Experiencing Tess of the D'Urbervilles: A Deweyan Account

Experiencing Tess of the D'Urbervilles: A Deweyan Account

Experiencing Tess of the D'Urbervilles: A Deweyan Account

Experiencing Tess of the D'Urbervilles: A Deweyan Account


"This book interprets Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles with the openness toward experience recommended by John Dewey's Art as Experience. The characters of Tess are considered as real people with sexual bodies and complex minds. Efron identifies the "experience blockers" that the critical tradition has stumbled upon, and defends Hardy's involvement in telling his story. Efron offers a new way of evaluating literature inspired by Dewey's pragmatist aesthetics." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


Professor Efron refers to the danger of "the theorist or working critic…applying his or her scheme of recognition—his or her governing theory—to the literary work in the manner of using a 'stencil'". He might have gone further. In the majority of cases that "stencil" tends to isolate either those details that might make the text appear merely the product of its age—effectively an authorless ideological exudation—or those that seem censurable in the light of our own favoured contemporary orthodoxies, concerning, for example, race or gender. The work of art as such is eliminated, save insofar as it provides the necessary "evidence".

Such an approach overrides the very factor that gave rise to the term "literature"—the assumption that certain writers can go beyond the ideological confines of their own age to speak with seeming directness to readers from another. The "theorist or working critic" who rejects that assumption no longer has a subject, having sawn off the branch on which he or she was perched. Moreover that essential perversity produces several depressing side-effects. A study in this mode characteristically operates at a level of abstraction remote from the workings of any individual text. It exudes condescension in implicitly asserting superiority to the work or author under discussion, and to the reaction of the lay reader. It is impervious to the idea that a novel or poem can be a thing of wonder. It tends to be written in opaque, formulaic language, inadvertently advertising its incapacity to engage with the literary forms it purports to discuss: the swimmer-instructor is incongruously clad in lead boots.

Professor Efron's book could not be further removed from these limitations. It is a personal account of a particular work. Dewey is invoked to dilate the personal response, not to subsume it into a "theory". The student is informed throughout by Efron's admiration for the work he is discussing and by his own involvement with it. His language is everywhere clear because he is concerned to make things clear to himself.

The activity involved here is precisely the study of literature. Efron resolutely resists deflection into any fashionable meta-discipline. This is very much the work of a teacher accustomed to direct involvement with students. With an admirable willingness to risk naivety or embarrassing self-disclosure, Efron offers his own carefully-considered responses to the text and invites us to crossrelate them with our own. He isn't afraid to make bold generalizations on the basis of his personal reactions: "This section…seems to me to be the most extended immersion of the reader…in the context of sensuous-sensual-sexual nature anywhere in literature"; or again: "Hardy's profoundly realized vision in these chapters of a long-drawn-out conflict between a man and a woman over . . .

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