Author: Thomas Hardy
First published: 1891
Plot: Philosophical realism
Time: Late nineteenth century
Tess Durbeyfield, a naïve country girl. When her father learns that his family is descended from an ancient landed house, the mother, hoping to better her struggling family financially, sends Tess to work for the Stoke-d'Urbervilles, who have recently moved to the locality. In this household, the innocent girl, attractive and mature beyond her years, meets Alec d'Urberville, a dissolute young man. From this time on, she is the rather stoical victim of personal disasters. Seduced by Alec, she gives birth to his child. Later, she works on a dairy farm, where she meets Angel Clare and reluctantly agrees to marry him, even though she is afraid of his reaction if he learns about her past. As she fears, he is disillusioned by her loss of innocence and virtue. Although she is deserted by her husband, she never loses her unselfish love for him. Eventually, pursued by the relentless Alec, she capitulates to his blandishments and goes to live with him at a prosperous resort. When Angel Clare returns to her, she stabs Alec. She spends a few happy days with Clare before she is captured and hanged for her crime.
Angel Clare, Tess's husband. Professing a dislike for effete, worn-out families and outdated traditions, he is determined not to follow family tradition and become a clergyman or a scholar. Instead, he wishes to learn what he can about farming, in the hope of having a farm of his own. When he meets Tess at a dairy farm, he teaches her various philosophical theories that he has gleaned from his reading. He learns that she is descended from the d'Urbervilles and is pleased by the information. After urging reluctant Tess to marry him, at the same time refusing to let her tell him about her past life, he persuades her to accept him; later, he learns to his great mortification about her relations with Alec. Although he himself has confessed to an episode with a woman in London, he is not as forgiving as Tess. After several days, he deserts her and goes to Brazil. Finally, no longer so provincial in his moral views, he remorsefully comes back to Tess, but he returns too late to make amends for his selfish actions toward her.
Alec d'Urberville, Tess's seducer. Lusting after the beautiful girl and making brazen propositions, he boldly pursues her. At first, she resists his advances, but she is unable to stop him from having his way in a lonely wood. For a time, he reforms and assumes the unlikely role of an evangelist. Meeting Tess again, he lusts after her more than ever and hounds her at every turn until she accepts him as her protector. Desperate when Angel Clare returns, she kills her hated lover.
Jack Durbeyfield, a carter of Marlott, Tess's indolent father. After learning of his distinguished forebears, he gives up work almost entirely and spends much of his time drinking beer in the Rolliver Tavern. He thinks that a man who has grand and noble “skillentons” in a family vault at Kingsbere-sub-Greenhill should not have to work.
Joan Durbeyfield, Tess's mother. After her hard labor at her modest home, she likes to sit at Rolliver's Tavern while her husband drinks a few pints and brags about his ancestors. A practical woman in a harsh world, she is probably right when she tells Tess not to reveal her past to Angel Clare.
Sorrow, Tess's child by Alec d'Urberville. The infant lives only a few days. Tess herself performs the rite of baptism before the baby dies.
Eliza-Louisa, called Liza-Lu, Tess's younger sister. It is Tess's hope, before her death, that Angel Clare will marry her sister. Liza-Lu waits with Angel during the hour of Tess's execution for the murder of Alec d'Urberville.
Abraham, Hope, and Modesty, the son and young daughters of the Durbeyfields.
The Reverend James Clare, Angel Clare's father, a devout man of simple faith but limited vision.
Mrs. Clare, a woman of good works and restricted interests. She shows little understanding of her son Angel.
Felix and Cuthbert Clare, Angel Clare's conventional, rather snobbish brothers. They are patronizing in their attitude toward him and disapprove of his marriage to Tess Durbeyfield.
Mercy Chant, a young woman interested in church work and charity, whom Angel Clare's parents thought a proper wife for him. Later, she marries his brother Cuthbert.
Mrs. Stoke-d'Urberville, the blind widow of a man who grew rich in trade and added the name of the extinct d'Urberville Barony to his own. Her chief interests in life are her wayward son Alec and her poultry.
Car Darch, also called Dark Car, a vulgar village woman. Because of her previous relations with Alec d'Urberville, she is jealous of Tess Durbeyfield. Her nickname is the Queen of Spades.
Nancy, her sister, nicknamed the Queen of Diamonds.
Mr. Tringham, the elderly parson and antiquarian who half-jokingly tells Jack Durbeyfield that he is descended from the noble d'Urberville family.
Richard Crick, the owner of Talbothays Farm, where Angel Clare is learning dairy farming. Farmer Crick hires Tess Durbeyfield as a dairymaid after the death of her child. Tess and Angel are married at Talbothays.
Christiana Crick, Farmer Crick's kind and hearty wife.
Marian, a stout, red-faced dairymaid at Talbothays Farm. Later, she takes to drink and becomes a field worker at Flintcomb-Ash Farm. She and Izz Huett write Angel Clare an anonymous letter in which they tell him that his wife is being pursued by Alec d'Urberville.
Izz Huett, a dairymaid at Talbothays Farm who is in love with Angel Clare. She openly declares her feelings after he deserts Tess. He is tempted to take Izz with him to Brazil, but he soon changes his mind. She and Marian write Angel a letter warning him to look after his wife.
Retty Priddle, the youngest of the dairymaids at Talbothays Farm. Also in love with Angel Clare, she tries to drown herself after his marriage.
Farmy Groby, the tightfisted, harsh owner of Flintcomb-Ash Farm, where Tess works in the fields after Angel Clare deserts her.