For most readers, the major issue in this novel is whether Tess is victimized, whether she is responsible for her fate, or whether she is partially victimized and partially responsible for her fate.

The title of the first section with its reference to maiden indicates Tess's innocence; she is, as Hardy describes her, "a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience" (page 9). The deep emotions that move Tess and the feeling with which Hardy writes about her led J.I.M. Stewart to write, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles is not merely an emotional novel; it is one of the greatest distillations of emotion into art that English literature can show."


THE OPENING: CHAPTERS 1 AND 2. The opening two chapters introduce several major themes: the effect of the past in the present, coincidence or chance, degradation of the poor, integration into the folk or community, and the fertility of nature.

Both Tess's father and Tess are involved with the past. Parson Tringham impulsively reveals his illustrious family tree to Durbeyfield. The immediate effect of this meaningless information about the past is Durbeyfield's foolish behavior: he is taken by his own self importance and then becomes drunk. The long-term consequences of Tringham's chance revelation continue to the end of the book. Consider, as you read, how much of an impact the revelation of her ancestry has on Tess's life. Is chance or coincidence operating in the timing of the revelation, that Dubreyfield must take the beehives to market early the next morning?

When we first see Tess, she is participating in a Cerealia. This local tradition has lost its original meaning as a festival for Ceres, a Roman goddess representing the generative (reproductive) power of nature. The fertile, sheltered Vale of Blackmore is a perfect setting for a cerealia, and it provides a safe home for Tess. Does she leave it because of events arising out of Tringham's revelation?

Thus, the past continues in degraded forms into the present, i.e., with the decay of the mighty d'Urbervilles into the poor Durbeyfields, with the Dubeyfield family's shiftlessness, folly, and irresponsibility, and with the loss of the Cerealia's meaning.

The past and the present mingle in other ways in the first two chapters. Among the young walkers in the Cerealia are a few middle-aged and even elderly women. Earlier ages appear in Tess's face, sometimes "her twelfth year in her cheeks or her ninth sparkling from her eyes" (page 10).

The mingling of the past and the present continues through the novel. In the next chapter Tess is contrasted with her mother; between them "there was a gap of two hundred years" and "the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed" (page 18). Tess has a contemporary education and can speak standard English; her mother relies on superstition and folklore, learns ballads by hearing them, and speaks the local dialect. The newly erected d'Urberville home is set in the Chase, a primeval forest, and the use of the original farmhouse in which generations of farm families lived for a henhousealso intermingles the past and present.

Do all these references to the connection of the past and the present create a feeling that the past is inescapable?

From his first appearance as an unnamed young man, Angel Clare seems somewhat isolated from his brothers and aimless, apparently "a desultory, tentative student of something and everything" (page 10). He seems to be a young man who chooses his own path, for he does not leave with his brothers. He does not notice Tess, who is indistinguishable from the other young women; she is still integrated into the rural community, though she catches Clare's attention by standing apart, hurt at his not having danced with her. Leaving, he regrets having ignored her but accepts that there is nothing he can do about it. Do his behavior and apparent character traits here foreshadow in any way his later behavior with Tess? Tess's separateness from the other girls or her community is temporary; in the next chapter, she joins the other dancers with pleasure.


Phase the First: The Maiden
  Chapters 1-11, pages 1-73
Overview of Hardy
The Opening
Tess's Personal Traits
Tess and Alec
Phase the Second: Maiden No More
  Chapters 12-15, pages 74-100
Rape or Seduction?
Phase the Third: The Rally
  Chapters 16-24, pages 101-152
Nature and the Froom Valley
Phase the Fourth: The Consequence
  Chapters 25-34, pages 153-227
Tess and Angel
Phase the Fifth: The Woman Pays
  Chapters 35-44, pages 228-307
Tess and Angel Part
Phase the Sixth: The Convert
  Chapters 45-52, pages 308-372
Alec Again
A Pure Woman
Phase the Seventh: Fulfillment
  Chapters 53-59, pages 373-405
The Ending
December 14, 2005