The other day I got into a discussion with a new friend on Goodreads (this great site where readers from all walks of life talk about the books they can't put down. Also an excellent place for moral support and pure distraction). Anyway, this friend, this e-friend, this woman I'll never meet but instinctively like, broached an interesting discussion about Thomas Hardy, noting his tendency to favour tragic endings and heroines who remain trapped in their own circumstances. She was somewhat critical of Hardy for condemning poor Tess to sexual violation, backbreaking labour, lost love, and a fate too horrible to fathom. I saw what she was saying... and yet, what could I say? "The most memorable heroines for me," I confessed, "tend to be women like Lily Bart, Tess and Isabel Archer.... Am I addicted to tragedy?"
Recently, I'd re-read the ending of The House of Mirth, and found myself enjoying a good cry, lingering on the pages where poor Lily ends up addicted to this drug called chloral. It's her only escape from the drudgery of her job at the hat shop and the bleakness of the tenement house - a far cry from the ornate ballrooms and late nights dancing that consumed her youth. At the same time, I was finishing Shanghai Girls (I always like to have more than one book on the go), and this story is no more uplifting. Forced to flee their beloved homeland in Shanghai during the Second World War, Pearl and May survive rape, imprisonment and interrogation, before immigrating to America and eking a living in L.A. One thing after another goes wrong. Pearl's miscarriage. Persecution at the hands of U.S. immigration authorities. Tragedy compounds tragedy.
I wonder what draws me to literature that celebrates life as a constant drumbeat of sorrow. Ever since I was a kid, I was aware that something powerful - drug-like, almost - beckoned to me from within the pages of a good depressing book and a box of kleenex. Whenever something went wrong in my life - a friend made fun of me at school, or I didn't get invited to someone's party - there was something very comforting about losing myself in three hundred pages of someone else's turmoil. As I got older and acquired real problems - health problems, career blues, a slew of crappy relationships - I came to depend on tragic literature as my shelter from the world, my sacrosanct retreat from My Own Problems.
It was interesting that some readers wrote on Goodreads that they liked reading about characters pushed to deeper insights at their breaking points. Even though it's too late for them to save themselves, the reader is rewarded with an epiphany. I agree, but I also think there's something more primal at play. Back in grad school, I recall reading the anthropologist Mary Douglas. She writes about how in primitive society, people use ritual and art as a means of representing - and thereby holding at bay - the things that they most fear about themselves. In other words, there's something reassuring about exploring and making concrete the potential crises lurking at the back of your mind.
Lily, Tess, Pearl, Isabel.... If these tragic women embody elements of myself, perhaps getting it out in the open, through literature, holds the key to moving on....
Photo from: here