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Tess of the D’Ubervilles

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Title, Author & Publication

Tess of the D'Ubervilles was written by Thomas Hardy in 1891. It was published by The Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. It is currently published by Oxford University Press of New York.

Setting

Tess of the D'Ubervilles, like all Hardy's novels, is set in the area of Wessex, England. The events of the story follow Tess as she moves through a series of farms and small villages populated by two distinct classes of people - the rural poor and the wealthy gentry.

Cultural Historical Setting

The period in which Hardy writes is called the Victorian Era, named for Queen Victoria, and it is characterized by a very strict morality, particularly concerning the relationship between men and women. A woman was still the property of her husband or father, and her honor was to be protected and prized until marriage.

Also at this time, the Industrial Revolution had changed the economy significantly and even the most rural of areas witnessed some kind of mechanization.

Main Characters

Tess Derbyfield: the protagonist of the novel and, as Hardy describes her, "a pure woman, faithfully represented." Tess is an intelligent and pretty girl from an ancient but virtually extinct noble family, who finds herself morally compromised at the hand of a wealthy landowner.

The story follows her as she attempts to find happiness by burying the past. Her conscience keeps her from dishonesty, and the result is her eventual downfall.

Alec Stokes-D'Uberville: the central antagonist of the story, Alec represents the newly rich middle class of Victorian England. He is brash and demanding and though he falls for Tess' beauty and ultimately takes advantage of her, he cannot win her love.

Angel Clare: the son of a parson who rejects the traditional morals prized by his father and chooses a career as a farmer instead of entering the seminary. Angel falls in love with Tess and marries her, but his 'new morality' is not flexible enough to forgive Tess after she confesses her past.

Plot:

Tess of the D'Ubervilles is the story of a virtuous girl who, out of a sense of duty to her family enters the employment of a family of sham D'Ubervilles. After being seduced by the unscrupulous Alec, she is cast away by him.

Tess returns to her childhood home where she gives birth to and buries her child. The shame of her dishonor drives Tess away from her home a second time, though in this next interval, Tess finds the only happiness she will ever know. Tess reluctantly accepts Angel's marriage proposal, but soon confesses her past to him. Angel is unable to forgive her, and Tess finds herself abandoned again.

After months of hard labor and struggle alone, Tess is approached by Alec D'Uberville. He convinces her that Angel will never return and that the only way she might save her family is to give herself over to him. This she does only weeks before Angel returns to forgive her. In her distress Tess murders Alec and flees with Angel only to be caught, imprisoned and hanged.

Questions to Ponder:

Hardy chooses not to describe the violation of Tess and only alludes to the resulting pregnancy. How effective is it to let the reader's imagination fill in the blanks?

  • Why does Hardy describe the scenery in such vivid detail?
  • How does the morality of the era influence the characters' actions?
  • Is Tess an honorable woman?
  • What clues of ill omen does Hardy provide the reader throughout the story?

Possible First Sentences

  • Thomas Hardy uses irony with great effect in Tess of the D'Ubervilles.
  • During the 19th century, a significant double standard existed between the sexes.
  • Tess is a perfect example of a doomed character.
  • Hardy's characters are symbolic of the changing times in England in the 19th century.

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