Tess of the D'Urbervilles Book summary

Thomas Hardy




Tess of the D’Urbervilles was Thomas Hardy’s 12th book and was written as a classical tragedy. The novel tackles the issue of ‘fallen women’ a categorization that existed for women in the Victorian era, who had lost their virginity. Hardy seeks to establish that morality cannot be linked to such a thing and that Tess is merely a victim of fate rather than a sinner who had brought sin upon herself. The novel’s subtitle received significant backlash since Hardy's attempts to label her as ‘pure.’ Tess of the D’Urbervilles tackles other controversial social issues such as the hazards of Industrialisation, social mobility, and fate. The novel is set in the fictional region of Wessex, which Thomas Hardy modeled after the southern region of England. He wrote several books within the same region, and Tess of the D’Urberilles is one such book.


Plot Summary

Tess of the D’Urbervilles follows the life of a beautiful cottage girl that lives in the village of Marlott with her father, John Durbeyfield, her mother, Joan Durbeyfield, and her siblings. John learns that despite his impoverished life, his ancestors were the noble D’Urbervilles from Normandy. He and his wife decide to send their eldest daughter, Tess, to a rich woman with the D’Urberville name that lives near their village. They hope that their rich relative will find a wealthy match for their daughter and thereby lift them out of poverty. Tess is reluctant to go but she ends up in an accident that leads to the death of the family’s only horse. She visits the D’Urberville estate to find a means of money for her family. The Durbeyfield family is unaware that the local D’Urbervilles are a mercantile family that bought the aristocratic name of D’Urberville.

Tess meets the son of the blind Lady D’Urberville, and he becomes instantly enamored by her beauty. He organizes a job for her at his poultry farm and visits the Durbeyfield family to convince them to send Tess. She gives into the pressure and relocates to the D’Urbeville estate, where she constantly has to rebuff Alec’s flirtatious overtures. He eventually grows tired of trying to convince her and instead forces her to have sex with him by trapping her in the woods in the middle of the night. Tess begins to hate Alec and refuses to stay at the estate any longer. She refuses his offer of financial protection in exchange for being her mistress. Tess returns home pregnant with Alec’s child, and this causes a scandal in the village, forcing Tess into isolation even from her family members. She gives birth to a child and baptizes the infant herself just before it passes away. She names her child Sorrow and deeply mourns the loss. Eventually, Tess decides that life must go on for her despite the losses that she had suffered. She secures a job on a dairy farm located a little distance from her village and begins working there as a dairy maid. She encounters Angel Care, a wealthy young man who has chosen to become a farmer rather than a clergyman like his father and his brothers. Over time, Angel and Tess grow closer to one another and fall in love. Angel confesses his love to Tess, but she rebuffs his advances.

Tess does not believe that she is worthy of being his wife given her past and so continues to reject his proposals. Eventually, she realizes that she loves him, and truly wants to marry him. She wants to confess her past to him, but when she seeks counsel from her mother, Joan tells her not to do so. She agrees to marry him, and a few days before the marriage, she slips him a letter with the details of her history with Alec. Angel fails to read the letter, and the marriage proceeds as planned. On the night of their wedding, Angel tells her about his past relationship with an older woman in London, and a relieved Tess tells him about Alec. Angel is overcome with anger and betrayal, but he is unable to divorce her. He decides that they should separate, and leaves to set up a farm in Brazil.

Tess returns home and faces a scandal yet again. She remains for a short while in Marlott and then begins working as a farm laborer from one farm to another. Meanwhile, Angel becomes ill in Brazil and faces several financial losses. Tess writes to Angel begging him to forgive her and to return to her. Tess runs into Alec D’Urberville when she is trying to visit Angel’s parents, and he begins pursuing her anew. Tess refuses all of his advances, but she is sorely tested when he offers to provide for her family. Tess remains adamant about remaining faithful o Angel, but she is soon called home due to her parents’ rapidly deteriorating health. Tess eventually accepts Alec’s offer of being his mistress after her father passes away, and her family is left destitute and homeless.

Angel receives Tess’s letter and returns to England, where he is urged by his family as well as others to find and reunite with Tess. He tracks her down to an expensive inn, where he finds her clothed lavishly. She explains that she was forced to give herself over to Alec for the sake of her family’s survival. Angel leaves with a broken heart, and Tess gets into an argument with Alec and ends up killing him. She reunites with Angel and tells him that she killed Alec for him. They spend a few days hiding across the countryside, but Tess eventually surrenders for the crime. She is hanged, while Angel marries Tess’s younger Liza-Lu, as per Tess’s request.

  • Author(s)

    Thomas Hardy
  • Publication date


  • Language


  • Classification

    Classical Tragedy

  • Pages



Victorian, Fallen Women


James R. Osgood, McIlvaine & Co.

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