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: three brothers, upper-class young gentlemen on a walking tour
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...
(The entire section is 2,269 words.)