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Tess of the D’Urbervilles

I’ve long taken an interest in period features and historical novels and during my recent trip to London, I managed to get my hands on a collection of BBC adaptations of classics, one of which was Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. In it, I found transcendent themes of love, femininity, justice, and a story that will remain etched in my memory.

The film opens with a picturesque scene of a May Day Dance, and Tess joining in the festivities with the locale. She is beautiful in an ethereal way, innocent, loyal, kind, and aspires to pull herself out of the working class life by training to become a teacher. The author chooses this spiritual and festive moment to introduce Tess to a man named Angel Clare, a man who will become part of her life forever. This is one of the most beautiful scenes in the film as it sets the theme for pure love set against the pristine countryside.

Tess’s father is stopped by a parson studying ancient aristocratic families in England and is informed that he is a direct descendent of the aristocratic D’Urbervilles family. Seeing this as an opportunity for assistance in their time of misfortune, Tess, as the eldest of her siblings, is forced to go to her D’Urbervilles relatives at Tantridge to claim kin and seek their monetary support.

Instead of meeting with Mrs. D’Urbervilles, Tess meets with her miscreant son, Alec. Portrayed by the dark and handsome Hans Matheson, the reader and viewer can instantly sense a feeling of distrust in his diabolical character. Born bad, as he states so himself, “I suppose I am a bad fellow – a damn bad fellow. I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad in all probability”, he begins stalking the innocent Tess against her will. Though she tries to resist him with grace and patience, he eventually gets the better of her during an opportune time and rapes her.

Tess is left in a numb and self-loathing state and returns to her family’s cottage. She later gives birth to a son whom she named Sorrow and as her father castigated her for shaming the family, he refuses to have the baby baptized. The baby, however, is sickly and dies within a few weeks. Tess is given another blow when the local pastor refuses to allow the baby to be buried in the church’s graveyard and she decides to leave the village in search of employment and possibly start a new page in her life.

Tess eventually finds employment at the Talbothays dairy farm and she is surrounded by a loving community. She meets Angel Clare there once again and they fall madly in love. As their love blossoms, Angel starts idealizing the image of Tess as a pure goddess since she comes from the countryside and he being the son of a well-off clergyman. This puts pressure on Tess on whether to confess her shadowy past to Angel or not. Angel eventually proposes to Tess and for the first time, it seems that her fortunes are starting to brighten. However, on their wedding night, Angel confesses to his dallying with an elderly woman in London and naively assuming that he will forgive her previous misgivings too, she tells him all.

“The woman that I love is not you,” says Angel after Tess finishes her tragic tale. It is ironic that after trying so hard to persuade his parents to accept his choice of Tess as a wife, he would leave her for something that was out of her control. We may wonder why Tess, living in the nineteenth century even risked telling her husband about her past, “I love him. It would have been a sin to deceive him”, demonstrating her purity of heart.
Angel decides to leave for Brazil to pursue his farming ventures and tells Tess that he needs time to think over their relationship and that he will contact her in due time. Returning home with little money, her mother reprimands her for her stupidity, yet Tess is hopeful that if Angel truly loves her, he would not castigate her for something that was against her will. Forced to work again, Tess “jumps from the frying pan straight into the fires of hell” and goes back to work during a brutal winter season. Coincidently while walking next to the farm one afternoon, she sees a travelling tent and is shocked to find Alec preaching to an audience.

This is where the plot gets interesting. Upon seeing Tess, Alec loses his weak spiritual façade and starts pursuing Tess again. Tess wrote letters to Angel but didn’t hear from him, so she assumes that he is not coming back. In one of her letters, she writes, “O why have you treated me so monstrously, Angel! I do not deserve it. I have thought it all over carefully, and I can never, never forgive you! You know that I did not intend to wrong you – why have you so wronged me? You are cruel, cruel indeed! I will try to forget you. It is all injustice I have received at your hands!”
At this point in the story, I am torn apart as Tess unwillingly succumbs to Alec’s pursuits and his promises of providing enough for her family to live comfortably, especially after her father dies. I am still hopeful that Angel, her guardian angel will come to her rescue.

Meanwhile, Angel was recovering from yellow fever and heeding the advice of a man who says that he shouldn’t blame his wife for something that was in the past, he starts seeking out Tess in various locations. He finally finds her in the posh resort of Sandbourne, where she is known as Mrs. D’Urbervilles. Heart-broken, she cries out to Angel, “It is too late for me now, I’m already dead.” Angel leaves without a fight, probably ashamed of forsaking her in the beginning.

Tess goes back to the room to the selfish and abusive Alec and after a heated fight, she murders him and rushes off to find Angel. She finds him in the train station and they hide away in the countryside until they can find a port on which to sail away. Tess and Angel share a few days of uninterrupted bliss in a rented house that they had broken into before being discovered by the cleaner. They run away again and eventually arrive at Stonehenge and spend a night under the stars before being surrounded by the police in the morning. “It couldn’t have lasted,” Tess said, “Too much happiness.” The last scene of the book depicts her execution and Angel walking away, heart-broken.

I was too shocked for words to make sense of why the author chose such a grim ending for his innocent protagonist. According to Tess’s friend, Izz Huet, who concluded after speaking with Angel, “Whatever she’s done, she doesn’t deserve this.” Perhaps the author wanted to talk about the realities of rural life and the injustice cast upon women by the patriarchal order. Her father, for example, was an unwise parent who has absolved his responsibilities of sheltering his daughter from harm in several instances. No mention was made of him seeking justice when his kin, Alec D’Urbervilles, had raped his daughter nor any compassion is shown towards the baby and his eventual death. I also believe that Hardy wanted to portray Angel’s role in Tess’s fall by creating unrealistic expectations of his idealized partner to the point that his misdeeds should be forgiven by her but not vice versa. It is also interesting to note why Tess, in the final scene where Angel shows up, couldn’t have simply walked away with him and left him to protect her from Alec? Why did she have to kill him?

Throughout the story, I kept looking for glimmers of hope for poor Tess. Maybe some stories do end up tragically and perhaps sadness is a better instigator of action towards alleviating women’s plights worldwide. But maybe, just maybe, a vision of happiness could have been a far better source of inspiration for us readers and potential advocates of human rights.



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The Lure of Pilgrimage (My Eat, Pray, Love Journey)

Istanbul to eat

It is a sun-kissed day in May and I am devouring a sugary, dusty pink lokum that has been infused with rosewater. I have a splendid view of both Europe and Asia from the bohemian café that I’m sitting in. The rhythmic sounds of the sapphire-blue Bosphorus waves thrashing against the pavements are enough to lull me into a reverie. Home to a potpourri of civilizations; the Byzantine, the Romans, and the Ottomans, Istanbul is like an open storybook, luring me into its timeless pages of rich history, opulent palaces, and feasts for the souls. Its libraries are havens of muted stories, waiting to be conjured in the meadows of my mind. I read Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, a dash of romance, mystery, and philosophical riddles are sprinkled to create a rich tapestry representing life in 16th century Istanbul. I felt the love of the miniature artists as they caressed their brushstrokes and dipped them into golden paints to illustrate and illuminate words into worlds.

On my way to Haghia Sophia, I am greeted by bursts of colorful tulips perfuming the air with their summery scents. The mosque is a testament of beautiful cross-culture, originally built as a church that was later converted into a mosque. The dim candlelight flickered peacefully against the glorious names of the beloved Prophet PBUH and his companions. Topkapi Palace is a splendor of aristocracy and nobility that was home to Ottoman kings for 400 years. The locals in the Grand Bazaar entertain me with the Ottoman’s adventures as I sit on their exotic Turkish carpets and sip their minted tea. I was also delighted to chance upon a decorative collection of miniature illustrations of the gardens of Haghia Sophia and others of swirling dervishes. I got one for my personal art collection back home.

I hop on the first ferryboat that I find and sail for the faraway countryside on the outskirts of the city centre. It is difficult to muster the fact that the famous Trojan Wars took place in Troy, a few hours away from Istanbul. It is there that Homer inscribed in his Illiad about the doomed love story between Paris and Helen of Troy. Was the beautiful Helen casting her mesmerizing eyes far into the Aegean Sea and lamenting her unlived life without her true love? Reading her memoir in Helen of Troy by Margaret George created a certain unbreakable bond between her and myself that I cannot but be enamored by her fairytale. I have been reading more of her biographies ever since, mapping out the intricately woven details of her life; her visions of being a cygnet (young swan), her fervent love of Paris the Prince of Troy, and her deep-welled resilience.

Speaking of Paris, the 19th century Orient Express had traveled between Paris and then Constantinople (Istanbul) as a leisure option for the affluent. Agatha Christie had been one of its passengers. The mystery question posed now is where to have lunch for I am indeed famished. I stroll along the streets of Taksim and I am instantly cajoled into Saray restaurant. I devour succulent kebaps and perfumed baklavas that send me off into an addictive wave of second helpings.

When I left the restaurant, I felt sated, both in my body and my soul. Istanbul, thank you for enchanting me with your magic.

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La Serenissima

I closed my eyes and there I was…I blink once. I blink twice. But could this be true or is it just an illusion created by my solitary mind? There I was with you…we’re sitting gazing at the captivating view; watching the sunset on the mountaintop. The sun starts extinguishing its fiery fire in the cool placid sea. And then, night fell accompanied by the big blue moon and millions of twinkling stars.

You grab my hand and together we jump into the vast blue sea. We land on the sea and glide gracefully across it like skaters. I hear music playing…la serenissima…ay, mi amore, how soft they are to my ears! We begin dancing. Twists and turns, here and there. I feel myself in a crystal ball slowly rotating around the bright moon, the shining stars and the shimmering water. I am lost in reverie. Am I dreaming or am I not?

I close my eyes, and there we were…sitting on a gondola and slowly drifting across the river, which was glittering from the reflection of the star-laden sky. The grand gondola cuts through the river spreading an unusual glow from it. I feel a sort of peacefulness conquering me. Oh, what a divine feeling!

I look down at the soft waters and cut its silence by my hands. Then I see a strange color floating on the surface. I look up but to see bright lilac fireflies that looked like fairies. They were dancing in the sky and sprinkling the night with magic, which made it all the more mystical.

I look to the right, and there you were. Lay your sleeping head, mi amore, for the night is young and charming, just like you will always be…

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For the Love of a Fairy Tale

Tread softly into an enchanted forest, where the lush green foliage envelops you with its magic. On your right, you might glimpse a cottage made of candy and two young children sampling its sugarcane gates and gingerbread door. On your left, you might see Peter Pan and Tinkerbell whooshing past you in order to catch the sunset from Mermaid Lagoon. Right in front of you might be a magnificent castle, home to Sleeping Beauty and her Prince Charming. And up there in the sky, are the millions of glittering stars that have witnessed these stories as old as time. If you believe in magic, you might just see a sketch of their stories there.

Welcome to the world of fairy tales. A place where you can get a spinning sensation of admirable characters, twisted plots, cauldrons of magic, and oodles of fun. If you’re a first-time reader, you will feel nothing short of bewitched. If you’re returning to the nostalgic world of your childhood, evoking the feeling of being back in your princess or pirate-themed bedroom, reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales under your blanket with a penlight, then you will believe in magic once again and find comfort in the healing powers of stories.

People love good stories. Storytelling has been part of our literary heritage as far back as the Ancient Egyptians 3,000 years ago. In Europe, fairy tales grew out of folk stories and oral storytelling traditions. The term fairy tales comes from the French version, conte de fées. In his book, Fairy Mythology, Thomas Keightley informs us that the origin of the word “fairy” is the Latin word fatum, meaning, “to enchant”. Similarly, in French, fée means “illusion”. The French had a great interest in fairy tales, so much so that Louis XIV had designed the gardens of Versailles to include thirty-nine fountains that portrayed stories from Aesop’s Fables. Each fountain was engraved with the fable on plaques. Interestingly, it is from these plaques that Louis XIV’s son learned how to read.

Children’s literature historian, Seth Lerer, says in his book Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter:

“Fairy tales, as we know them now, are really the creation of literature collectors, editors, and authors working from the late seventeenth until the mid-nineteenth century. They appeared as literary texts during the age of Louis XIV, not so much as children’s stories but as exemplary fables for the courtier adults. They taught ideal behavior. They became the fashion of aristocratic salons.”

It is for this reason that some fairy tales are tinted with promiscuity, violence, and societal ideals that are unsuitable for young children. The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen, portrays the story of a young girl who was out on a cold winter’s night desperately trying to sell matchsticks for her poor family; as the story explains “She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her.” It was New Year’s Eve and people were passing by, ignoring her pleas. Finally, she succumbed to her death; out of hunger and cold. However, the tale ends with a note on how she went to Heaven though people were too late to help her avoid her premature death; “She took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very, very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear-they were with God.”

There’s more to fairy tales than the interwoven wisdom. Fairy tales groom readers to appreciate the finer, sublime things in life. Your five senses are instantly awakened to experience the scent of the Beast’s rose garden, to taste the Gingerbread Boy and the finesse that went into baking him, to listen to the music that Cinderella and her Prince were dancing to, to see the splendor of The Little Mermaid’s underwater world, and to feel the reality of a goose laying golden eggs. Even the choice of language is in itself beauty and gratifies a children’s curiosity for vicariously experiencing what the world can offer. For example, I love the fact that Belle from Beauty and the Beast has a passion for reading and feels strongly independent and reliant on herself to succeed in life without a man.

In The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen begins with a picturesque image of the underwater world:

“Now don’t suppose that there are only bare white sands at the bottom of the sea. No indeed! The most marvelous trees and flowers grow down there, with such pliant stalks and leaves that the least stir in the water makes them move about as though they were alive. All sorts of fish, large and small, dart among the branches, just as birds flit through the trees up here. From the deepest spot in the ocean rises the palace of the sea king. Its walls are made of coral and its high pointed windows of the clearest amber, but the roof is made of mussel shells that open and shut with the tide. This is a wonderful sight to see, for every shell holds glistening pearls, any one of which would be the pride of a queen’s crown.”

Modern fairy tales are equally delightful and offer the advantage of dealing with contemporary issues. Aprilynne Pike’s debut, Wings, talks about an average girl who finds out she is a flower fairy when she starts growing petal-shaped wings. Pike uses a mixture of traditional folklore on fairies and gives it a new twist with modern themes like first loves and friendship. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and The Kane Chronicles talk about kids who discover they have supernatural powers as demigods or magicians. Throughout the books, you will experience a rollercoaster of an adventure as you learn about Greek and Egyptian myths. My favorite is Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, which is the story of a father who has the power to bring stories to life whenever he reads aloud. It is easy to fall in love with all these characters not only for their sense of humor and adventure, but also for the nobility of their actions during challenging times. Certainly many stories offer that feel-good euphoria when you finish reading that last line. It seems as if we are subconsciously yearning for the same happily ever after for our own lives.

So whether you’d like to rekindle your belief in true love, escape your humdrum life and experience a multi-colored multi-dimensional fantasy, or salute the courageous characters for restoring goodness back to their worlds, delve into the pages of a fairy tale. It might just put a smile on your face.

My favorite fairy tales are:

  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Swan Lake
  • Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen
  • Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
  • Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
  • Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont
  • The Fisherman and his Wife by the Grimm Brothers

 

Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.
C. S. Lewis

 

Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.
William Butler Yeats
The Land of Heart’s Desire

 

 

 

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Finding Abundance

Many years ago, I came across this beautiful hardcover book called Romancing the Ordinary. The title piqued my curiosity and true to its promise, it has bestowed upon me a revelation that was life-transforming.

The author, Sarah Ban Breathnach, was at a restaurant when the ceiling tile fell on her head. She was left bedridden and partially disabled for more than a year and a half. During this time, all her senses were disoriented and basic sensory reflexes proved to be a challenge. She was sensitive to everything sensory from light to colorful patterns on her quilt and even to the scent of her baby daughter’s shampoo. She couldn’t continue her work as a journalist and radio broadcaster; which left her with a void and a lack of belonging to the once prestigious community of opinion-leaders. However, as the months passed by, Sarah slowly started regaining her senses and every sensory restoration made her feel grateful for their miraculous presence. Every single experience heightened her appreciation and soon, she started viewing the world through an awe-inspired child. June’s journal entry says “Linger in the twilight of a summer’s day, dance with the fireflies, wink at the full moon. Believe in Midsummer magic. Bottle a rescue remedy of rose-scented sighs, smudge Chantilly lace on your pretty face. Moments you once called ordinary now seem infused with grace”. Rather than looking outside her sphere, she tapped into her own spiritual reservoir to rediscover the abundant spiritual blessings in life’s simple pleasures.

Her thoughts jumped off the pages of the book and unraveled the tight knots of guilt and apprehension that imprisoned my heart. It was as if I had been reawakened with a glorious revelation that gave a new meaning to my life. The once mundane affairs transformed into rapturous experiences. Reading Sarah’s journal has taught me to let my eyes see beauty in my surroundings. My once inexplicable cravings for more had been curbed and I started focusing my energy on what was already within my grasp. Everyday affairs were now painted with brushstrokes of romance and spirituality. I was back to being a child who was discovering everything for the first time. Life was beautiful again.

I planned spiritual outings where my soul could soar with euphoria. I allowed myself to enjoy the bliss of life. Baking velvety desserts and devouring them with sips of aromatic rose tea in our garden became a ritual in the afternoons. I bought a tantalizing collection of intense perfumes by Annick Goutal and was transported to a blossoming Damascus rose garden or a sun-kissed Provencal garden surrounded by narcissuses, jasmines, and lemons. Everyday vistas became beautiful canvases of masterpieces. I became a regular at art galleries and spent hours fantasizing about all the Earth’s bountiful landscapes, flora, and its midnight blue skies that were studded with diamanté stars. I voraciously devoured lifestyle magazines and sought to bring some of that splendor home, whether they were ravishing bouquets or simple decorating tips. Books of all kinds were invited to nourish my soul. I’d close my eyes and see another imaginary universe living within me; dainty fairies dancing in an enchanted forest murmuring for me to join their eternal dance. Tucked under a thick throw on a frosty winter’s night with an inspiring book and some hot chocolate was divine. And there’s nothing sweeter than the peaceful tunes of drizzling rain when you’re crying. It’s as if the Heavens weep with you too…

Sarah Ban Breathnach has peppered her journal with awe-inspiring quotes from numerous thinkers. One of them was the great environmentalist, Rachel Carson, who once said that if she were to gift children, she would give them “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years” and the inevitable “alienation from the sources of our strength”.

Sarah also observes: “All I ask you to do today is to open “the eyes of your eyes” and give your life another glance”.

I am so small I can barely be seen.

How can this great love be inside me?

Look at your eyes, they are small but they see enormous things.

-Rumi

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