Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Similar Phenomena, Different Experiments? A Study of Thomas Hardy's Literary Influence on Theodore Dreiser

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Similar Phenomena, Different Experiments? A Study of Thomas Hardy's Literary Influence on Theodore Dreiser

Article excerpt

ON OCTOBER 15, 1911, Theodore Dreiser wrote to William C. Lengel:

   You will not be surprised when I tell you that few American books if
   any interest me.... When I go abroad it is very different.... Of
   the older writers Thackeray, George Eliot, Henry Fielding, Charles
   Reade and Thomas Hardy seem the best. (Elias, 1, 121)

In this letter, Dreiser not only acknowledges Hardy as a crucial influence but also lists him as one the five most influential writers in his life. In his May 14, 1916, letter to H. L. Menchken, Dreiser discusses in much more detail the issue of his literary inheritance:

   After Balzac (1984), came first Hardy (1896) and then Sienkiewicz
   .... About this time I did a lot of general reading.... But
   Hardy, Tolstoy and Balzac stood forth in mind all dais time. I have
   never read a line of Zola. Actually I should put Hardy and Balzac
   first in that respect.... (Riggio, I, 234)

This letter clearly indicates that Hardy occupied an important position in the sources of Dreiser's literary heritage. Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel, Tess of the D'urbervilles, and Theodore Dreiser's 1911 novel, Jennie Gerhardt, provide an interesting occasion to probe the question of how these two works could be so near to each other yet so distinctively depicted, and how one author of one society is influenced by the other and at the same time keeps his own artistic originality and particular thematic insight. England's late Victorian countryside and the American Midwest cities are brought side by side through these authors' distinct treatment of themes and characters and by the contrast in their works to Zolaesque determinism. A study of the literary heritages between these two novels reveals the interesting question of the relationship between phenomena and literary experiments.

A close look at Jennie Gerhardt and Tess of the D'urbervilles illustrates several significant features. Several crucial episodes or scenes in these two books possess astounding similarities. One such important scene in Tess of the D'urbervilles is the famous seduction at the end of "Phase the First--The Maiden," where Alec D'urberville, riding with Tess on their way back from the marketplace, strays away into the deep of the woods and possesses the innocent Tess against her will:

   Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the
   primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which were poised gentle
   roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping
   rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess's guardian
   angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like
   that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking,
   or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and
   not to be awaked.

   Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as
   gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have
   been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why
   so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the
   woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical
   philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may,
   indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the
   present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d'Urberville's mailed
   ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure
   even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though
   to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality
   good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature;
   and it therefore does not mend the matter.

   As Tess's own people down in those retreats are never tired of
   saying among each other in their fatalistic way: 'It was to be.'
   There lay the pity of it. An immeasurable social chasm was to divide
   our heroine's personality therafter from that previous self of hers
   who stepped from her mother's door to try her fortune at Trantridge
   poultry-farm. … 
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