Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess of the d'Urbervilles book cover
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At a Glance

  • Tess Durbeyville, an uneducated peasant who falls victim to many personal disasters.
  • Alec Stoke-d'Urberville, who takes advantage of Tess. She kills him in the end.
  • Angel Clare, Tess' husband, who abandons her to travel to Brazil.
  • Richard Crick, the owner of Talbothays Dairy, where Tess works as a milkmaid.
  • Jack Durbeyfield, Tess' alcoholic father.
  • Joan Durbeyfield, Tess's practical mother.
  • Sorrow, Tess' child, who dies soon after being born. 

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(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Generally the novel's minor characters sometimes come to life with quick, deft strokes of defining habits or idiom, such as Joan Derbyfield's charming penchant for malapropisms and her outrageously funny fund of historical misinformation, contrasted with her streak of mendacity, even in consenting (implicitly) to Tess's becoming D'Urberville's concubine in order to keep the family afloat economically, or the bitter vindictiveness of Farmer Groby, who is as deferential when questioned by Angel Clare as he is cruel in his treatment of Tess, or the good-natured drunkenness of Marian. But our responses to the novel really depend on how we view the triad of central characters, whom Donald Hall, at the risk of allegorizing the narrative, labels thus: Alec represents the emerging bourgeois mindset and controls the novel's action; Angel represents a pious but superficial liberalism reacting against an oppressive orthodoxy, but one untested by actual experience; and Tess represents "the soil" and "the dead past." As we saw in the past section, the characters form a triangle on the theme of free will and inescapable destiny.

Alec D'Urberville is, at the simplest level, a stock character from popular Victorian fiction tracing back to late eighteenth-century narratives, the "cad" who seduces innocent young women. But far more than a stock character, he personifies the worst traits of the emerging merchant culture grafted onto the worst mannerisms of the passing country gentry. Acquisitive and ruthless, he has come to expect deference by his social inferiors as his due by virtue of inherited wealth and acquired status. When his strategies of lavish gifts and semi-aristocratic charm, mixed with a substantial dose of condescending sexual harassment, fail to win Tess's affections, he takes by force what he cannot achieve by merit. In addition to this portrayal of D'Urberville as a stereotypical male predator, Hardy also imbues him with the trait of metanoia, which is to make a strong statement of intent, then lessen its force or consequence later on. When Tess meets Alec at the revival service, he appears to be a changed man, a fundamentalist clergyman who has been converted by the charitable example of Mr. Clare, who returned kindness for Alec's insolence. Although Hardy tells this story from several perspectives, it never becomes quite believable. Presumably the zeal and fanaticism of the seducer have been sublimated to a religious zeal, but the terms of the transformation are not spelled out convincingly. True to form, however, Alec makes his backsliding a matter of Tess's allure, not his weakness, and his succumbing to the woman he calls a "dear damned Witch of Babylon" renders his own moral collapse someone else's fault. He quickly abandons his clerical calling to resume his semi-aristocratic pose and his pursuit of Tess, one so intense and obvious that her friends Izzy and Marian write an anonymous note warning Clare that his wife is subject to pursuit and temptation.

To dismiss Alec as a one-dimensional stereotype, however, would reduce Hardy's "plot-mover" to a mere caricature. Hardy invests Alec with some complicating emotions. He does not know that Tess is pregnant when she leaves the D'Urberville estate. Upon learning, after the chance reunion, of her status when last they parted, he seems genuinely repentant, and claims that, had he known, he would have done the honorable thing. At one point, he speaks of his current wish to marry her and set things right. His resentment of Clare is in part...

(The entire section is 2,226 words.)