It is a proud day when Jack Durbeyfield learns that he is descended from the famous D’Urberville family. Durbeyfield never does more work than necessary to keep his family supplied with meager food and himself with beer, but from that day on, he ceases doing even that small amount of work. His wife joins him in thinking that such a high family should live better with less effort, and she persuades their oldest daughter, Tess, to visit the Stoke-D’Urbervilles, a wealthy family who assumed the D’Urberville name because no one else claimed it. It is her mother’s hope that Tess would make a good impression on the rich D’Urbervilles and perhaps a good marriage with one of the sons.
When Tess meets her supposed relatives, however, she finds only a blind mother and a dapper son who makes Tess uncomfortable by his improper remarks to her. The son, Alec, tricks the innocent young Tess into working as a poultry maid; he does not let her know that his mother is unaware of Tess’s identity. After a short time, Tess decides to avoid Alec and look for work elsewhere to support her parents and her brothers and sisters. Alec, however, manages at last to get her alone and then rapes her.
When Tess returns to her home and tells her mother of her terrible experience, her mother’s only worry is that Alec is not going to marry Tess. She works in the fields, facing the slander of her associates bravely. Her trouble is made worse by the fact that Alec follows her from place to place. By traveling to different farms during the harvest season, Tess manages to elude Alec long enough to give birth to her baby without his knowledge. The baby does not live long, however, and a few months after its death, Tess goes to a dairy farm far to the south to be a dairymaid.
At the dairy farm, Tess is liked and well treated. Angel Clare, a pastor’s son who rejected the ministry to study farming, is also at the farm. It is his wish to own a farm someday, and he is working on different kinds of farms so that he can learn something of the many kinds of work required of a general farmer. Although all the dairymaids are attracted to Angel, Tess interests him the most. He thinks her a beautiful and innocent young maiden. Tess feels that she is wicked, however, and rejects the attentions Angel pays to her. She urges him to turn to one of the other girls for companionship. It is unthinkable that the son of a minister would marry a dairymaid, but Angel does not care much about family tradition. Despite her pleas, he continues to pay court to Tess. At last, against the wishes of his parents, Angel asks Tess to be his wife. He loves her, and he realizes that a farm girl will be a help to him on his own land. Although Tess is in love with Angel by this time, the memory of her night with Alec causes her to refuse Angel again and again. At last, his insistence, coupled with the written pleas of her parents to marry someone who can help the family financially, wins her over, and she agrees to marry him.
On the night before the wedding, which Tess postpones many times because she feels unworthy, she writes Angel a letter, revealing everything about herself and Alec. She slips the...