Violated by one man, forsaken by another, Tess Durbeyfield is the magnificent and spirited heroine of Thomas Hardy's immortal work. Of all the great English novelists, no one writes more eloquently of tragic destiny than Hardy. With the innocent and powerless victim, Tess, he creates profound... read more
Phase the First: The Maiden (1–11)
The novel is set in impoverished rural Wessex during the Long Depression. Tess is the eldest child of John and Joan Durbeyfield, uneducated rural peasants. One day, Parson Tringham informs John that he has noble blood. Tringham, an amateur genealogist,... read more (warning: may contain spoilers)
Phase the First: The Maiden (1–11)
The novel is set in impoverished rural Wessex during the Long Depression. Tess is the eldest child of John and Joan Durbeyfield, uneducated rural peasants. One day, Parson Tringham informs John that he has noble blood. Tringham, an amateur genealogist, has discovered that "Durbeyfield" is a corruption of "D'Urberville", the surname of a noble Norman family, now extinct. Although the parson means no harm, the news immediately goes to John's head.
That same day, Tess participates in the village May Dance, where she briefly meets Angel Clare, the youngest son of Reverend James Clare, who is on a walking tour with his two brothers. He stops to join the dance, and finds partners in several other girls. Though Angel takes note of Tess's beauty, he does not dance with her, leaving her feeling slighted.
Tess's father, overjoyed with learning of his noble lineage, gets too drunk to drive to market that night, so Tess undertakes the journey herself. However, she falls asleep at the reins, and the family's only horse wanders into the path of another vehicle and is killed. Tess feels so guilty over the horse's death that she agrees to visit Mrs. d'Urberville, a wealthy widow who lives in the nearby town of Trantridge, and "claim kin." She is unaware that in reality, Mrs. d'Urberville is not related to the Durbeyfields or to the ancient d'Urberville family. Instead, her husband, Simon Stoke, purchased the baronial title and adopted the new surname.
Tess does not succeed in meeting Mrs. d'Urberville, but her libertine son Alec takes a fancy to Tess and secures her a position as poultry keeper on the d'Urberville estate. He immediately begins making advances, but Tess, though somewhat flattered by the attention, resists. Late one night while walking home from town with some other Trantridge villagers, Tess inadvertently antagonises Car Darch, Alec's most recently discarded favourite, and finds herself about to come to blows. When Alec rides up and offers to "rescue" her from the situation, she accepts. He does not take her home, however, but rides at random through the fog until they reach an ancient grove called "The Chase". Here, Alec informs her that he is lost and leaves on foot to look for help as Tess falls asleep beneath the coat he lent her. After Alec returns, alone, it is left to the reader to decide whether he rapes or seduces her. This deliberate ambiguity makes Tess more than just a "poster girl for simple victimhood."
Phase the Second: Maiden No More (12–15)
After a few weeks of confused dalliance with Alec, Tess begins to despise him. Against his wishes, she goes home to her father's cottage, where she keeps almost entirely to her room. The next summer, she gives birth to a sickly boy who lives only a week. On his last night alive, Tess baptises him herself, after her father locked the doors to keep the parson away. The child is given the name 'Sorrow'. Tess buries Sorrow in unconsecrated ground and lays flowers by him in an empty marmalade jar.
Phase the Third: The Rally (16–24)
More than two years after the Trantridge debacle, Tess, now twenty, is ready to make a new start. She seeks employment outside the village, where her past is not known, and secures a job as a milkmaid at Talbothays Dairy, working for Mr. and Mrs. Crick. There, she befriends three of her fellow milkmaids, Izz, Retty, and Marian, and re-encounters Angel Clare, who is now an apprentice farmer and has come to Talbothays to learn dairy management. Although the other milkmaids are sick with love for him, Angel soon singles out Tess, and the two gradually fall in love.
Phase the Fourth: The Consequence (25–34)
Angel spends a few days away from the dairy visiting his family at Emminster. His brothers Felix and Cuthbert, who are both ordained ministers, note Angel's coarsened manners, while Angel considers his brothers staid and narrow-minded. Following evening prayers, Angel discusses his marriage prospects with his father. The Clares have long hoped that Angel will marry Mercy Chant, a pious schoolmistress, but Angel argues that a wife who understands farm life would be a more practical choice. He tells his parents about Tess, and they agree to meet her. His father, the Reverend James Clare, tells Angel about his efforts to convert the local populace, and mentions his failure to tame a young miscreant named Alec d'Urberville.
Angel returns to Talbothays Dairy and asks Tess to marry him. This puts Tess in a painful dilemma. Angel obviously thinks she is a virgin and, although she does not want to deceive him, she shrinks from confessing lest she lose his love and admiration. Such is her passion for him that she finally agrees to the marriage, explaining that she hesitated because she had heard he hated old families and thought he would not approve of her d'Urberville ancestry. However, he is pleased by this news, because he thinks it will make their match more suitable in the eyes of his family.
As the marriage approaches, Tess grows increasingly troubled. She writes to her mother for advice; Joan tells her to keep silent about her past. Her anxiety increases when a man from Trantridge, named Groby, recognises her while she is out shopping with Angel and crudely alludes to her sexual history. Angel overhears and flies into an uncharacteristic rage. Tess resolves to deceive Angel no more, and writes a letter describing her dealings with d'Urberville and slips it under his door. After Angel greets her with the usual affection the next morning, she discovers the letter under his carpet and realises that he has not seen it. She destroys it.
The wedding goes smoothly although many omens are noticed by Tess (the cock crowing and the appearance of the old D'Urberville coach). Tess and Angel spend their wedding night at an old d'Urberville family mansion, where Angel presents his bride with some beautiful diamonds that belonged to his godmother and confesses that he once had a brief affair with an older woman in London. When she hears this story, Tess feels sure that Angel will forgive her own indiscretion, and finally tells him about her relationship with Alec.
Phase the Fifth: The Woman Pays (35–44)
Angel, however, is appalled by Tess's confession, and he spends the wedding night sleeping on a sofa. Tess, although devastated, accepts the sudden estrangement as something she deserves. After a few awkward, awful days, she suggests that they separate, telling her husband that she will return to her parents. Angel gives her some money and promises to try to reconcile himself to her past, but warns her not to try to join him until he sends for her. After a quick visit to his parents, Angel takes ship for Brazil to start a new life. Before he leaves, he encounters Izz Huett on the road and impulsively asks her to come to Brazil with him, as his mistress. She accepts, but when he asks her how much she loves him, she admits "Nobody could love 'ee more than Tess did! She would have laid down her life for 'ee. I could do no more!" Hearing this, he abandons the whim, and Izz goes home weeping bitterly.
A very bleak period in Tess's life begins. She returns home for a time but, finding this unbearable, decides to join Marian and Izz at a starve-acre farm called Flintcombe-Ash. On the road, she is recognised and insulted by a farmer named Groby (the same man who slighted her in front of Angel); this man proves to be her new employer. At the farm, the three former milkmaids perform very hard physical labour.
One day, Tess attempts to visit Angel's family at the parsonage in Emminster. As she nears her destination, she encounters Angel's priggish older brothers and the woman his parents once hoped he would marry, Mercy Chant. They do not recognise her, but she overhears them discussing Angel's unwise marriage. Shamed, she turns back. On the way, she overhears a wandering preacher and is shocked to discover that he is Alec d'Urberville, who has been converted to Christianity under the Reverend James Clare's influence.
Phase the Sixth: The Convert (45–52)
Alec and Tess are each shaken by their encounter, and Alec begs Tess never to tempt him again as they stand beside an ill-omened stone monument called the Cross-in-Hand. However, Alec soon comes to Flintcomb-Ash to ask Tess to marry him. She tells him she is already married. He returns at Candlemas and again in early spring, when Tess is hard at work feeding a threshing machine. He tells her he is no longer a preacher and wants her to be with him. She slaps him when he insults Angel, drawing blood. Tess then learns from her sister, Liza-Lu, that her father, John, is ill and her mother dying. Tess rushes home to look after them. Her mother soon recovers, but her father unexpectedly dies.
The family is now evicted from their home, as Durbeyfield held only a life lease on their cottage. Alec tells Tess that her husband is never coming back and offers to house the Durbeyfields on his estate. Tess refuses his assistance. She had earlier written Angel a psalm-like letter, full of love, self-abasement, and pleas for mercy; now, however, she finally admits to herself that Angel has wronged her and scribbles a hasty note saying that she will do all she can to forget him, since he has treated her so unjustly.
The Durbeyfields plan to rent some rooms in the town of Kingsbere, ancestral home of the d'Urbervilles, but they arrive there to find that the rooms have already been rented to another family. All but destitute, they are forced to take shelter in the churchyard, in a plot called "d'Urberville Aisle". Alec reappears and importunes Tess again. In despair, she looks at the entrance to the d'Urberville vault and wonders aloud "Why am I on the wrong side of this door!"
In the meantime, Angel has been very ill in Brazil and, his farming venture having failed, he heads home to England. On the way, he confides his troubles to a stranger, who tells him that he was wrong to leave his wife; what she was in the past should matter less than what she might become. Angel begins to repent his treatment of Tess.
Phase the Seventh: Fulfilment (53–59)
Upon his return to his family home, Angel has two letters waiting for him: Tess's angry note and a few cryptic lines from "two well-wishers" (Izz and Marian), warning him to protect his wife from "an enemy in the shape of a friend." He sets out to find Tess and eventually locates Joan, now well-dressed and living in a pleasant cottage. After responding evasively to his inquiries, she finally tells him her daughter has gone to live in Sandbourne, a fashionable seaside resort. There, he finds Tess living in an expensive boarding house under the name "Mrs. d'Urberville." When he asks for her, she appears in startlingly elegant attire and stands aloof. He tenderly asks her forgiveness, but Tess, in anguish, tells him he has come too late: thinking he would never return, she yielded at last to Alec d'Urberville's persuasion and has become his mistress. She gently asks Angel to leave and never come back. He departs, and Tess returns to her bedroom, where she falls to her knees and begins a lamentation. She blames Alec for causing her to lose Angel's love a second time, accusing Alec of having lied when he said that Angel would never return to her.
The landlady, Mrs. Brooks, tries to listen in at the keyhole, but withdraws hastily when the argument becomes heated. She later sees Tess leave the house, then notices a spreading red spot—a bloodstain—on the ceiling. She summons help, and Alec is found stabbed to death in his bed.
Angel, totally disheartened, has left Sandbourne; Tess hurries after him and tells him that she has killed Alec, saying that she hopes she has won his forgiveness by murdering the man who spoiled both their lives. Angel doesn't believe her at first but grants his forgiveness—as she is in such a fevered state—and tells her that he loves her. Rather than head for the coast, they walk inland, vaguely planning to hide somewhere until the search for Tess is ended and they can escape abroad from a port. They find an empty mansion and stay there for five days in blissful happiness, until their presence is discovered one day by the cleaning woman.
They continue walking and, in the middle of the night, stumble upon Stonehenge giving the illusion of Tess as a sacrificial victim to a society that shunned her. Tess lies down to rest on an ancient altar. Before she falls asleep, she asks Angel to look after her younger sister, Liza-Lu, saying that she hopes Angel will marry her after she is dead although this, at the time, would have been illegal and seen as a form of incest. At dawn, Angel sees that they are surrounded by policemen. He finally realises that Tess really has committed murder and asks the men in a whisper to let her awaken naturally before they arrest her. When she opens her eyes and sees the police, she tells Angel she is "almost glad" because "now I shall not live for you to despise me". She is allowed a dignified death through the fact that Angel listens to her (he hasn't throughout the rest of the novel) and through her parting words of "I am ready".
Tess is escorted to Wintoncester (Winchester) prison. The novel closes with Angel and Liza-Lu watching from a nearby hill as the black flag signalling Tess's execution is raised over the prison. Angel and Liza-Lu then join hands and go on their way.
“You, and those like you, take your fill of pleasure on earth by making the life of such as me bitter and black with sorrow; and then it is a fine thing, when you have had enough of that, to think of securing your pleasure in heaven by becoming converted!”
“. . . that shabby corner of God's allotment where He lets the nettles grow, and where all unbaptized infants, notorious drunkards, suicides, and others of the conjecturally damned are laid.”
“These violent delights have violent ends.”
“The pair were, in truth, but the ashes of their former fires. To the hot sorrow of the previous night had succeeded heaviness; it seemed as if nothing could kindle either of them to fervour of sensation any more.”
“He was inexorable, and she sat still, and d'Urberville gave her a kiss of mastery. No sooner had he done so than she flushed with shame, took out her handkerchief, and wipes the spot on her cheek that had been touched by his lips. His ardour was nettled at the sight, for the act on her part had been unconsciously done.”
“Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which were poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess's guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was prsuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to wakened. Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe.”
“He sat on the east gate of the dairy-yard, and knew not what to think of himself. Feeling had indeed smothered judgement that day.”
“Clare had resolved never to kiss her until he had obtained her promise; but somehow, as Tess stood there in her prettily tucked-up milking gown, her hair carelessly heaped upon her head till there should be leisure to arrange it when skimming and milking were done, he broke his resolve, and brought his lips to her cheek for one moment.”
“Because what's the use of learning that I am one of a long row only--finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part; making me sad, that's all. The best is not to remember that your nature and your past doings have been just like thousands' and thousands', and that your coming life and doings 'll be like thousands's and thousands'.”Tess Durbeyfield
“Did it never strike your mind that what every woman says, some women may feel?”Tess
“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess”Narrator
Phase the First: The Maiden, I-XI
Phase the Second: Maiden No More, XII-XV
Phase the Third: The Rally, XVI-XXIV
Phase the Fourth: The Consequence, XXV-XXXIV
Phase the Fifth: The Woman Pays, XXXV-XLIV
Phase the Sixth: The Convert, XLV-LII
Phase the Seventh: Fulfilment, LIII-LIX
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