Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented
1891 illustration by Joseph Syddall
Written by: Thomas Hardy
Central Theme: tThe perils of being perceived as a less than pure woman in the XIX century
Synopsis: A young woman gets her reputation and her life destrioyed after being the victim of sexual assault, as the mores of her time put the blame of the incident on her. At least the narrator is on her side.
First published: 1891
v · d · e

Tess of the d'Urbervilles (or its full title Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented) is an 1891 novel written by Thomas Hardy. It was his second-to-last book.

The book tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, a poor but beautiful peasant girl. When the book begins, her father, John, finds out from a genealogist that his surname is really d'Urberville, which makes him and his family of noble lineage. Meanwhile, Tess participates in the local village May Dance. There she meets a young man named Angel Clare. Before they can dance with each other, however, Angel leaves; Tess believes she has been snubbed.

After the dance, Tess must ride to market because her father is too drunk from celebrating his new heritage. On the way there, she falls asleep on her horse, causing it to run into a carriage and die.

Feeling guilty, Tess' parents have her leave home to live with one of her apparent relatives, Mrs. d'Urberville, and her son, Alec. Tess begins working for Mrs. d'Urberville as poultry keeper. Alec takes a romantic interest in Tess; she remains, for the most part, uninterested. However, one night, on their way home, Alec intentionally gets them lost and rapes (or possibly seduces) Tess. The rest of the novel recounts what happens to Tess' life after this incident and how her reputation is ultimately wrecked.

Because of the themes presented in the book, such as religious themes and, God forbid, an unmarried woman who's not a virgin being presented as ultimately moral and good, it was controversial in its time. Today, it is hailed as classic literature.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles has been made into a theatrical film at least three times; there are also four made-for-television movies and miniseries. There have also been several plays and even an opera made of it.

The novel is in the public domain in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Read it at Project Gutenberg or Wikisource.

Tropes used in Tess of the d'Urbervilles include:
  • Adults Are Useless: Tess' parents, so much.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Alec's lust for Tess, technically speaking. Her love for Angel is unrequited when he learns her past, and Angel himself has three peasant girls who are flinging themselves at his feet, but whom he doesn't notice at all.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Alec is a phony aristocrat, but close enough.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Only when you push Tess way past the limit.
  • Break the Cutie: Tess.
  • Butt Monkey: Tess, because nothing, absolutely nothing goes well for her in the end. It is also combined with her being belittled and treated poorly by people.
  • Celibate Hero: Angel in an unpleasant take on the trope.
  • City Mouse: Angel. He takes a fancy to living among country folk, but doesn't fit in.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: Alec.
  • Death by Sex: First, Alex rapes her which dooms her to society and her marriage with Angel. Then the text implies (and its depicted in TV miniseries and the 1979 film adaptation) that Angel and Tess consummated their marriage during their hideout at a mansion before Tess is taken to be executed.
  • Defiled Forever: Tess. This trope is deconstructed.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The rape, as well as other things.
  • Deus Angst Machina: Oh my, where to begin? First, Tess accidentally kills her horse; she gets raped; her child dies and will not be buried by the local church. Then everyone in the village seems to have turned their back on her, and so she leaves. She meets Angel again, falls deeply in love with him, and they get married, but Angel freaks out at realizing she's not a virgin, and leaves her and goes to Brazil for a while. In the meantime, Tess works on a farm, employed by a man who knows about her past and constantly holds it above her. Her father dies. Her family has no money, and they lose their property. The only person who will help them is Alec, and only if she becomes his mistress. After Tess is forced into this contract, Angel comes back; she kills Alec. She is arrested and finally hanged.
  • Double Standard: Big time, mostly reflective of Victorian ethical standards, and the most egregious being Angel's past with another woman being readily forgiven by Tess, while Tess's rape is crime enough for Angel to leave for Brazil, abandoning Tess.
  • Downer Ending: You could consider it a Bittersweet Ending because Tess' sister and Angel go off with each other in the end. But, Tess still gets executed in the end after all the horrible things that have happened to her, so it fits best here.
    • Even Angel and Tess' sister going off together is a downer, since under the laws of the time they can't marry: a man could not marry his deceased wife's sister in England. Given Angel's opinions on female chastity and the sister's purity, this basically dooms the relationship (unless the reader believes that Angel does change for the better). There is an attempted Hand Wave by Hardy.
  • Environmental Symbolism: Hardy hated industrialization's effects on agriculture and the countryside.
  • Face Heel Turn: Angel.
  • Faith Heel Turn
  • Fate Worse Than Death: A classic example of rape being worse than dying.
    • It's not the rape that's such a horrible fate; it's living in a society that hates you and judges you for it.
  • Faux Symbolism
  • Fragile Flower: In some of the movie versions, particularly the 1979 adaptation, Tess is often played as one of these.
  • God Is Evil
  • Heel Face Turn: Alec, but it doesn't last long and probably wasn't sincere.
  • Holier Than Thou: Several of the characters, especially Mercy Chant.
  • Hypocrite: Oh Angel. Perhaps you weren't accepting of others after all. w
  • Inherent in the System: The way Tess is treated.
  • It Got Worse: The rape is just the beginning of Tess' problems.
  • "It's Not Rape If You Enjoyed It": A thorny situation between Alec and Tess. Alec definitely first took advantage of Tess while she was sleeping, but it's suggested (subtly) that she derived some enjoyment from the sexual advances and, in her confusion, permitted them. But then, Tess makes clear that once she came to her senses, she was horrified, ashamed, and traumatized.
  • Jerkass: Alec, and Angel, to an extent.
  • Kissing Cousins: Tess and her family think that Alec is their cousin, but that doesn't stop the children (at least) from thinking that Tess is going to "be made a lady of," i.e. marry their cousin (which was okay, but growing out of favor at the time) and become gentility. What none of them know is, he actually just bought the name D'Urberville, so they aren't related at all.
  • Ludd Was Right
  • Meaningful Name: Tess names her baby Sorrow. Also Angel Clare and Mercy Chant.
  • Moral Dissonance: Examined with Angel. On their wedding night, after admitting that he had already had consensual sex with someone when he was younger, Angel completely loses it when Tess tell him she was raped and thinks less of her. So much so that he leaves her. Angel actually acknowledges that Tess was "was more sinned against than sinning." It's the fact she's not a virgin that freaks him out and he doesn't even blame her for the rape. This sends him straight into the Jerkasszone.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: The poster child of this trope. In fact, the major aspect of Tess which Angel emphasizes when trying to persuade his parents to approve the marriage is her virginity. (This is rather... understandable, considering she has neither money, land, nor connections to recommend her.)
  • Names to Trust Immediately: Angel Clare Subverted in that he actually betrays Tess by abandoning her when she needs him most.
  • One Degree of Separation
  • Rain of Blood: When Alec is killed by Tess, his blood leaks through the ceiling and drips on the landlady.
  • Rape as Drama: Oh boy, the drama it creates.
  • Rape Is Love: Subverted. Oh, God, Subverted.
  • Replacement Goldfish: In a bizarre application of this trope, Tess reassures Angel that he doesn't need to be sad when she dies, because her little sister has hit puberty and is just like a copy of Tess from before she met Alec, so Angel can marry her. The narration appears to agree with her and this is seen as a good thing.
    • This is deeper than it seems. Marrying a deceased wife's sister was considered incest by the more religiously conservative set at the time and because of that was actually illegal under English law. Angel's choice would be either to abandon the sister and keep her as his mistress (and given that she's a symbol of purity, that's unlikely), or emigrate with her to a country where such a marriage would be legal. Of course, Hardy might have tried to Hand Wave the situation by having Tess state that marrying her sister, "is nothing. People marry in-laws continually about Marrott."
  • Settle for Sibling
  • Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny: Alex d'Urberville morphs into this trope after a spiritual "reawakening". He later drops the whole religion thing. After Tess uses Angel's favorite anti-religious arguments on him because she can't stand his self-righteous piety. Oops.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: In the end, everything that happens to Tess leads to a rather depressing ending.
  • Spell My Name with a "The"
  • Together in Death: Subverted. Tess asks Angel whether he thinks they will be together again after death. Angel responds with an awkward pause, and eventually a kiss. Tess then breaks down crying, realizing this means no. She is executed in the next chapter.
  • Unstoppable Rage: After finding out that Angel is still alive, and wants to reconcile with her, Tess sends him away before realizing what she has done, stabbing Alec to death so she can finally be with him.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Tess finally gives Angel one through a letter which reaches him too late.
  • Women Are Wiser: Tess, who is always in connection with nature because Ludd Was Right. Her mother also has a great deal more common sense than her husband.
  • Yandere: Tess, beginning when Angel initially rejects her and she offers to kill herself, among other things, if it restores his good name. At the end of the novel, it results in Murder the Hypotenuse when Tess kills Alec just to be with Angel.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: It's one of the overriding themes of all of Hardy's work; this is no exception.
  • Younger Than They Look: Tess is often described as seeming and acting much older than she is when she is a teenager. The early narration attributes her physical appearance to a "fullness of growth" that her mother assures her she'll grow into.