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Like Posy Simmonds' first graphic novel Gemma Bovery, a contemporary adaptation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Tamara Drewe, a comic strip in The Guardian from 2005-2006, and published 2007 is based on a classic Thomas Hardy's, Far From the Madding Crowd. Set in a writer's retreat, it deals with envy, obsession, love and ambition. It has elements of tragedy and satire, and sharply attacks the urban middle-class. It is told through an interesting combination of illustration, narrative and dialogue.
To determine whether Posy Simmonds has succeeded in creating a satirical comedy, a modern rural tragedy or a critique of a modern life, I must define these literary terms: satire and tragedy, and decide what rural and modern mean in this context. I shall also briefly scrutinise another example of satire and compare it with Tamara Drewe.
Rural is: of persons living in the country, having the standing, qualities or manners of country-folk; of pertaining to, or characteristic of the country or country life, performed in the country, agricultural, pastoral (OED). According to this definition, the rural is the countryside and the landscape setting of Ewedown, the grazing cows, the goat Astrid's nuptial and the slaughtering of geese. The only truly rural characters in this story are Penny Upmaster, Andy Cobb, Casey Shaw and Jody Long. The rest are Londoners who wanted to escape their city lives. Beth Hardiman tries and pretends to have adapted to the country way of life. For her, Dorset is pastoral idyll that exists for her pleasure, but, in actual fact, the countryside is rotten at the core with its dysfunctional economy, families and relationships. It has been distorted by the presence of the Londoners.
Modern is: pertaining to the present and recent times, contemporary (OED). The modern in this context is celebrity culture, vanity, technology, social and moral uncertainty. The application of the word modern with tragedy conveys the idea of an up-to-date version of something classical or historical. In this case, we have allusions to, and a reworking of Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd; the source of the main protagonists, their fates and destinies. Tamara is the definitive modern woman, but her tale of relationships and uncertainties is ageless. She is a development from Gemma Bovary with roots in the 19th century.
Satire is: a literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, sarcasm and wit. The satirical features of Tamara Drewe are jibes at the modern culture, idiosyncrasy and pretentiousness of the city people and writers who reprocess their experiences into their fictional books.
A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729) exemplifies a social satire. He was concerned about the inhumane treatment of the Irish peasantry by the English landlords and suggests that the Irish should sell their babies as food. Evidently, he is not really proposing infanticide or cannibalism. The target is identified through reference to the attitudes of landlords. He also uses metaphors to attack England's mistreatment of Ireland: "I grant this food may be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords, who as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children." With bitter irony, he concludes his proposal with: "... having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich."
The satirical ingredients of Drewe are present right from the very beginning through to the end. Simmonds transforms Hardy's feuding sheep farmers into the middle-class Londoners who have moved into renovated sheep farms in order to get 'away from it all'. Tamara, a columnist who writes a satire of the same title 'AWAY FROM IT ALL' describes her experiences in the country. Simmonds also uses intertextuality to reinforce her idea, connecting the writer to the reader, and to other texts; a satirist within a satirical novel. Her satirical take on the characters and events is not just limited to dialogue and narrative, but also on the detailed visual representation of emotions, colours, attire and narcissism, to name only a few.
The foibles and self-importance of the writers is satirised with irony and wit. Glen narrates: "My fellow scribes will be pretty much the same, quiet and tippy-toed, middle class, over thirty-five, no one needy or deprived, like in London." Nicholas himself is a writer of crime novels who is a conceited, philandering but dependant husband to Beth, who supports him almost unconditionally. Beth narrates: "And so we join the writers in the kitchen, where they've got as far as the cheese. Nicholas plonks himself next to Lillian (who I know he thinks a frightful pain in the arse) and goes on to amuse and charm her pants off - and everyone else's." She is well aware of his falseness and duplicity, but loyally performs her role.
The episode where Tamara turns up at the evening drinks at Stonefield's garden wearing skimpy shorts, sporting a new nose and sexy image is a mockery of modern culture. Beth says: "Dressing up like sex object...sucking up to male fantasies", "Anyway, wearing tight things in this weather...she'll get thrush..."
Casey and Jody, a subject to media pressure is a classic example of a social satire. There is no back up from modern society to help them resist the impact of the interfering media, class distinction and boredom of the village. They agonise about celebrity affairs and other people's business. Casey narrates: "So we go to the old bus shelter. Usually we hang around here, Ben watching.", "Says a lot about this boring bumhole of a village that getting in and out of someone's weekend house is exciting, but it is! We're going "omigod", our hearts are really hammering." Simmonds presents them as victims of modern society in order to draw attention to its shallowness and disfunctionality.
Another example of an ironic satire is Nicholas' death. Glen narrates: "He must have been too dazed to run from the mad cows." This in a way implies a kind of justice to Beth as well as the readers. Is his death tragic?
Tragedy is: a drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavourable circumstances. To explain this definition, I shall apply the general requirements for Aristotelian tragedy.
A true tragedy should evoke pity and fear on the part of the audience. Pity and fear are the natural human response to spectacles of pain and suffering. Casey and Jody are the catalyst for the drama as their tricks spiral when they find out that Ben has come to the neighbourhood; truly a recipe for disaster. The build up to Jody's whereabouts, when she fails to turn up at Ryan's party, suggests that she may had been raped or murdered by Ben. To the reader, this arouses fear and concern for Jody.
The tragic hero must be essentially admirable and good. The fall of a villain evokes applause rather than pity while the reader empathises with the ruin of a good character. Nicholas brings about his own demise because he is morally weak, and as I have pointed out, deserves his punishment. I note that Beth is somewhat relieved at his death. The reader's sympathy goes to Jody who has done nothing to attract city people in the village but she pays the price for their decadence.
The hero's demise must come as a result of some personal error or decision. Aristotle's view was that there is no such thing as an innocent victim of tragedy. Jody committed a tragic error by inhaling an 'air duster' to celebrate her encounter with Ben. It is a simple error that kills her. Nicholas, on the other hand, committed a grave transgression and later recognises his responsibility for the effect of his actions. Once a successful writer and loved husband, he is now wrecked and disgraced for his moral flaw: deception, greed, pride, lust and envy (four of the seven deadly sins!).
There is an apparent theme here; younger women attracted to pompous older men. However, there is positive note at the end of the novel. Casey and Ryan seem to be imitating a sane and appropriate relationship. The story concludes the alliance of the only morally sound character, Andy with Tamara, the femme fatale, suggest that another tragic cycle could be imminent.
Given the definition of the literary terms and examples, Simmonds has created a modern tragedy in a rural setting and in a satirical manner which is her signature. Her sharp and critical evaluations of modern social issues are effectively expressed in Tamara Drewe which Nicholas Garland described as: "The humiliating agony of sexual jealousy; the banal lies that are essential to infidelity; the smugness of the affluent; the emptiness that lies at the centre of snobbery.", but this work also offers a penetrating critique of the way we live now.