Tess of the d’Urbervilles

“Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented” is the title of an 1891 novel by the English author Thomas Hardy. The novel was originally published in serial form by the British illustrated newspaper The Graphic the year before it’s official release in 1892. The book was well received by the public and became a literary classic. In 1897, just 6 years after it’s original publishing, the novel was adapted into a Broadway play which achieved great success and ran for 5 years. The play was then adapted into one of the first motion pictures in 1913, starring Minnie Maddern Fiske as Tess Durbeyfield who portrayed the same character in the play.

The novel was successfully adapted to the stage 6 more times over the following century and was also adapted into many other formats including, opera, film, and television with the most recent adaptation being a film called The Maiden in 2013.

The novels titular character, Tess Durbeyfield, is a young woman who discovers that her family has noble blood and is sent to work for the matriarch of her line in a large house in another village. While working in the house, Tess meets the old noblewoman’s son, Alec d’Urberville and he become taken with her. Alec begins trying to convince Tess to become his lover and, when he is unsuccessful, rapes her. Tess becomes his lover after the rape because she fears him and eventually escapes to return to her parents home.

Tess soon leaves her parents home to take a job in a dairy where she meets a young clergyman’s son named Angel Clare. Angel is also taken with Tess right away and considers her pure and virginal. Tess keeps the secret of her relationship with Alec until after she and Angel are married. Angel is angered by the revelation and abandons Tess for one year. When he finally returns, Tess has had to marry Alec to support herself and her family. Angel begs for Tess to come back to him and she initially tells him that she cannot although his return causes a fight between her and Alec that ends in her stabbing him to death.

Tess and Angel flee the town only to be caught by the police a few days later. Tess has sentenced to death shortly after.

Book Summary

John Durbeyfield, a peddler, is on his way home to his village, Marlott when he runs into an old parson. Parson Tringham refers to John as “Sir John” which surprises the peddler. Tringham reveals that his is an amateur historian and that he found a town record that stated that the Durbeyfield’s are descended from a noble family called d’Urberville.

In reality, the peddler’s noble roots are so old that they are effectively meaningless, but this causes him to immediately become very full of himself and send for a horse and carriage to ferry him home. Nearby, the peddler’s daughter, Tess is enjoying the May Day celebrations with her friends. Tess sees her father ride by in a carriage and, although she is embarrassed, she defends him from the mockery of the people around her. Her friends agree to leave her father alone and the group depart for the village green where there is to be dancing.

The book gives us a brief description of Tess’ character:

“Tess Durbeyfield at this time of her life was a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience. The dialect was on her tongue to some extent, despite the village school; the characteristic intonation of that dialect for this district being the voicing approximately rendered by the syllable UR, probably as rich an utterance as any to be found in human speech. The pouted-up deep red mouth to which this syllable was native had hardly as yet settled into its definite shape, and her lower lip had a way of thrusting the middle of her top one upward when they closed together after a word. Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along to-day, for all her bouncing, handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then. Yet few knew, and still fewer considered this. A small minority, mainly strangers, would look long at her in casually passing by, and grow momentarily fascinated by her freshness, and wonder if they would ever see her again; but to almost everybody she was a fine and picturesque country-girl, and no more”.

While dancing on the village green, Tess meets three wealthy, highborn brothers. One of the brothers, Angel Clare wants to dance with Tess and her friends in particular. The girls tell him to pick one of them to dance with and he picks one of the other girls besides Tess. After the dance ends, Angel regrets not choosing Tess.

Tess returns home to see her mother, Joan. Joan informs her of her father’s discovery that they are descended from noble lineage. She also confides in Tess that John has been diagnosed with a heart condition that is serious and probably fatal. A firm believer in astrology, Joan consults a book called “Compleat Fortune-Teller” that she keeps outside of the house in superstition. Tess asks where her father is now and her mother reveals that he is at Rolliver’s, the local inn and pub where he is most likely drinking to his new found noble heritage.

Joan leaves to collect her husband but does not come back shortly. The narrator reveals that this most likely results from Joan’s love of sitting with her husband in the pub as it is some of the only alone time that they get together. Tess sends her younger brother, Abraham to Rolliver’s to fetch her parents and some time later realizes that she must go herself as no one has returned.

At the inn, Mr. and Mrs. Durbeyfield discuss who should inform the wealthy Mrs. d’Urberville of their relation to her. They decide that Tess should so it as Mrs. d’Urberville may decide to make her her ward. Abraham tells Tess of their parent’s plans after she arrives and on the way home the two discuss astronomy. Tess tells Abraham that their family lives under a “blighted” star that is the cause of their misfortune.

That night as she is sleeping, Tess dreams of a “gentlemanly suitor” who laughs at her. Tess is awoken from the dream by a large crash and discovers that her family’s carriage has crashed with a mail cart and the family’s horse, Prince has been killed. Tess is devastated by the loss of the horse as it will make her fathers peddling impossible and economically destroy their family. No one in the family blames Tess and Mr. Durbeyfield buries the horse that night.

The next day, Tess travels to the beautiful, fashionable home of Mrs. d’Urberville. Tess meets Mrs. d’Urberville’s son, Alec who is described as having a “swarthy complexion, with full lips, badly moulded, though red and smooth, above which was a well-groomed black moustache with curled points, though his age could not be more than three-or four-and-twenty”. Alec greets Tess as “my beauty” and tells her that his mother is invalid and thus, she cannot see her. Tess tells him that they are distant relatives and captivated by her beauty and personality, Alec agrees to see what he can do to let Tess see his mother.

Days later, Tess receives a letter from Mrs. d’Urberville offering to let Tess come to the house to tend her fowls. Tess accepts, as her family is in need of the money. Tess leaves for the stately home after her mother helps her into her finest clothes and her father muses about what price he can sell their family title for. Alec arrives to fetch Tess and the Durbeyfield’s begin to wonder if they are doing the right thing. Mrs. Durbeyfield cries and worries that Alec will take advantage of Tess.

On the way back to his estate, Alec drives too fast and frightens Tess who pleads with him to stop. He tells her to hold on to him and Tess complies out of fear for her safety. Tess begs again for him to slow down and he agrees only if she will allow him to kiss her. Tess offers him her cheek and he kisses it. However, she quickly wipes the kiss off with her handkerchief and Alec becomes angry. After an argument, Tess decides to finish the journey on foot.

Tess meets Mrs. d’Urberville for the first time the next day and discovers that the old woman is blind. Mrs. d’Urberville seems to lack any appreciation for Tess agreeing to work for her. She tells Tess how to care for the fowls and informs her that she must whistle for her bullfinches once a day. Tess realizes only later that she does not remember how to whistle and Alec agrees to help her learn.

A short while later, Tess begins going to the market in town. On the day she goes to the market and meets up with some friends who become very drunk. The friends begin to make Tess uncomfortable and when Alec arrives, Tess agrees to be taken home by him. Alec leads his horse deep into the woods and reiterates his ideas about he and Tess being together. Tess continues to refuse and Alec keeps going deeper into the forest until eventually they get hopelessly lost in the encroaching fog. The two dismount the horse and Alec leaves Tess his coat as he goes to see if he can discover where they are. When he returns, Tess is asleep and Alec takes this as an opportunity to rape her.

Confused and scared, Tess begins having a sexual relationship with Alec. Soon she realizes that she does not love him and in her confusion, she flees from the d’Urberville manor early one morning. Alec finds her before she can get home and tries to convince her to come back. Tess refuses and Alec drives her home. After she says no again, he leaves and instructs her to let him know if she ever needs any help.

On the way home, Tess passes a sign painter who is painting biblical phrases around town. When she approaches him, he is working on a sign that reads: “THY DAMNATION SLUMBERETH NOT”. Distraught, Tess asks the painter if he really believes the phrases he paints. He tells her he does. She begins to tell him about her problems but he recommends that she see the local clergyman.

Tess makes it home and finds that her mother is upset with her for not marrying Alec. But Mrs. Durbeyfield relents when Tess asks why she never warned her about the dangers she was facing in leaving.

Tess resumes living at home and trying to live her normal life. However, because she was Alec’s mistress, the town begins whispering about her and in order to avoid seeing people she begins going out only after dark. Tess soon discovers that she is pregnant with Alec’s child. Soon after the child is born, she begins trying to restart her normal life and come out of her depression. The baby soon becomes ill and Tess worries that he will die without being christened. She christened him herself, naming him Sorrow. The following morning, the baby dies and asks the town clergyman if the baby may have a Christian burial. The clergyman agrees that Tess may bury the child herself and Tess does. She forms a small, wooden cross herself for his headstone.

Changed by what has happened to her, Tess begins longing to move away from Marlott to somewhere where no one recognizes her. Soon, Tess learns of a job working as a milkmaid in the Talbothays Dairy in a different town. The dairy lies near the d’Urberville estate and Tess seizes the opportunity in part because of this.

On her first day working at the dairy, Tess recognizes Angel Clare working there as well. She learns from some of the woman working with her that Angel is the son of a respected clergyman. Angel’s brothers have joined the church but Angel prefers to work with animals and has come to the dairy to learn about its work.

At this point the narrator relates to us Angel’s background story, shifting away from Tess’s point of view. Angel has two brothers, and although he was the most talented of all of them, he did not attend college as he did not want to become a clergyman like his father. Angel spent time in London in order to find what he was interested in and had a dalliance with an older woman. Finally, Angel decided he wanted to work in Agriculture and began visiting farms around the country to learn about the subject. He is now twenty-six years old and well-respected by the farmers in the dairy. Angel finds himself pulled in by Tess’s beauty and purity and begins trying to find ways to get her attention.

One night Tess and Angel walk in the gardens and have a personal conversation. Tess demurs on telling him about her past. Angel is surprised the someone as young as Tess would have such dark views about life. Angel begins talking about himself and Tess wonders why such a schooled man would decide to become a farmer.

Over time, Tess and Angel begin spending more time together. Angel begins seeing Tess as the “visionary essence of a woman” and attempts to nickname her “Demeter” and “Artemis”. Tess, not recognizing the names, asks him to just call her Tess. People in the dairy begin to talk about Tess and Angel’s relationship and most believe that they are in love. The other milkmaids begin to ask Tess if she thinks she will marry Angel. Tess reveals that she does not wish to marry because of her past. Tess tries to subtly talk Angel into taking notice of one of her other milkmaid friends but Angel indicates that he does not want to spend time with anyone but her. Tess feels guilty for taking up so much of Angel’s time when she does not intend to marry him.

Soon, while Tess and Angel are milking cows, he confesses his feelings to her and the two embrace. Tess pulls away, aware that she can’t let their relationship go any farther in a romantic direction. Confused, Angel decides to take a few days away from the dairy to visit his family. While visiting, Angel convinces his parents to meet Tess and his father confides in him that he has been ministering to the local people. He tells Angel of his failure to convert a local man named Alec d’Urberville and of his dislike for old families.

When Angel returns to the dairy, he embraces Tess and asks her to marry him. Tess continues to refuse but Angel spends the next few months trying to convince her. Tess feels that she loves him too much to continue saying no, but tries to convince him that one of the other girls at the dairy would be a better choice. One day as they are walking near the d’Urberville land, Tess tells Angel that she is related to them. This pleases Angel as he assumes that her being descended from noble blood will make her a better match in his parent’s eyes. Tess finally agrees to marry Angel and weeps as she tells him. She writes to her mother to tell her of her engagement and her mother tells her never to tell Angel of her past with Alec.

In December of that year, Tess agrees to leave the dairy with Angel. As she and Angel are out shopping for wedding clothes, they bump into a man from the d’Urberville’s village who scolds Tess and says that she is lying about being a virgin. Angel hits the man but when the man apologizes, Angel forgives him and gives him some money. That night wracked with guilt, Tess writes a confession about her past and slips it under Angel’s door. The next morning, she is surprised to see that Angel is behaving in exactly the same way toward her. Tess assumes that the letter slipped under the carpet and he didn’t see it. She tries again to confess her past to him but he interrupts her and says that the revelation can wait till after the wedding.

That day, they are married and later that day Angel confesses to Tess about his past with the older woman in London. Tess tells him of her past with Alec. This distresses Angel greatly. He begs her to say that she made it up and when she cannot he runs from the house. Tess follows him, begging his forgiveness and offering to kill herself if it would make him happy. Angel tells her to go back into the house. Many days pass with Angel not talking to Tess until she finally asks if he would prefer that she return to her parents. He tells her to go.

The next day, Angel brings Tess back to Marlott in silence. He leaves her and tells her that he will forgive her eventually but that she should not contact him until he comes for her. Tess confesses to her parents that she has told Angel and her mother calls her a fool. A short while later, a letter arrives from Angel saying that he is going to look for a farm up north. Tess decides to join him and tells her parents that she is leaving. Unaware of this, Angel visits his parents and tells them that he is taking a trip to Brazil without Tess. At their confusion, he tells them that he will see Tess when he returns in one year. Mrs. Clare asks if he has been having any problems with Tess and posits that he has discovered something untoward in Tess’s past but Angel vehemently denies it.

Instead of finding her husband, Tess begins working on and off at different dairies and struggling to scrape by with her meager income. She again encounters the man from Alec’s village that accused her of promiscuity and feels that she must run and hide from him. She feels as though Alec is haunting her. Tess decides to make herself appear ugly to protect herself from lustful men. She cuts off her eyebrows and begins dressing in old and ugly clothing.

Angel never introduced Tess to his family and she decides to travel to their house to ask about Angel. However, when she gets there she overhears Angel’s brother’s discussing his unfortunate marriage and becomes ashamed. She begins to walk home when she overhears a passionate sermon being delivered in a barn and looks inside to see that Alec d’Urberville is the one giving it. Tess becomes afraid when she sees Alec and runs away. Unfortunately, he spots her as well and runs after her, insisting that he has to save her soul. He tells her that he has found God because of the help of Reverend Clare. Fed up, Tess shouts at him that he is a terrible person who has ruined her life and is now trying to secure a place in heaven by converting. She says that she cannot subscribe to his religion because her husband does not believe in it. Alec confesses that he is actually afraid of Tess and asks her to swear that she will never tempt him again. She agrees to get him to leave only to have him find her a few days later at her job and ask her to marry him. He suggests that they go to Africa together to become missionaries. Tess tells him that she is already married and begs him to leave.

The next year, Alec again approaches Tess and tells her that he is no longer a preacher. He tells her that he is upset that her husband is neglecting her and that she should come away with him. He tells Tess that he is her true husband and her master and that he will be back in the afternoon to collect her. After Tess finishes work for the day, Alec returns to collect her, as promised. He walks Tess home and asks her to marry him again. Tess refuses again and that night writes a letter to Angel and asking for his help in protecting herself against Alec.

In Brazil, Angel is ready to come home and forgive Tess because of a talk with an older man who told him he was wrong to abandon her. Tess learns that her mother is dying and her father is so ill that he can no longer work. Tess leaves her job and goes back home to care for her family. While there she bumps into Alec again, who begins helping her tend the farm. When she refuses to marry him again, Alec becomes enraged and leaves.

Tess father dies and Tess realizes that their family will now lose their house. Alec shows up again and tries to persuade Tess to move her family into his family’s home. Tess is so destitute that she is tempted to say yes. But she turns him down again. She admits to herself that she feels that Angel has treated her badly and writes to him saying that although she’ll do what she can for him, she doesn’t know if she will be able to forgive him. Tess and her family learn that they cannot move into the apartment they were planning to and end up having to sleep in a cemetery. While there, Tess finds Alec sleeping on a tomb and she tells him to leave. After he is gone, Tess looks at the graves and wonders why she is still alive.

Angel returns from Brazil and finds Tess’s angry letter. He begins to worry that she will not forgive him. Mrs. Clare tells Angel that he shouldn’t worry about Tess because she is a commoner and Angel confesses to his mother of Tess’s noble lineage. Angel spends a few days recovering from his journey and writes Tess a letter in Marlott. He receives a letter from her mother a short while later saying that they have left Marlott and that Tess has left the family.

Angel decides that he must find Tess and reunite with her. He travels to The Durbeyfield’s home to ask Tess’s mother where she has gone. She takes pity on him and says that his wife is in Sandbourne. Angel goes to Sandbourne and searches for a Mrs. Clare or a Mrs. Durbeyfield. Unable to find either he discovers that there is a d’Urberville staying at a local expensive hotel. Angel goes to the hotel and finds Tess dressed in expensive clothing in the luxurious surroundings. Angel pleads for her forgiveness and tells her that he has learned to accept her for who she is. Tess tells him that because he left her destitute she has had to marry Alec d’Urberville.

Tess leaves the room and goes back upstairs to her hotel room. She accuses Alec of tricking her into thinking that Angel would never come back for her. A fight ensues and the landlady of the hotel, Mrs. Brooks sees Tess run from the hotel. Mrs. Brooks later finds Alec on the bed in the room having been stabbed to death.

Tess runs after Angel and finds him as he is getting on a train. She tells him that she has killed Alec and begs his forgiveness. Angel assumes that she is delirious and assures himself that he loves her. Once he realizes that she is serious he agrees to protect her. Tess and Angel begin walking, waiting for the search for Tess to die down. They eventually stumble across and old abandoned mansion and climb in through a window. They spend five days in the house until the woman who cares for it discovers them and Tess and Angel are forced to flee again.

Tess begins to become distraught at their situation and tells Angel to care for her family after she is dead. She says that she hopes that Angel will marry her eldest sister after she is gone and asks if he thinks they will see each other again after death. Angel doesn’t answer and Tess falls asleep.

The next morning, men surround their hideout. Tess awakens and feels oddly relieved to see that the men are there for her. She feels that she is not worthy of Angel’s love.

The last chapter takes place sometime in the future, when Angel and Tess’s eldest sister, Liza watch as a black flag is raised above the tower. Tess has been put to death. Angel and Liza are speechless for a short time before they join hands and walk away.

Characters Analysis

Tess Durbeyfield – the heroine and main protagonist of the novel. Tess is a pretty, steadfast young woman who begins the story living in the village of Marlott with her impoverished family.

Tess is a very responsible, level-minded young woman whose main concerns are how to provide for a protect her family. Unfortunately, Tess parents leave much to be desired and the lack of strong parenting that she was raised with takes its toll on her throughout the novel. Tess takes a job tending to the fowls at the d’Urbervilles in order to care for her family after her father’s horse is killed. As a pious, responsible young woman, Tess initially refuses Alec’s offer to make her his mistress. After Alec rapes her in the woods, Tess, being confused and desperately trying to figure out what society demands, begins a relationship with Alec after being pressured into it. Tess spends much of the novel haunted by the specter of Alec and dealing with the emotional fallout and depression that stems from his mistreatment of her.

Although she later falls in love with Angel, she thinks many times that she does not feel that she deserves him because her difficult life and Alec’s poisoning of her mind have warped her into thinking that she is a sinner for staying with him as long as she did. Tess is a tragic character, made more and more so throughout the novel. She endures many of the worst hardships of a woman’s life in her time with stoicism and grace and at the end of the novel, accepts her arrest the same way.

Angel Clare – Tess’s husband. Angel is a clergyman’s son who decided not to go to college to enter the clergy himself as he is not sure that he believes in God. After going on a journey of self-discovery in which he scandalously stayed with an older woman for some months, Angel decides that he wishes to become a farmer and begins touring the country, learning about the profession from various farms.

Angel falls in love with Tess the moment he sees her and quickly decides that she is the purest and virginal person that he has ever met. He holds her up on a pedestal of purity and this is why he is so distraught when he later discovers her former relationship with Alec.

Angel reacts badly to the discovery and decides to return Tess to her parent’s house and leave the country without her. Angel spends a year in Brazil, learning about the local farming community. While there he befriends an older man and confesses his marriage troubles to him. The man advises him that he has treated Tess badly and this is part of the reason that Angel decides to return to town to find Tess.

Angel bitterly regrets leaving Tess and begs her to forgive him. When he finds out that she has killed Alec he decides to help her flee the area and stays with her until she is eventually caught and apprehended by the police.

Alec d’Urberville – the main antagonist of the novel. Alec is a wealthy son of a noble family who is used to getting his own way and spoiled because of it. Immediately upon meeting Tess, Alec decides that he wants to take her as his lover and mistress. He begins pestering her right away and eventually takes the opportunity when he and Tess are alone in the woods to rape her.

Alec repeatedly takes advantage of Tess and becomes angry when she decides to leave him. When he finds her again after Angel has abandoned her, Alec begins trying to take advantage of Tess again by convincing her to marry him by repeatedly showing up on her doorstep and begging.

Alec’s childhood is not delved into as much as Angel’s but it is obvious that he has not matured from his propensity to launch immediately into anger when he is denied something. Alec does not realize that he cannot trick Tess into loving him and later marries her by convincing her that Angel will never come back. Tess kills Alec in cold blood shortly after their marriage.

Joan Durbeyfield – Tess’s mother and a peddler’s wife. Joan has a very strong sense of what is proper and wishes to provide a good, upright life for Tess. However, she herself regularly exhibits uncouth behavior and becomes angry at Tess for even small infractions. She is disappointed and angered by Tess refusing to marry Alec even after she learns the true circumstances of their relationship. After Mr. Durbeyfield dies and Tess begins being the primary means of support for the family, Joan begins to see Tess in a different light and relents somewhat on her treatment of her.

Thomas Hardy Biography

Thomas Hardy was born June 2nd, 1840 in Stinsford, Dorset, England. The son of a stonemason, Hardy was first educated by his well-read mother before attending his first school at the age of eight. Hardy’s formal schooling ended at age 16 as his family lacked the means to afford any college education for him.

He then became an apprentice to a local architect. In 1862, he moved to London where he enrolled as a student of architecture at King’s College London. Hardy found some success in the world of architecture but began writing as a pastime. His first novel, “The Poor Man and the Lady”, was finished in 1867 but never published as Hardy was advised against seeking a publisher by his friend the Victorian poet George Meredith.

Hardy began writing again in 1871, publishing both “Desperate Remedies” and “Under the Greenwood Tree” in 1873. In 1870, Hardy met his first wife, Emma Lavinia Gifford whom he married three years later. During this time, Hardy began to see some commercial success as a writer but it was his first hit novel, “Far From the Maddening Crowd” (1874) that gave him leave to give up his work as an architect and start a career as a full-time writer.

He and his wife soon moved to Yeovil, England where he produced more of his most well-known work. “Return of the Native” (1878) and ‘Two on a Tower’ (1882). He and his wife moved into a house that he had designed and built in 1885 and while there Hardy wrote: “The Mayor of Casterbridge” (1886), “The Woodlanders” (1887) and perhaps his most famous work, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (1891).

Hardy began receiving backlash from the Victorian public in regards to his racy novel “Tess” and a later, even more, opposed novel, “Jude the Obscure” (1895) which challenged societies views of marriage and religion. Hardy’s relationship with his wife, already strained, became even more so after “Jude” was released as she worried that people would think it was autobiographical. Hardy himself joked about the response to the novel but some historians today believe he may have given up writing novels because of it as ‘Jude’ was the last novel he produced.

Hardy began publishing books of poetry in 1898 with his first collection, “Wessex Poems”. During the twentieth century, Hardy published only poetry.

In 1910, Hardy was awarded the Order of Merit prize for his books and was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for the first time. He went on to be nominated for the prestigious award eleven more times. In 1912, his estranged wife died and in honor of her death, Hardy traveled to Cornwall, England to revisit some of the places they spent their courtship.

Hardy remarried in 1914, to his secretary Florence Emily Dugdale who was 39 years younger than him. In 1927, Hardy became ill with pleurisy and died in the home he had built for his first wife that same year.

His funeral became somewhat controversial, as Hardy had dictated that he wanted to be buried next to his first wife. But his family and friends insisted that he be buried in Westminster Abbey’s famous Poet’s Corner. They reached a compromise where his heart was buried next to his wife at Stinsford but his ashes were interred at Westminster.