Plot Summary

A Part One-An Insignificant Incident and Its Consequences

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles begins with a seemingly insignificant incident: John Durbeyfield, a middle-aged peddler, is informed during a chance encounter on his way home one May evening that he is the descendent of an “ancient and knightly family,” the d’Urbervilles. On learning this “useless piece of information,” “Sir John” has a horse and carriage fetched for him so that he can arrive home in a manner more befitting his new station, and then goes out drinking, getting drunk enough that he is unable to get up in the middle of the night to make a delivery to a nearby town for the following morning. Tess, his oldest daughter, accompanied by her young brother Abraham, attempts to make the delivery instead; but she falls asleep on the way, and the family’s horse, unguided, gets into a grotesque freak accident and dies on the road.

Now deprived of their transportation, the family faces hard times. Tess’s parents hit on the idea of having her solicit the wealthy Mrs. d’Urberville, whom they incorrectly assume to be a relative, for help. Feeling responsible for their current situation, Tess agrees to go. When she arrives at the d’Urberville estate, she is met by Mrs. d’Urberville’s son, Alec. He is attracted to her good looks and soon arranges for her to care for his mother’s chickens. He comes to f-e-t-c-h her, and on the ride back makes it clear that his actions were not motivated by charity. Alec’s unwanted attention continues throughout the next three months, culminating one night when he coaxes her to accept a ride home from a dance. He intentionally takes an alternate route, gets them lost, and eventually rapes her in her sleep. Hardy was forced to cut this episode from the novel for serial publication, and even in its final form in the novel it is handled with extreme circumspection, as is evident from the following excerpt: “Tess!” said d’Urberville.

There was no answer. The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D’Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

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 pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

A few weeks after this incident, Tess returns home. Falling into a depression, and pregnant, she remains in seclusion for the better part of the next year. She emerges in the following August to work in the fields, and soon thereafter her baby dies.

B Part Two-Angel

After two more “silent reconstructive years” at home, Tess ventures forth again, this time to work as a dairymaid. At the dairy she attracts the attentions of Angel Clare, the youngest son of a vicar who has turned away from his father’s faith and has settled on farming as a career. Angel is learning the ins and outs of the dairy business at Talbothays. Over the course of the summer the two are drawn to each other, until Angel finally makes his feelings known to Tess. Soon after he goes home to broach the topic of marriage with his parents, who are resistant to the idea at first but finally give him a qualified “go-ahead.”

On his return to Talbothays, Angel wastes no time in proposing to Tess, but she, to his surprise, rejects him, and refuses to tell him why. Several such encounters follow, until her feelings for him overwhelm her shame, and she agrees to marry him. She continues to feel guilty about her past, however, and, unable to bring herself to confide in Angel, she declines for weeks to commit to a wedding date. With the time for his departure from Talbothays fast approaching, Angel finally persuades her and a date of December 31 is set. Shortly before the day arrives, Tess makes a final failed effort to confess her “stain” to him.

The wedding over, they drive on to an old mansion, which Angel informs Tess once belonged to her family. That night several things happen. First, the couple receives a parcel from Angel’s parents containing several pieces of diamond jewelry willed to him by his godmother and to be presented to his wife. Soon thereafter their luggage arrives, along with bad news from Talbothays about three of Tess’s fellow dairymaids, all of whom (unbeknownst to Angel) were also in love with him. Finally, Angel, recalling Tess’s earlier wish to make a confession, himself confesses to a relatively minor past indiscretion, an “eight-and-forty hours’ dissipation with a stranger.” Thus fortified by her husband’s apparent show of good faith and moved by the sudden fall of her three compatriots, Tess “enter[s] on her story of her acquaintance with Alec d’Urberville.”

The consequences of her confession are cataclysmic. Angel is unable to accept her, claiming that, far beyond its being a matter of forgiveness, he feels as if she had become a different person. Divorce not being a viable option, they soon settle on a separation. Angel promises to keep her apprised of his whereabouts (his plans being to look for an estate to farm, either in the north of the country or abroad), provides her with what he assumes will be an adequate sum of money to maintain her, and drops her off at her home.

Angel ends up in Brazil. Tess, meanwhile, unable to bear staying at home, takes a series of temporary agricultural jobs, and by the fall of that year finds herself running out of money. Unable to land any more such jobs, she decides to join Marian, one of her friends from the dairy, at a farm at Flintcomb-Ash. The work there is grueling, and her employer, Farmer Groby, is a brutish man. She perseveres for a while but soon decides to apply to Angel’s parents for aid (as he had said she could if she needed to). She walks the several miles to Emminster, where the Clares’ vicarage is located, but as a result of two chance encounters there, loses her confidence, and she heads back to Flintcomb-Ash, leaving her mission unaccomplished.

C Part Three-Renewing Old Acquaintances

Midway into her return journey, she chances on a “ranter,” or Primitive Methodist preacher, addressing the inhabitants of a small village, and recognizes the man to be none other than Alec d’Urberville. Before she withdraws, he recognizes her and later catches up with her on her way home. He tells her about his recent conversion, begs her forgiveness for his past behavior, but continues to show some of his old interest in her as a lover. Though she makes him promise never to see her again, he appears at the farm several days later, and proposes to make up for his past wrongs by marrying her. She declines, and eventually informs him that she is already married (though she refuses to disclose her husband’s name). On learning this, Alec proceeds to press her in this and several subsequent meetings, insisting that she is an abandoned wife, and that she is a fool for not allowing him to help her. Soon he has given up his preaching and resumed his role of young dandy. Tess vehemently refuses his advances and writes a letter to Angel pleading with him to return to her. Again, though, circumstances conspire against her. First, on hearing that her mother is seriously ill, she leaves her job and returns home; and while her mother soon recovers, her father dies suddenly, as a result of which her family loses their house. Declining Alec’s offer to put them up at his estate, Tess goes along with arrangements made by her mother to move to Kingsbere, the seat of the old d’Urberville family, but on arriving there they learn that their house has already been let. Thus, they are literally stranded, homeless and penniless.

Soon thereafter Angel returns home from Brazil. He has recently received Tess’s letter, and because of it and his experiences abroad has forgiven her and wishes to rejoin her. He looks for her first at Flintcomb-Ash, then at her home village of Marlott, and finally at Kingsbere. There Tess’s mother reluctantly directs him to the fashionable seaside resort of Sandbourne, which he heads to that evening. The next morning he looks Tess up at the lodging-house where he is informed she is staying, only to discover that she has married Alec. She begs Angel to leave her, which he very reluctantly does. The bitter irony of her situation soon overcomes her, though, and at a slight provocation from Alec she stabs him to death and leaves the lodging-house. She manages to catch up with Angel on his way out of town, confesses her deed to him, and reaffirms her love for him. This time, he promises to be her protector. The two proceed north along footpaths for the rest of the day and eventually settle in an unoccupied mansion, where they remain for several days. They then continue going north, Angel’s plan being to reach a northern port, from which they will be able to safely leave the country. They walk well into the night, reaching Stonehenge, at which point Tess, pleading exhaustion, convinces Angel to let her stop for a while. Dawn soon breaks, and Angel perceives several figures approaching them from all directions-the local authorities. Tess is arrested, and shortly thereafter executed.

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