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Tess of the d'Urbervilles
A Pure Woman
By Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
A Study Guide
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Tess as a Naturalistic Novel
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Ironic Thesis
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings... 2008
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.......One evening late in May, John Durbeyfield is walking home to Marlott, a village in Blackmoor Vale, when he encounters Parson Tringham on a gray mare. When they exchange greetings, the parson addresses Durbeyfield as Sir John. Durbeyfield, a common peddler and carter who describes himself as a haggler, is not used to receiving such respect. It was the third time in a month that Tringham had addressed him as Sir John. 
.......Curious, Durbeyfield asks Tringham why he keeps addressing him that way. The minister, a devoted antiquarian, says he discovered during research on county history that the Durbeyfields descended from a noble family, the d'Urbervilles. One of the d'Urbervilles was a French knight who traveled to England with William the Conqueror. 
.......“Branches of your family held manors all over this part of England,” Tringham says. 
.......Durbeyfield replies, “And here have I been knocking about, year after year, from pillar to post, as if I was no more than the commonest feller in the parish.”
.......Later, on the way to a country dance, Durbeyfield’s teenage daughter, Tess, runs into her father. Fancying himself a nobleman, he is singing about his ancestry while riding in a carriage he rented from the Pure Drop Inn to take him the rest of the way home. When the other girls with Tess laugh at him, Tess defends him, saying he is tired and has decided to ride home “because our own horse has to rest to-day.”
.......At the dance is an outsider, Angel Clare, a handsome student of aristocratic bearing. Along with his older brothers, Cuthbert and Felix, he is on a walking tour of Blackmoor. Because Cuthbert and Felix do not wish to associate with common country girls, they continue their walk. 
.......To the dismay of Tess, Angel chooses another girl as a dancing partner. But when he leaves to catch up with his brothers, his eyes meet hers, and he is sorry that he had not seen her sooner. 
.......That evening, Tess’s father reveals to his family that the Durbeyfields come from noble stock, the d'Urbervilles. And what a boon! For now Mr. and Mrs. Durbeyfield can prevail upon a wealthy family of that name in a neighboring village, Trantridge, to provide financial assistance for the indigent Durbeyfields. Tess is singled out to do the asking. She might even match up with an eligible d'Urberville bachelor while performing her task. If she marries money, riches will flow to the Durbeyfield household. Such a prospect gladdens old Jack Durbeyfield, who loathes hard work. 
.......Meanwhile, the family must transport beehives to the retail market in Casterbridge more than twenty miles away. To get there on time for the morning commerce, their wagon must leave Marlott by 2 a.m. Because John Durbeyfield has gone to Rolliver’s alehouse to celebrate his dubbing, Tess agrees to make the journey with her little brother, Abraham, as company. 
.......On the way, Tess falls asleep and the wagon veers into the wrong lane. A mail cart tearing along in the opposite direction strikes the Durbeyfield horse, Prince, with its projecting shaft and kills it. It is a terrible blow to the Durbeyfields, for the horse was the backbone of their livelihood and a beloved member of the family. When a knacker and tanner offers to buy Prince’s carcass, John Durbeyfield refuses his offer, saying, “When we d'Urbervilles was knights in the land, we didn't sell our chargers for cat's meat.” 
.......With all the family gathered around, the Durbeyfields bury Prince on their land in a grave dug by John. There are tears. There is also the question of what they will do next. Mrs. Durbeyfield has the answer: Tess will go to the d'Urbervilles at Trantridge to claim kinship and seek help. Tess does not dispute the plan–intimidating as it seems–because it was she who caused the death of Prince. 
.......After walking to the town of Shaston, she takes a van to Trantridge, then walks to a forest district known as the Chase, on the edge of which is the estate of the d'Urbervilles. Actually, they are the Stoke-d’Urbervilles. What Tess does not know as she approaches the estate with trepidation is that these d'Urbervilles are not true d'Urbervilles. When the head of the family, Simon Stoke–now deceased–moved to southern England, he had plenty of money he had earned in honest business (some said as moneylender) in the north. However, he lacked a name that would identify him and his family as patricians of long standing. After conducting research in the British Library on extinct, ruined, or otherwise deactivated noble families, he decided to affix the name of one of them, d’Urberville, to his own. Hence, the wealthy Stoke family became the wealthy, aristocratic Stoke-d’Urberville family. Alec, the son of Simon, greets Tess on her arrival.
.......“Well, my Beauty, what can I do for you?” 
.......Tess, embarrassed, identifies herself as a d’Urberville and says she has come to visit her relatives, hinting obliquely that she seeks help: “Mother said we ought to make ourselves beknown to you–as we’ve lost our horse by a bad accident, and are the oldest branch of the family.” 
.......Alec, quite taken with the striking young lady, escorts her on a tour of the grounds and then lunches with her in a tent. Afterward, he questions her about herself, her family, and the loss of the horse. He then concludes the visit, saying, “I must think if I can do something for you. My mother must find a berth [job] for you.”
.......On her trip back to Marlott, Tess stays the night in Shaston and resumes her journey the next day. Upon her return home, she reads a letter from Trantridge that arrived ahead of her. It announces that Mrs. Stoke-d’Urberville wishes to hire Tess to tend poultry. Tess would receive a room and a liberal wage. 
.......After Tess’s mother urges her daughter to accept the offer, Tess takes the job. Alec Stoke-d'Urberville picks her up in his cart for the trip to Trantridge. Along the way, he makes advances toward her. When she resists, he promises to keep his hands to himself.
.......At Trantridge, her job is to tend fowls housed in an old thatched cottage. One of her tasks is to take hens and roosters to Mrs. d’Urberville, who is blind, so she can feel and identify them. Another of her tasks is to whistle to the widow’s bullfinches. 
.......“We teach ‘em airs that way,” Mrs. d’Urberville says.
.......Alec, meanwhile, continues to pursue Tess over the next several months. One September evening, she is returning with other girls from a dance when Car Darch (called the Queen of Spades) gets syrup on her dress from a broken container in a grocery basket she is taking home. There is laughter. Tess contains herself for a while, then joins in. At that moment, Darch becomes angry and picks a fight with Tess. The other girls–including her sister, Nancy, called the Queen of Diamonds–back Darch. When they close in on Tess, Alec happens by on his horse and rescues her.
.......Riding behind him on the saddle, she becomes weary. After a full day’s work, she had walked three miles to the dance and a mile back before Alec arrived. The trauma of the confrontation with the girls had taken its toll too. Alec takes advantage of the situation, riding past the turnoff to his estate during a gathering fog, then presses Tess to yield to him. To make her feel obligated to him, he tells her he has bought her father another horse and the children some toys. 
.......The fog thickens and they lose their way. Alec and Tess dismount. He gives Tess his coat, then walks off to find a landmark and get his bearings. Some distance away, he recognizes a fence and a road, then returns and finds Tess asleep. He kneels to her and decides to take what he wants. (Although the narrator does not say whether Alec rapes Tess or whether she awakes and willingly receives him, it appears that he takes her forcibly.) 
.......In the ensuing weeks, Tess’s revulsion for Alec builds, and she returns home. In the summer she bears his child, a boy. The infant fails to thrive and dies a week later after Tess baptizes him and names him Sorrow. The narrator describes the burial:
So the baby was carried in a small deal box, under an ancient woman's shawl, to the churchyard that night, and buried by lantern-light, at the cost of a shilling and a pint of beer to the sexton, in that shabby corner of God's allotment where He lets the nettles grow, and where all unbaptized infants, notorious drunkards, suicides, and others of the conjecturally damned are laid. In spite of the untoward surroundings, however, Tess bravely made a little cross of two laths and a piece of string, and having bound it with flowers, she stuck it up at the head of the grave one evening when she could enter the churchyard without being seen, putting at the foot also a bunch of the same flowers in a little jar of water to keep them alive.  What matter was it that on the outside of the jar the eye of mere observation noted the words "Keelwell's Marmalade"? The eye of maternal affection did not see them in its vision of higher things.
.......Two years pass. Tess takes a job milking cows at Talbothays dairy farm several miles away. It is a large operation, with more than one hundred milkers under the supervision of master dairyman Richard Crick, a kindly man who welcomes Tess warmly. There she encounters Angel Clare, the young man she saw at the May dance on the night of the accident that killed Prince. His appearance is changed somewhat since she first saw him:
She saw by degrees that since their first and only encounter his mobile face had grown more thoughtful, and had acquired a young man's shapely moustache and beard–the latter of the palest straw colour where it began upon his cheeks, and deepening to a warm brown farther from its root. 
.......He had recently decided to pursue a career in agriculture rather than become a clergyman like his father, the Rev. James Clare, and his older brothers, Cuthbert and Felix. “Early association with country solitudes,” the narrator says, “had bred in him an unconquerable, and almost unreasonable, aversion to modern town life, and shut him out from such success as he might have aspired to by following a mundane calling in the impracticability of the spiritual one.” Angel also dislikes the class consciousness of his brothers and the Victorian Age’s preoccupation with noble lineage.
.......So, at age twenty-six, he finds himself at Talbothays studying dairy management after spending a brief period elsewhere studying sheep farming. He lodges at the dairy farm. Tess also stays at the farm, sharing a room with three other milkmaids–Izz Huett, Retty Priddle, and Marian, all of whom are hopelessly in love with Angel. But it is Tess who wins his heart. The look he and Tess exchanged at the May dance had promise in it, and now that promise has blossomed–over milk pails and butter churns–into love. 
.......On a sojourn at his father’s vicarage at Emminster, Angel brings his family up to date about his life at the farm. His minister brothers–Felix, a curate in a nearby county, and Cuthbert, a classical scholar and dean at a college in Cambridge–both think him much changed. They believe that 
He was getting to behave like a farmer; he flung his legs about; the muscles of his face had grown more expressive; his eyes looked as much information as his tongue spoke, and more. The manner of the scholar had nearly disappeared; still more the manner of the drawing-room young man.  A prig would have said that he had lost culture, and a prude that he had become coarse.  Such was the contagion of domiciliary fellowship with the Talbothays nymphs and swains.
.......Nevertheless, Angel tells the family that he likes country life. What is more, he says, he has set his heart on a country girl, Tess. She would make a proper wife for him, he says, noting that he shares with her a knowledge of farm life. His parents had been under the impression that he would one day marry a local schoolteacher, Mercy Chant. However, his father is open to his match with Tess and even says he will make money available for Angel to buy farmland. 
.......When Angel returns to Talbothays, he asks Tess to marry him. This news both gladdens and disturbs Tess. What if he finds about her past–Alec, the baby? So she says no. When he presses her on the question, she says, "Your father is a parson, and your mother wouldn't like you to marry such as me. She will want you to marry a lady."
.......Angel informs her that he has already settled his parents' minds on the matter. However, he gives her time to consider the proposal, and one evening she decides to marry him: 
"I shall give way–I shall say yes–I shall let myself marry him–I cannot help it!" she jealously panted, with her hot face to the pillow that night, on hearing one of the other girls sigh his [Angel’s] name in her sleep. 
.......On one occasion, Tess tries to tell Angel about her past. However, failing to muster courage, she ends up telling him about her family’s d’Urberville connection, noting that “I was told you hated old families.” Although he says that he does “hate the aristocratic principle of blood before everything,” he makes light of Tess’s noble connection and says he loves her too much to allow it to matter. 
.......Tess then writes home to ask her mother for advice. Her mother writes back, saying, “On no account do you say a word of your Bygone Trouble [with Alec] to him [Angel].”
.......However, on the night before the wedding, Tess decides to tell all. She and Angel are staying at an inn after shopping and spending the day together–he in an attic room and she in a room below. Knowing that words might fail her if she tells of her past face to face, she writes a four-page letter explaining everything, tiptoes upstairs, and slips it under his door. Unfortunately, he overlooks it, and the next day they marry. 
.......Angel has arranged for them to spend their wedding night at an old mansion once owned by the d'Urbervilles of former times. After they arrive, a messenger brings a package from Angel's mother. It contains a diamond necklace, a bracelet, earrings, and small ornaments that Angel’s late godmother, Mrs. Pitney, ordered in her will to be reserved for Angel's wife. Tess puts them on, and she and Angel talk happily and eat supper. Jonathan Kail, one of Talbothays’ employees, brings their luggage. He also bears shocking news: Retty Priddle tried to drown herself. Meanwhile, Marian got dead drunk, and Izz took on a somber mood. Tess well knows the cause of it all: They have lost Angel. Tess thinks, 
They were simple and innocent girls on whom the unhappiness of unrequited love had fallen; they had deserved better at the hands of Fate. She had deserved worse–yet she was the chosen one. It was wicked of her to take all without paying. She would pay to the uttermost farthing; she would tell [about her past], there and then. This final determination she came to when she looked into the fire, he holding her hand.
.......But it is Angel who speaks up first, confessing an indiscretion of his own–an intimate encounter with a woman in London. It lasted forty-eight hours, he says, “after which I awoke immediately to my sense of folly.” Tess is understanding. Now believing it safe to own up to her past, she tells him about her relationship with Alec. Angel’s reaction devastates Tess. Although he does not condemn her, he says her disclosure makes her a different woman from the one he courted. When she asks for forgiveness, he says, "O Tess, forgiveness does not apply to the case! You were one person; now you are another." 
.......Several days later, they separate, but Angel leaves open the possibility that they will one day reconcile–if he can reconcile himself with Tess’s past. Tess returns home to Marlott. 
.......After visiting his parents, Angel prepares to travel to Brazil, touted in an advertisement, the narrator says, “as a field for the emigrating agriculturist” with land available for “exceptionally advantageous terms.” Before leaving, he drives out to settle an account with a farmer. On the road, he chances upon Izz Huett and offers her a ride. After traveling some distance, he asks her on a whim to accompany him to South America as his lover. She is willing. When he asks her whether she loves him, she says she does.
.......“More than Tess?” he asks.
.......“No. . . . Nobody could love ‘ee more than Tess did! She would have laid down her life for ‘ee.”
.......The words echo round in Angel’s mind. Then he says, “Forget our idle talk. I don’t know what I’ve been saying.” He turns around and drives Izz back to her home while Izz bursts into tears. 
.......Meanwhile, Tess takes various temporary jobs, including dairy work west of Blackmoor Valley near Port Bredy, to support herself and relieve the financial burdens on her parents, who need a new roof and rafters after damaging rains. She had already given them twenty-five pounds from money Angel left her, but that was not enough. Finally, Tess accepts full-time employment at a farm called Flintcombe-Ash, where she works as a field hand digging turnips and sometimes as a reed-drawer in a barn. Marian and Izz work there, too, having left Talbothays because of the painful memories associated with it. It was Marian who informed Tess of the availability of a job. The work is hard, very hard. Tess must labor in the fields through morning frosts and afternoon rains under the supervision of a taskmaster, Farmer Groby. If there is snow, she must work in the barn.
.......After a time, Tess decides to seek assistance from the Rev. and Mrs. Clare, whom Angel said she could call upon if she ever needed help. Even though the Rev. Clare's vicarage is fifteen miles away, she walks there on her day off, Sunday. When she arrives, no one is home. Later, she discovers that the Clares had gone to church and, after the service ends, she waits for them behind hedges along the side of the road. When Angel's brothers, Cuthbert and Felix, approach, she overhears their conversation:
......."Ah! poor Angel, poor Angel! I never see that nice girl [Mercy Chant] without more and more regretting his precipitancy in throwing himself away upon a dairymaid, or whatever she may be. It is a queer business, apparently. Whether she has joined him yet or not I don't know; but she had not done so some months ago when I heard from him."
.......""I can't say. He never tells me anything nowadays. His ill-considered marriage seems to have completed that estrangement from me which was begun by his extraordinary opinions."
.......Disheartened, she decides to return to Flintcombe-Ash. On her way, she comes to a barn where a minister standing on sacks of corn is preaching a fiery sermon: "O foolish galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth," he says. Tess recognizes the voice as that of Alec d'Urberville. When she passes by the open barn door, he recognizes her and later catches up with her on the road, telling her he has had a conversion experience. But Tess questions his sincerity and resolve: "Such flashes as you feel, Alec, I fear don't last." He assures her that his conversion (brought about by the Rev. James Clare) is genuine. At a place on the road called Cross-in-Hand, he says he must turn right to preach at a six o'clock meeting. Before leaving, he says will see her again, a prospect Tess does not welcome. True to his word, he does visit her at Flintcombe-Ash, hoping she will consent to marrying him. After she informs him of her marriage to Angel Clare and his trip abroad, he predicts that Angel will never return. He then continues to visit Tess again and again.
.......Meanwhile, Tess's mother becomes seriously ill and is expected to die. But after Tess returns home, it is not her mother who dies (she rallies and recovers); it is her father. Apparently, his heart gave out. 
.......Because the lease extends only to his death, the landlord evicts Mrs. Durbeyfield and her children. They then travel to Kingsbere, the home of their ancestors, where they have arranged to rent rooms. But the deal falls through, and they are forced to camp out. 
.......Meanwhile, Angel’s agricultural venture fails after he becomes ill, and he decides to return to England. He also now realizes that he was wrong to abandon Tess. After his arrival, he first tracks down Tess’s mother, Joan, who now lives in a cottage provided by Alec. She tells him Tess has moved to the seaside town of Sandbourne. After traveling there and taking a room, he learns from the post office that Tess resides at a fashionable lodging house, The Herons. When he meets Tess there, she tells him that Alec "won me back" after persuading her that Angel would never return. However, she adds, 
I hate him now, because he told me a lie–that you would not come again; and you HAVE come!  These clothes are what he's put upon me: I didn't care what he did wi' me!  But–will you go away, Angel, please, and never come any more?
Angel leaves.
.......When Tess returns to her apartment, she cries uncontrollably and blames Alec for misleading her. Angry words are exchanged. Sometime later, she goes out to find Angel. In quarters below her apartment, the owner, Mrs. Brooks sees a red stain on the ceiling and notifies authorities, who discover Alec dead of stab wounds.
.......After Tess finds Angel, she tells him she killed Alec; he doubts her story. After traveling inland, they spend a week together at an abandoned house before they are discovered. They then head northward, hoping to book passage on a ship and leave the country. However, police catch up with them when they are resting at Stonehenge, near Salisbury. The police arrest and jail Tess. Angel now realizes Tess was telling the truth about killing Alec. Sometime later, Angel and Tess’s sister, Liza-Lu watch from a hill as a black flag rises over Salisbury Prison when Tess goes to the gallows. 

Settings

Most of the action takes place in the late 19th Century in Southwestern England in the county of Wessex, the fictional name of Dorset County. The town where Tess lives, Marlott (fictional), is four hours from London by horse-drawn coach or wagon. In Chapter 41, the action shifts for a time to Curitiba, Brazil, where Angel Clare and other Englishmen discover that the promise of riches is an ignis fatuus. In Chapter 58, the scene shifts to the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge, north of the town of Salisbury, England, in the county of Wiltshire. Author Thomas Hardy was born in Dorset County in 1840 and died there in 1928. Because he knew the county intimately, his descriptions of its landscape, its people, and its customs ring with authenticity.

Characters

Tess Durbeyfield: Intelligent, sensitive, and attractive teenager who lives with her impoverished family in the village of Marlott in Southwestern England. She is a diligent worker who helps her father support the family and assists her mother in looking after the younger children. The narrator says Tess has completed the Sixth Standard in the National School under a London teacher and, therefore, can speak two languages: the local dialect and standard English. She could have become a teacher but had to abandon her studies to go to work at home. After her father discovers one day that he is descended from an aristocratic family, the d'Urbervilles, he and his wife send Tess to a wealthy family of that name in the neighboring village of Trantridge. The idea is to have Tess prevail upon the members of the family, the Stoke-d'Urbervilles, to provide financial help for their Marlott relatives. What Tess and her parents do not realize, however, is that the Trantridge d'Urbervilles–though indeed wealthy–are parvenus who adopted the d'Urberville name and are not relatives at all. Nevertheless, Tess lands a job there as a poultry keeper after one of the family members, Alec, ogles the pretty Tess and plans to use her as his sexual plaything. Thereafter, all goes wrong for Tess as fate appears to single her out its plaything. 
John Durbeyfield: Middle-aged father of Tess. He is a self-described haggler who peddles goods and works the land. But because he is lazy and irresponsible, his family lives in constant want in a Marlott cottage. He relies heavily on Tess to help keep the family going. When he discovers that he is a descendant of an aristocratic family (see Tess Durbeyfield, above) he hopes to capitalize on the cachet of that name. 
Joan Durbeyfield: Mother of Tess. She is generally a pleasant, easygoing woman, although at times she manipulates Tess.
Abraham (Aby) Durbeyfield: Brother of Tess. He is nine years old at the beginning of the novel. Aby is with Tess on the night of the accident that kills their horse, Prince.
Eliza-Louisa (Liza-Lu) Durbeyfield: Sister of Tess. At the beginning of the novel, she is twelve years old. She is with Angel Clare at Salisbury when Tess is executed. 
Hope and Modesty Durbeyfield: Very young sisters of Tess.
Durbeyfield Toddlers: Brothers of Tess, ages three and one at the beginning of the novel.
Simon Stoke-d'Urberville: Deceased businessman who made a fortune in northern England through hard work and wise handling of money. Before moving to southwestern England to live in a quiet country setting, he researched the families that had lived in that part of the country to find a name "that would not too readily identify him with the smart tradesman [that he was in] the past." Among the names of "extinct, half-extinct, obscured, and ruined families" he came upon d'Urberville and, thinking it appropriate, "annexed it  to his own name for himself and his heirs eternally." After his death, his wife and son continue to live on his estate in Trantridge. John and Joan Durbeyfield mistake the Stoke-d'Urbervilles as relatives. 
Alexander (Alec) Stoke-d'Urberville: Son of Simon Stoke-d'Urberville. After Tess arrives at the Stoke-d'Urberville estate, he gives her a job as a poultry keeper and immediately makes sexual advances toward her. Tess rejects them, but he persists. One evening, while Tess is asleep, he sees his opportunity and seizes it, forever changing her and sending her on a tragic journey. 
Mrs. Stoke-d'Urberville: Mother of Alec d'Urberville and widow of Simon. She is blind and confined to her home. One of Tess's tasks as a poultry keeper is to take chickens to Mrs. d'Urberville so that she can feel them. 
Angel Clare: Son of a vicar and the vicar's second wife. Although Angel's father wants him to be a minister, Angel, who has studied at Cambridge, wishes to pursue a career in agriculture. He is more open-minded to new ideas than the rest of his family and more accepting of common folk. While studying agriculture at a dairy where Tess works, he falls in love with her, and they eventually marry. But when he learns about Tess's past, he leaves her shortly after the wedding. 
Rev. James Clare: Vicar and father of Angel Clare. The narrator describes him as a "spiritual descendant in the direct line from Wycliff, Huss, Luther, Calvin; an Evangelical of the Evangelicals, a Conversionist, a man of Apostolic simplicity in life and thought . . . [whose] creed of determinism was such that it almost amounted to a vice." 
Cutherbert and Felix Clare: Brothers of Angel Clare. Both become ministers. They look down upon common folk, including Tess.
Richard Crick: Master dairyman at Talbothays Dairy, where Tess takes a job and falls in love with Angel Clare.
Mrs. Crick: Wife of Richard Crick.
Izz Huett, Retty Priddle, Marian: Milkmaids at Talbothays Dairy who befriend Tess and share a room with her. They fall in love with Angel Clare and are broken-hearted when he marries Tess.
Mercy Chant: Prissy young woman who conducts Bible classes. Before Angel Clare meets Tess, his parents think she would make him a fine wife. 
Car Darch: Shrewish young woman who was a favorite of Alec Stoke-d'Urberville before he met Tess. She is nicknamed the Queen of Spades. When she picks a fight with Tess, Alec comes to Tess's rescue. 
Nancy Darch: Car Darch's sister, known as the Queen of Diamonds. She backs her sister in the fight with Tess. 
Car Darch's Mother
Deborah Fyander: Elderly worker at Talbothays dairy farm. She helps Tess with skimming when other workers are unavailable.
Jonathan Kail: Talbothays worker who informs Tess and Angel on their wedding night of the attempted suicide of Retty Priddle. 
Bill Lewell, Beck Knibbs, Frances: Workers at Talbothays dairy farm.
Farmer Groby: Cruel supervisor at Flintcombe-Ash dairy farm. 
Amby Seedling: Man who declares his love for Izz Huett when she is working at Flintcombe-Ash.
Mrs. Pitney: Angel’s late godmother, who bequeathed jewelry to the wife of Angel. 
Sister of Angel Clare: Oldest of Angel Clare's siblings. She had married a missionary and gone with him to Africa. Her picture hangs in the Clare home. 

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Type of Work and Year of Publication

Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman is a novel depicting the dreary life and tragic death of country girl. Because the narrator maintains that she is a victim of forces she cannot control, literary critics have often characterized Tess as a naturalistic novel. (See below.) It was published in 1891.

Tess as a Naturalistic Novel

Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman exhibits the characteristics of literary naturalism, an extreme form of realism that developed in France in the 19th Century. It was inspired in part by the scientific determinism of Charles Darwin, an Englishman, and the economic determinism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, both Germans. Four Frenchmen–Hippolyte Taine, Edmond and Jules Goncourt, and Emile Zola–applied the principles of scientific and economic determinism to literature to create literary naturalism. According to its followers, literary naturalism stresses the following beliefs: 

    (1) Heredity and environment are the major forces that shape human beings. In Tess, Cuthbert and Felix Clare exemplify this principle in that they adopt their father's views and follow him into the ministry. Angel Clare dares to entertain different views and pursue a different career. However, when he learns about Tess's past, the mindset of his family asserts itself and he abandons Tess. 
    (2) Human beings have no free will, or very little of it, because heredity and environment are so powerful in determining the course of human action. 
    (3) Human beings, like lower animals, have no soul. Religion and morality are irrelevant. (Hardy's narrator promotes this position with preachments that are sometimes less than subtle.) 
    (4) A literary work should present life exactly as it is. In this respect, naturalism is akin to realism. However, naturalism goes further than realism in that it presents a more detailed picture of everyday life. Whereas the realist writer omits insignificant details when depicting a particular scene, a naturalist writer generally includes them. He wants the scene to be as “natural” as possible. 
    (5) The naturalist writer should be painstakingly objective and detached. (Hardy, however, sometimes injects his own views, allowing his narrator to rail against God and religion.) 
    (6) Rather than manipulating characters as if they were puppets, the naturalist writer prefers to observe the characters as if they were animals in the wild. Then he reports on their activity. 
    (7) Naturalism attempts to present dialogue as spoken in everyday life. Rather than putting “unnatural” wording in the mouth of a character, the naturalist writer attempts to reproduce the speech patterns of people in a particular time and place. (Hardy usually succeeds in this respect when presenting dialogue spoken by common folk, such as Tess's mother, Joan Durbeyfield. When she informs Tess about her father's noble heritage, she says, "O yes! 'Tis thoughted that great things may come o't. No doubt a
    mampus of volk of our own rank will be down here in their carriages as soon as 'tis known. Your father learnt it on his way hwome
    from Shaston, and he has been telling me the whole pedigree of the matter."
Naturalist writers generally achieve only limited success in adhering to Number 5. The main problem is that it is next to impossible for a writer to remain objective and detached, like a scientist in a laboratory. After all, a scientist analyzes existing natural objects and phenomena. A naturalist writer, on the other hand, analyzes characters he created; they may be based on real people, but they themselves are not real. Thus, in bringing these characters to the printed page, the naturalist writer brings a part of himself–a subjective part. For additional information about objectivity, see Point of View, below.

Point of View

Thomas Hardy invests his narrator with omniscient, third-person point of view. In other words, the narrator can present not only what people speak and say but also what they think. Oftentimes, an omniscient narrator in a novel is objective, unbiased, reporting only what takes place. However, in Tess, Hardy frequently uses his narrator as a mouthpiece for his own opinions, as in the following example centering on the Durbeyfield children. In it, he characterizes them as victims of a divine plan gone wrong:

All these young souls were passengers in the Durbeyfield ship–entirely dependent on the judgement of the two Durbeyfield adults for their pleasures, their necessities, their health, even their existence. If the heads of the Durbeyfield household chose to sail into difficulty, disaster, starvation, disease, degradation, death, thither were these half-dozen little captives under hatches compelled to sail with them–six helpless creatures, who had never been asked if they wished for life on any terms, much less if they wished for it on such hard conditions as were involved in being of the shiftless house of Durbeyfield. Some people would like to know whence the poet whose philosophy is in these days deemed as profound and trustworthy as his song is breezy and pure, gets his authority for speaking of "Nature's holy plan." 
Another example is the reference to God in the first sentence of the final paragraph of the novel, depicting a scene in which Angel Clare and Tess's little sister watch from a hilltop as a flag rises over the prison at Salisbury. 
"Justice" was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess. And the d'Urberville knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing. The two speechless gazers bent themselves down to the earth, as if in prayer, and remained thus a long time, absolutely motionless: the flag continued to wave silently. As soon as they had strength, they arose, joined hands again, and went on.
Nature Imagery

Tess of the d'Urbervilles is rich in nature imagery that establishes moods, presents allusions, makes comparisons, suggests the fate of Tess or another character, and presents views of the author. Here are examples:

From Chapter 14

It was a hazy sunrise in August. The denser nocturnal vapours, attacked by the warm beams, were dividing and shrinking into isolated fleeces within hollows and coverts, where they waited till they should be dried away to nothing. The sun, on account of the mist, had a curious sentient, personal look, demanding the masculine pronoun for its adequate expression. His present aspect, coupled with the lack of all human forms in the scene, explained the old-time heliolatries in a moment. One could feel that a saner religion had never prevailed under the sky. The luminary was a golden-haired, beaming, mild-eyed, God-like creature, gazing down in the vigour and intentness of youth upon an earth that was brimming with interest for him. His light, a little later, broke though chinks of cottage shutters, throwing stripes like red-hot pokers upon cupboards, chests of drawers, and other furniture within; and awakening harvesters who were not already astir.
Comment: This paragraph is an extended metaphor in which the narrator personifies the sun.
Heliolatries: Religions that worshipped the sun. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the sun god was named Ra. In ancient Greek mythology, the sun god was named Helios. Beginning in the Fifth Century BC, the Greeks began identifying Apollo as a sun god. 
One . . . sky: This sentence presents the view that "natural" religion is preferable to organized religion.
From Chapter 16
The river itself, which nourished the grass and cows of these renowned dairies, flowed not like the streams in Blackmoor. Those were slow, silent, often turbid; flowing over beds of mud into which the incautious wader might sink and vanish unawares. The Froom waters were clear as the pure River of Life shown to the Evangelist, rapid as the shadow of a cloud, with pebbly shallows that prattled to the sky all day long. There the water-flower was the lily; the crow-foot here. 
.......Either the change in the quality of the air from heavy to light, or the sense of being amid new scenes where there were no invidious eyes upon her, sent up her spirits wonderfully. Her hopes mingled with the sunshine in an ideal photosphere which surrounded her as she
bounded along against the soft south wind. She heard a pleasant voice in every breeze, and in every bird's note seemed to lurk a joy.
Froom . . . Life: Simile.
From . . . cloud: Simile.
Pebbly . . . prattled: Alliteration and personifcation.
Soft south: Alliteration.
Pleasant . . . breeze: Personification.
From Chapter 24
July passed over their heads, and the Thermidorean weather which came in its wake seemed an effort on the part of Nature to match the state of hearts at Talbothays Dairy. The air of the place, so fresh in the spring and early summer, was stagnant and enervating now. Its heavy scents weighed upon them, and at mid-day the landscape seemed lying in a swoon. Ethiopic scorchings browned the upper slopes of the pastures, but there was still bright green herbage here where the watercourses purled. And as Clare was oppressed by the outward heats, so was he burdened inwardly by waxing fervour of passion for the soft and silent Tess.
Thermidorean: Adjective referring to Thermidor, a month in the calendar used during the French Revolution. Thermidor began on July 20 (Gregorian calendar) and ended on August 18.
Effort . . . match: Personification.
Landscape . . . swoon: Personification.
Ethiopic: Adjective referring to the African country of Ethiopia. 
Where the watercourses: Alliteration.
Soft and silent: Alliteration.
From Chapter 29
At first Tess seemed to regard Angel Clare as an intelligence rather than as a man. As such she compared him with herself; and at every discovery of the abundance of his illuminations, of the distance between her own modest mental standpoint and the unmeasurable, Andean altitude of his, she became quite dejected, disheartened from all further effort on her own part whatever.
Andean Altitude: Metaphor and hyperbole comparing Angel's intellect to the altitude of the Andes, a mountain range in South America with the highest peak in the western hemisphere, Mount Aconcagua, which rises 22,831 feet. 
From Chapter 50
Though the air was fresh and keen there was a whisper of spring in it that cheered the workers on. Something in the place, the hours, the crackling fires, the fantastic mysteries of light and shade, made others as well as Tess enjoy being there. Nightfall, which in the frost of winter comes as a fiend and in the warmth of summer as a lover, came as a tranquillizer on this March day.
Air . . . it: Personification.
Mysteries . . . made: Alliteration.
Allusions and Direct References

Hardy alludes or directly refers to literature, including the Bible, and historical and mythological figures to underscore themes or the qualities or attitudes of characters. Following are examples:

Chapter 19: Angel Clare as Peter the Great
 

It was true that he [Angel Clare] was at present out of his class. But she [Tess] knew that was only because, like Peter the Great in a shipwright's yard, he was studying what he wanted to know. He did not milk cows because he was obliged to milk cows, but because he was learning to be a rich and prosperous dairyman, landowner, agriculturist, and breeder of cattle. He would become an American or Australian Abraham, commanding like a monarch his flocks and his herds, his spotted and his ring-straked, his men-servants and his maids. 
Peter the Great: Peter I (1672-1725), czar and later emperor of Russia who shaped his country into a great power. Early in his rule, one of his priorities was to educate himself about life in Europe and to learn technology that would empower his regime. To accomplish these tasks, he lived in Western Europe for a time under an assumed name. To gain the knowledge necessary to build a formidable navy, he worked as a carpenter in a Dutch shipyard and later labored in a British Royal Navy yard.
Abraham: Hebrew patriarch who went forth in the Second Millennium BC. from his native city, Ur, to found a great nation, supervising the tending of sheep and other animals along the way. 
Chapter 19: Tess as a Dispirited Queen of Sheba
......."Why do you look so woebegone all of a sudden?" he [Angel Clare] asked.
......."Oh, 'tis only–about my own self," she said, with a frail laugh of sadness . . . . Just a sense of what might have been with me! My life looks as if it had been wasted for want of chances!  When I see what you know, what you have read, and seen, and thought, I feel what a nothing I am! I'm like the poor Queen of Sheba who lived in the Bible. There is no more spirit in me."
Queen of Sheba: Ruler of Saba' (Sheba) in Arabia in the Tenth Century BC who visited King Solomon to test his knowledge and wisdom. Here was the result, as told in 3 Kings, Chapter 10, Verses 3-5: 
And Solomon informed her of all the things she proposed to him: there was not any word the king was ignorant of, and which he could not answer her. And when the queen of Saba saw all the wisdom of Solomon, and the house which he had built, and the meat of his table, and the apartments of his servants, and the order of his ministers, and their apparel, and the cupbearers, and the holocausts, which he offered in the house of the Lord, she had no longer any spirit in her.
Chapter 20: Happiness in the Garden of Eden
Being so often–possibly not always by chance–the first two persons to get up at the dairy-house, they [Angel and Tess] seemed to themselves the first persons up of all the world. In these early days of her residence here Tess did not skim, but went out of doors at once after rising, where he was generally awaiting her. The spectral, half-compounded, aqueous light which pervaded the open mead impressed them with a feeling of isolation, as if they were Adam and Eve. 
Chapter 23: Metaphor Alluding to a Shakespeare Trope
.......His aspect was probably as un-Sabbatarian a one as a dogmatic parson's son often presented; his attire being his dairy clothes, long wading boots, a cabbage-leaf inside his hat to keep his head cool, with a thistle-spud to finish him off.  "He's not going to church," said Marian.
......."No–I wish he was!" murmured Tess.
.......Angel, in fact, rightly or wrongly (to adopt the safe phrase of evasive controversialists), preferred sermons in stones to sermons in churches and chapels on fine summer days.
Sermons in stones: Words spoken by Duke Senior in Scene 1 of Act 2 in Shakespeare's As You Like It. The duke is exulting in the advantages of life in the forest, where nature speaks the sermons instead of a representative of organized religion. To access the As You Like It study guide, click here
Chapter 27: Eve Regarding Adam
Having been lying down in her clothes she was warm as a sunned cat. At first she would not look straight up at him, but her eyes soon lifted, and his plumbed the deepness of the ever-varying pupils, with their radiating fibrils of blue, and black, and gray, and violet, while she regarded him as Eve at her second waking might have regarded Adam.
Chapter 29: Life Beyond Eden
The outskirt of the garden in which Tess found herself had been left uncultivated for some years, and was now damp and rank with juicy grass which sent up mists of pollen at a touch; and with tall blooming weeds emitting offensive smells–weeds whose red and yellow and purple hues formed a polychrome as dazzling as that of cultivated flowers. She went stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth, gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts, cracking snails that were underfoot, staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, and rubbing off upon her naked arms sticky blights which, though snow-white on the apple-tree trunks, made madder stains on her skin; thus she drew quite near to Clare, still unobserved of him.
Chapter 35: Allusion to Shakespeare's Lear
......."Angel!–Angel! I [Tess] was a child–a child when it happened!  I knew nothing of men."
......."You were more sinned against than sinning, that I [Angel Clare] admit."
Sinned . . . sinning: In Scene 2 of Act 3 of Shakespeare's play King Lear, the title character says, "I am a man / More sinn'd against than sinning." Lear had just been rejected by two of his daughters, who are conspiring against him. To access the King Lear study guide, click here.
Chapter 45: Corrupted Alec (Adam) Attempting to Excuse Himself
"I have done nothing!" said he indifferently. "Heaven, as I have been telling my hearers, has done all. No amount of contempt that you can pour upon me, Tess, will equal what I have poured upon myself–the old Adam of my former years! 
Chapter 50: Alec Claiming Tess Wrongfully Regards Him as Satanic
......."A jester might say this is just like Paradise. You are Eve, and I am the old Other One come to tempt you in the disguise of an inferior animal. I used to be quite up in that scene of Milton's when I was theological. Some of it goes–
"Empress, the way is ready, and not long,
Beyond a row of myrtles...
... If thou accept
My conduct, I can bring thee thither soon."
"Lead then," said Eve.
Milton's: Reference to John Milton (1608-1674), author of the great epic poem Paradise Lost.
Climax

The climax of the novel takes place on the wedding night of Tess and Angel after Tess reveals to her new husband the details of her relationship with Alec d'Urberville. The key moment occurs when Angel rejects Tess, saying that her disclosure makes him realize that she is not the woman he believed her to be. His inability to accept Tess as she is precipitates the tragic events that follow. There is a kind of secondary climax that occurs when police catch up with and arrest Tess at Stonehenge. 


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Themes

Fatalism

Hardy presents a world in which circumstances beyond the control of Tess determine her destiny. Luck, chance, coincidence, and environmental forces continually work against Tess to entangle her in one predicament after another. Her social status, her accident with the horse, her row with Car Darch, the forest encounter with Alec and the resulting pregnancy, the death of her father, the eviction of her family, and so on all weave her into a web from which there is no escape. The narrator calls attention to this theme in Chapter 11 after Alec rapes–or seduces–Tess:

As Tess's own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: "It was to be." There lay the pity of it. An immeasurable social chasm was to divide our heroine's personality thereafter from that previous self of hers who stepped from her mother's door to try her fortune at Trantridge poultry-farm.
Male Predominance and Sexual Harassment

In the 19th Century, males dominated society and expected females to do their bidding. Tess’s resistance to the advances of Alec succeed for a time, but he eventually entraps her after continually harassing her. Although Angel loves Tess and marries her, he abandons her shortly after their wedding when he discovers what happened between her and Alec. It does not matter to him that he himself had an affair before he was married. Men may stray with impunity, he believes. Women may not. After Tess’s father, John Durbeyfield dies, his wife and children are evicted. It was he who was privileged to hold the lease to their property, not his wife. 

Prejudice

This theme manifests itself in Chapter 2 when Angel Clare asks his brothers to attend the country May dance with him. Felix replies, “Dancing in public with a troop of country hoydens–suppose we should be seen!” In Chapter 40, Mercy Chant exhibits an anti-Catholic bias after she hears that Angel is going abroad. Here is the passage:

.......She had learnt that he was about to leave England, and observed what an excellent and promising scheme it seemed to be.
......."Yes; it is a likely scheme enough in a commercial sense, no doubt," he replied.  "But, my dear Mercy, it snaps the continuity of existence. Perhaps a cloister would be preferable."
......."A cloister!  O, Angel Clare!"
......."Well?"
......."Why, you wicked man, a cloister implies a monk, and a monk Roman Catholicism."
......."And Roman Catholicism sin, and sin damnation. Thou art in a parlous state, Angel Clare" [third person reference to himself].
......."I glory in my Protestantism!" she said severely.
Conformacy

Angel Clare's brothers, Felix and Cuthbert, are conformists who adopt current fashions and adjust their literary and artistic tastes to whatever is popular at the time. They seem to represent the conformists in the general population who exhibit little original thinking and lack the courage to consider news ideas or challenge established ideas. In the following passage from Chapter 25, the narrator discusses their conformacy: 

After breakfast he walked with his two brothers, non-evangelical, well-educated, hall-marked young men, correct to their remotest fibre, such unimpeachable models as are turned out yearly by the lathe of a systematic tuition. They were both somewhat short-sighted, and when it was the custom to wear a single eyeglass and string they wore a single eyeglass and string; when it was the custom to wear a double glass they wore a double glass; when it was the custom to wear spectacles they wore spectacles straightway, all without reference to the particular variety of defect in their own vision. When Wordsworth was enthroned they carried pocket copies; and when Shelley was belittled they allowed him to grow dusty on their shelves. When Correggio's Holy Families were admired, they admired Correggio's Holy Families; when he was decried in favour of Velasquez, they sedulously followed suit without any personal objection.
The Lure of Money

After John Durbeyfield learns that he has noble ancestors, he and his wife hatch a "projick," as Joan Durbeyfield calls it, to send Tess on a mission to claim a relationship with a wealthy family, the Stoke-d'Urbervilles, that the Durbeyfields mistakenly believe has descended from the same ancestors. Their goal is straightforward and crass: to establish kinship with the Stoke-d'Urbervilles and thereby qualify for financial assistance from them. The Durbeyfields entertain the hope that Tess may even marry into the family and become a source of benefactions. When Tess first resists the idea, the Durbeyfield children join their voices with those of their parents in urging Tess to seek out the Stoke-d'Urbervilles, saying that if Tess does not accede to the plan, "we shan't have a nice new horse, and lots o' golden money to buy fairlings!" Later in the novel, Alec d'Urberville uses money to attempt to win Tess. He succeeds. Here is the scenario: After John Durbeyfield dies and his family is evicted, Alec offers to house the Durbeyfields if Tess will yield to him. Tess–ever concerned about the welfare of her family–accepts his proposition. 

Irony

Situational Irony

Tess Durbeyfield and her family are commoners descended from nobility. Alec d'Urberville and his mother are wealthy landowners who, though perceived as nobility, are really members of the bourgeois class. It seems that Hardy intends this situational irony as a rebuke of society's excessive emphasis on lineage and material possessions–or, in short, name recognition and appearances. True nobility, he says, lies in the heart, not in a genealogical table or a wallet. It is also ironic that Tess, a young woman of modest education, intuitively knows more about what really matters in life than either Angel Clare or Alec d'Urberville, both exhibiting a knowledge of literature, art, philosophy, and religion but lacking in the knowledge to make the right moral decisions. 

Dramatic Irony

Hardy uses dramatic irony to create suspense or to reveal a truth, a situation, an attitude, or a trait of which at least one character is unaware. In the climax of the story, for example, dramatic irony reveals a bias in Angel of which he is ignorant. The moment occurs when he has a change of heart after Tess tells him about her past. Previously, he had declared himself more tolerant and less judgmental than his brothers, as well as Victorian society in general. But this moment reveals him as just as biased as his brothers in regard to what they deem acceptable or unacceptable conduct for a woman. However, he is blind to this shortcoming; to him, it is Tess who is blameworthy. The narrator stresses his self-blindness later, when Angel visits his parents. At supper, they have a Bible reading from Chapter 31 of the Book of Proverbs, Verses 10-31, in which King Lemuel reports a vision of his mother. In it, his mother instructs him in the ways and qualities of a of a wise and virtuous wife. Afterward, the narrator writes, 

With all his attempted independence of judgement this advanced and well-meaning young man, a sample product of the last five-and-twenty years, was yet the slave to custom and conventionality when surprised back into his early teachings.  No prophet had told him, and he was not prophet enough to tell himself, that essentially this young wife of his was as deserving of the praise of King Lemuel as any other woman endowed with the same dislike of evil, her moral value having to be reckoned not by achievement but by tendency.
Another example of dramatic irony occurs when Angel's mother decides to accept Tess as a suitable wife for him at the very time when he and Tess are separating, a development of which Mrs. Clare is unaware. She says, "There are worse wives than these simple, rosy-mouthed, robust girls of the farm. Certainly I could have wished–well, since my son is to be an agriculturist, it is perhaps but proper that his wife should have been accustomed to an outdoor life."

Ironic Thesis

One of Hardy's main theses in Tess is that heredity, environment, and pure chance shape the lives of people. They have little or no free will. Ironically, however, Hardy rebukes Victorian society for its moral and social attitudes. In other words, Hardy is condemning society for actions over which (he theorizes) it has no control. 

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1. Write an essay analyzing the significance of passages that present white or black (or light or dark) images. Following are several passages to get you started:

The district is of historic, no less than of topographical interest. The Vale was known in former times as the Forest of White Hart, from a curious legend of King Henry III's reign, in which the killing by a certain Thomas de la Lynd of a beautiful white hart which the king had run down and spared, was made the occasion of a heavy fine. (Chapter 2)

In addition to the distinction of a white frock, every woman and girl carried in her right hand a peeled willow wand, and in her left a bunch of white flowers. The peeling of the former, and the selection of the latter, had been an operation of personal care. (Chapter 2)

The wind blew through Tess's white muslin to her very skin, and her washed hair flew out behind. She was determined to show no open fear, but she clutched d'Urberville's rein-arm. (Chapter 8)

The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D'Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears. (Chapter 11)

Her [Tess's] figure looked singularly tall and imposing as she stood in her long white nightgown, a thick cable of twisted dark hair hanging straight down her back to her waist. (Chapter 14) 

2. John d'Urberville rejoices when he discovers that he has descended from nobility. How important was aristocratic lineage to Englishmen ....of the Nineteenth Century?
3. In an informative essay, write a psychological profile of Tess, Angel, or Alec.
4. How commonplace was sexual harassment of young women in England in the 1900s?
5. Tess was executed for the murder of Alec d'Urberville. Was she guilty of first-degree murder or a lesser crime, such as manslaughter? ....Or, considering her state of mind and the wrongs done to her, was she innocent? Form a jury with your classmates to consider these ....questions, then deliver a verdict. 
6. Author Thomas Hardy maintains that chance, coincidence, and environmental forces shape a person's destiny? Do you agree with ....him? Explain your answer.
7. Write an essay explaining the extent to which Thomas Hardy was influenced by events in his own life when he wrote Tess.
8. In an informative essay, discuss how Hardy uses symbolism in Tess to develop the story and its themes. An essay on this topic might ....suggest, for example, that Blackmoor Valley represents the bleak life of Tess Durbeyfield and other common folk like her. Her life is ....like a black moor, a dreary wasteland. It might also suggest that the white clothing Tess frequently wears symbolizes innocence and ....that Marlott, the village, in which the Durbeyfields live represents the marred lot (lot here meaning fate, destiny) of Tess. Other symbols ....to look for may include animals, the weather, plants, the sky and its orbs, religious objects, historical sites, and people.
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Films Based on Hardy Novels
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