Tess of the d'Urbervilles | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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Course Hero. "Tess of the d'Urbervilles Study Guide." Course Hero. 23 Aug. 2017. Web. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Tess-of-the-dUrbervilles/>.

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Course Hero. (2017, August 23). Tess of the d'Urbervilles Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Tess-of-the-dUrbervilles/

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Course Hero. "Tess of the d'Urbervilles Study Guide." August 23, 2017. Accessed September 29, 2020. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Tess-of-the-dUrbervilles/.


Course Hero, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles Study Guide," August 23, 2017, accessed September 29, 2020, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Tess-of-the-dUrbervilles/.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles | Plot Summary

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Phase the First: The Maiden

The novel starts with Parson Tringham informing Jack Durbeyfield, the drunken father of a large, poor family, that he is actually the descendent of the d'Urbervilles, an ancient noble family. Durbeyfield celebrates this discovery with more drink and the hiring of a carriage he cannot afford. His daughter, 16-year-old Tess Durbeyfield, is embarrassed by his behavior. She is with other young women of the village for a celebration consisting of a procession and then a dance. At the dance on the village green, Tess sees a man readers know to be Angel Clare, who, with his brothers, is passing through the village of Marlott. While Angel dances with the local girls, he notices Tess only as he is leaving and does not dance with her.

Later that night Tess goes to the pub to retrieve her father. He is to set out to market that night with the family's beehives, but he is too drunk to go. Tess and her nine-year-old brother Abraham go instead. Abraham falls asleep, and with no one to talk to Tess falls asleep as well. The horse drifts from the road and is killed in an accident. Jack refuses to sell the horse's corpse despite the family's need of money. With no horse and with Jack's newfound sense of entitlement from his noble ancestry, he and his wife come up with the solution to send Tess to their newly discovered d'Urberville relations.

Tess goes reluctantly, feeling responsible for the horse's death. There she meets Alec, her supposed cousin. The present d'Urberville family is really Stoke-d'Urberville, and no relation to the d'Urbervilles, although Tess's family does not know this. Simon Stoke, having made a great deal of money, added the name of a defunct aristocratic family to his own. Alec d'Urberville, Tess's "cousin," is flirtatious and offers Tess a job caring for his mother's chickens. When Tess goes to Trantridge to begin her job, Alec arrives to give her a ride in his carriage. He uses the opportunity to be physically aggressive. At a loss as to how to deal with him, she resists and implores him to respect her wishes. Over the next four months, Alec continues to be forward, and Tess continues to reject him.

One night when Tess is in town with a group of fellow workers, he confronts her again. She leaves with some of the others, but a verbal altercation with one of them prompts her to accept a ride from Alec when he appears again. Alec intentionally takes her off the path, and they get lost. While he is out trying to find out where they are, Tess falls asleep. When he returns and sees her there asleep, he rapes her.

Phase the Second: Maiden No More

Tess decides to leave Trantridge and the d'Urbervilles. Alec comes after her, going so far as to suggest marriage, but she will not accept his proposals. She returns to her parents' house and tells her mother what has happened. Her mother suggests she marry him, but Tess refuses.

The novel jumps forward to August. Tess is in the field working, and a baby is brought to her by her sister Liza-Lu. Tess nurses the infant, for whom she has mixed feelings, but as the story progresses she wants her son to thrive. Unfortunately he soon becomes seriously ill. She wants the parson to baptize him, but her father refuses, saying that she's disgraced the family enough and he doesn't want the parson involved. So Tess herself baptizes her son, calling him Sorrow, before he dies. When she asks the parson if her baptism will save her son's soul, he is moved by her tears and, against church dogma, tells her that the baptism is legitimate. She also persuades him to let her bury her son in the churchyard at night, when no one can see.

Phase the Third: The Rally

Two years have passed, and Tess, now 20, has decided to move forward with her life away from Marlott. She takes a position as a dairymaid at Talbothays, a farm some distance away from both Trantridge and Marlott. Tess settles in, getting along well with the other dairymaids and her employers. Also at the farm is Angel Clare, whom she remembers from the dance at Marlott four years ago. He is learning about dairy farming as he wants to become a farmer.

Tess and Angel share a mutual attraction, which grows steadily. The other milkmaids—Retty, Marian, and Izz—all believe themselves in love with Angel, who is handsome and personable; adoring him is something of a group sport. At first Tess resists her feelings, having decided never to marry. Eventually however, when Angel embraces her she weeps, and he declares he loves her.

Phase the Fourth: The Consequence

Angel visits his parents, whereupon he hears a story about his father's encounter with a young, wealthy man falsely claiming to be a d'Urberville. Angel tells them about Tess, too. Shortly after his visit home he returns to the dairy farm and proposes to Tess, who refuses. Angel continues to court her, and although she admits loving him she continues to refuse marriage.

Eventually Angel's affection and Tess's own affection for him wear down her resistance, and Tess agrees to marry him. She tries on several occasions to tell Angel about her past as she doesn't want to deceive him, but she can't bring herself to confess. Instead of her real secret, she tells him she is a d'Urberville. She later writes him a letter explaining what happened to her and slips it under his door. When he treats her as if nothing has changed, she thinks all is well at first. But soon after, having heard nothing from Angel, Tess goes to his room and finds the letter under the carpet. The wedding is set for New Year's Eve, and right before it she tries again to tell him. He dismisses her worries and then says he doesn't want to know.

They are married and head to the house he has rented for their honeymoon. Their luggage is delayed, and when it arrives they discover that Retty and Marian, devastated by the marriage, have taken bad turns. Retty has attempted suicide, and Marian has begun to drink heavily. Tess is saddened by their reaction to Angel being out of their reach, and she decides to tell him her secret.

But first, Angel too has a secret. He confesses he spent 48 hours in debauchery with a woman. Tess brushes it off as the past and is not bothered by it. In fact she thinks he will be more accepting of her secret, which she starts to tell him.

Phase the Fifth: The Woman Pays

While Tess thinks that Angel's confession places them on the same footing, Angel feels that Tess's shameful past is far worse than his. He rejects her, claiming that her early seducer is her true husband, and she is desolate. Admitting that she was more "sinned against" than a sinner, he nonetheless maintains she is not the woman he fell in love with and insists they part ways. He cannot bear the thought of her impurity. For two days they remain at the rented house. Angel goes out, and she acts as if she were his servant. She offers to kill herself, and he orders her not to do so.

Angel has a strange sleepwalking episode in which he wraps Tess in a sheet and carries her to the abbey. He crosses water and, in that moment, considers drowning them both. He does not, and the sleeping Angel deposits her in a grave. Tess worries the night air and dampness might make Angel sick.

Angel and Tess leave, stopping at the dairy, and Tess then goes to her parents' house. Angel visits his parents, too, and then prepares to leave for Brazil. He gives Tess 50 pounds, with another 30 to follow, and tells her to contact his father if she needs anything. He orders her not to follow him and to write to him only in an emergency.

Before Angel leaves he encounters both Mercy Chant (whom he was expected to marry) and Izz Huett (from the dairy). He asks Izz to go with him to Brazil; she accepts, but he retracts his invitation almost immediately when Izz lets slip how deeply Tess loves him.

Eight months later Tess has run out of money. She gave 45 pounds to her parents. The dairy where she has been working has let her go, and she is at a loss. Her friend Marian from Talbothays Dairy has told her of a farm where she has found work, and Tess joins her there, signing a contract to work there until March.

Izz also joins them briefly, and Marian reveals to Tess that Angel asked Izz to go to Brazil with him. Tess once again blames herself for Angel's behavior and decides she ought to have written to him more often. She decides she will go see his parents. She walks the 15 miles to where they reside. When she gets there, she overhears his brothers discussing Angel's unfortunate marriage, and consequently she decides not to approach the Clares. As she leaves she sees the local "ranter" (a kind of preacher) who, to her shock, is Alec d'Urberville.

Phase the Sixth: The Convert

Alec follows Tess. As she did four years ago, she tells him she is not interested in his attentions and rebuffs him repeatedly. He has become an evangelist preacher who delivers fiery sermons, influenced by none other than Mr. Clare. Tess tells him about Sorrow, and he chastises her for not coming to him. She asks him to leave her in peace, and he asks her to vow not to tempt him into sin.

Appearing at the farm where Tess works, Alec offers to take her away and shows her a marriage license. She refuses and tells him she's already married. Alec tears up the license but still wants to take care of her. Tess refuses, even as Alec points out she is a deserted wife. Tess slaps him with her glove, and he leaves.

He returns later to her cottage, where they discuss religion. Tess parrots Angel's words, admitting she doesn't understand much but thinking if Angel says it, it must be right. Between his interest in Tess and what she shares about religion, Alec loses his faith and surrenders his role as a preacher, returning to his former worldly ways. He offers to help Tess's family, and again she asks him to leave her in peace.

The latest encounter with Alec spurs Tess to write to Angel begging him to return or let her come to him. She asks him to save her. But she receives no reply.

At this time Tess also gets a visit from her sister Liza-Lu, who informs her their parents are ill. Tess abandons her contract and goes home to look after them. She tends the farm and soon discovers her father's "illness" seems his usual one: alcohol and laziness. Joan recovers, but Jack dies suddenly from an existing heart condition. Alec appears again offering help.

The Durbeyfields' lease on their house is not renewed partially because of Tess's status as a "fallen woman," and Joan has taken rooms in Kingsbere, the d'Urbervilles' ancestral seat. When they go there, however, there are no rooms. They take shelter for the night at the d'Urberville tomb, although Alec again offers to look after Joan and the children. In her desperation Tess laments she is "on the wrong side" of the tomb.

Meanwhile Izz and Marian write to Angel to tell him of Tess's despair and her family's dire circumstances.

Phase the Seventh: Fulfilment

Angel returns from Brazil, looking sickly from the illness that has not left him completely, and begins to seek out his wife. Joan Durbeyfield is not very forthcoming to his initial inquiry, so he goes to see her in person. She is reluctant to reveal Tess's whereabouts but says the family has a provider, eventually telling Angel that Tess is now living in Sandbourne.

When Angel finds Tess—in a wealthy area—he is surprised. He shows up at her apartments and finds her beautifully dressed, but she is not happy to see him and tells him that he has come too late. He asks if she rejects him because of his health and tells her he has come for her, adding his parents now will welcome her. She continues to insist he is too late, reminding him that she wrote and he didn't come to her. As she finally explains, she has gone back to Alec, who has been as a husband to her, even though she hates him.

She goes back inside, and Angel leaves in shock. He goes to his hotel, where he receives the news his brother Cuthbert is engaged to marry Mercy Chant. After Angel leaves the hotel and the town, Tess overtakes him.

Tess has killed Alec. She explains that she felt she had to do it: Alec wronged her in the past, and now he has hurt Angel through her and torn them apart. She explains she was obliged to go to Alec because Angel had left her and she had nowhere to turn. On hearing Tess has killed Alec, Angel has a mixed reaction. On one hand he is horrified by her actions, but on the other he is awed she did so for love of him. He promises not to desert her and to protect her.

They go away together, and for five days they remain shut off from the world. During this time she asks him to marry her sister, Liza-Lu, when she is gone. They reach Stonehenge, and Tess falls asleep on one of the flat stones. While she sleeps the authorities arrive, allowing her to wake up naturally before they arrest her. The novel closes with Angel and Liza-Lu hand in hand in the capital city of Wessex; as the black flag is raised to signify Tess has been executed for her crime, they sink down, but then rise up again and walk away together.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Jack Durbeyfield learns the Durbeyfields are d'Urbervilles.

Rising Action

2 Alec d'Urberville rapes Tess, who becomes pregnant.

3 Tess baptizes her infant son, Sorrow, before he dies.

4 Angel courts Tess while she works as a dairymaid.

5 Tess and Angel get married after Tess's many refusals.

6 Angel rejects Tess when he learns of her past.

7 Alec d'Urberville begins courting Tess, who hates him.

8 Faced with her family's destitution, Tess accepts Alec.

9 Angel returns to England and finds Tess in Sandbourne.

10 Tess sends Angel away, saying he's arrived too late.


11 Heartbroken and feeling deceived, Tess angrily kills Alec.

Falling Action

12 Tess goes after Angel and tells him she has stabbed Alec.

13 On the run Angel and Tess spend five days together.

14 Tess is apprehended at Stonehenge.


15 Tess is hanged for murder.

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