Saturday, July 17, 2010

Am I Addicted to Tragedy?

"And besides, what was there to go home to? Nothing but the silence of her cheerless room - that silence of the night which may be more racking to tired nerves than the most discordant noises: that, and the bottle of chloral on her bed." -Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

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


8 comments:

Jane Doe said...

wooaaahh on the Tess spoilers! give a girl some warning!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Oops! I'll leave more to the imagination next time....

Bushpig.vrc said...

I dig the pic - tragic chic! I can't ifgure out where the reading list is. Please help!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Thanks! I will address the oversight in my next entry later this week....

Mimi said...

Love the running mascara. Reminds me of the movie "Death in Venice" where Dirk Bogard's character's hair dye seeped onto his face in the heat.

Blaire said...

I'm the same. When I was reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles on a road trip my boyfriend asked me what it was about. I explained it to him and he asked me why I always read things that are so depressing. I don't know. Isn't it better to accept that sometimes life really is horrible, than to pretend every story has a happy ending? Women really do experience what Tess did. It really did take a long time for society to wise up, if they even have. That is part of the history of what it means to be a woman, isn't it?

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Perhaps women have developed a greater capacity for sympathy and turbulent feelings over the centuries....

When the novel first emerged as a popular genre mid 18th-century, novels tended to focus on sad, sentimental stories of women whose virginity and sexuality were under siege (Samuel Richardson's Pamela, for instance). It's telling that the same story continues to fuel great novels in our own time.... Toni Morrison's Beloved comes to mind.

Gabrielle Renoir-Large said...

I am addicted to tragic books, though I do enjoy a really well written comedic book now and then. Two of my all time favorite books are "Tess of the d'Ubervilles" and "Beloved." And of course all the work of William Trevor, which is tragic (Trevor loves Hardy and says "that's where all my tragedy comes from").

I think we are pulled toward tragedy in our efforts to make sense of the terrible things that happen in the world, not necessarily to us, but in the world at large. Life seems inherently tragic, even if our own personal lives are going along quite well. And of course, we're all going to face a "final illness" or something similar.

One of the reasons we read, I think, is to make sense of life, and tragedy probably fulfills that purpose more than comedy.

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.