It’s him. And her.

    Although thinking that everything is about them is pretty typical of Boomers, isn’t it?

  6. Ann,

    Never said I think the Madonna/whore issue is dead – just that my experience with students suggests they think about it more as a historical problem not a contemporaneous one in their lives. This may be immaturity/shallow thinking on their part, but there’s something deep-seated there, I think.

    You’re splitting hairs on the divorce issue, Ann. There’s a boatload of evidence saying divorce itself with all its attendant social pressures causes problems in most kids of divorce – ergo higher divorce rates would naturally lead to more kids with problems. All the special cases you lay out are examples rather than statistics. Divorce is statistically proven to be traumatic for parents and children. And I was making a point, perhaps not clearly enough, about Boomers’ tendency toward serial monogamy being part of that generation’s problem with dealing with its gender relations ambivalence – with divorce and its attendant problems a result of that serial behavior.

    Interestingly, I think if we thrashed this out for a while I think we’d both realize we’re in large part in agreement. I remember being struck by something rather simple when I’d been teaching for a few years – how much more easily teenaged Xer males and females were able to be friends – without that ridiculous sexual tension so famously depicted in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY – than my Boomer contemporaries had been. And I’ve noticed that this is even easier for Millenials. And I always thought of this as real, on-the-ground progress in male/female relations – and admired it. And student reactions to TESS over these years has made me believe that they bring this more enlightened attitudes to their reading of the novel.

    So maybe it was about Boomer me – but only in the sense that I admired people I hoped were more enlightened that I….

  7. I always liked the book.

    I think that Jim and Ann are more in agreement than their conversation would indicate.

    And while i agree that not parent ready procreators are a huge problem, divorce sucks and it does tend to fuck kids up. Not always and certainly not always irreparably, but too often. I don’t know if the old-fashioned loveless marriage would be better or worse.

  8. Possibly. Mine is certainly a sanitized version of the reaction I’ve heard from most of my contemporaries who’ve read this piece… it may simply be a matter of tone. And yes, it is easier for boys and girls to be friends now, at least on the surface. Perhaps you’re more optimistic about the progress of gender relations than I am. I get to answer questions from teenagers like,”How can you tell if a girl is a virgin?” and “Is sex supposed to hurt?” My view may be a bit grim.

    But still, neither you nor Lex are going back to first causes on the divorce issue, and the hair-splitting you refer to was my attempt to make that point. Of course divorce is traumatic in every way for the children who go through it, but those statistics that prove it are documenting the effects of already toxic situations. You’re not starting with the Cleavers; you’re starting with two people who for whatever reason have been unable to sufficiently deal with their own issues to a) create and sustain a viable partnership and b) subsume their own problems to the greater responsibility of raising a child. These are the basics of divorce, not “special cases,” for heaven’s sake. The trauma is well entrenched by the time the divorce happens; a chaotic or loveless or abusive marriage is never a secret to the children involved. General statistics show the cumulative effect of all those traumatic experiences, including divorce and the usual subsequent failure to co-parent well. The split is another trauma, not the only one, and there are plenty of in-depth studies that attempt to break down the various factors in the ongoing mental health of children of divorce.

    I have no idea if serial monogamy is part of the equation, but divorce rates don’t seem to be dropping significantly – I wonder if serial monogamy has? I tend to think that people divorce now because they can… and as part of that half of the human race which had absolutely no say in the matter until very, very recently, I like having the option. You know, not being owned. Not being forced to raise my daughter to accept lovelessness, marital rape and grinding submission as her probable destiny. Not being stoned for adultery while my husband fucks everything that moves with the complete endorsement of society… you know, little advantages like that.

    Lex, the loveless marriage would be fine, I guess, if that’s what you want your children to see – and that’s a personal choice, and the socially acceptable one for most of history and a big chunk of the world today. It must work for a lot of people.

  9. No, no, that’s not what i would want for my theoretical children or for any child. I do wonder if times and places where divorce wasn’t such an easy option found people learning to love one another. (But that doesn’t mean that i think divorce shouldn’t be an option. I’m a child of divorce. My mother was clearly ready to be a parent, but not ready to choose a partner. My trauma occurred before, during and after the divorce, and it took me many years to sort the whole rotten mess out. She ended up with a wonderful man, who i love too, in a great relationship. But i had to pay a pretty steep price for her happiness; it wasn’t fair…luckily my grandfather’s been drilling into my head that life ain’t fair for as long as i can remember.)

    I had a prof (former Jesuit married to a former Carmelite) who talked about the difference between new love and old love; i’ve long wondered if some of the divorce rate is simply people unable or unwilling to make the transition…or expecting that life really is like a bad movie, i.e. happily ever after. But that brings us to negative narcissism (negative because the actual myth, as opposed to our current usage of the word, is positive). If a person’s prime thought is “Me” he/she will never make the transition to old love or truly be capable of raising the kind of children that the world needs.

    No offense, Jim, but i do think that the Boomers elevated “Me” to a whole new level. And i see an amplification of it in their children. I philosophically agree with the generation’s throwing off of restrictive, and let’s face it…stupid, cultural moors. But it wasn’t replaced with anything except “Me, me, me.”

    Now Narcissus loved himself to the point of nauseating everyone around him; people told him how beautiful he was so many times that he went overboard in believing it. But he had never actually seen himself. Until one day he came across a still pond and spent hours gazing at his own reflection. It was in the act of seeing himself for the first time and really looking at himself that he learned to actually love himself rather than a created imagine of himself. It went deeper; it became old love.

    We’re three generations into people chasing new love in everything. Three generations into far too much pre-epiphany Narcissus that shows in our need to have the nicest car, the biggest house, the ever romantic relationship that makes us feel beautiful and special, and all the rest. We need a pond, badly.

    I mean look at our willingness to screw our children, grandchildren, etc. environmentally and financially so that we won’t have to give up any of the things that we currently define as the good life.

    Will a child be happy if his/her parents are miserable? No. But a “happy” parent will not necessarily guarantee a happy child either. We chase happy a lot in America, and we end up pretty fucking sad none-the-less. To some extent i blame Christianity, which posits that one side of the binary pair can be utterly defeated…except that it can’t. Here’s where Eastern traditions like Buddhism have real value. A Buddhist isn’t looking for joy or happiness, but contentment: the middle ground between the binary opposites. But as the myth of Narcissus shows, this wisdom is in our own traditions too. Campbell would say that our problem is a lack of real myth, which enables a person to order his life at a higher level…the myth is just the metaphor, the doorway.

  10. I almost edited out the reference to Xers and Millenials. I now wish I had. I meant this only as a criticism of Boomer readings of “Tess” – and of Boomers. And to express some surprise that BBC decided on such a Boomer friendly rendering of the novel.

    Never meant to stir the pot this way.

  11. Don’t edit. I love seeing my Xer guys get all huffy.

    And pot-stirring is a time-honored tradition of great minds. Those of us who merely shit-stir can only aspire…