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.
Thomas Hardy lived at a time of intense and rapid social change in England, and his novels reflect many of these changes, especially those affecting his native Wessex.
Hardy’s career as a novelist roughly paralleled the late Victorian era, named after Britain’s Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901. The Victorian period was an era of change and paradox which cannot be easily summarized. Several Victorian issues, such as economic growth and dislocation, religious and moral controversy, and the question of women’s liberation, remind us of contemporary social problems.
In the first six decades of the nineteenth century, England’s gross national product grew by more than 400 percent. Industrialization, which allowed for increased trade both in England and abroad, was the cause of this vast upsurge in national and, in some cases, personal wealth. Innovations in communication and travel, particularly railways, facilitated the operations of industry and the flow of money. By the end of the nineteenth century, England had become a country whose economy was based on urban industry rather than on feudal land owning.
It is frequently said in economics that a rising tide lifts all boats—that progress and growth benefit every member of society. From personal and historical knowledge, Hardy knew this statement to contain substantial untruth. Victorian society hotly debated the ultimate value of its unprecedented economic expansion. Workers were paid more, many businessmen became rich, and England became the dominant economic power of the world, but some groups of society felt they had no place at all. Agricultural and unskilled rural workers were particularly subject to dislocation and upheaval as farmwork became less profitable than factory work. In the cities, most factory work was degrading and dangerous, and entailed living in crowded and unhealthy slums.
The demographic or population statistics tell a staggering story. The 1851 census showed that for the first time more people lived in towns and cities than the countryside, a finding that fascinated the Victorians. Over the 1800s, England’s population grew from 8.9 to 32.5 million. The population of London rose sixfold over the same period, while the number of towns with a population over 50,000 went from 7 to 57. A move from the country to a city frequently meant the loss of a home and the loss of generations’ worth of social traditions. One commentator, indicating the dangers of such population shifts, wrote “that the towns are gaining at the expense of the country, whose surplus population they absorb and destroy.”
Another prominent feature of life in Hardy’s England was a widespread loss of religious faith. In large part, this was sparked by the writings of Charles Darwin, the naturalist whose discovery of evolution put much of the Bible into serious doubt for many people. Many intellectuals abandoned their religious beliefs, including Hardy, to an extent. Denied the emotional consolation of religion, many Victorians felt that ultimate questions of human existence (Who are we? Where are we going?) were unanswerable, leaving them in confusion, feeling what Hardy calls the “ache of modernism.”
Darwin’s theory of the extinction of species which could not adapt to change was especially important to Hardy. Influenced by Darwin, he saw Nature and the world in unsentimental fashion, as sites of cruelty, struggle, and death. Hardy felt that classes and groups of people could become extinct if the historical conditions which supported their existence were taken away. He feared that the class his family came from, the rural laborers, might be completely destroyed if its existence was no longer useful to society. Their customs, their way of life, their style of thinking, could be lost forever—shoved aside by a new, urban bourgeois class which made a feudal based labor system irrelevant. Hardy perceived contemporary events as part of the flow of history, driven by forces beyond individual human control.
Meanwhile, the loss of religious faith sparked general fears about a breakdown in morality. Without a foundation in religion, and without the reference point of a common religious practice, how could morality be enforced or even expected? The redistribution of wealth, power, and population effected by the Industrial Revolution combined with the atmosphere of religious doubt to lead many to conclude that England’s moral fabric was being torn asunder. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy uses the central characters to set up debates on the issues of religion and morality.
Another Victorian controversy of importance to Tess is “the Woman Question,” as it was called—the issue of how women should be viewed and what roles they should play in society. Many felt that women should only work in the home, and were not capable of education or professional achievement. Some writers described the world as being made up of two spheres, the home and the public world, and tried to prove that women should be restricted to the home. Victorian women were supposed to be “an angel in the house” and nothing more. Although this was primarily a middle-class ideal, it shows the intense Victorian concern with the idea of female purity. Many Victorians felt that if a woman lost her honor, or virginity, before marriage, she was irreparably harmed, and must bear the shame the rest of her life. The plight of the so-called fallen woman was central to Victorian morality. No such prohibition was attached to male sexual behavior, and brothels thrived in the cities. The tragic effects of this double standard can be seen vividly in the life story of Tess Durbeyfield.
Master List of Characters
Tess Durbeyfield—The heroine of the novel, a peasant girl about 16 years old at the start of the story.
She is hard-working, responsible, self-possessed, serious, and extremely beautiful.
Alec D’Urberville—The rakish son of a rich merchant, accustomed to a life of privilege and pleasure.
Angel Clare—Youngest son of the Reverend Clare of Emminster. Sensitive, intellectual, and skeptical, he rejects his family’s plans for him and is attempting a career as a gentleman farmer.
John Durbeyfield—Tess’s father. Shiftless and lazy, he makes absurd plans to capitalize on his now-faded aristocratic heritage.
Joan Durbeyfield—Tess’s mother. Superstitious, uneducated, and fatalistic, her life is guided by folk wisdom and native cunning.
Abraham Durbeyfield—Tess’s younger brother, a boy about nine years old.
Mrs. D’Urberville—The blind mother of Alec, and mistress of “The Slopes,” a country mansion.
Infant Sorrow—Tess’s child by Alec D’Urberville, whom she is forced to baptize and bury without benefit of clergy.
Izz Huett—A milkmaid at Talbothays dairy farm, in love with Angel, and briefly the object of his attentions.
Marian—A milkmaid at Talbothays, in love with Angel, and later a co-worker of Tess’s again.
Car Darch—Nicknamed Queen of Spades, coarse, aggressive, jealous woman, once linked romantically to Alec.
Jonathan Kail—A simple minded farmworker.
Car Darch’s Mother—A laconic peasant with a moustache.
Nancy Darch—Nicknamed Queen of Diamonds, Car’s sister.
Retty Priddle—A milkmaid at Talbothays, in love with Angel, and, like Tess, the descendant of a ruined noble family.
Dairyman Crick—The goodhearted owner of Talbothays dairy.
Reverend Clare—Angel’s father, a minister, righteous, traditional, and severe, but also charitable to the unfortunate.
Mrs. Clare—Angel’s mother, kindhearted but snobbish.
Cuthbert and Felix Clare—Angel’s older brothers, Cuthbert a scholar and Felix a curate, who follow their father’s expectations and distrust Angel because of his unorthodox lifestyle.
Mercy Chant—A devout and well-brought-up young girl whom Angel’s parents have selected as his future wife.
Farmer Groby—A sullen farm manager who cruelly overworks Tess and her fellow laborers at his desolate, mechanized farm in Flintcomb Ash.
Liza-Lu—A younger sister who comes to bear a striking resemblance to Tess.
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.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Tess of the D’Urbervilles centers on Tess’s relationship to the natural world. As that relationship changes, so does her situation. At the beginning of the novel, Tess is a child of nature who is confident that the natural world will protect her and provide her with a value system. When nature fails her, however, she has no value system to which to turn and thus is thrown out of her comfortable world to journey both outwardly and inwardly in search of a way back to her relationship with the natural world.
Tess first appears “at home” in the world of the small hamlet of Marlott, where, in the May Day dance, she manifests her innocence. Tess, however, is not a typical rustic maid; she is more sensitive...
(The entire section is 768 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Phase the First: The Maiden, Chapters 1–4: Summary and Analysis
Parson Tringham: a parson who studies ancient English history
John Durbeyfield: a country peddler, inclined neither to seriousness nor hard work
Tess Durbeyfield: a beautiful country girl, “a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience”
The club-women of Marlott: a group of local women enjoying a ritual May-Day dance
Joan Durbeyfield: Tess’s mother, superstitious and eager for escape from her daily grind
Abraham Durbeyfield: Tess’s younger brother
Eliza-Louisa Durbeyfield: Tess’s younger sister, nicknamed Liza–Lu
Mrs. Rolliver: the proprietor of a local alehouse
Angel, Cuthbert, and Felix:...
(The entire section is 2269 words.)
Phase the First: The Maiden, Chapters 5–11: Summary and Analysis
Alec Stoke-D’Urberville: the young son of a wealthy merchant, a dashing, gallant, forceful ladies’ man
Mrs. D’Urberville: an eccentric blind widow and the reluctantly loving mother of Alec
Car Darch: nicknamed Queen of Spades, coarse, aggressive, jealous woman, once linked romantically to Alec.
Nancy Darch: nicknamed the Queen of Diamonds, Car’s sister, also a former favorite of D’Urberville
Car Darch’s mother: a laconic peasant woman with a moustache
Tess is pressured by her mother to approach Mrs. D’Urberville, a rich lady living not far from Marlott. The Durbeyfields believe she is of a junior branch of the...
(The entire section is 2372 words.)
Phase the Second: Maiden No More, Chapters 12–15: Summary and Analysis
The Sign-painter: a man whose evangelical messages unsettle our heroine
The Parson: a vicar whose adherence to established rules nearly outweighs his true religious feelings
Infant Sorrow: Tess’s child by Alec D’Urberville, whom she is forced to baptize and bury without benefit of clergy.
Several weeks after the night in the Chase, Tess walks home to Marlott, “her views of life” having been “totally changed” by recent experiences. D’Urberville catches up to her in a carriage and offers to ride her home if she is not willing to return to him at Trantridge. Tess refuses to continue being Alec’s “creature,” and turns down his...
(The entire section is 2426 words.)
Phase the Third: The Rally, Chapters 16–19: Summary and Analysis
Dairyman Crick: the kindly and welcoming manager of Talbothays Dairy
Angel Clare: a 26-year-old looking for a direction in life
Reverend Clare: an earnest, traditional minister scandalized by his son’s freethinking nature
On a “thyme-scented” May morning, Tess leaves her home for the second time. She is sorry to depart, but she knows her younger siblings will fare better without the presence of their immoral sister.
She travels to the Valley of the Great Dairies, towards Talbothays Dairy. She mentally compares this valley to her native Vale of Blackmoor and notes the immense scale and natural beauty of her destination: “The...
(The entire section is 1761 words.)
Phase the Third: The Rally, Chapters 20–24: Summary and Analysis
Retty Priddle: a young milkmaid, fair and auburn-haired, in love with Angel Clare
Izz Huett: a pale, dark-haired milkmaid, in love with Angel Clare
Marian: the oldest of the three milkmaids in love with Angel Clare
Under the influence of the warm summer sun and a natural world teeming with the sights and juices of regeneration and fertilization, the attraction between Tess Durbeyfield and Angel Clare continues to grow. Possibly by chance, the two are the first up each day at the dairy, and they view each other in the “aqueous” light of dawn. Tess appears nearly a goddess of feminine beauty, a “divinity.” Clare’s appreciation for her...
(The entire section is 1403 words.)
Phase the Fourth: The Consequence, Chapters 25–29: Summary and Analysis
Reverend Felix Clare: Angel’s brother, a curate
Reverend Cuthbert Clare: Angel’s brother, a classical scholar and fellow and dean of his college at Cambridge
Mrs. Clare: the second wife of Reverend Clare, a good-hearted, sympathetic, but slightly snobbish, woman
Beck Knibbs: a wife who believes in withholding information from husbands and smacking them if they don’t like it
Mercy Chant: a devout and well-brought-up young girl whom Angel’s parents have selected as his future wife
Hours after their embrace, Tess feels “stilled, almost alarmed.” Angel guiltily believes that his “feeling had won the better of...
(The entire section is 1575 words.)
Phase the Fourth: The Consequence, Chapters 30–34: Summary and Analysis
A man from Trantridge: recalling Tess’s past, he makes a judgmental comment about her
The carriage driver: a broken-down, 60-year-old with a running wound on his leg
Jonathan Kail: a simple minded farm worker
Along the way to the station, Angel points out Wellbridge Manor, a converted farmhouse that was once a mansion belonging to the D’Urberville family. Angel again pleads with Tess to marry him. She says she must first tell him about her history and begins to tell him about her upbringing and hometown. Just as she is about to tell her past troubles, she says instead that she is not a Durbeyfield, but a D’Urberville. Angel takes this for...
(The entire section is 1728 words.)
Phase the Fifth: The Woman Pays, Chapters 35–44: Summary and Analysis
Angel simply cannot think after Tess’s revelation. Tess pleads to be forgiven as she has forgiven Angel, but to Angel it is as if he is looking at another woman in the shape of Tess. The pair wander the countryside at night, Tess walking behind Clare. Tess even volunteers to kill herself, but Angel will not allow such an absurd action. When they get home, Tess goes into their bedroom and eventually falls asleep. Clare is about to enter the room when he is checked by the sight of the merciless, arrogant portraits of Tess’s D’Urberville ancestors, which bear a resemblance to her.
For several days, the newlyweds lead a formal existence. Angel demands to know if her story is true; Tess sadly says...
(The entire section is 2132 words.)
Phase the Sixth: The Convert, Chapters 45–52: Summary and Analysis
The man at the threshing machine: a stranger to the agricultural world who operates a mechanical thresher, dictating an inhuman pace of work
Tess can scarcely believe this man is Alec. His bold, masculine face is ill-adapted to the looks of a pious preacher. When he sees her, the effect is “electric.” He is dumbstruck, briefly unable to preach. After finishing his sermon, Alec catches up to Tess. She wishes to have nothing to do with him; he claims merely to want to save her soul, on account of how he has “grievously wronged” her in the past. Tess scoffs at his conversion, which she thinks is an easy way for Alec to buy off the consequences of his evil deeds, and...
(The entire section is 2940 words.)
Phase the Seventh: Fulfillment, Chapters 53–59: Summary and Analysis
A family of farm laborers: the new inhabitants of the cottage where the Durbeyfields once lived
Mrs. Brooks: a generally uncurious landlady at a fashionable Sandbourne lodging-house
A Sandbourne workman: the first to view D’Urberville’s corpse
The caretaker at Bramshurst Court: a woman who oversees a property for its owners
Sixteen policemen: hunters of a wanted murderess
Angel Clare returns home to Emminster so ravaged by his illness that his parents can scarcely recognize him. When his mother wonders why Angel is so anxious about a “mere child of the soil,” Angel reveals that Tess is a member of the ancient...
(The entire section is 1568 words.)