Phase the First: The Maiden (1–11)
The novel is set in impoverished rural Wessex during the Long Depression. Tess is the eldest child of John and Joan Durbeyfield, uneducated rural peasants. One day, Parson Tringham informs John that he has noble blood. Tringham, an amateur genealogist, has discovered that "Durbeyfield" is a corruption of "D'Urberville", the surname of a noble Norman family, now extinct. The news immediately goes to John's head.
That same day, Tess participates in the village May Dance, where she meets Angel Clare, youngest son of Reverend James Clare, who is on a walking tour with his two brothers. He stops to join the dance, and finds partners in several other girls. Angel notes of Tess's beauty, too late to dance with her, as he is already late for a promised meeting with his brothers. Tess feels slighted.
Tess's father, overjoyed with learning of his noble lineage, gets too drunk to drive to market that night, so Tess undertakes the journey herself. However, she falls asleep at the reins, and the family's only horse encounters a speeding wagon and is fatally wounded. Tess feels so guilty over the horse's death that she agrees, against her better judgment, to visit Mrs. d'Urberville, a wealthy widow who lives in the nearby town of Trantridge, and "claim kin." She is unaware that in reality, Mrs. d'Urberville's husband, Simon Stoke, purchased the baronial title and adopted the new surname, and so is not related to the d'Urbervilles.
Tess does not succeed in meeting Mrs. d'Urberville, but her libertine son Alec takes a fancy to Tess and secures her a position as poultry keeper on the d'Urberville estate. He immediately begins making advances. Tess dislikes Alec and repels him verbally but endures his persistent unwanted attention, feeling she has no choice, as she must earn enough to replace her family's only means of support, the dead horse. The threat that Alec presents to Tess's virtue is obscured for Tess by her inexperience and almost daily commonplace interactions with him. He calls her "coz" (cousin), indicating a male protector, not a ravisher. Late one night, walking home from town with some other Trantridge villagers, Tess inadvertently antagonizes Car Darch, Alec's most recently discarded favorite, and finds herself about to come to blows. When Alec rides up and offers to "rescue" her from the situation, she accepts. He does not take her home, however, but rides through the fog until they reach an ancient grove called "The Chase." Here, Alec informs her that he is lost and leaves on foot to get his bearings. Tess stays behind and falls asleep atop the coat he lent her. After Alec returns he rapes her. The rape is also alluded to in another chapter, with reference to the "screams heard in the Chase" during the season Tess was at Trantridge.
Phase the Second: Maiden No More (12–15)
Tess begins to despise Alec. Against his wishes, she goes home to her father's cottage, where she keeps almost entirely to her room. The next summer, she gives birth to a sickly boy, who lives only a few weeks. On his last night alive, Tess baptizes him herself, after her father locked the doors to keep the parson away. The child is given the name 'Sorrow'. Tess buries Sorrow in unconsecrated ground, makes a homemade cross and lays flowers on his grave in an empty marmalade box.
Phase the Third: The Rally (16–24)
More than two years after the Trantridge debacle, Tess, now 20, is ready to make a new start. She seeks employment outside the village, where her past is not known, and secures a job as a milkmaid at Talbothays Dairy, working for Mr. and Mrs. Crick. There, she befriends three of her fellow milkmaids, Izz, Retty, and Marian, and re-encounters Angel Clare, who is now an apprentice farmer and has come to Talbothays to learn dairy management. Although the other milkmaids are sick with love for him, Angel soon singles out Tess, and the two gradually fall in love.
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