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Tess of the D Urbervilles

Tess of the D'Urbervilles is an 1891 novel by Thomas Hardy. It was originally serialised in a newspaper called The Graphic. Hardy's novel follows a young English girl, Tess Durbeyfield, as she goes through life and tries to support her family. Tess faces a lot of suffering and hardship along the way.

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Tess of the D Urbervilles

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Tess of the D'Urbervilles is an 1891 novel by Thomas Hardy. It was originally serialised in a newspaper called The Graphic. Hardy's novel follows a young English girl, Tess Durbeyfield, as she goes through life and tries to support her family. Tess faces a lot of suffering and hardship along the way.

Below is a summary of Tess of the D'Urbervilles along with an exploration of its genre. You will also find an analysis of the text, including an examination of its themes and its characters.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Content Warning, StudySmarter

Content warning: This explanation includes discussions of sexual abuse and harassment.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles: summary

Overview: Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Author of Tess of the D'UrbervillesThomas Hardy
GenreSocial realism novel
Literary PeriodVictorian
First published1891
Brief summary of Tess of the D'Urbervilles
  • The novel explores Tess Durbeyfield, a poor and innocent young woman who becomes the victim of social and moral injustices in Victorian England.
  • Tess's father, John Durbeyfield, discovers that his family is descended from the noble D'Urbervilles and sends Tess to seek help from their wealthy relatives. Tess meets Alec D'Urberville, who seduces her and ruins her reputation.
List of main charactersTess Durbeyfield, Alec D'Urberville, Jack Durbeyfield, Joan Durbeyfield, Angel Clark
ThemesWomen and gender equality, justice, fate, morality, and social class.
Setting1870s Wessex, a region in Southern England.
AnalysisA critique of the oppressive and unjust social system of Victorian England. Through the tragic story of Tess Durbeyfield, Hardy shows how social class, gender, and morality were used to control and punish women, and calls for social and moral reform of Victorian society.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles: plot

Thomas Hardy's tale centres on Tess Durbeyfield, a sixteen-year-old girl that lives in the rural English countryside. Tess is beautiful, intelligent, and capable. She is much more capable than her own parents, John and Joan Durbeyfield. Her father is an irresponsible heavy drinker and her mother is old-fashioned and superstitious.

Tess, meanwhile, is described as a tragic figure, caught between the expectations of society and her own desires. She is a victim of the rigid social hierarchy of Victorian England, where women are held to strict moral standards and are punished for any deviation from those standards.

The novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles is organised into seven 'phases' and is set in rural Wessex.

Wessex is a term Thomas Hardy created that includes South and South-West England. It is an imaginary region that he first used as a setting for his novel Far From the Madding Crowd (1874). Readers became so intrigued by this idyllic rural region that they created guidebooks to literary landmarks. Hardy didn't want Wessex to be interpreted as a literal place, so in the preface of Far From the Madding Crowd he included that Wessex was 'a merely realistic dream country (preface)'.

Phase one: The Maiden

In this phase, we are introduced to the Durbeyfield family. They live in rural Wessex, a fictional place invented by Thomas Hardy. They are also quite poor. John Durbeyfield discovers that they are descended from an aristocratic family called the D'Urbervilles. He and Joan are very pleased by this new status.

They go to the local pub, spend lots of money and get very drunk. Joan wants Tess to travel to where there is a local wealthy family by the name of D'Urberville and announce they are related. Joan hopes to gain wealth and status by doing this. Tess refuses as she has strong morals and believes this would be inappropriate and humiliating.

John Durbeyfield has a trip planned to a market to earn money for the family. However, he is unable to go after drinking so much and Tess must go instead. Tess succeeds in selling her goods but the family horse, Prince, is involved in an accident that kills him. Prince was key to the family making their money and Tess feels deeply guilty about this. Due to this guilt, Tess agrees to go to the wealthy D'Urberville family's estate at Trantridge and seek work.

Tess is greeted by the son of the family, Alec. He is clearly infatuated with her and gets Tess a job caring for the family's poultry. Tess soon discovers the D'Urberville family earned the name by trade and not inheritance. Her family is in no way related to theirs. Alec continues to pursue Tess while she works there.

One night he lures her into a secluded area. Although Hardy does not explicitly say it, it is implied that Tess is raped by Alec.

Phase two: Maiden No More

Tess leaves Trantridge after this incident. She is now pregnant and returns home to her family to give birth. Joan wishes for Tess to contact Alec and force him to help with their child in some way.

Tess's strong morals prevent her from doing this. It is now more difficult for Tess to exist in her rural community as an unmarried mother was considered very shameful in this society.

Tess gives birth to a boy and names him Sorrow. He is very weak and does not survive long. Sorrow does not live long enough to be baptised and so Tess does this herself after her son's death. She then buries him in an empty corner of the local cemetery. This is a very dark time in Tess's life.

Phase three: The Rally

Tess mourns her lost son for a long time. But she eventually must work again to earn money. Tess takes a job as a milkmaid at Talbothays farm. Here she meets Angel Clare. He is clearly interested romantically in Tess and she reciprocates these feelings.

Angel is training to be a farmer but he is from a wealthy background. His father is a clergyman but Angel could not follow in his footsteps as he is very sceptical about religion. Tess and Angel court for some time. They gradually fall in love.

Courting is an old-fashioned version of dating. However, it had strict rules. Courting was a period before a potential marriage in which a couple would spend time together and get to know each other.

Phase four: The Consequence

Angel is slightly uneasy about proposing to Tess as he believes his parents won't approve of her working-class background. The reveal of her aristocratic roots and her intelligence and grace help ease this. This intelligence also encourages Angel to tutor Tess. She is a very good pupil and learns much from Angel. This includes his scepticism of religion.

Eventually, Tess and Angel are set to be married. Tess fears Angel discovering what Alec did to her and the child she lost. She is afraid he will see her as impure. Joan advises Tess to keep her past secret. Tess instead attempts to tell Angel of her past multiple times. All of these attempts fail.

Tess and Angel marry and embark on their honeymoon. While on honeymoon, Angel confesses he once had an affair with an older woman. He asks Tess to forgive him and she does. Encouraged by this, Tess confesses her own past. Angel is horrified and ends their marriage. He leaves for South America and Tess is forced to return to her family home.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Portrait of Thomas Hardy, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The author of Tess of the D'Urbervilles calls for social and moral reform of Victorian society, which is portrayed as an oppressive society in the novel.

Phase five: The Woman Pays

Tess gives her family the money Angel has given her but this soon runs out. She takes a harsh and difficult job at Flintcomb-Ash Farm. In desperation, Tess makes the trip to Angel's family home to ask for help. She panics and changes her mind at the last minute and leaves. On her way back, Tess passes a church where someone is preaching. This man turns out to be Alec D'Urberville.

Phase six: The Convert

Alec tells Tess he has converted and is trying to repent for his sins. Tess is very sceptical of this and voices it to Alec. Alec forces her to swear she will never 'tempt' him again. This makes his view of what has happened between them clear.

Alec now begins to pursue Tess again. He tells her that her scepticism convinced him to leave religious life and he now wants to marry her because of their past. Alec continually offers financial help to Tess and the Durbeyfield family but she continually rejects him. Both Tess's parents fall ill and her father dies.

The Durbeyfield family is evicted and has very little income. Tess attempts to move the family around and earn enough money for herself, her mother, and all her siblings. She fails and gives in to Alec. He will provide the family with stability and shelter if Tess lives with him as his wife. Tess and her family move into the Trantridge estate.

Phase seven: Fulfilment

Angel's business ventures in South America fail badly. He also feels deep guilt over how he treated Tess. Angel returns to try and make things right. He finds Tess living in a boarding house with Alec as his wife. The two have a conversation and Tess rejects Angel and his apologies. She sends him away.

Hardy then switches perspectives to the landlady of the boarding house. She sees a red stain seeping through the ceiling, clearly from the room above. This is Tess and Alec's room. It soon becomes clear Tess has stabbed and killed Alec. She leaves the boarding house and chases Angel. Tess explains to Angel what has happened and the two go on the run from the police for several days. It is clear he cares deeply for her.

Tess and Angel end up at Stonehenge. Tess seems to have accepted her fate. She makes Angel promise to marry her younger sister 'Liza-Lou. The next morning the police surround Stonehenge and Tess is arrested for murder.

Hardy ends Tess of the D'Urbervilles with Angel and 'Liza-Lou walking away hand in hand. They are walking away from a black flag being raised over the prison Tess was in. This indicates Tess has been executed for her crimes.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles: characters

Tess of the D'Urbervilles charactersDescriptionTraits
Tess DurbeyfieldThe central character. She is only sixteen years old but she is the eldest child in her family. She works very hard to support her family. Tess is mistreated and abused by Alec D'Urberville. She marries Angel Clark but this does not last when he finds out about her past. Tess has many struggles throughout the novel and comes to a tragic end after her murder of Alec.Kind. Sensitive. Hardworking. Abused.
Joan DurbeyfieldThe mother of Tess and wife of Jack. She is irresponsible and cares very much about social status. She is aware of how her society judges people. Tess also often goes to Joan for advice but this advice is not always very helpful.Irresponsible. Superstitious. Old-fashioned.
Jack DurbeyfieldThe father of Tess and husband of Joan. He, like Joan, is quite irresponsible. Jack is also a heavy drinker. He often abandons his obligations to support his family in favour of alcohol. This leaves Tess to carry out these obligations instead.Alcoholic. Frivolous. Lazy.
Alec D'UrbervilleA wealthy man that abuses Tess. He comes from a family that has made their name in trade. Alec is religious for a short period but abandons this to relentlessly pursue Tess. He forces her to live as a wife in exchange for financial support. He is eventually murdered by Tess.Cruel. Selfish. Manipulative. Lustful.
Angel ClarkA trainee farmer from a privileged background. Angel is highly educated and kind. He falls in love with Tess and marries her. He behaves in a hypocritical way and leaves Tess after discovering her past. Angel regrets this and helps Tess after her murder of Alec. Tess instructs him to marry her younger sister after Tess's execution.Intelligent. Hypocritical. Kind. Liberal.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles: analysis

It is told from a third-person omniscient point of view, which means an unnamed narrator tells the tale. The narrator can look deeply into the mind and thoughts of the characters.

The plot of Tess of the D'Urbervilles operates in a way that fits under multiple genres. It is often analysed as a novel of social realism.

Social realism is a literary genre. Realist novels are ones that have realistic plots with plausible characters that contain everyday occurrences. Social realism specifically discusses social issues. For example, in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Hardy portrays issues of social inequality. Other well-known novels of social realism include John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937) and Hard Times (1854) by Charles Dickens.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles can also fit under the genre of tragic realism in terms of its plot.

Tragic realism is another subgenre of realism. It too has a realistic plot and plausible characters. The tragic element of the genre focuses on the suffering of a character or characters.

In the case of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the character primarily suffering is Tess. Tragedies often show a character suffering because of a fatal flaw they have. Hardy subverts this. Tess suffers not because of her own flaws but the flaws of people around her, particularly her parents, Alec, and Angel.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles: themes

The main themes of Tess of the D'Urbervilles include women and gender equality, justice, fate, morality, and social class.

Women and gender inequality

Hardy portrays the lives of women at this time as very complex and difficult in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Tess's actions show her to be a very capable and strong woman. She makes an effort to provide for herself and her family, particularly when her father cannot. Tess is also sensible and rational.

Her status as a woman leads her to suffer, however. This is clear in Alec's horrific mistreatment of her and her body. Alec feels a sense of entitlement towards Tess because he is attracted to her and she is a woman who he sees as inferior. This would have been a common view in the Victorian period. After his religious conversion, Alec believes that Tess tempted him. Another common view in Hardy's time was that attractive women tempted men and men were not to blame for their actions towards them. This puts Tess in a very difficult position.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles also shows gender inequality in Angel's treatment of Tess when he discovers her past. His actions are hypocritical. Tess has forgiven him for his past in which he engaged in what their society would see as improper behaviour. However, Angel blames Tess for what was forced upon her. Hardy is exposing a very unequal way of seeing the world.

Hardy also shows that the two men who are romantically interested in Tess have two very different views of her. Alec sees Tess in a very sexual way. He is attracted to her and focuses on her physical beauty. Alec manipulates Tess to get what he wants from her.

Angel treats Tess in a much kinder way but he still has a warped view of her. When he meets her, Angel has an idealised view of Tess. He calls her 'Artemis', the name of a Greek goddess because he sees her as perfect. Angel seems to view Tess as the Victorian stereotype of the 'Angel of the House'.

The Angel of the House stereotype was very common in the Victorian era. It refers to the idea of a woman that is a perfect wife and mother. She is pure, well-behaved, delicate, and performs all of her domestic tasks perfectly. The phrase comes from an 1854 poem of the same name by Coventry Patmore.

What both Alec and Angel have in common is that they both have inaccurate views of Tess as a woman. Neither of them sees her for who she really is. She represents certain things for both of them but neither sees her as human.

Justice

Justice is very important in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Tess is often treated cruelly and unfairly throughout Hardy's novel. Her life is filled with injustice. Tess is the victim of a horrific rape that leaves her pregnant yet her society blames her for this. The man she marries, Angel, blames her for this too. This can be linked to the previous theme of gender inequality. Some of the injustice Tess experiences can be attributed to the fact that she is a woman in a patriarchal society.

There is a further injustice in the fact that Tess must return to Alec for help after her father dies and she cannot support her family. She must obey a man who has treated her so terribly. This in order for her family to have food and shelter. This is another cruel twist of fate.

Unlike her society, Thomas Hardy's narrator never judges Tess. He is showing her suffering in a cruel world. Hardy shows that Tess is fundamentally a good person. She tries her best to do right in the world. Yet she still faces so much injustice in her life. Tess often struggles with this injustice as she feels as though the world is against her. Hardy is showing the unfair nature of the world here.

Never in her life – she could swear it from the bottom of her soul – had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently? (Chp. 51)

Eventually, Tess murders Alec. This is a very complicated element of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Alec violated Tess and treated her poorly so is this justice for Tess?

However, she has committed murder and is arrested for this so has Tess committed an unjust act? Hardy leaves this quite open for his readers to interpret. He also leaves open the question of the novel's ending. After all she has suffered, was it truly just for Tess's life to end so brutally? Or did she have to be punished for taking another's life?

From your analysis of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, what are your conclusions about how justice operates in the novel?

Tess of the D Urbervilles - Key takeaways

  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles is an 1891 novel by Thomas Hardy.

  • Hardy's novel follows Tess Durbeyfield as she tries her best to support her family. She is sensible and kind but is mistreated along the way, particularly by men.

  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles fits under the genres of social realism and tragic realism.

  • Two key themes in Tess of the D'Urbervilles are women and gender inequality, and justice.

  • Many of the central characters' actions in Hardy's novel negatively impact Tess.

Frequently Asked Questions about Tess of the D Urbervilles

Tess of the D'Urbervilles follows Tess Durbeyfield as she attempts to support her family. She is mistreated by both the wealthy Alec d'Urberville and the intelligent Angel Clark. Tess suffers a tragic ending at the end of the novel.

Multiple morals can be taken from Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The injustice of life is one of these. Another moral that Hardy puts across is how society mistreats women and how wrong this is.

Tess was played by Gemma Arterton in a 2008 mini-series. She was also played by Justine Waddell in a 1998 film adaptation.

It is hard to determine a hero in Hardy's novel. However, Tess is one of the only characters that behaves well and in a kind manner throughout the novel. This is complicated by her murder of Alec.

Gender and social inequality can be seen as the main theme of Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles was written around 1891. 

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