Tess Of The D’Urbervilles Summary

Thomas Hardy

Tess Of The D’Urbervilles

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Tess Of The D’Urbervilles Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

Originally published in serialized form in 1891, and then as a complete novel in 1892, Tess of the d’Urbervilles is widely considered to be one of the great nineteenth century novels. Through the tale of young woman used and abused by a man of higher social status, it explores Victorian Britain’s perceptions of class, gender, and sexuality, as well as examining broader themes such as the injustice and unfairness of life. The novel begins with an impoverished peasant named John Durbeyfield learning that he may be related to the rich and noble d’Urberville family, a revelation that sets off a string of tragic events. Meanwhile, John’s eldest daughter Tess attends the May Dance where she catches the eye of a young man named Angel Clare, son of Reverend James Clare. She wishes to dance with him but Angel is running late and does not have time. Later, when her father is too drunk to drive their cart to market, Tess takes the reins but falls asleep, causing an accident in which their horse is killed. Deprived of their livelihood, Tess’s parents tell her to visit Mrs. d’Urberville, a rich widow, and present herself as a distant family member in need of support. Here the reader learns that Mrs. d’Urberville’s deceased husband simply adopted the name and was not actually a member of the noble old family, but Tess in unaware of this and, feeling guilty about the horse, she reluctantly agrees to visit the widow and request assistance.

When Tess visits the d’Urberville mansion, she meets Mrs. d’Urberville’s lecherous, libertine son Alec, who gets her a position on the estate looking after poultry. Alec is consistently predatory but one night, after Tess has been threatened by one of the man’s ex-lovers, she naively accepts his offer of rescue. However, Alec does not take her to safety as promised but to a deserted grove where it is implied that he rapes her. Later, traumatized, ashamed, and pregnant with Alec’s child, Tess flees back to her parents, where she largely remains in her room in a state of humiliated shock. When the child is born, it is weak and ill and only lives for a few short weeks. On the night before the boy dies, Tess christens him “Sorrow,” performing the ceremony herself because her father will not let a priest come and see their shame. Despite this baptism, Tess is still only able to bury the child in the rundown part of the graveyard reserved for unbaptized babies, in a poor grave marked only by a homemade cross and flowers in a marmalade jar.

A couple of years later, Tess takes a job as a milkmaid. Because the dairy is some distance from her village, her history is not known and she is no longer the subject of gossip. Away from the scandal of her past, she is happy and content, making friends with the other milkmaids and once again meeting Angel Clare who is visiting to learn how to run a dairy. Gradually, Tess and Angel fall in love but when Angel proposes, Tess must decide whether to reveal her past and risk Angel withdrawing his proposal when he learns she is not a virgin, or keeping it a secret. After an attempt to tell him the truth goes awry, she decides to keep it to herself. However, on their wedding night, emboldened by Angel confessing to an old affair, Tess reveals everything, with disastrous results. Although Angel acknowledges that Alec was responsible and Tess herself had been wronged, he nevertheless sees her as flawed and damaged, and blames her for not adequately resisting Alec’s assault. Telling Tess that he will learn to forgive her past eventually, he then travels to Brazil to start a farm, promising to collect Tess later when he is ready for her.

Tess finds unpleasant, arduous work on an unproductive farm but still struggles to make enough to support herself or her parents. She goes to ask Angel’s family for help but overhears his brothers talking about Angel’s terrible marriage and so leaves without speaking to them. As she travels home, she is surprised to discover that Alec d’Urberville is now a traveling priest, having been converted to Methodism by Angel’s father, Reverend Clare. However, the man’s new-found faith does not last long and he soon starts stalking Tess and begging her to marry him. When Tess’s father dies unexpectedly and the family are evicted from their cottage, Alec offers to support them but Tess refuses and the family find themselves near destitute.

In Brazil, Angel has suffered his own hardships, becoming seriously ill for a time and failing with his new farm. He now realizes that he was wrong to reject Tess but, on returning to England, he discovers that she has married Alec, having reluctantly succumbed to the man’s manipulative advances. When Angel leaves, Tess is devastated, heartbroken, and furious. In her fury, she stabs Alec to death, and runs away with Angel, who is happy to assist her but does not believe she truly killed Alec. It is not until the police surround them at Stonehenge several days later that he truly accepts that she killed the man. The night before she was captured, Tess said that she hoped Angel would marry her sister, Liza-Lu, after she dies, and the final moments of the novel show Angel and Liza-Lu walking off hand in hand, having just seen a black flag raised above the prison announcing that Tess has been executed.

At the time it was written, Tess of the d’Urbervilles was highly controversial because its sexual themes were at odds with Victorian social mores. The original serialized publication was censored and some critics even suggest that the ambiguity surrounding Alec raping Tess is the result of pressure from Hardy’s publishers. Revaluated over the years, the novel is now widely considered to be among Hardy’s greatest works and, in fact, is often celebrated for the bold manner in which it addresses gender and sexuality.