Tess of the D'Urbervilles Summary and Analysis
by Thomas Hardy
Phase 1, Chapters 1-11
Phase One: The Maiden
As he walks home to the village of Marlott, John Durbeyfield, a middle-aged man, meets Parson Tringham, who greets him as "Sir John." When Durbeyfield asks the parson why he greets him in this manner, he answers that he recently learned that he is from the d'Urberville lineage, descended from Sir Pagan d'Urberville who fought with William the Conqueror. He tells Durbeyfield that if knighthood were hereditary, he would be Sir John. The d'Urberville family is now extinct, and the parson thinks of this only as demonstrating how the mighty have fallen.
In the first chapter of the novel, Thomas Hardy introduces several of the themes that will be important throughout the course of the story. This chapter centers on the unpredictability of fate: the d'Urberville legacy demonstrates how, as Parson Tringham notes, the mighty have fallen' through mere bad fortune and missed opportunities. The very telling of the story itself to John Durbeyfield, the event that provides the narrative engine for the novel, is itself a chance encounter resting entirely upon Parson Tringham's idea to make a sly comment to Durbeyfield. The second important theme of the novel is the importance of class within English society. John Durbeyfield believes himself changed by the idea that he may be the descendant of the noble Pagan d'Urberville, even though there is nothing intrinsically different about him. Class in this novel confers certain distinctions that Durbeyfield and his daughter will attempt to exploit.
Durbeyfield was returning home during the May Day dance in which the younger women of Marlott walked in procession in white gowns, holding willow wands and white flowers. Among the girls is Tess Durbeyfield, the daughter of John. Tess is no more handsome than the other girls, but has large, innocent eyes. She sees her father riding in a carriage singing that he has a great family vault in Kingsbere and knighted forefathers. Tess reprimands her friends for mocking her father. At this time Tess is a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience.' She still has the local dialect, but also can affect more educated speech. Three young onlookers of superior class watch the women in the procession. The three are brothers (Angel, Felix, and Cuthbert) and consider asking the women to dance. Angel does not dance with Tess Durbeyfield, but among the girls he notices her the most and wishes that he asked her to dance, for she was so modest and soft.
Tess Durbeyfield, the titular character of the novel, is in this chapter introduced as an innocent, malleable and pure. As a member of the May Day procession, adorned in white, she symbolizes purity and virginity, while her physical characteristics equally suggest her innocence. Hardy suggests that this purity comes from lack of experience, foreshadowing her later development as a person and a character once she is exposed to different and more dangerous forces. However, despite this innocence and essential purity Tess is not a mere cipher: she does defend her father, confronting the other girls in the procession who disparage him. Angel is an equal symbol of purity and goodness, as shown by his name and his demeanor. He immediately realizes that Tess is special because of her innocence.
Hardy also develops the issues of class introduced in the first chapter. Tess Durbeyfield comes from a lower class background, but she can affect a higher position because of her education. This fluidity of her class background will prove significant throughout the novel, for she can move from the upper to the lower classes.
Tess remains with her comrades until dusk, thinking of the young man, Angel. When she arrives at home, she hears her mother singing as she rocks her youngest child to sleep. Mrs. Durbeyfield still has some of the freshness of youth, but it is faint. She speaks in the local dialect, and tells her daughter what John Durbeyfield learned that day. Mrs. Durbeyfield thinks that great things will come of this. She also tells Tess that John has fat around his heart, which could cause his death in ten years or ten days. He is now at Rolliver's, and wants to rest before his journey tomorrow with a load of beehives. Now that Tess is home, Joan Durbeyfield can go to Rolliver's to fetch her husband, but Joan herself does not return, so Tess sends her brother Abraham. Tess herself decides to go when Abraham does not return a half hour later.
This chapter serves to illustrate the Durbeyfield home life, one in which Joan Durbeyfield has little respite from her drudge work and little help from the rest of her family, particularly from her husband, who spends as much free time as possible at the local tavern. In fact, one of the few chances for enjoyment that Joan Durbeyfield has is the opportunity to fetch her husband from Rolliver's and assume a position of authority over John. However, despite her difficult life, Joan Durbeyfield is no a completely innocent victim; she proves herself as irresponsible as her husband, remaining at the bar when she means to take him away from it. Among the Durbeyfields, it is only Tess who remains committed and responsible; she alone has the sense of responsibility to know that her family must come home.
Rolliver's Inn is the only alehouse in the village, and can only boast of an off-license: nobody can legally drink on the premises, but this rule is often averted. Mrs. Durbeyfield had found her husband there bragging about his grand project for his family. He will send Tess to claim kin, for there is a lady of the name d'Urberville. John Durbeyfield admits that he has not told Tess this, but she is tractable and will do what he wishes. Joan Durbeyfield reminds her husband that there are many families that were once estimable and are now ordinary, but agrees to the arrangement. Tess arrives, and Abraham tells her that she will marry a gentleman. It is eleven o'clock when Tess gets her family to bed, and the next morning John is unable to go on his journey. Tess agrees to go with Abraham. On the way there, Abraham and Tess discuss how other stars are worlds just like Earth. Tess says that some worlds are splendid, but a few are blighted, and they decide that they are on a blighted one. Tess realizes the vanity of her father's pride. Suddenly, the wagon stops and they find that the morning mail-cart has crashed into their horse, killing it. Tess blames herself, while Abraham blames it for living on a blighted star. Tess does not know how to break the news to her family, but John Durbeyfield takes the news stoically.
At this point in the novel, Tess Durbeyfield is a passive character subject to the wishes of her family and afflicted by their sense of irresponsibility. She is the key to her father's design to regain the family fortune, for he intends to marry her off to a gentleman who will provide for her and for her parents; however, Tess has no say in her father's plans. Hardy allows for the strong possibility that John Durbeyfield's plans will amount to nothing, with the reminder that other families have amounted to little despite their former high esteem.
Hardy returns to the idea of the cruelty of fate in this chapter with the discussion between Tess and Abraham concerning the stars; the two siblings decide that the misfortunes they suffer are due to living on a blighted star rather than any direct sense of cause and effect. This theme is also illustrated by the accident that Tess and Abraham have concerning the horse and wagon; the occurrence is a complete accident, yet Hardy instills the event with a sense of determinism, as if it were part of the Durbeyfield fate.
Tess's reaction to the accident is ironic, for Tess believes herself responsible for an event for which she had no control; furthermore, it is her father's irresponsibility that caused her to take the wagon to deliver the beehives. Nevertheless, Tess feels guilty for the event; this will lead her to be more susceptible to her father's wishes.
Distress looms in the distance because of the death of the horse. Joan Durbeyfield tells Tess about Mrs. d'Urberville living on the outskirts of The Chase, and tells Tess that she must go and claim kinship and ask for help. Tess is deferential, but she cannot understand why her mother should find such satisfaction in contemplating this enterprise. She suggesting getting work, but finally agrees to go. Tess leaves for The Chase, where she finds the home of the Stoke-d'Urbervilles, as they are now called. A young man with an almost swarthy complexion answers the door, and claims to be Alec d'Urberville. He does not allow Tess to see his mother, for she is an invalid, but she tells him that she is a poor relation. Alec shows her the estate, and he promises that his mother will find a berth for her. He tells her not to bother with the Durbeyfield name, but she says she wishes for no better. Alec prepares to kiss her, but lets her go. Tess perceives nothing, but if she had she might have asked why she was doomed to be seen and coveted that day by the wrong man.
The death of the Durbeyfield's horse is the event that motivates Tess to visit the d'Urbervilles and beg them for financial assistance. By going to claim kinship with the d'Urbervilles, Tess is in fact sent to find a husband; behind her mother's request is the assumption that Tess will marry a gentleman who will provide for the Durbeyfields. It is this aspect of the visit to the d'Urbervilles that disturbs Tess most, highlighting her particular sexual innocence. This introduces the theme of sexuality and innocence that will continue throughout the novel; at this point in the novel Tess represents a particular sexual innocence. She is unaware of her own sexuality and thus cannot perceive the danger that Alec d'Urberville presents to her.
From his introduction in the novel, Alec d'Urberville represents a sexuality that contrasts with Tess Durbeyfield's innocence. However, as important as his sexuality is the danger inherent in his sensuality. His early attempt to seduce Tess only serves to foreshadow later, more serious attempts to infringe on his cousin's innocence. Hardy even explicitly notes the danger that Alec d'Urberville poses to Tess. The narrative thrust of the novel will concern Tess's reaction to the dangers that Alec poses for her.
As Tess leaves Trantridge Cross to return home, her fellow travelers in the van remark about the roses that adorn her appearance, the first time that she is aware of the spectacle she presents to them. Her mother greets Tess excitedly, and Tess shows her a letter written by Mrs. d'Urberville stating that Tess's services would be useful to her in the management of their poultry farm. Tess tells her parents that she would rather stay with them, but she cannot tell them why for she does not know the reason. Later, Alec d'Urberville visits the Durbeyfields to see whether Tess could come to manage the poultry farm. Joan Durbeyfield thinks highly of Alec as a mighty handsome man. John Durbeyfield is convinced that Alec will marry Tess, but Tess tells her father that she does not like having Alec there. Joan Durbeyfield finally prepares for her daughter to leave, assuming that she will marry, for she has been discovering matches for her daughter since she was born.
Hardy further establishes in this chapter that Tess is unaware of the sexuality that she presents to others. Although it is evident to all who see Tess that she is adorned to appear attractive, Tess does not realize the purposes for which she was sent to Trantridge Cross. This lack of awareness of her sexuality also appears when Tess cannot articulate her objection to going to stay with the d'Urbervilles. Her obvious reason for not wanting to stay at Trantridge is the presence of Alec d'Urberville and his advances toward her, but she cannot frame this in terms of sexual anxiety.
Hardy also continues with the theme of Tess as the pawn of others around her in this chapter, in which establishes that Joan Durbeyfield uses her daughter specifically to make romantic matches in hopes of raising her own estate. Her explicit purpose is to find a gentleman for her daughter, and she has pursued this course of action ever since her daughter's birth. However, if this is a sign that Joan Durbeyfield is in some sense manipulative, it also indicates the lowly state in which Tess' mother lives; her one hope for raising herself from poverty is to have her daughter marry a gentleman. Joan Durbeyfield's attempts to find her daughter a gentleman to marry, if not commendable, are nevertheless the actions of a desperate woman.
The day that Tess is to leave, her mother scolds her for not dressing well, even though Tess dresses in proper clothes for working. Tess submits to her mother's wishes and has her hair washed. Although Joan expects her daughter to be married, she feels a slight misgiving as Tess leaves. The younger children cry when Tess leaves, but Tess scolds them for thinking that she will marry a gentleman. As Tess leaves, Joan remarks that Tess will do well as long as she plays her trump card. This trump card is not her d'Urberville blood, as her father believes, but her face.
Joan Durbeyfield continues to promote the idea of Tess going to Trantridge Cross to marry in this chapter, in which she dresses her daughter for attracting men, and not for her labor tending Mrs. d'Urberville's chickens. Her remark that Tess's trump card' is her face is the most explicit declaration that Joan is sending her daughter to find a husband and not to work in a job. Likewise, Tess continues to resist the idea that she is a sexual object sent for a commercial transaction that will save her family's financial situation. However, Joan exhibits her first signs of guilt and self-awareness concerning her actions toward her daughter. This further foreshadows the impending danger that Tess faces in going to Trantridge Cross.
As Alec and Tess drive the carriage toward Trantridge, Tess becomes frightened by the quick movement of the horse as they go down the hill. She grasps Alec's arm, but he tells her to grasp his waist so that he can still control the horse. When the horse becomes calm, she reprimands him for driving so recklessly, but he tells her to put her arms around his waist again. She says never, but he persists. She says that she thought that he would be kind to her as her kinsman. He calls her rather sensitive for a cottage girl, and calls her an artful hussy.
The problems that Alec and Tess have on the carriage traveling toward Trantridge serve as a bridge between two of the most important events in the novel, simultaneously building on Tess's guilt concerning the death of the family horse and foreshadowing later events in which Tess finds herself in danger with Alec d'Urberville. In this chapter, Hardy intertwines the danger of their travel along with sexuality, as Alec demands that Tess grasp his waist as the carriage tumbles down the hill. Alec exploits moments of danger for his own sexual gain, presenting Tess with danger in order to use her as a sexual conquest. Alec himself symbolizes the confluence of these two qualities, a character who presents his sexuality along with a great capacity for violence.
Alec's reprimand of Tess as "rather sensitive for a cottage girl" serves to shatter the idea that Tess may marry a gentleman. As Alec notes, no matter her distant family connections, Tess is of such lowly birth that she may consent to be the mistress of a gentleman but not his wife.
Tess begins to care for the birds in Mrs. d'Urberville's poultry house. Tess meets the old woman, who is blind, and asks Tess if she knows how to whistle. Although she knows that it is not a genteel trait, Tess admits to knowing how to whistle, and Mrs. d'Urberville tells her to practice it every day so that she can whistle to her bullfinches. Mrs. d'Urberville is not aware that Tess is a relative. The next day, Tess tries to whistle to the bullfinches, but becomes cross because she finds that she cannot do so. Alec finds her frustrated, and offers to give Tess a lesson. Repeated interaction with Alec d'Urberville removes Tess's original shyness toward him, without implanting any feeling which could engender a more tender shyness. One day, when Tess is whistling to the bullfinches in Mrs. d'Urberville's room while she is absent, Tess hears a rustling behind the bed. Alec has been hiding behind the curtains.
Tess's first meeting with Mrs. d'Urberville further serves to place Tess back to her original place in the social order. Mrs. d'Urberville is impersonal and condescending, treating Tess as a mere rural servant girl and not as a relative; indeed, she does not even know that Tess is a distant relation. This implies that Alec has brought her to the house under false pretenses; he has not brought her to claim kinship with him and his mother, but rather for his own personal reasons.
Hardy further establishes Alec d'Urberville as a sexual predator in this chapter, a man who even stalks Tess as she whistles to the bullfinches. Nevertheless, Tess begins to become more accustomed to Alec, despite the sexual danger he presents to her. Alec ingratiates himself to Tess by aiding her in her work. This is the first evidence that Tess has let her guard down around a man whom she inherently suspects. While Tess still does not care for the villainous Alec d'Urberville, she is becoming increasingly familiar with him and receptive to him.
The village of Trantridge demonstrates a particular levity and its residents tend to drink hard. The chief pleasure of many residents is going to Chaseborough, a decaying market town several miles away. Tess did not join in the weekly pilgrimages, but under pressure from matrons not much older than herself, she finally consents to go. During one trip there, she finds Alec d'Urberville also in town, and he promises to see her again. Tess goes on alone and finds a barn where the residents are dancing. Tess does not abhor dancing, but she did not want to do so, for the movement of the dancers grew more passionate. Tess finds Alec again, but she refuses his offers of assistance home. Tess goes to the other girls, one of whom is Car Darch, nicknamed Queen of Spades, and her sister, Nancy, nicknamed Queen of Diamonds. Car carries a wicker-basket containing her mother's groceries on the top of her head, and a stream of treacle had dripped down below her waist. All of the other girls laugh at Car, including Tess. However, Car notices Tess and confronts her. Car begins to disrobe to fight Tess, but Tess refuses and says that if she knew that Car was of that sort, she would not have consented to come with such a whorage. Car merely insults and continuously berates Tess, making her feel indignant and ashamed. Alec finds Tess once again, and he tells Tess to come with him. As Alec rescues Tess, Car's mother laughs, realizing that Tess has gotten out of the frying pan and into the fire.
The journey to Chaseborough for dancing juxtaposes with the previous chapters by demonstrating that Tess, despite her failure to be accepted as a true d'Urberville, is in some considerable sense still different from the common people with whom she must associate. She is neither the same as the low-class Darch sisters nor the aristocratic d'Urbervilles. Tess at first refuses to go on the weekly pilgrimages for dancing, and even when she consents to go she refuses to dance when it turns more sexual. This returns to the theme of Tess as a sexual innocent; she rejects both the sexuality of Alec d'Urberville and that of the dancers.
Throughout this chapter, Hardy places Tess d'Urberville as an outsider among the working class laborers with whom she travels home. Her status is evident even to Car Darch, who immediately notices when Tess laughs and ignores the others. While Tess remains without guile when she is confronted by Car, she nevertheless appears as strikingly out of place among the others. Car provides a stark contrast to Tess: she is a vulgar, brassy woman who is combative and lewd, in comparison to the more demure Tess. If the previous chapters emphasized that Tess is not a member of the upper orders, this chapter disputes the idea that she is one of the lower class.
The rescue of Tess by Alec d'Urberville demonstrates the capability for noble behavior that he may demonstrate, yet even in this action there is the great possibility that he may act out of ignoble motives. As Car's mother realizes, Tess is now in greater danger with Alec than she would be around Car. Car's mother thus foreshadows the later tragic events that will come to fruition.
Tess admits to Alec that she is much obliged to him. He asks her why she dislikes him kissing her, and she says it is because she does not love him, and is angry with him sometimes. Alec did not object to this confession, because he prefers her anger to frigidity. He asks if he has offended her by love-making, and she says sometimes. She does not answer when he asks if she is offended every time he tries. Tess is weary, and nearly falls asleep on Alec's shoulder. Alec stops the horse and encloses her waist with his arm to support her, which immediately puts her on the defensive. When she pushes him away, he calls her devilish unkind, for he means no harm. He asks if she can show her belief in him by letting him clasp her with his arm. She finally submits and allows him to do so. Later on their journey, Tess finds that Alec has prolonged the ride home, and they are now in The Chase, the oldest wood in England. Tess calls him treacherous, and asks him to let her down so she may walk home. He agrees to let her walk home only after he finds a nearby house and ascertains their distance from Trantridge. Alec gives her an overcoat and walks away. In the meantime, he goes to ascertain which quarter of The Chase he is actually in, for he had purposely ridden at random. He returns to Tess and finds her sleeping. Tess' guardian angel' is nowhere to be seen, and Tess is seduced by Alec d'Urberville.
The final conquest of Tess Durbeyfield comes to fruition in this chapter, in which Alec d'Urberville uses several factors particular to this situation to seduce his distant relative. The seduction does not come easily; in fact Hardy leaves the details of the conquest so vague that it allows the distinct possibility that Tess did not consent at all to Alec. Nevertheless, assuming that Tess consented to Alec's demands, Hardy constructs several factors that precipitated the event. At this point in the novel Alec is at his most heroic to Tess, having saved her from Car Darch. Alec frames his arguments against Tess as evidence that she is frigid, untrusting and ungrateful; she must defend her refusal to give in to Alec rather than Alec having to defend his much less excusable behavior. Finally, and perhaps most critical in Tess letting down her guard is that she is intensely tired and Alec's final proposition of her is unexpected. He comes upon her when she is sleeping and, at last, she may not have had the strength to refuse him at this point.
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