Summary of the Novel
After John Durbeyfield, a country peasant, learns he is descended from a noble family, he gets tipsy at a local alehouse. Early the next morning, Tess, his dutiful daughter, sets out to market, but she falls asleep and the family’s horse dies in an accident. Tess is sent to seek work from Mrs. D’Urberville, a rich lady whom the Durbeyfields believe to be of a junior branch of the ancient family from whom they are descended. The Durbeyfields do not know that the D’Urberville name has been adopted for status purposes by a newly rich family, originally the Stokes, from the north of England. Tess’s looks impress Alec Stoke-D’Urberville, who offers her a job. For several months, Alec romantically pursues Tess, finally taking her against her will in a darkened forest. She stays with him a few weeks before returning home.
Tess gives birth, but the infant soon dies, and Tess is forced to bury it herself. After a year at home, Tess becomes a milkmaid at the hospitable Talbothays Dairy, where she meets a young man who had briefly impressed her in her youth. This cultured and intellectual young man, Angel Clare, studying to be a farmer, falls in love with Tess because of her beauty and purity. Tess is reluctant, but eventually accepts the marriage and tries unsuccessfully to reveal her past before the ceremony.
The night after their wedding, Angel confesses to Tess a past liaison. Tess forgives him, but when Tess details her past, Angel is too shocked to forgive. He deserts Tess, but allows her to appeal to his parents if she has any financial troubles.
Angel sets off for Brazil to buy a farm. Tess must accept a winter job at a farm where she and her co-workers are treated brutally. Tess decides to visit Angel’s parents. Before seeing them, she overhears Angel’s brothers scorning his unwise marriage. On her way back, Tess hears an itinerant preacher who turns out to be Alec D’Urberville.
When he sees Tess, Alec’s lust is reawakened and his religious conversion is undone. Alec again pursues Tess, offering her and her family much-needed financial help and reminding her that her husband is not acting as her protector. After her father dies and her family is rendered homeless, Tess succumbs to Alec.
Angel has been recovering from fever in Brazil, and he decides to return to England to reclaim his bride. However, when he meets her at Sandbourne, it is obvious Tess has bartered herself to D’Urberville and that Angel has arrived too late. Angel walks the streets in despair, at the same time Tess’s landlord notices an ominous bloodstain, revealing that Tess has murdered Alec. Within moments the word is out and Tess is being pursued again, this time by the law. Tess and Angel spend an idyllic few days in an abandoned mansion. Trying to evade capture, they stop for the night at Stonehenge, but in the morning police surround the ancient monument and take Tess away. Her execution is witnessed only by Angel and Tess’s younger sister.
The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840, in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, England, not far from the principal settings of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. He was the eldest of four children. His father started a successful building and contracting business with an initial stake of only 14 pounds. His mother was Jemima Hand, who had worked as a maidservant and also had received pauper relief, a sort of welfare program. Thomas Hardy had a complicated attitude toward his family origins. He had a particular interest, common to many born into humble circumstances, in being accepted by upper-class society. Hardy was also convinced that his ancestors had formerly been successful and important but had recently come down in the world. This latter obsession parallels a belief of John Durbeyfield, the father of the heroine of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, that his now poor family was once powerful and privileged.
The young Thomas was a delicate child who learned to read at about three years of age, “before he could walk.” He played with the local peasant children as a young boy, but his parents forbade him to use the rural dialect spoken by many characters in Tess. His mother arranged for his education and tutoring, first at the village school and later at Dorchester Day School. As a teenager, Hardy taught himself Greek and began to write poetry. He wanted to become a member of the clergy, but his formal education was never advanced enough to qualify him for such a profession. Despite his eventual accomplishments, he felt ashamed of his relative lack of schooling his entire life.
At 16, Hardy was apprenticed to a Dorchester architect, John Hicks. In 1862, he left Dorchester for London to work as assistant to the architect Arthur Blomfield. While in London, he developed his intellectual tastes by attending the opera, theaters, and museums, and by reading progressive and skeptical authors such as Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and T. H. Huxley, among others.
In 1867, Hardy returned to Higher Bockhampton, and while working for John Hicks, wrote his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, now lost. The influential critic and author George Meredith advised Hardy not to publish the book, but encouraged him to write another. His second attempt at a novel, Desperate Remedies, was published in 1871, by William Tinsley, to mixed reviews.
Hardy soon decided to concentrate in his novels on what he knew and loved best, the social life of rural southern England. After two moderately successful novels, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), were published anonymously, Hardy scored a significant success in 1874 with Far from the Madding Crowd. After this triumph, he married Emma Lavinia Gifford, whom he had met several years earlier.
Hardy continued writing novels of “Wessex,” the historical, Anglo-Saxon name he gave in fiction to his native Dorset, from this time until 1895. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, published in 1891, was immediately popular with the reading public. But it also caused controversy: Victorian moralists and ecclesiastics were scandalized by the author’s contention that his heroine was, in the words of the novel’s subtitle, a morally pure woman. In order to get the novel published in serial form, as was customary at the time, Hardy had to revise several passages considered too risqué for public consumption. For instance, the scene in which Angel Clare carries Tess and her fellow milkmaids across a stream was rewritten so as to have him instead push the women across in a wheelbarrow. Some readers were outraged by the book’s pessimism, by the unrelieved picture of torment and misery Hardy presented. Orthodox believers in God were scandalized by his suggestions that the beneficent, warm God of Christianity seemed absent from the world Hardy depicted.
After the bitter denunciation of the sexual double standard in Tess, Hardy expanded his satiric attack in his next novel, Jude the Obscure (1895), which criticized the institutions of marriage and the Church and England’s class system. Again, Hardy was savaged by critics who could not countenance his subversiveness. He was attacked in the press as decadent, indecent, and degenerate. (Among those offended was his wife, who took the novel as anti-religious, and thus was a blow to the devoutness she believed she shared with her husband.) Distressed by such small-mindedness, Hardy, now financially secure, vowed to give up novel writing and return to the composition of poetry, his first literary love, which he felt would afford him greater artistic and intellectual freedom. From 1898 on, Hardy published mainly poetry. He became one of the few English authors to produce a significant body of poetry as well as novels.
After the turn of the century, he worked on The Dynasts, an epic-drama in verse of the Napoleonic wars, published in three volumes from 1903 to 1908. In 1910, he was awarded the Order of Merit. In 1912, he finished revising all his novels, rendering them exactly as he wanted them. In November of 1912, Emma Hardy died after a long illness, through which her husband did not give her very much aid. In 1914, Hardy married Florence Dugdale, who had been his secretary and literary aide for several years.
Hardy continued to receive honors and degrees in the first decades of the 1900s, including honorary degrees in literature from Cambridge University, in 1913, and from Oxford University, in 1920. On January 11, 1928, Thomas Hardy died. His ashes were placed in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. His heart was buried in his first wife’s grave, at Stinsford, next to the grave of his parents.
Structure of the Novel
The novel is unified by the simple aim of telling every important event in Tess’s life from the age of 16 to her death when she is about 23 years old. It is Tess’s book—virtually every scene features her, or includes her as the object of discussion. The book has aspects of a Bildungsroman, or novel of individual development, and also has the design of a tragedy.
Hardy uses no experimental or confusing narrative devices. There is a pleasure in being able to identify and respond to all the elements of a story, and Hardy fully allows this pleasure in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. We immediately recognize the role the main characters play in the story: Tess is an exemplary heroine, with whom we empathize and suffer; Alec is introduced as a villain; and Angel is a lover and, as his name indicates, a possible savior for Tess. Except for one or two moments, the characters always act consistently with what we know about them. When we understand the story so clearly, our sentiments and emotions are readily engaged. The emotional power of the novel is reflected by our pity at Tess’s suffering, our anger at those who let her down, and our awe at her almost superhuman endurance.
What primarily interests Hardy in Tess is the juxtaposition of a remarkable series of events. He creates an elaborate web of coincidence, accident, fate, history, and just plain bad luck that seems to doom Tess no matter how she acts or what she does. As in classical tragedy, the universe itself conspires against human effort, no matter how noble, and against human happiness, no matter how greatly sought after. In his later poetry, Hardy defined the universe as being guided not by God or human design but instead by an indifferent or evil force he called the Immanent Will. This Will works silently and relentlessly against the efforts of humans and the human race.
Thomas Hardy unifies and amplifies his novel with detailed descriptions of landscapes and incidents from Nature. He describes Tess’s psychological states by writing about the physical places she inhabits. Thus her tortured mind and feelings that she is being pursued are presented to us in visual form, as in the elaborate description, painted through words, of a night she must sleep amidst a group of injured pheasants. Similarly, the two farms where she works can be compared and contrasted. While describing Talbothays Dairy, Hardy emphasizes color, growth, and fertility; while showing us Flintcomb Ash, he communicates the bleakness and danger of Tess’s situation in terms of a desolate, barren, cold environment.
Hardy also threads a series of color references throughout the novel. The careful reader will note repeated references to the colors of red and white. White symbolizes innocence and purity; red indicates experience, violation, danger, and death.
It is important to note that Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the story, not just of an individual, but of her class. Just as Tess’s personal fortunes decline, so does the economic and social position of her family, and the class to which it belongs. Hardy charts and explains a number of steps in a steady downward progression of the rural class into which Tess is born.
Estimated Reading Time
To Hardy’s original Victorian audience, reading long novels either to oneself or aloud to family and friends was a customary form of entertainment. The novel was first presented serially and was published weekly from July to December, 1891, in a popular magazine, the Graphic. Hardy’s final version of the novel is divided into seven Phases. Each Phase builds to an exceptional high or low point in Tess’s life. You can carefully read each Phase in a sitting of two or three hours, noting the actions and personalities of important characters, and the shifts in Tess’s fortunes and happiness. The entire novel can be read in about 20 hours.
For the analytical purposes of this study guide and to aid your comprehension of all the novel’s important details, several Phases have been divided into two parts.