Tess of the D’Urbervilles: By Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented is a novel by Thomas Hardy. It initially appeared in a censored and serialized version, published by the British illustrated newspaper The Graphic in 1891, then in book form in three volumes in 1891, and as a single volume in 1892. Though now considered a major nineteenth-century English novel and possibly Hardy’s fictional masterpiece, Tess of the d’Urbervilles received mixed reviews when it first appeared, in part because it challenged the sexual morals of late Victorian England.
Basic information about the Novelist:
Thomas Hardy OM (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928) was an English novelist and poet. A Victorian realist in the tradition of George Eliot, he was influenced both in his novels and in his poetry by Romanticism, especially William Wordsworth. He was highly critical of much in Victorian society, especially on the declining status of rural people in Britain, such as those from his native South West England.
Key information about the Novel:
Full Title: Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Author: Thomas Hardy
Type of Work: Novel
Genre: Victorian, tragic
Time and Place Written: 1880s, England
Date of First Publication: 1891
Publisher: Random House, but also published serially in different periodicals
Point Of View: The narrator speaks in the third person, and looks deep into the characters’ minds. The narrator is objective but has an omniscient understanding of future implications of characters’ actions as they happen.
Tone: Realistic, pessimistic
Setting (Time): The 1880s and 1890s
Setting (Place): Wessex, the southwest of England
Protagonist: Tess Durbeyfield
Major Conflict: Tess is seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by the son of her upper-class patroness, making her unacceptable to her true love Angel later in life.
Rising Action: Tess’s family’s discovery that they are ancient English aristocracy, giving them all fantasies of a higher station in life; Tess’s accidental killing of the family horse, which drives her to seek help from the d’Urbervilles, where she is seduced and dishonored.
Climax: Tess’s new husband discovers her earlier seduction by Alec and decides to leave her, going off to Brazil and not answering her letters, and bringing Tess to despair.
Falling Action: Tess’s last-ditch decision to marry Alec, who claims to love her; Angel’s return from Brazil to discover Tess marriage to her former seducer, and his meeting with Tess; Tess’s murder of Alec and short-lived escape with Angel before being apprehended and executed
Themes: The injustice of existence; changing ideas of social class in Victorian England; men dominating women
Motifs: Birds; the Book of Genesis; variant names
Symbols: Prince; the d’Urberville family vault; Brazil
Foreshadowing: Tess’s killing of the pheasants foreshadows her own death by hanging; Alec’s assertion that he will “master” Tess again foreshadows his reemergence in her life.
Characters of the Novel:
Tess Durbeyfield: The novel’s protagonist. Tess is a beautiful, loyal young woman living with her impoverished family in the village of Marlott. Tess has a keen sense of responsibility and is committed to doing the best she can for her family, although her inexperience and lack of wise parenting leave her extremely vulnerable. Her life is complicated when her father discovers a link to the noble line of the d’Urbervilles, and, as a result, Tess is sent to work at the d’Urberville mansion. Unfortunately, her ideals cannot prevent her from sliding further and further into misfortune after she becomes pregnant by Alec d’Urberville. The terrible irony is that Tess and her family are not really related to this branch of the d’Urbervilles at all: Alec’s father, a merchant named Simon Stokes, simply assumed the name after he retired.
Angel Clare: An intelligent young man who has decided to become a farmer to preserve his intellectual freedom from the pressures of city life. Angel’s father and his two brothers are respected clergymen, but Angel’s religious doubts have kept him from joining the ministry. He meets Tess when she is a milkmaid at the Talbothays Dairy and quickly falls in love with her.
Alec D’Urberville: The handsome, amoral son of a wealthy merchant named Simon Stokes. Alec is not really a d’Urberville—his father simply took on the name of the ancient noble family after he built his mansion and retired. Alec is a manipulative, sinister young man who does everything he can to seduce the inexperienced Tess when she comes to work for his family. When he finally has his way with her, out in the woods, he subsequently tries to help her but is unable to make her love him.
Mr. John Durbeyfield: Tess’s father, a lazy peddler in Marlott. John is naturally quick, but he hates work. When he learns that he descends from the noble line of the d’Urbervilles, he is quick to make an attempt to profit from the connection.
Mrs. Joan Durbeyfield: Tess’s mother. Joan has a strong sense of propriety and very particular hopes for Tess’s life. She is continually disappointed and hurt by the way in which her daughter’s life actually proceeds. But she is also somewhat simpleminded and naturally forgiving, and she is unable to remain angry with Tess—particularly once Tess becomes her primary means of support.
Mrs. D’Urberville: Alec’s mother, and the widow of Simon Stokes. Mrs. d’Urberville is blind and often ill. She cares deeply for her animals, but not for her maid Elizabeth, her son Alec, nor Tess when she comes to work for her. In fact, she never sees Tess as anything more than an impoverished girl.
Marian, Izz Huett, And Retty Priddle: Milkmaids whom Tess befriends at the Talbothays Dairy. Marian, Izz, and Retty remain close to Tess throughout the rest of her life. They are all in love with Angel and are devastated when he chooses Tess over them: Marian turns to drink, Retty attempts suicide, and Izz nearly runs off to Brazil with Angel when he leaves Tess. Nevertheless, they remain helpful to Tess. Marian helps her find a job at a farm called Flintcomb-Ash, and Marian and Izz write Angel a plaintive letter encouraging him to give Tess another chance.
Reverend Clare: Angel’s father, a somewhat intractable but principled clergyman in the town of Emminster. Mr. Clare considers it his duty to convert the populace. One of his most difficult cases proves to be none other than Alec d’Urberville.
Mrs. Clare: Angel’s mother, a loving but snobbish woman who places great stock in social class. Mrs. Clare wants Angel to marry a suitable woman, meaning a woman with the proper social, financial, and religious background. Mrs. Clare initially looks down on Tess as a “simple” and impoverished girl, but later grows to appreciate her.
Reverend Felix Clare: Angel’s brother, a village curate.
Reverend Cuthbert: Clare Angel’s brother, a classical scholar and dean at Cambridge. Cuthbert, who can concentrate only on university matters, marries Mercy Chant.
Eliza Louisa Durbeyfield: Tess’s younger sister. Tess believes Liza-Lu has all of Tess’s own good qualities and none of her bad ones, and she encourages Angel to look after and even marry Liza-Lu after Tess dies.
Sorrow: Tess’s son with Alec d’Urberville. Sorrow dies in his early infancy, after Tess christens him herself. She later buries him herself as well, and decorates his grave.
Mercy Chant: The daughter of a friend of the Reverend Clare. Mr. Clare hopes Angel will marry Mercy, but after Angel marries Tess, Mercy becomes engaged to his brother Cuthbert instead.
Summary of the Novel:
The poor peddler John Durbeyfield is stunned to learn that he is the descendent of an ancient noble family, the d’Urbervilles. Meanwhile, Tess, his eldest daughter, joins the other village girls in the May Day dance, where Tess briefly exchanges glances with a young man. Mr. Durbeyfield and his wife decide to send Tess to the d’Urberville mansion, where they hope Mrs. d’Urberville will make Tess’s fortune. In reality, Mrs. d’Urberville is no relation to Tess at all: her husband, the merchant Simon Stokes, simply changed his name to d’Urberville after he retired. But Tess does not know this fact, and when the lascivious Alec d’Urberville, Mrs. d’Urberville’s son, procures Tess a job tending fowls on the d’Urberville estate, Tess has no choice but to accept, since she blames herself for an accident involving the family’s horse, its only means of income.
Tess spends several months at this job, resisting Alec’s attempts to seduce her. Finally, Alec takes advantage of her in the woods one night after a fair. Tess knows she does not love Alec. She returns home to her family to give birth to Alec’s child, whom she christens Sorrow. Sorrow dies soon after he is born, and Tess spends a miserable year at home before deciding to seek work elsewhere. She finally accepts a job as a milkmaid at the Talbothays Dairy.
At Talbothays, Tess enjoys a period of contentment and happiness. She befriends three of her fellow milkmaids—Izz, Retty, and Marian—and meets a man named Angel Clare, who turns out to be the man from the May Day dance at the beginning of the novel. Tess and Angel slowly fall in love. They grow closer throughout Tess’s time at Talbothays, and she eventually accepts his proposal of marriage. Still, she is troubled by pangs of conscience and feels she should tell Angel about her past. She writes him a confessional note and slips it under his door, but it slides under the carpet and Angel never sees it.
After their wedding, Angel and Tess both confess indiscretions: Angel tells Tess about an affair he had with an older woman in London, and Tess tells Angel about her history with Alec. Tess forgives Angel, but Angel cannot forgive Tess. He gives her some money and boards a ship bound for Brazil, where he thinks he might establish a farm. He tells Tess he will try to accept her past but warns her not to try to join him until he comes for her.
Tess struggles. She has a difficult time finding work and is forced to take a job at an unpleasant and unprosperous farm. She tries to visit Angel’s family but overhears his brothers discussing Angel’s poor marriage, so she leaves. She hears a wandering preacher speak and is stunned to discover that he is Alec d’Urberville, who has been converted to Christianity by Angel’s father, the Reverend Clare. Alec and Tess are each shaken by their encounter, and Alec appallingly begs Tess never to tempt him again. Soon after, however, he again begs Tess to marry him, having turned his back on his -religious ways.
Tess learns from her sister Liza-Lu that her mother is near death, and Tess is forced to return home to take care of her. Her mother recovers, but her father unexpectedly dies soon after. When the family is evicted from their home, Alec offers help. But Tess refuses to accept, knowing he only wants to obligate her to him again.
At last, Angel decides to forgive his wife. He leaves Brazil, desperate to find her. Instead, he finds her mother, who tells him Tess has gone to a village called Sandbourne. There, he finds Tess in an expensive boardinghouse called The Herons, where he tells her he has forgiven her and begs her to take him back. Tess tells him he has come too late. She was unable to resist and went back to Alec d’Urberville. Angel leaves in a daze, and, heartbroken to the point of madness, Tess goes upstairs and stabs her lover to death. When the landlady finds Alec’s body, she raises an alarm, but Tess has already fled to find Angel.
Angel agrees to help Tess, though he cannot quite believe that she has actually murdered Alec. They hide out in an empty mansion for a few days, then travel farther. When they come to Stonehenge, Tess goes to sleep, but when morning breaks shortly thereafter, a search party discovers them. Tess is arrested and sent to jail. Angel and Liza-Lu watch as a black flag is raised over the prison, signaling Tess’s execution.