Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Go To
Tess Durbeyfield is a poor but beautiful peasant girl who lives with her parents and several younger siblings. When her father learns from a genealogist that their surname is really d'Urberville, a family that was of noble lineage, John drinks so much in celebration that be becomes too inebriated to ride to market later that day. Tess and one of her siblings takes up the task instead, but Tess falls asleep while on their way there. This causes a collision between their cart and a carriage, one that ends up killing her father's horse.

Tess's parents have her leave home to live with a pair of her alleged relatives in order to potentially secure a marriage and, thus, their original name. Feeling guilty over the horse's death, Tess goes along with the scheme, eventually becoming a poultry keeper for the elderly Mrs. d'Urberville and gaining the eye of her son, Alec.

However, Alec's attempts at seduction only serve to push Tess away. This culminates in Alec intentionally getting them lost one night so he can rape Tess with no one the wiser. Unfortunately for Tess, she won't be able to keep the rape a secret forever; the rape will have a lasting affect on Tess's life, up to and including a potential romance between her and Angel Clare, a parson's son who's ironically against religion.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (more commonly known and published as just Tess of the d'Urbervilles) is the twelfth novel by Thomas Hardy. It was first published in serial form in 1891 with a book version following a year later. The novel has been adapted into a theatrical film at least three times, including Roman Polański's Tess, four made-for-television movies and miniseries, and several plays and even an opera.

During the time it was originally published, its presentation of an unmarried, non-virginal woman as being pure and moral — combined with its critiques of religion — made it quite controversial. Today, it is hailed as classic literature, with some schools including it as part of their curriculum.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Tess's parents don't do anything truly constructive to help their daughter when she reveals what happened to her at Tantridge. At most, her mother might've helped with the baby that resulted from the rape, but that's about it.
  • 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. One of the peasant girls also has an admirer who's loved her for two years, but she's hardly answered him.
  • Arcadian Interlude: Tess's time working for Dairyman Crick after her horrible experience with Alec and the death of her baby.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil:
    • Alec is a phony aristocrat, but close enough.
    • Inverted with Angel, whose well known dislike of old aristocratic families comes to seem more and more like absurd reverse snobbery—especially when he claims Tess's tainted aristocratic blood is why she fell to Alec.
  • Asshole Victim: Alec pretty much deserves what happens to him at the end.
  • The Atoner: Angel becomes this by the end of the book after a horrid journey in Brazil, giving him time to rethink his treatment of Tess.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Only when you push Tess way past the limit.
  • Break the Cutie: Tess.
  • The Bride with a Past: Subverted or deconstructed with Tess.
  • Bumbling Dad: Played mostly straight rather than humorously with Tess's father and Played for Drama because of this.
  • 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.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Tess's mother chides her for coming home from the d'Urberville estate not only unmarried, but deflowered. Tess counters that she never taught her about sex, let alone how to recognize or protect herself against unwanted sexual advances. Her mother is quickly subdued.
  • 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.
  • Defiled Forever: Tess. This trope is deconstructed.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The rape, as well as other things.
  • Deus Angst Machina: 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.
  • The Dog Bites Back: After years of suffering because of Alec's actions ruining her life and marriage, once Angel returns, Tess finally snaps and murders Alec.
  • 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's sister and Angel run off with each other in the end. But, Tess still gets executed after all the horrible things that have happened to her, so it fits best here. Even Angel and Tess's sister running 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 and Angel has to live with the knowledge that he doomed Tess due to his actions. 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.
  • Extreme Doormat: Tess to Angel, especially after he finds out about her past and then mistreats and leaves her.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Angel.
  • Fate Worse than Death: This work shows the meaning of the trope — the rape destroys Tess's life in a way that's worse than if she'd been murdered outright.
  • Faith–Heel Turn: Alec. And it's very brief.
  • Farmer's Daughter: Tess is a tragic Deconstruction of this trope, set in rural England in the late Victorian era. She's nubile, innocent, and sweet — but fate, with the help of her deadbeat father, flings her in the path of a man who takes advantage of her and leaves her a traumatized shell.
  • For Want Of A Nail: The book opens on the day when Tess is taking part in the village May Day dance which Angel Clare joins but the two do not share a dance. Much later in the book Tess remembers this and wonders how differently things would have played out if they had.
  • From Bad to Worse: As can be expected from something by Thomas Hardy, Tess's entire life is one long series of things getting worse and worse. It never gets better for the poor girl.
  • Godzilla Threshold: How Alec gets Tess into his clutches. She avoids him as much as possible because of his aggressive flirting, but while walking home from a festival after dark, Tess gets into a row with the peasant women she's walking with, who all gang up on her. It's at that precise moment of desperation that Alec arrives on his horse and offers her a ride home, and the narrative makes it clear that if he had offered at any other time, she would have refused. He then takes her into the woods and rapes her. Also how he gets her again near the end, when her father dies and her family is in abject poverty, and accepting becoming his mistress is the only way she can help them.
    Peasant Woman: Ee-hee-hee! Out of the frying pan and into the fire!
  • Heel–Face Turn: Alec, but it doesn't last long and probably wasn't sincere.
  • Hiding Behind Religion: Hinted with Alec, called out on by Tess.
  • Holier Than Thou: Several of the characters, especially Mercy Chant.
  • Hope Spot: Tess's life is actually looking up when she marries Angel. Only for him to abandon her on their wedding night after finding out she’s not a virgin.
  • Horrible Honeymoon: Tess and Angel's honeymoon is so awful it doesn't even last past the first night. Tess had been worrying over not telling Angel about her having been raped and given birth to a child who died in infancy prior to their engagement. On their wedding night, Angel confesses he once had a consensual pre-marital relationship, not wanting to begin their marriage with secrets. Tess forgives him and then feels comfortable confessing her own past. Unfortunately, Angel is repulsed by this, viewing Tess as Defiled Forever and resenting her for 'deceiving' him. They don't consummate the marriage, the honeymoon is cut short and they go their separate ways the next day; a heartbroken Tess moves back in with her family while Angel strops off to Brazil. They get a bit of a do-over eventually after Angel has a Jerkass Realization and reconciles with Tess, though it's far from ideal given they're on the run after Tess killed her rapist and have to break into an empty house for shelter. Tess hands herself in to the authorities eventually, although for five days she was happy for the first time in years.
  • Hypocrite: Angel. He admires "purity" in others (especially women), yet casually gave his away when he was younger. He admits as much to Tess on their wedding night. However, when Tess admits that she's also not a virgin (due to rape) he dumps her for it. He also attempts to take up a mistress, Tess's friend, for Brazil, thus compromising that girl's "purity." A stranger he encounters returning from Brazil points out that Angel was the one at fault for abandoning Tess over the matter.
  • I Love You Because I Can't Control You: Alec's feelings toward Tess, especially after the rape. Before, it's clear that he just sees her as another conquest. However, after he's "mastered" her, Tess constantly shows no interest in anything further to do with him, and handily resists his efforts to keep her under his thumb by repeatedly choosing poverty and independence over accepting his strings-attached financial aid. At least until the very end.
    Alec: Remember, my lady, I was your master once! I will be your master again. If you are any man's wife, you are mine!
  • Inherent in the System: The way Tess is treated.
  • Ironic Name: Tess falls for a parson's son named Angel. Despite being named after a being within Christian mythology, Angel himself is an atheist and is hypercritical of Christianity.
  • It's All About Me: Particularly at Tess's confession, Angel spends time feeling sorry for himself for accidentally choosing an impure woman as his wife rather than actually giving Tess the comfort she deserves.
  • Jerkass: Alec, and Angel, to an extent.
  • Karmic Death: Alec is murdered by Tess after he ruined her life by raping her and forcing her into being his mistress.
  • 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 that he actually just bought the name D'Urberville, so they aren't related at all.
  • Love Martyr: Tess's devotion to Angel reaches unhealthy levels, especially after he leaves her. Though even then, she doesn't completely turn a blind eye to how he wronged her by her letter to him.
    My husband that was is gone away, and never will love me any more; but I love him just the same, and hate all other men, and like to make 'em think scornfully of me!
  • Loving a Shadow: Angel loved Tess because he thought she was an untouched virgin. When he finds out otherwise, he sees her as a completely different person. When Tess desperately asks how he could stop caring for her so quickly when he had loved her before, he brusquely tells her that he had loved "another woman wearing [her] face." He realizes this is untrue after his time in Brazil, but by then it's too late.
  • Ludd Was Right
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Tess names her baby Sorrow.
    • Angel Clare and Mercy Chant. Ironic, as their actions directly contradict the meanings of their names: the angel betrays his ward, and mercy condemns the innocent victim.
  • 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.)
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Angel, when he realizes that his rejection of Tess has forced her to return to Alec.
  • Names to Trust Immediately: Angel Clare, though it’s subverted in that he actually betrays Tess by abandoning her when she needs him most.
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: 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.
  • Nouveau Riche: What Alec's family actually is, and why they adopted the ancient (and unused) name "d'Urberville" to appear old and respectable.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: German-born Nastassja Kinski is not, shall we say, unwaveringly convincing as a naive peasant girl from southwest Britain.
  • 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.
  • "Reason You Suck" Speech: Tess gives a swift but sweet one to Alec regarding his religious "reawakening."
    Tess: I feel indignant with you for talking to me like this, when you know—when you know what harm you've done me! You and those like you take your fill of pleasure on earth by making the life of such as me bitter and black with sorrow; and then it is a fine thing, when you have had enough of that, to think of securing your pleasure in Heaven by becoming converted!
  • 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 Marlott."
  • Rich Language, Poor Language: Tess and her peasant family, plus the milkmaids at Talbothays Dairy, are written with distinctly West Country vocal tics (ex. 'ee instead of you). Upper-class characters like the Clares and Alec D'Urberville are written with no such tics.
  • Saintly Church: Averted by Tess's church, who refuse to bury her innocent baby so that they can keep up appearances. Played more straight for the upper-class but compassionate Reverend Clare who is raising his church that way, and even the text mentions it was unfortunate Tess encountered the Clares' pompous sons rather than the parents.
  • Serial Rapist: What Alec is implied to be, based on a comment by one of the peasant women when he rides with Tess into the woods.
  • Settle for Sibling: Angel to Tess's little sister in the end.
  • 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 favourite anti-religious arguments on him because she can't stand his self-righteous piety. Oops.
  • Sex Signals Death: First, Alec rapes her which dooms her to society and her marriage with Angel. Then the text implies (and it's 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.
  • The Simple Life is Simple: Angel quickly learns that it is not. The lifelong pampered son of a preacher gains a real admiration for those who have farmed, and will farm, all of their lives. Doubly so when he leaves for the much harsher climate of Brazil.
  • Slipping a Mickey: Earlier editions of the story include a detail about Alec giving Tess a cordial from "a druggist's bottle" and holding it "to her mouth unawares" before he rapes her.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Tess's father, after he learns of his noble descent.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Tess's mother exploits her beauty in hopes of connection to her rich "relation" Alec who rapes/seduces her and leaves her to suffer in a society that defines her by her impurity and promptly blame her for it.
  • Soup of Poverty: Tess' ancestors were once nobility, but they have fallen so far that they now live in poverty. She remarks that they have a silver spoon with the family's coat of arms on it, but it is so worn that her mother uses it to stir the pea soup.
  • Spell My Name with a "The": You say Durbeyfield, I say D'Urberville, let's call the whole thing off!
  • Strawberry Shorthand: Alec and Tess go picking strawberries in a field. He insists that she tastes them, to the point of forcing them into her mouth.
  • 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's 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?:
    • A milkmaid, Tess's devoted friend, whom Angel tried to take as his mistress, gives him a subtle one by confessing that she wouldn't ever love him as much as Tess, who would give her life for Angel.
    • Tess finally gives Angel one through a letter which reaches him too late.
    • A stranger Angel travels with on his way back from Brazil upon hearing what happened tells him that he was in the wrong for leaving Tess, stating that what happened to her in the past shouldn't matter in comparison to what she could become.
  • 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.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Mrs. Durbeyfield and the rest of the family are certain that the plot will work out like a Cinderella story, where Alec d'Urberville will fall in love with Tess and marry her, "making a lady of her" and elevating her family to a genteel position. This was common in other Victorian novels, it even might have happened in a Thomas Hardy poem, but sadly, they live in a Thomas Hardy novel.
  • 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.