Author: Thomas Hardy
First published: serial, 1886–1887; book, 1887
Locale: Rural England
Plot: Social realism
Time: Nineteenth century
Grace Melbury, a young Englishwoman whose expensive education sets her apart from her family and neighbors in the village of Little Hintock. She returns to find that she is intended by her father to be the bride of Giles Winterborne, until that young man loses his little fortune. Later, she is courted by a young physician, Edgar Fitzpiers, whom she marries without love at her father's urging. As she begins to mature, Grace realizes that she has been mistaken in her marriage. When her husband turns to a rich, young widow, Grace is surprised at her lack of feeling until she realizes that as she has outgrown an external view of life she has come for the first time to appreciate her rural neighbors. Although her pride is hurt by her husband's philandering, she takes joy in discovering what love can be, for she truly falls in love with Giles Winterborne. Only later, as Winterborne lies dying, having sacrificed himself for her, does she really mature as a woman. Some months later, she and her husband become reconciled and prepare to start life anew in another part of England.
Edgar Fitzpiers, a young physician of good family. Although he is an excellent doctor, he also is a vain and shallow young man who wastes his skill and his time in all sorts of romantic studies. Living alone in Little Hintock village, he is attracted to Grace Melbury and marries her, although he feels he is marrying beneath his station. Soon afterward, he drifts into an affair with Felice Charmond, a wealthy widow of the neighborhood. Through this unhappy passion, he loses his wife, his practice, and almost his life. After the scandalous death of his mistress abroad, he realizes his selfishness and courts his wife anew, winning a new start in marriage and in his profession.
George Melbury, a timber merchant. Conscience-stricken because he had stolen a friend's fiancée years before, he proposes to make amends by marrying his daughter Grace to the friend's son, Giles Winterborne, but he finds that he cannot bring himself to enforce the marriage after the young man has lost his lands. He then marries Grace to the local doctor, who he believes is the only man in the community suitable for her. Throughout the story, until Grace matures enough to take her life into her own hands, George Melbury dominates his daughter, several times plunging her into grief through his decisions, even though he means well by her.
Giles Winterborne, a young timberman and landowner, a natural gentleman. He loves Grace Melbury devotedly and sacrifices his health and life for her happiness and good name. He endures many embarrassments at the hands of the Melburys, even to being jilted when, through no fault of his own, he loses his lands and is forced to become an itinerant worker. His noble nature is a great factor in helping Grace Melbury achieve emotional maturity.
Felice Charmond, a rich young widow and a former actress who has inherited a great estate, including the local manor house, from her deceased husband. A creature of sensual passion, she readily begins an affair with Dr. Fitzpiers. The affair, the last of a long series for her, is no mere flirtation, for she learns truly to love the young physician and follows him to the Continent after he and his wife separate. There, her death at the hands of an earlier lover, an American from South Carolina, frees the doctor from his passion.
Marty South, a poor young woman in love with Giles Winterborne. Her letter to Dr. Fitzpiers causes an argument between the physician and Felice Charmond. The argument takes Fitzpiers away from the widow shortly before her death and saves him from being involved in scandal when she is shot and killed by a former lover.
Suke Damson, a pretty, amoral young village girl who has an affair with Dr. Fitzpiers before his marriage. Although it is a passing relationship for him, Suke falls deeply in love. After her marriage, she reveals unwittingly to her husband that her affections lie elsewhere.
Tim Tang, Suke Damson's husband, a sawyer employed by Mr. Melbury. Bitter because his wife still loves Dr. Fitzpiers rather than himself, he sets a mantrap, such as is used to catch poachers, for the physician. The jealous husband's plan goes wrong and the trap almost gives serious injury to innocent Grace Melbury. The incident turns out to be the unintended catalyst that brings Grace and her husband together once more. Tang and his wife emigrate to New Zealand.
Robert Creedle, an old servant loyal to Giles Winterborne in both prosperity and adversity.
John South, Marty South's father. His death influences the careers of Giles Winterborne and the others because Giles's leases to his lands are written to expire at the death of the old man.