Tess of the d’Urbervilles tells the story of a girl who is seduced and has a child who dies. When she meets another man whom she wants to marry, she is unable to tell him about her past until after their wedding. Her husband abandons her, and Tess is driven by despair into the arms of her former seducer. When her husband returns, Tess kills the man she is living with. Hardy uses a third-person (“he”/“she”) narrator with an omniscient (all-knowing) point of view to tell Tess’s story. Thus the narrator not only describes the Characters but can reveal their thoughts. Hardy also uses his power as narrator to offer his philosophical insights on the action. The novel’s closing paragraph, which begins “’Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess” is a good example of how Hardy comments on the action. Some critics believe the novel would have been better if Hardy could have remained silent and let the actions of the Characters tell the story. At several spots in the novel, Hardy’s narrator loses his omniscient ability and comments on the story through the eyes of a storyteller of local history. For example, when he tells the story of Tess and Angel’s first meeting, when Angel chooses another girl to dance with him, the narrator says he does not know the lucky girl’s name. “The name of the eclipsing girl, whatever it was, has not been handed down,” he notes.
The story takes place in Wessex, an invented territory based on the Dorset countryside where Hardy was born and which fascinated him his entire life. Hardy gives Wessex its own vitality by depicting the region’s folk customs (such as the “club-walking” in the scene in which we meet Tess), the “folklore dialect” with its colorful expressions like “get green malt in floor” (meaning to get pregnant), and its superstitions (such as the story of the d’Urberville coach). Hardy’s Settings seem to mirror the emotions of his Characters. Talbothays Dairy, where Angel and Tess’s love grows, is described as “oozing fatness and warm ferments” and there “the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization.” Everything about Talbothays drips with the moisture of fertility and sensuality. In stark contrast to the dairy are scenes at Flintcomb-Ash where Tess goes after she is abandoned by Angel. It is “a starve-acre place” where the fields are “a desolate drab” color and the work is exhausting and demeaning. The scene of Tess’s capture is Stonehenge, the famous prehistoric ruins on the Salisbury Plain, consisting of large upright stones surrounding an altar stone. Significantly, it is on this altar stone, thought to have been the site of bloody sacrificial offerings, that Tess lies when the police come to arrest her for Alec’s murder. Through his choice of Settings Hardy is able to make additional comment on the action of the story without further narrative intrusions. By placing Tess on the sacrificial altar Hardy makes clear that he believes she is an innocent victim. Time of year is also important in the novel as Hardy uses the changing of the seasons over the period of about five years as representative of the changing fortunes of his heroine. It is “a particularly fine spring” when she goes to Talbothays; summer as Angel courts her; and finally winter at Flintcomb-Ash where she tries to once more avoid Alec’s advances. Time of day is equally as important: unhappy events usually happen in the evening or night.
The Settings in Tess of the d’Urbervilles function as symbols in that their names have meanings more important than just geographical points. Marlott, Tess’s birthplace, for example, alludes to her “marred” or disfigured lot or destiny. Flintcomb-Ash, as its name implies, is a hard, barren place. Several Characters have symbolic names as well, including the girl that Angel’s parents want him to marry, Mercy Chant, who is depicted as religious to a fault, and Angel Clare, who seems to be an “angel” to Tess and her three milkmaid friends, and even plays a harp. The harp, however, we are told is secondhand, and it symbolizes Angel’s imperfect character. Throughout the novel, Angel and Tess are symbolically associated with Adam and Eve of the Bible. In one of the most commented on scenes in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess approaches Angel, who is playing his harp, through the wildflowers and weeds in an unkempt garden with an apple tree. As she approaches, she is unaware of the “thistle-milk and slug-slime” and other disagreeable natural secretions that coat her skirts and arms. Even though Talbothays may seem like Paradise, the reader understands that this Garden of Eden is one that has been spoiled. Later in the novel, more references appear that, again, equate Tess with Eve and Angel with Adam. Alec, on the other hand, appears to Tess as she plants potatoes in a Marlott field. Amid the fires of burning weeds, he appears holding a pitchfork and he says, “You are Eve, and I am the old Other One come to tempt you.” Tess is also repeatedly identified with a captured bird. Other important symbolic images in the novel include a bloodstained piece of butcher paper caught in the gate of the Clare residence as Tess attempts to contact Angel’s parents in Emminster, the bloody heart-shaped stain on the ceiling at “The Herons” after Tess kills Alec in the room above, and the capture of Tess on the stone of sacrifice at Stonehenge.