The novel is about a young woman called Tess Durbeyfield and is structured around seven phases reflecting the pattern of her life. In the first phase, ‘The Maiden’, we see Tess’s father finding out that he is related to the d’Urbervilles. He gets drunk in celebration and is unable to drive to market so Tess goes in his place. On the way she suffers an accident and the family horse is killed. Eager to make up for this she is encouraged by her mother and father to go to Mrs d’Uberville for help. Yet Mrs d’Urberville is not really a distant relative – the surname has simply been assumed by a successful commercial family that have recently moved to the area. Tess meets Alec d’Urberville, the son of the family, while out on her errand, and he arranges for her to work on the estate. Alec pesters Tess until eventually he rapes her.

The second phase is called ‘Maiden No More’. Tess is pregnant and returns home from Trantridge. She is ridden with guilt and only ventures out at dusk, hiding in her family’s cottage. After giving birth to her child, Sorrow, she is accepted back into the community, but her baby dies and though she hopes to save his soul by christening him herself, he is still buried in an unmarked grave. Tess decides it would be best to leave the village and start somewhere new.

In the third phase, ‘The Rally’, Tess leaves home and takes work for the spring and summer on a dairy farm far away. She meets Angel Clare at Talbothays (he appeared very briefly at the opening of the book). He is a clergyman’s son working in order to learn about farming. He has rejected his family’s rigid Christianity and so is unable to go to university like his brothers. Tess and Angel begin to fall in love, but Tess is concerned about her past, not able to bring herself to tell Angel about Alec and Sorrow. The couple starts to make marriage plans in the fourth phase, ‘The Consequence’, but Tess still hasn’t told him her history. She attempts to write him a letter but he doesn’t receive it and the phase ends on their wedding night as Angel admits to his own mistakes in youth.

The fifth phase is called ‘The Woman Pays’ and Tess finally tells her husband about Alec and the baby. Angel cannot see that their unfortunate histories have much in common, and declares that she is not the woman he thought she was – the Tess he fell in love with. She goes home and Angel leaves for Brazil. He leaves her money, but she is left with very little after helping her parents with repairs to the house. Tess has had them believe that she and Angel will be reconciled, and they have high expectation of her wealth. In order to make a living Tess begins hard work at Flintcomb-Ash. Her old friends from the dairy farm are also there and they persuade her to seek help from Angel’s family; they too are oblivious to the failure of the marriage. But she is dissuaded after hearing Angel’s brothers and his old fiancée talking scornfully about the marriage. Walking back from the house she is astonished to find the newly converted Alec preaching in a barn.

The sixth phase, ‘The Covert’ sees Alec’s faith tried by Tess. He is drawn to her again and offers to marry her, but when she tells him that she cannot, he persists. He loses his faith but still offers to help her and her family. Tess manages to repel him for a while, but when she has to return home suddenly in order to look after her parents, her defences weaken. Tess’s father dies and her family is forced to leave their cottage. Alec appears once more and offers to help, and as the family’s new arrangements fall apart, Tess consents to his wishes.

The seventh and final phase is called ‘Fulfilment’. Angel returns from Brazil a changed man. He searches for Tess and finds her with Alec at a boarding house in Sandbourne. He wants to be reconciled with her but when he sees that she is provided for, he leaves. Tess is distraught and furious at Alec who told her that her husband would never return to her. In a fit of anger she murders him. She runs after Angel and they manage to escape for a week of blissful happiness. However they are eventually tracked down at Stonehenge. Tess makes Angel promise to care for her younger sister ‘Liza-Lu before she is arrested and hanged.

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