There’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.