Ilustration of Tess on hilly pink terrain with trees and clouds in the background

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

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Phase the First: The Maiden, Chapters 1–4: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2269

New Characters:
Parson Tringham: a parson who studies ancient English history

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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: three brothers, upper-class young gentlemen on a walking tour

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The mail-cart man: the unwitting perpetrator of a fatal accident

John Durbeyfield, a poor country haggler, is met on the road to his Marlott home by Parson Tringham. The Parson, against his better judgment, lets slip that John is actually descended from a noble family, the D’Urbervilles, which first came to England with William the Conqueror and which controlled much land and power in the area. On the strength of this news, Durbeyfield’s self-esteem is greatly elevated, and he decides to stop off at Rolliver’s Inn for some drinks.

In Chapter Two, Hardy shifts the scene to the town of Marlott, in the vale of Blackmoor—a fertile place unvisited by many from the outside world. John’s daughter Tess, a beautiful girl about 16 years old, is participating in the Marlott custom of a May-Day dance. She sees her father drunkenly boasting about his ancestry, and speaks curtly to her friends who tease her about him. While at the dance, an interesting-looking young gentleman, not from the area, is seen by Tess. Before he has a chance to dance with her, he must leave to rejoin his brothers.

After his drinking, and because of his poor health, Tess’s father is unable to drive the family cart with its load of beehives to Casterbridge market, and Tess volunteers for the duty, bringing along her younger brother Abraham so she can stay awake. Abraham asks about the stars, and Tess explains their family’s poverty by saying they live on a “blighted” or decaying planet. Soon, both doze off and their horse, Prince, is rammed by the mail cart and dies, splattering Tess with his blood. Tess feels responsible for Prince’s death, which imperils the family’s livelihood.

Joan Durbeyfield, Tess’s mother, has heard that there is a rich woman by the name of D’Urberville living not far off in the town of Trantridge. Joan reasons that Tess can, on the basis of their supposed family connection, get a job there, as a way of helping the family finances.

The chain of coincidences and disastrous accidents which entraps Tess begins with the very first scene of the novel. The episodes of the novel are set in a straight, forward line, with minimal digressions or flashbacks. The story of Tess’s sufferings originates from the chance meeting of Parson Tringham and John Durbey¬field, the first scene of the novel. Hardy reminds us later several times that if this meeting had not occurred, everything which followed (Durbeyfield getting drunk, the horse dying, Tess having to appeal to the fake D’Urbervilles) might not have happened the fateful, disastrous way it did. The novel takes the shape of an unbreakable set of causes and effects, each event leading irrevocably onto the next, as if things were fated to be thus and no other way for Tess. Noting this structure, an early critic wrote, in an appropriate natural metaphor, “The sequence of lightning and thunder is not more prompt than that of cause and effect in Mr. Hardy’s story.”

The pattern of suffering is laid out for Tess by the operations of the world, but is made inevitable by the core elements of Tess’s personality, especially the admirable ones. Her tragedy is one of individual conscience. Tess is a rarity in literature—a good character, protective, loyal, hardworking, moral, and innocent. Her responsibility and diligence are continually compared to the shiftlessness of her parents in these early chapters. Tess is extremely protective of her parents, her siblings, and the reputation of her family. When her friends mock her father, Tess curtly stops them; when he later is too tipsy to drive, she does so in order to hide her father’s state from the rest of the town. Tess’s behavior and thoughts are always concerned with others: she bemoans the sorry plight of her family, and she feels she must do something about it. Within the space of a few pages, we read several references to the strength of her conscience. She feels self-reproach when thinking about not helping her mother with the chores; she has a sting of remorse that she has dirtied her white dress; and she feels shame at the rather childlike, indulgent behavior of her parents. The rest of the novel gives Tess many more occasions to experience such feelings.

It is important to note that Hardy introduces his heroine as a product of her native village, Marlott, and its natural setting, the Vale of Blackmoor. The Vale is elaborately described as a fertile and sheltered tract of country, in which the fields are never brown and the springs never dry. There, the world seems to be constructed upon a smaller and more delicate scale.

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Hardy describes Tess’s home environment as a protected place, fertile, connected to nature, and almost a world of its own. Its beauty, vulnerability, and fragility implicitly become characteristics of Tess, who becomes nearly a personification of her native Wessex. Tess herself is first described as one of a group of similar-looking country women, dressed in white and adorned with flowers; all of these women seem shy and self-conscious. What distinguishes Tess physically is her beauty, her youth, her adolescent face, and the red ribbon in her hair. This last detail is the first instance of the red-and-white motif that is woven into the novel.

We are not given a head-to-toe physical description of Tess. Hardy relies on a description of her lips and mouth, using the literary device of metonymy, the substitution of the part for the whole, to communicate Tess’s superlative beauty. By not supplying a complete description, Hardy invites his readers to form their own mental images of Tess.

The second most important character in the book, Angel, whose last name is not revealed until later, is briefly glimpsed by both Tess and the reader in the club-walking scene. Angel’s looks and manner and his failure to notice Tess until just before he has to leave the dance sets the tone for their entire relationship. Angel’s class superiority to the Marlott villagers is underlined by Hardy—it is as if he is a tourist from another country.

Hardy takes care to define the historical backgrounds as well as the geographical and social positions of his characters. He wishes us to know it is the Victorian era, and he wants us to see the impact this era will make on the lives of his characters. The walking-tour brothers mention a prominent religious conflict of the day. The Vale of Blackmoor is geographically close to but culturally distant from the great urban center of London. Joan’s use of the Compleat Fortune-Teller tells us something of her social background.

The most explicit reference to the cultural atmosphere of the Victorian age is contained in this comparison of Tess and Joan: “Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstition, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood.” When they were together, the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.

It is easy to condemn and make fun of Joan and John, who are mentally limited and often foolish, but an unreserved condemnation of them is not quite fair, and not exactly what Hardy wanted. Joan always acts within the context of the traditional beliefs and customs with which she was raised. Her daughter, growing up when public education is becoming more widespread, has been exposed to new and contemporary ways of thinking, and has a greater fund of rational knowledge available to her. Both Joan and Tess are shaped by what they were taught during the historical eras in which they were raised.

The trip to Casterbridge that Tess makes with Abraham provides Hardy an opportunity to introduce the theme of random fate running a cruel world. When young Abraham begins to tire, “He leant back against the hives, and with upturned face made observations on the stars, whose cold pulses were beating amid the black hollows above in serene dissociation from these two wisps of human life. He asked how far away those twinklers were, and whether God was on the other side of them.” Abraham asks an innocent, childlike question about the sky. Hardy portrays a universe that does not care about human doings. Hardy implies that God, if He exists, also seems remote or indifferent. The theme of the world as inhospitable recurs constantly in the novel.

The accident with Prince follows this conversation, and Tess shows her sense of responsibility and self-reproach again. She has a far greater understanding of what the death of Prince means than do any others in her family, and she feels that she is fully and totally at fault. Nobody blamed Tess as she blamed herself. She looks at herself as if she was a murderess. Her sense of obligation makes her feel she must obey her parents’ plans to repair the damage done to the family business.

Hardy shows several representative facets of his prose style in these first chapters. Three important techniques used here are his concern with capturing the rural dialect in writing; his allusive and complex sentences and vocabulary; and his communication of the mood or atmosphere of a scene through a description of its setting.

The first technique, Hardy’s goal of replicating peasant speech, was of great interest to his contemporary readers, many of whom were urban and intrigued by experiencing an unfamiliar style of English. To modern readers, this goal may not seem as compelling.

Hardy’s complicated vocabulary and allusive references were sometimes criticized by Victorian reviewers. Their plaint, shared by many modern readers, is that Hardy chooses unfamiliar and complex words that can become distracting and hard to understand, and that his sentences can be too ornately designed for easy comprehension. Hardy’s vocabulary can be overly difficult; at other times he is committed to using the full reach of the English language to illustrate fine distinctions and subtle points.

An example of Hardy’s high-blown diction is this sentence concerning Joan Durbeyfield’s mental capacities: “Troubles and other realities took on themselves a metaphysical impalpability, sinking to mere mental phenomena for serene contemplation, and no longer stood as pressing concretions which chafed body and soul.” The sentence aims for a precise description of the way Joan’s mind makes real-life problems less difficult. The thought may be hard to perceive because of its philosophical generality and its complex diction.

Hardy’s allusions to history and to literature also deepen and complicate his prose. Thomas Hardy was always fond of referring to classical literature, and he does so repeatedly in Tess. A small example in Chapter Two is his portrait of Angel: “there was an uncribbed, uncabined aspect in his eyes and attire.” The two adjectives, “uncribbed, uncabined,” refer to a description of Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play of that name as cribbed and cabined, that is, bound in by fears and restrictions—Angel is apparently just the opposite. The allusion, while subtle, shows Hardy assuming his readers will be able to pick up on the reference to England’s most famous writer.

Another significant mode of allusion in Hardy is to history, especially classical and ancient history. “The club of Marlott alone lived to uphold the local Cerealia,” Hardy writes of the club-walking. He means that in this local May-Day dance we are seeing a continuation of an ancient celebration of earthly fertility that goes back to the holidays of classical Greece. Hardy makes us reflect on the historical distance and the historical continuity between the modern and the ancient eras.

Throughout the novel, Hardy depicts mood (emotional or mental conditions) through setting (physical descriptions). This correlation is a hallmark of Hardy’s style. When Tess scolds her mother for letting John go out drinking, “Her [Tess’s] rebuke and her mood seemed to fill the whole room, and to impart a cowed look to the furniture, and candle, and children playing about, and to her mother’s face.”

Hardy chooses not to analyze or describe Tess’s mood, but to show it visually in terms of her environment. The scene at Rolliver’s Inn also uses imagery and description. “The stage of mental comfort to which they had arrived at this hour was one wherein their souls expanded beyond their skins, and spread their personalities warmly through the room. In this process the chamber and its furniture grew more and more dignified and luxurious; the shawl hanging at the window took upon itself the richness of tapestry; the brass handles of the chest of drawers were as golden knockers; and the carved bed-posts seemed to have some kinship with the magnificent pillars of Solomon’s temple.” The matching of personality to environment can be noted time and again by attentive ¬readers of Hardy.

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Phase the First: The Maiden, Chapters 5–11: Summary and Analysis