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Beyond the Book with Dr. Prior: "Tess of the d'Urbervilles"

Beyond the Book with Karen Swallow Prior
BY CHAD BURCHETT   04/04/2022

Why read a Thomas Hardy novel about the societal mistreatment of a woman in the nineteenth century? Besides making us long that such mistreatment was merely a fiction, Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles confronts our self-understanding, exposing inconsistencies between our faith and practice.


Karen Swallow Prior, Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary offers reflections, an introduction, and commentary on Hardy’s novel and several other authors’ works in her ongoing series of reprinted classics. In this Q&A, learn from Prior about how Tess of the d’Urbervilles summons us into a narrative that lures and confronts us while also reminding us to honor others and love the truth: 

What is the book about?

Most people who have read Tess remember it as one of the darkest, most tragic stories they have ever read. And the fact is that the work closely follows the classical Aristotelian model of tragedy. But as a modern novel, the story does even more. While it has a role for fate (or, in more modern terms, determinism), it also wrestles with Christianity. In his youth, Hardy claimed the Christian faith before turning to atheism (which was rising in popularity), but never could quite let go of God, eventually embracing agnosticism. He never ceased to struggle with God, the problem of evil, and the injustices that permeated his society. One of those injustices was the ill treatment of women and the heavy judgments women fell under even when they possessed so little power in Hardy’s world. Tess is the story of a woman who undergoes cruel treatment in a cruel world. But Hardy wanted to do her justice by telling such a story. His just treatment of her begins with the subtitle of the novel, “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.” Those in Tess’s world judged her as impure. Hardy insists otherwise. 

What motivated you to choose this book as part of your series of guides for reading and reflecting on the classics?

Tess has always been one of my personal favorites. It is also a work I love to teach and have done so over and over through the years. In choosing it for this series, however, I had to think through why Christians in general ought to read this novel now, and what I could help Christian readers see in it for our present moment. One of the things I think the church still needs to grapple with—which Tess can help us do—is how right theology about men and women does not automatically translate into just, right, or biblical practices. In Tess, we have an author who wants to critique the nominal Christianity that characterizes his society. His criticism is not always fair or accurate, but even so, his gaze upon us can help us to see ourselves better. That is a great gift if we will receive it. But even beyond this, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a literary masterpiece that tells a riveting and powerful story that once read is never forgotten. I want everyone to read it! 

What is the goal of the series?

I have several goals for the series. First, I want to introduce the particular works in the series (six total) to those who have not read them before. Second, for first time readers, as well as those who are coming to the books again, I want to provide an enriched reading experience of the texts within the context I give in the introductions along with the deeper focus offered by the discussion questions. Finally, I hope that the practice of considering context and asking good questions is something readers will be able to apply to other books they read beyond the series. In short, each book is a little bit like taking a class with me.  

What is a classic in "literature"?

That can be a very controversial topic. Strictly speaking, a “classic” is a work that has been around long enough to withstand the test of time. This means that it speaks to the universal human condition, regardless of its particular subject or time, and its writing quality also holds up. Thus, a classic is such not only because of the story it tells (its content) but because of the masterful way it uses language artistically (its form). I think it is fair to say that some newer works exhibit such qualities, and we can know they will be classics. On the other hand, there are plenty of once-revered works that have fallen by the wayside of time. Human works—like human judgments—are fallible. At the same time, we ought to be attempting to seek and apply universal standards of truth, beauty, and goodness even in our, admittedly, subjective views of art. 

What is unique about Thomas Hardy’s portrayal of a female protagonist?

Tess is not a satisfying character, in literary terms. Some might even say, justifiably, that she is portrayed as rather flat or as merely an ideal rather than as a depiction of a realistic, complicated character. But what Hardy does accomplish—magnificently—is to portray and cultivate in the reader insight into and sympathy for a poor, obscure woman who is used, overlooked, and abandoned by those who mean the most to her in a world imbued with tragedy. She is realistic in that there were and are countless women from within the masses of society just like her, fated to lives of misery and insignificance (men such as this, too). But Hardy gives her dignity and makes her life—its passions, and pain—matter. And in so doing, he teaches us to do the same.

How does reading the classics (like Tess of the d’Urbervilles) equip readers to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission?

When we go out into the world in hopes of bringing the gospel to others, we must be ready to meet them where they are—not only geographically, but philosophically, ideologically, and existentially, too. By inviting us to enter the world of others or to see the world through someone else’s eyes, good literature allows us to expand our perspective and grow in understanding other people’s experiences even as we remain committed to the larger truth in which these can be interpreted. Reading literature allows us to “see” beyond ourselves and to “see” the world as others do and at the same time, to measure these perspectives against the timeless truths God has revealed. This is exactly what we must do in carrying out the Great Commission. 

Reading literature allows us to “see” beyond ourselves and to “see” the world as others do and at the same time, to measure these perspectives against the timeless truths God has revealed.
How has rereading and curating the book shaped you spiritually?

Hardy is a thick writer, known for his heavy themes, dense prose, and a style characterized by arcane and obsolete words. Editing this volume was an intense intellectual labor. But undertaking this kind of labor for the church—thinking all the while of my readers, who they might be, what questions they might have, and how they might benefit from the experience of reading this story created by a cynical, agnostic writer who is so critical of Christianity—was both daunting and exhilarating. I benefitted myself in considering and weighing once again Hardy’s critique of my faith. Rereading this old favorite and imagining how it might be seen and understood by new readers who share my faith was the kind of spiritual discipline we all practice as we try to measure our experiences and perceptions in this world against the eternity of the kingdom of God. 

 




Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Guide to Reading and Reflecting

In this beautiful cloth-over-board edition bestselling author, literature professor, and avid reader Karen Swallow Prior will guide you through Tess of the d'Urbervilles. She will not only navigate you through the pitfalls that trap readers today, but show you how to read it in light of the gospel, and to the glory of God.

This edition includes a thorough introduction to the author, context, and overview of the work (without any spoilers for first-time readers), the full original text, as well as footnotes and reflection questions throughout to help the reader attain a fuller grasp of Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

April 5, 2022

Hardcover, 664 pages

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