Here is a good article by Liz Hulley, a friend and long-term missionary to Russia who is currently in the US. It’s from her blog, On Life in St. Petersburg:
I was searching for something non-trashy to watch on television and paused on PBS. A drama was on and I could see rolling hills and 19th century costumes. I hoped it was something uplifting like Jane Austen, and not Tess of the D’Urbervilles which seemed to be on each time I chose this station.
The tv guide described the movie playing as something like, “A girl struggles to improve her life after sorrowful circumstances.” That sounded hopeful.
As the film continued, however, I knew it had to be Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Yet I hadn’t read it since college, and hoped that the ending was happier than I remembered. Perhaps I just wasn’t remembering correctly.
What I do remember is that after taking 19th century British Lit., I decided not to major in English. No offense to British Literature or the course itself, but the themes were so dark, or at least we were encouraged to interpret them that way, that I could not imagine myself spending 4 or more years devoting my life to analyzing other works in a similar way.
Meanwhile, I didn’t get my happy ending. I walked away feeling deeply disturbed. I had trouble falling asleep. Was it because I’m conditioned to expect happy endings? But I don’t think a satisfying ending has to consist of a fairytale wedding.
The problem with Tess was that, for all the mistakes made, there was not one act of redemption.
I found the overarching theme to be that everything happened too late. Love declared too late, forgiveness and reconciliation too late, restraint or initiative shown too late, information passed on too late.
As each scene happened a step behind, I wanted to scream at the characters, “It’s not too late! You can still make it right.” But they never did. It seemed so much the opposite of the Gospel.
When I wrote my essay on Tess, I’m sure I must have picked a religious theme, as I often did (to the disapproval of my professor). But at the moment I can’t think what that theme might have been.
I think the book is unnecessarily depressing, yet perhaps it is realistic of a life lived without hope. I mourn for those who live like that, who have not found security in anything lasting, and therefore continue to make rash decisions out of desperation. The current economic situation may be one catalyst of that. It makes me want to open up my eyes and see who is suffering around me.