Amy’s Marginalia: Tess of the D’Urbervilles

tessThere’s nothing like a depressing Victorian novel to liven up a rainy, grey, post holiday week.  I read in the newspaper that the BBC recently filmed a brand new version of Thomas Hardy’s most famous novel, so it seemed like a good time to re-read it.  Plus, I couldn’t for the life of me recall how it ended. I soon learned why.

It turns out that I’ve never finished the book.  And I’m not surprised.  Tess of the D’Urbervilles paints a portrait of the consequences of sin and a fallen world, which is ultimately despair, especially when Christ, in his redemptive role, plays very little part.  About half way through the book, when it gets as bleak as possible, I’d given up.

But this year, I have my resolution to thank for keeping me going.  I wasn’t about to waste 300 pages of perfectly good reading towards my resolution goal!  I had to finish the dang thing, once and for all (also, the BBC movie played a bit of a part in that motivation).

However, despite its bleak view of life, the book has its values, especially for women who feel trapped by sin.  It may not offer a way out, but it shows you the harsh reality of that path, stripped of its glossy, airbrushed cover girls and neon lights.

This time around, I was struck by Hardy’s uncanny ability to portray the emotional motivations of a woman for her actions.  I’m always skeptical about books written by men that feature a female main character.  I mean, really, can men truly get inside our heads?  I wouldn’t spend a penny on a chick lit book written by a guy, unless it was to mock it publically, of course.  But Hardy unflinchingly tells a hard story of a proud, tough woman, with whom many of us can sympathize with, and her truth comes from her universal qualities of love and pain, things both genders equally suffer.

Tess is a woman who has been sinned against in almost every way imaginable.  She accepts the labels that everyone in her life places upon her: harlot, worthless, sinner, and ignorant.  Instead of reaching out to the God who could redeem her from her own sins and those marked upon her by others, she allows her abusers to dissuade her from belief in the God who could save her.  That’s the greatest tragedy of them all.

Sure, she had a rough go of it.  She was raped, impregnated, and more.  Her marriage was awful.  But the part where I could read no further was when she turned her back on God, the only hope of her salvation from it all.  He was the only one who could carry her through it.

The story unfolds as you’d expect with those elements.  Without God, and with pain, the only end is tragedy.  Tess eventually takes matters into her own hands, in a way that embraces all the evil that has been done to her (I’ll try not to reveal the finale).  She could have chosen a merciful God, but instead, she followed the course which always leads to death.

Do you know a Tess? Someone who is marked by sin, who believes the lies of the enemy about her worthlessness and shamefulness?  Are you a Tess?  Even as someone who loves Christ, have you accepted his power to heal you from the hurts others have inflicted upon you, or have you embraced them as your own burdens or sins to carry, alone and ashamed?

It’s easy to read about Tess and say “that poor woman, what an awful life.” But when we realize that Tess is like many women we know, who have accepted the labels, who have turned away from God, who are walking the path that leads to death, this truthful fiction might assist us to confront an imminent reality, where we have hope to offer in the message of Jesus.


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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As I told you before, I didn’t finish this book either… and I’m not necessarily inclined to rectify that situation. ha

    So, I don’t know the ending. But, what you wrote reminded me of something I read this morning in Piper’s Future Grace. Now, this is not a new concept, but yet a gentle reminder of the power of the Cross.

    The chapter was on bitterness and forgiveness. My summary: We are not to exact vengence because that is God’s job. Bitterness and unforgiveness is a lack of faith in God — faith that He will exact vengence and justice. If a person is evil (aka a sinner), they will go to hell when they die. But, if the person is a new creation? Well, that person’s sin and evilness was paid for in past grace. That past grace being Christ’s death on the cross. He accepted vengence and justice (God’s wrath) for that believer. So, if I don’t forgive a believer and I have bitterness against him/her, I am also exercising a lack of faith in God. A lack of faith that Christ’s atoning work on the cross was sufficient.


    See… I don’t ever have to finish Tess… though now I do want to know how it ends. lol

    AL: I’m going to hold you to finishing that book some day. Honestly, you can’t just know the end and not finish it! Love the Piper quote. Very applicable here! It’s amazing how we can also agree with these truths on a brain level but not on a heart level. We can read with our lips and accept in our brains that God enacts vengeance, but when it comes to our own lives, there we are getting revenge. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Tess also had some mention in Abraham Piper’s blog (in the comments).

  3. Hmmm…perhaps I will watch the BBC movie and then slog through the book. I have to laugh…as a kid my neighbor named their golden retriever Tess after this book. A happier dog you have never seen.

    I’ve never read Tess, or seen any production of Tess, but did read Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd after seeing the movie (with an amazing cast). Hardy’s portrayal of women is painful, yet it is his character Gabriel’s constant Christlike faithfulness that makes the story satisfying.

    AL: Maybe it was a very depressed puppy, if here ever was such a thing? I’ll add that book to my reading list, but I’m going to have to read some happier things before I tackle it because I can’t take too many depressing books in a row. I tried to pick up something light and easy, and the book I’m reading now turned out to be about leprosy! Not exactly light subject matter either. *sigh*. I think I’m doomed to choose depressing books this season.

  4. Don’t hold your breath.

    And if I really am in the mood… I can just go on sparknotes or something. Like I probably did in college.

    AL: BAH! Now you’re just pushing my college instructor buttons!

  5. Great Review. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion I should give Hardy a try. I think I read Tess in college, but of course I had no idea how to really “read” books at that time!

    AL: Thanks for stopping by! I know what you mean about books you read in college and then decide to reread with a whole new perspective later. Funny thing is, when you’re old and gray, you probably will say that your current readings were uninformed as well! We grow and reinterpret through our lives.

  6. Um…did book-a-minute do a condensation on Tess? I think if it is that depressing, maybe a just a minute with the story would do it. hee hee hee….

    AL: haha. Now everyone isn’t going to read it because I said it was depressing. hmph. I guess it’s sort of like Schindler’s list. Who really feels uplifted watching holocaust movies? I mean really? I had to work up a lot of strength before I watched that one. But it was worth it. Oh, and the French. They practically make a national pastime out of depressing themselves in the theater. I mean, really. Have you watched their movies? *sigh* But it’s really a well written book! Still worth your time, when you have that sort of energy….!

  7. hehe.

  8. I too read the book in preparation for the movie adaptation. This is my first Hardy book that I’ve read through, yes, from start to finish. The issue I take is not so much with Tess, but with Hardy himself. It was his bleak and godless worldview that prompted him to create Tess. And as if to spite Christianity and faith in a benevolent God, he wreaked havoc on her in whatever way he wished. In the book he explicitly, in many occasions, raged against a malevolent God. And at the end, he wrote:
    ” ‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess…” (Ch.59, p.397 of my Penguin Classics edition)
    Clearly, he himself personified this sadistic God, leading Tess into all kinds of tragic circumstances beyond her control. How could she turn to Christ when Christianity was represented by the dogmatic and judgmental Clare family and even Alec D’Urberville later in the story. That was why Angel Clare rebelled against such a religion.

    It is unfortunate that Hardy held a distorted view of Christianity and that he himself had turned away from it, resulting in a gloomy philosophical outlook on life.

    I have compared the book and the BBC adaptation in my review posted January 5th in my blog. (Although it’s just the first part of the movie.) Just curious to know what you think of it and the movie…and I welcome your comment.
    Thanks for a lively forum for book discussions.

    AL: Wow, what an excellent contribution to the discussion! Certainly, Hardy had a very tense relationship with Christianity, which one can certainly read throughout the book. Clare’s attitude towards Christianity is the main example, but the one that disturbed me the most was Alec d’Urberville’s “conversion.” I’d love to know more about Hardy’s relationship with faith, but I’m sure it would be just as depressing as this book! It’s wise to be thinking about how he was working that out in the book, even though it’s fiction.

    I haven’t yet watched the mini series, but I plan on taping the final one tomorrow and watching it soon after! I’ll look forward to reading your discussion then!

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