When Tess of the d'Urbervilles appeared in 1891. The subject matter—a milkmaid who is seduced by one man, married and rejected by another, and who eventually murders the first one—was considered unfit for publications which young people might read. To appease potential publishers, Hardy took the novel apart, re-wrote some scenes and added others. In due course a publisher was secured. When it came time to publish the novel in book form, Hardy reassembled it as it was originally conceived.
Early critics attacked Hardy for the novel's subtitle, “A Pure Woman,” arguing that Tess could not possibly be considered pure. They also denounced his frank—for the time—depiction of sex, criticism of organized religion, and dark pessimism. Today, the novel is praised as a courageous call for righting many of the ills Hardy found in Victorian society and as a link between the late-Victorian literature of the end of the nineteenth century and that of the modern era.
III PLOT SUMMARY
A Part One—An Insignificant Incident and Its Consequences
Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles begins with a seemingly insignificant incident: John Durbeyfield, a middle-aged peddler, is informed during a chance encounter on his way home one May evening that he is the descendent of an “ancient and knightly family,” the d'Urbervilles. On learning this “useless piece of information,” “Sir John” has a horse and carriage fetched for him so that he can arrive home in a manner more befitting his new station, and then goes out drinking, getting drunk enough that he is unable to get up in the middle of the night to make a delivery to a nearby town for the following morning. Tess, his oldest daughter, accompanied by her young brother Abraham, attempts to make the delivery instead; but she falls asleep on the way, and the family's horse, unguided, gets into a grotesque freak accident and dies on the road.
Now deprived of their transportation, the family faces hard times. Tess's...