Tess of the d'Urbervilles: Novel Summary
Phase 1, Chapters 1-11
Phase The First: The Maiden
Middle-aged Jack Durbeyfield walks home drunk to the village of Marlott one evening in May and meets Parson Tringham who is riding in the opposite direction. An antiquary, the old Parson calls Durbeyfield “Sir John” and Durbeyfield asks him why. The parson tells Durbeyfield that he is a descendent of an ancient Norman noble family and that if knighthoods were hereditary, he would most certainly be called Sir John today. When Durbeyfield inquires about the whereabouts of his noble family the parson answers: "you don't live anywhere. You are extinct--as a county family" (7). The idea of royal blood running in his veins deeply delights Durbeyfield who orders a carriage to carry him home.
Meanwhile, young Tess Durbeyfield is taking part in a traditional parade with other village women. Dressed in white they walk to the village green to dance. Her father‘s carriage passes and when the women jeer Tess feels humiliated. While they dance, three young men arrive. The two older brothers continue on their ramble through the Vale of Blackmoor but the younger, named Angel Clare, stops. He chooses a dancing partner but has to leave soon, but not before seeing Tess, who is somewhat offended that he didn’t choose her. As he runs off he regrets not asking her to dance.
At home, Tess learns of her newly discovered noble lineage from her mother, Joan Durbeyfield. Mr. Durbeyfield is drinking at Rolliver’s, a nearby home where locals drink illegally in an upstairs bedroom. Tess is outraged because her father must leave at midnight to transport beehives to the Casterbridge market. Under the pretext of retrieving her husband, Joan takes a break from her never-ending housework and Tess puts the younger children to bed. But, “since her mother’s leaving simply meant one more to fetch,” Tess sends her younger brother Abraham to fetch their parents (23). However, he too also becomes ensnared in the pub and Tess must leave the house to bring them all home.
Meanwhile, upstairs at Rolliver’s, Abraham listens to his parents discuss Tess’s future. Joan tells Durbeyfield that Tess should be sent to rich relatives of the name d’Urberville to make her fortune and perhaps marry a rich man. Back home, Tess realizes that her father will not be able to take the beehives. Her mother soon wakes her to take on the job herself with her brother Abraham. As the horse Prince drags the cart in the dark, the youngsters talk about the stars and Tess explains that stars are indeed worlds “most of them splendid and sound—a few blighted,” and that they have the misfortune to live on a blighted star (31). After a while, there is a jolt and Tess, who has fallen into a sound sleep, wakes in the midst of a horrible accident. The mail cart has run into the horse that lies dying on the road. Well aware of the economic damage to her family, Tess is overcome with guilt. Durbeyfield works harder than he ever has to bury Prince.
Tess does not argue when her mother sends her to the Trantridge estate of the d’Urbervilles to work. Joan Durbeyfield has no idea, however, that the d’Urbervilles have absolutely no blood relation to Tess and that the name itself was purchased to enhance the family’s social standing. Tess is surprised to find a large new red brick country estate instead of the ancient house she envisioned. Here Tess meets Alec d’Urberville who, in his early twenties, is very attracted to his new “poor relation.” After feeding her strawberries and showering her with roses, he explains that his mother is ill but that he will find a way to help her. Then he sends her on her way.
When Tess returns home the following day a letter from Mrs. d’Urberville offering her a job tending fowl awaits her. Despite her mother’s ecstatic eagerness, Tess is displeased and looks instead for local jobs to earn money to replace the family’s horse. Alec d’Urberville stops by and prompts her mother for an answer about the job. Her efforts to find alternative work prove fruitless and so Tess accepts d’Urberville’s offer. She remarks that Mrs. d’Urberville’s handwriting looks masculine.
Tess is dejected about leaving Marlott. However, her mother scolds her and makes her wear the white dress she wore at the May Day dance. Joan is sure Alec d’Urberville will marry her beautiful daughter. Her father tells Tess that he would be willing to sell his title, Sir John, to d’Urberville, for one thousand pounds, and then lowers the price incrementally to fifty pounds. Alec arrives in a carriage to take Tess to her new job and Joan has a moment of fear—allowing Tess to leave might not be a good decision—but believes Tess will make out all right if she plays her trump card (her good looks) right.
On their way to Trantridge, Alec terrifies Tess by driving quickly down the steep hill. He orders her to hang on to his waist and assures her he will drive more slowly if she agrees to let him kiss her on the cheek. Since she has no other choice, she allows the kiss but quickly wipes her cheek. This infuriates him. He is forced to stop after she drops her hat, on purpose, and Tess jumps out and continues the journey on foot.
Early the next morning Tess meets her new mistress, Mrs. d’Urberville, and discovers that the old woman is blind. Very attached to birds of all kinds, she has Tess place two chickens in her lap. Then she tells Tess that part of her job will be to whistle to her bullfinches. Tess, who has taken liberties describing her degree of expertise in the matter of fowls, says she will practice. However, despite her best efforts, Tess finds she cannot whistle until Alec, who is completely smitten, helps her.
Tess soon finds company in the other servants. After a few months, the town holds a fair and celebrations run late. Tess doesn’t drink because she has seen the sad affects of alcohol on her own family and gets tired of waiting for her drunken friends. After first declining his offer, Tess is forced to accept a ride home with Alec on horseback after the drunken revelers turn on Tess after she laughs at Car Darch, who used to be involved with Alec. Although she rides away triumphantly from the drunken others, they realize that Tess has merely jumped “out of the frying-pan into the fire” (74).
Soon, Alec allows the horse to leave the path and Tess finds herself deep in the woods, lost in the fog. After she rebuffs his advances, he tells her that he has bought a new horse for her family and toys for her younger siblings. Although she is grateful, she is unhappy. Alec sets off to find a road, leaving her wrapped in his coat on a nest of leaves. Upon his return, he finds her asleep and takes advantage of her. The narrator attempts to understand why the wrong woman and the wrong man wind up together and states simply that “it was to be” and that “there lay the pity of it” (80).
Set in southwestern England in the late-nineteenth century, Thomas Hardy begins Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman with a lush description of the rural undulating landscape. This is an agricultural community seeped in ancient tradition. Its simple inhabitants, who speak with a distinct country dialect, depend totally upon the earth for their survival. Many of these families, including the Durbeyfields, have descended from noble aristocratic Norman families but have, as Hardy writes, “gone to seed” over time. Learning of their noble lineage determines the rest of the Durbeyfield family’s lives, especially that of the lovely teenage daughter, Tess.
Overall, the pessimistic author argues that although individuals might possess superior traits—physical, mental, ethical—which might otherwise enable them to achieve great success, they are sadly condemned to their fate: “as Tess’s own people down in their retreats never tire of saying ‘It was to be ”’ (80).
Hardy displays a great sense of sympathy for England’s lower classes, especially for rural women. Unlike many of the farm women, Tess is pure, her purity represented by the color white. She wears a white dress, carries a white willow branch and white flowers. She is a virgin ready to marry and, in the agricultural sense, to bear a harvest of children. Hardly surprising then, a fairy-tale, prince-like man, an “Angel” as his name makes clear, appears to the young virgin in a scene reminiscent of the biblical Angel appearing to the Virgin Mary.
However, Tess is disappointed when he fails to choose her to dance. As will become increasingly apparent, Angel Clare will fail Tess further in the future, and the only prince that Tess will ever encounter is the horse Prince, whose death determines her future. In contrast to the light-sinned Clare, the darker skinned “swarthy” Alec d’Urberville, who sports a black pointed moustache and tempts Tess to eat strawberries instead of an apple, in the garden, is cast as the villain.
From the beginning, Mr. Durbeyfield takes on airs, riding in a carriage and proudly boasting to his drunken comrades at Rolliver’s about his noble lineage, and Mrs. Durbeyfield’s proud dreams reinforce his plan to change the family’s fortunes. But, ultimately “pride goeth before a fall.” After the death of Prince, the guilt-ridden Tess is put forth as the savior of the family. In this regard she is a fairy-tale heroine, like Beauty, who must face the beast, in this case Alec d’Urberville, to save her father.
Hardy casts Tess as a superior woman. She is smarter than her parents and far more concerned about her brothers and sisters. She is, in fact, their teacher, an occupation she desires but one she will never achieve because, as Hardy would have us believe, it is not her fate. It is her sense of guilt, and the desire to pay back her family for killing the horse, that spurs Tess into taking a job she doesn’t want. While the Durbeyfields might seem to work all day long, they never accomplish anything, but the superior Tess gets the job done, so to speak. At the Trantridge poultry farm, she is set apart from the other servants. While she enjoys their company, she does not drink and find release in the hazy alcohol-fueled world that Hardy describes so poetically: “it was then that the ecstasy and the dream began in which emotion was the matter of the universe, and matter but an adventitious intrusion likely to hinder you from spinning where you wanted to spin” (68). The only thing that ever crosses Tess’s lips is pure white milk as we shall see later on when Tess goes to work at Talbothays Dairy. Unlike the other working women, she does not take part in the wild dancing and certainly not the sexual revelry: “by this time every couple had been suitable matched…an inner cloud of dust rose around the prostate figures” (68). Indeed, Tess is worried about being home early, even though the following morning is Sunday.
It is also of interest to note that Tess is asleep when the tragic accident involving Prince occurs. Thus, she’s not really to blame. On one hand, it seems that Tess is the only wide-awake Durbeyfield. Unlike her parents, she realizes the true state of the family; she knows that her father will be unable to take the hives to market. However, on the other hand, she seems to go through life half asleep; not completely tuned in, as it were. Also, she is asleep when Alec takes advantage of her sexually or “ruins her,” in the Victorian sense of the word. In this manner, Hardy removes Tess from any responsibility. Despite her attempts to retain her chastity, Tess remains pure. It is her fate after all at play. She is without agency: there is nothing she can do.
Readers should remember that in the Victorian era, one did not discuss sexual matters and authors could not write of them either. Indeed, some readers are surprised to find that after the night in the woods, Tess is no longer a virgin. Thus, it is important to read between the lines, so to speak. For instance, the other women that Tess walks home with have at earlier times “stood in relations with d’Urberville,”—they have also been sexually involved with Alec. So, they know perfectly well what will happen to the girl when she rides off with Alec into the woods, an event which should also be viewed in the metaphorical sense. Will Tess ever really leave the forest or will darkness descend on her forever? In today’s world, Alec d’Urberville would certainly face charges and jail. During the Victorian era, however, such a heinous act was oftentimes considered to be an inevitable seduction. Also, the section of woods is called the Chase, which is self-explanatory.