Tess of the d’Urbervilles – study guide

plot summary, characters, video, and resource materials

Tess of the d’Urbervilles first appeared in a censored version and serialised form in the British illustrated newspaper The Graphic in 1891. It is probably the most popular of Hardy’s late, great novels. The sub-title is ‘A Pure Woman’, and it is a story which explores the tragic consequences of a young milkmaid who becomes the victim of the men she encounters. First she falls for the spiritual but flawed Angel Clare, and then the physical but limited Alec Durberville takes advantage of her.

This novel has some of the most beautiful and the most harrowing depictions of rural working conditions which reveal Hardy as a passionate advocate for those who work the land. It also has a wonderfully symbolic climax at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. There is poetry in almost every page. This is Hardy at his best.

Thomas Hardy - portrait

Thomas Hardy – portrait

Tess of the d’Urbervilles – plot summary

Jack Durbeyfield, a poor carter, is stunned to learn that he is the descendent of an ancient noble family, the d’Urbervilles. When his horse is killed in an accident he and his wife send Tess to the d’Urberville mansion, where they hope Mrs. d’Urberville will make Tess’s fortune. In reality, Mrs. d’Urberville is no relation to Tess at all: her husband simply changed his name to d’Urberville after he retired. But Tess does not know this, and when the rakish Alec d’Urberville procures Tess a job tending fowls, Tess feels she has no choice but to accept, since she blames herself for the horse’s death.

Tess of the d'UrbervillesShe spends several months at this job, resisting Alec’s attempts to seduce her. Finally, Alec takes advantage of her in the woods one night after a fair. Tess returns home to give birth to Alec’s child, which dies soon after it is born. Tess then spends a miserable year at home before deciding to seek work elsewhere. She finally accepts a job as a milkmaid at the Talbothays Dairy.

At Talbothays, Tess enjoys a period of contentment and happiness. She befriends three of her fellow milkmaids – Izz, Retty, and Marian – and meets a man named Angel Clare. They grow closer, and she eventually accepts his proposal of marriage. But she feels she should tell Angel about her past, and writes him a confessional note. She slips it under his door but it slides under the carpet and Angel never sees it.

On their wedding night, Angel and Tess both confess indiscretions. Angel tells Tess about an affair he had with an older woman in London, and Tess tells Angel about her history with Alec. Tess forgives Angel, but Angel cannot forgive Tess. He gives her some money and boards a ship bound for Brazil.

Tess has a difficult time finding work and is forced to take a difficult job at an unpleasant farm. She tries to visit Angel’s family but overhears his brothers discussing Angel’s poor marriage, so she leaves. She hears a wandering preacher speak and is stunned to discover that he is Alec d’Urberville, who has been converted to Christianity by Angel’s father, the Reverend Clare. Alec and Tess are each shaken by their encounter, and Alec begs Tess never to tempt him again. Soon after, however, he asks Tess to marry him.

Tess learns from her sister Liza-Lu that her mother is near death, and Tess is forced to return home to take care of her. Her mother recovers, but her father unexpectedly dies soon after. When the family is evicted from their home, Alec offers help. But Tess refuses to accept, knowing he only wants to obligate her to him again.

Angel Clare returns from Brazil prepared to forgive his wife. He finds Tess in an expensive boardinghouse where he begs her to take him back. Tess tells him he has come too late. She was unable to resist and went back to Alec d’Urberville. Angel leaves in a daze, and, heartbroken to the point of madness, Tess goes upstairs and stabs her lover to death. When the landlady finds Alec’s body, she raises an alarm, but Tess has already fled to find Angel.

They hide out in an empty mansion for a few days, then travel farther. When they come to Stonehenge, Tess goes to sleep, but when morning breaks shortly thereafter, a police search party discovers them. Tess is arrested and sent to jail. Angel and Liza-Lu watch as a black flag is raised over the prison, signaling Tess’s execution.

Study resources

Tess of the d'Urbervilles Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Oxford World Classics – Amazon UK

Tess of the d'Urbervilles Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Oxford World Classics – Amazon US

Tess of the d'Urbervilles Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Kindle eBook edition

Tess of the d'Urbervilles Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon UK

Tess of the d'Urbervilles Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon US

Tess of the d'Urbervilles Tess of the d’Urbervilles – a hypertext version

Tess of the d'Urbervilles Tess of the d’Urbervilles – eBook versions at Gutenberg

Red button The Complete Critical Guide to Thomas Hardy – Amazon UK

Red button Tess – film version by Roman Polanski – Amazon UK

Red button Thomas Hardy: A Biography – definitive study – Amazon UK

Red button Tess of the d’Urbervilles – 2008 BBC drama on DVD – Amazon UK

Red button Tess of the d’Urbervilles – York Notes (Advanced) – AMazon UK

Red button Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Brodies Notes – Amazon UK

Red button Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Cliffs Notes – AMazon UK

Red button Tess of the d’Urbervilles – 1998 BBC drama on DVD – Amazon UK

Red button Tess of the d’Urbervilles – audioBook at LibriVox

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy – Amazon UK

Red button The Complete Critical Guide to Thomas Hardy – Amazon UK

Red button Authors in Context – Thomas Hardy – Amazon UK

Red button Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy – Amazon UK

Tess of the d'Urbervilles Thomas Hardy: The Tragic Novels – Amazon UK

Tess of the d'Urbervilles Thomas Hardy: The Tragic Novels – Amazon US

Red button A Companion to Thomas Hardy – Amazon UK

Red button Palgrave Advances in Thomas Hardy Studies – Amazon UK

Principal characters
Jack Durbeyfield dissolute head of family, with wife and large family
Joan Durbeyfield his hardworking wife
Tess Durbeyfield their eldest daughter
Eliza Louisa Durbeyfield Tess’s younger sister, who closely resembles her
Angel Clare bookish third son of a clergyman who becomes Tess’s husband
Alec Stokes-d’Urberville rakish but later reformed son of estate owners
Richard Crick owner of Talbothay Farm where Tess meets Angel
Car Darch former mistress to Alec
Farmer Groby churlish employer of Tess at Flintcombe-Ash farm
Sorrow illegitimate child of Tess and Alec, who dies

Tess of the d’Urbervilles – film version

Roman Polanski’s film version of Tess (1979) is beautifully faithful to the original novel and particularly unsparing in its depiction of country life as hard manual work – which chimes sympathetically with the unsentimental views held by Hardy himself.

The centrepiece is an outstanding performance by seventeen year old Natassia Kinski (Klaus Kinski’s daughter) who was Polanski’s lover at the time. She is astoundingly beautiful without seeming to ever realise it, which is exactly one of the causes of Tess’s downfall in the novel.

The film was shot in Brittany rather than England – to get round the extradition laws between the UK and the US from which he has been in exile since 1977, after jumping bail when charged with raping a 14 year old girl.

Red button See reviews of the film at the Internet Movie Database

Thomas Hardy - manuscript page

Manuscript of The Mayor of Casterbridge

Literary criticism

Red button Beer, Gillian. ‘Descent and Sexual Selection: Women in Narrative. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, ed. by Scott Elledge. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1991: 446-451.

Red button Bloom, Harold. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Red button Casagrande, Peter J. Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Unorthodox Beauty. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992.

Red button Laird, J. T. The Shaping of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Red button LaValley, Albert J. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Red button Mills, Sara, ed. Feminist Readings/Feminists Reading. New York: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Red button Parkinson, Michael H. The Rural Novel: Jeremias Gotthelf, Thomas Hardy, C.F. Ramuz. New York: P. Lang, 1984.

Red buttonVan Ghent, Dorothy. ‘On Tess of the d’Urbervilles’. in The English Novel: Form and Function. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

Red button Widdowson, Peter, ed. Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Thomas Hardy. Hampshire: Macmillan, 1993.

Red button Wright, Terence. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Hampshire: Macmillan Publishers, 1987.

The Complete Critical Guide to Thomas HardyThe Complete Critical Guide to Thomas Hardy is a good introduction to Hardy criticism. It includes a potted biography of Hardy, an outline of the stories, novels, and poetry, and pointers towards the main critical writings – from the early influential full length study by D.H. Lawrence to critics of the present day. Also includes a thorough bibliography which covers biography, criticism in books and articles, plus pointers towards specialist Hardy journals.
Thomas Hardy Complete Critical Guide Buy the book here

Thomas Hardy's study

Hardy’s study (Dorset Museum)

Further reading

Red button J.O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary, Chapel Hill:N.C., 1970.

Red button John Bayley, An Essay on Hardy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Red button Penny Boumelha, Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form, Brighton: Harvester, 1982.

Red button Kristin Brady, The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy, London: Macmillan, 1982.

Red button L. St.J. Butler, Alternative Hardy, London: Macmillan, 1989.

Red button Raymond Chapman, The Language of Thomas Hardy, London: Macmillan, 1990.

Red button R.G.Cox, Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1970.

Red button Ralph W.V. Elliot, Thomas Hardy’s English, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.

Red button Simon Gattrel, Hardy the Creator: A Textual Biography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Red button James Gibson (ed), The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy, London, 1976.

Red button I. Gregor, The Great Web: The Form of Hardy’s Major Fiction, London: Faber, 1974.

Red button Florence Emily Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy, London: Macmillan, 1962. (This is more or less Hardy’ s autobiography, since he told his wife what to write.)

Red button P. Ingham, Thomas Hardy: A Feminist Reading, Brighton: Harvester, 1989.

Red button P.Ingham, The Language of Class and Gender: Transformation in the English Novel, London: Routledge, 1995,

Red button D. Kramer, Thomas Hardy: The Forms of Tragedy, London: Macmillan, 1975.

Red button J. Hillis Miller, Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Red button Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist, London: Bodley Head, 1971.

Red button Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006. (This is the definitive biography.)

Red button Michael Millgate and Richard L. Purdy (eds), The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978-

Red button R. Morgan, Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy, London: Routledge, 1988.

Red button Harold Orel (ed), Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings, London, 1967.

Red button Norman Page, Thomas Hardy: The Novels, London: Macmillan, 2001.

Red button F.B. Pinion, A Thomas Hardy Companion, London: Macmillan, 1968.

Red button F.B. Pinion, A Thomas Hardy Dictionary, New York: New York University Press, 1989.

Red button Richard L. Purdy, Thomas Hardy: A Bibliographical Study, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Red button Marlene Springer, Hardy’s Use of Allusion, London: Macmillan, 1983.

Red button Rosemary Sumner, Thomas Hardy: Psychological Novelist, London: Macmillan, 1981.

Red button Richard H. Taylor, The Neglected Hardy: Thomas Hardy’s Lesser Novels, London: Macmillan, 1982.

Red button Richard H. Taylor, The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy, London, 1978.

Red button Merryn Williams, A Preface to Hardy, London: Longman, 1976.

The Cambridge Companion to Thomas HardyThe Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy offers commissioned essays from an international team of contributors, comprising a general overview of all Hardy’ s work and specific demonstrations of Hardy’s ideas and literary skills. Individual essays explore Hardy’s biography, aesthetics, his famous attachment to Wessex, and the impact on his work of developments in science, religion and philosophy in the late nineteenth century. Hardy’s writing is also analysed against developments in contemporary critical theory and issues such as sexuality and gender. The volume also contains a detailed chronology of Hardy’s life and publications, and a guide to further reading.
Thomas Hardy greatest works Buy the book at Amazon UK
Thomas Hardy greatest works Buy the book at Amazon US

Other works by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy Far from the Madding CrowdFar from the Madding Crowd (1874) was the first of Hardy’s novels to apply the name of Wessex to the landscape of south west England, and the first to gain him widespread popularity as a novelist. Heroine and estate-owner Bathsheba Everdene is romantically involved with three very different men. The dashing Sergeant Troy, who is handsome but unreliable; Farmer Boldwood, who is honourable but middle-aged; and man-of-the-soil Gabriel Oak, who is worthy and prepared to bide his time. The conflicts between them and the ensuing drama has lots of plot twists plus a rich picture of rural life.
Thomas Hardy greatest works Buy the book at Amazon UK
Thomas Hardy greatest works Buy the book at Amazon US


The Return of the NativeThe Return of the Native (1878) It’s often said that this is one of the most Hardyesque of all the novels. There are some stand-out characters: Eustacia Vye, a heroine who patrols the moors looking out for her man through a telescope; Clym Yeobright, a hero who can’t escape his mother’s influence; and Diggory Ven, an itinerant trader who wanders in and out of the story covered in red dye. Improbable coincidences and dramatic ironies abound – and over it all presides the brooding presence of Egdon Heath. But underneath the melodrama, there are profound psychological forces at work. You need to be patient. This is one for Hardy enthusiasts – not beginners. This edition, unlike any other currently available, retains the text of the novel’s first edition, without the later changes that substantially altered Hardy’s original intentions.
Thomas Hardy greatest works Buy the book at Amazon UK
Thomas Hardy greatest works Buy the book at Amazon US

Thomas Hardy – web links

Hardy at Mantex Thomas Hardy at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides to the major novels, book reviews. bibliographies, critiques of the shorter fiction, and web links.

Thomas Hardy complete works The Thomas Hardy Collection
The complete novels, stories, and poetry – Kindle eBook single file download for £1.29 at Amazon.

Hardy eTexts Thomas Hardy at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of free eTexts in a variety of digital formats.

Hardy at Wikipedia Thomas Hardy at Wikipedia
Biographical notes, social background, the novels and literary themes, poetry, religious beliefs and influence, biographies and criticism.

Thomas Hardy web links The Thomas Hardy Society
Dorset-based site featuring educational activities, a biennial conference, a journal (three times a year) with links to the texts of all the major works.

Thomas Hardy web links The Thomas Hardy Association
American-based site with photos and academic resources. Be prepared to search and drill down to reach the more useful materials.

Hardy at IMDB Thomas Hardy on the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors, actors, production features, box office, film reviews, and even quizzes.

Thomas Hardy web links Thomas Hardy – online literary criticism
Small collection of academic papers and articles ‘favoring signed articles by recognized scholars and articles published in peer-reviewed sources’.

Red button Thomas Hardy’s Wessex
Evolution of Wessex, contemporary reviews, maps, bibliography, links to other web sites, and history.

© Roy Johnson 2010

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