I spent the summer of 2007 in a graduate class studying the work of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). At the time, I hadn’t yet read his work, besides the odd short story, so to immerse myself in his novels proved to be a delight. His storytelling is rich, Biblical, surprising, and tragic. So, logically, the thing to do would be to make sock puppets of his characters, right?
No. That’s not right! It’s absolutely wrong. Yet, a fellow student did just that for the characters from Jude the Obscure (1895), #67 on the BBC book list, and brought them on the last night of class. This woman had been a character of her own all summer long, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that she would then show up with some sort of out-of-the-box, extracurricular presentation. But sock puppets?
Frank, a clean-cut, soft-spoken older gentleman who sat next to me, could barely contain his rage. As soon as the woman pulled out the puppets, a little dingy from years of likely wear, Frank began to shake his head, eventually hanging it in disbelief. The woman continued to chatter on about her project, saying things like, “The act of making them promoted kinesthetic learning for me.” At this, Frank looked as if he might explode. His hands were shaking in his lap, a vein bulged dangerously from his neck, and his square jaw was clenched.
I tried to act interested in her puppets. I was not, but I feigned courtesy and respect, as the professor was doing. I felt that I had to follow suit, especially since he, our beloved professor, had condoned this presentation. But when she made to pass the puppets around for everybody to touch, I began to squirm. I didn’t want to actually handle the puppet. They seriously did look dirty. As Frank observed in some heated discussion after class, “They didn’t even look washed!” Yet, there the woman was, proudly pulling them onto her hands and making the mouths move and the hair flip. It is a moment in my graduate studies that I will never forget, and I doubt anybody else will either. The story became legend in the program, and once it was mentioned in another class of mine a year or so later as a sort of folkloric occurrence that likely didn’t really transpire. I verified it, telling the class that I had been there and that it had honestly happened. There were some mouths hanging open, including the professor’s. I, of course, reveled a little in being able to tell my eyewitness account of the ridiculousness.
What makes it even more over-the-top is the fact that she chose Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure to immortalize in puppets. If you haven’t read the novel, you should. (It was publicly burned by a bishop the year it was published. Banned novels are usually the best ones.) And if you know what happens to Jude’s and Sue’s children in the end because of dire poverty, then you’ll cringe knowing that these characters were immortalized as silly puppets. It is literary blasphemy to have done so. When I told another professor of mine of the incident, he jokingly said, “Did the kids have nooses around their necks?” Okay, so that wasn’t really funny, but you get the idea. Puppets should not have been made of these characters.
And I’ll take it a step further. Puppets should probably not be made of any literary characters, unless done by a professional and intended for use on a respectable television show or movie, such as Sesame Street. Say, if Kevin Clash wanted to create a puppet of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick and include them on the show in order to expose children to literary greatness, I would be okay with that. However, unstable women who have a hard time washing their own clothes should not, I repeat, should NOT be making sock puppets as a tribute to literature. It is mockery.
I intended to write more about the actual novel, but alas, I have not. I don’t want to give anything away for those of you who have not read it. It’s a must, as is all of Hardy’s work. He’s a literary great who spans from the end of the Victorian era to the beginning of Modernism, and as a fun fact, he actually is responsible for inventing the cliffhanger. He did so in his first novel, leaving an actual character hanging from the edge of a cliff. We have him to thank for all of the annoying episodes of 24, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica that left us wondering what would happen for an entire week before we found out. Thanks, Thomas Hardy. So much.