The setting is in Wessex, in the south of England, during the late 1800s. John Durbeyfield is on his way home after working as a higgler/haggler. He encounters a local parson who tells him of his family history: The Durbeyfields are descended from the once famous d'Urbervilles, a wealthy family dating back to the time of William the Conqueror. John, feeling a rush of superiority, hurries home to tell his family of the good news. The family has had a difficult life, with John a poor provider and his wife barely managing to keep the family fed and clothed. There are seven children in all; Tess, or Theresa, is the oldest. Joan, John's wife, hatches a plan to send the 16-year-old Tess to "claim kin" at a nearby relation, a woman of wealth and position.
When John has had too much to drink, Tess and her brother Abraham set out with the family horse to deliver beehives at a nearby farmer's market. While en route, Tess and Abraham fall asleep in the wagon, and the horse, Prince, is killed accidentally by the local mail cart. Because Tess had allowed Prince to wander into the oncoming lane and had inadvertently caused the accident between the mail cart and the Durbeyfield wagon, she feels it is her responsibility to make matters right. It is at this point that Joan Durbeyfield introduces the plan for Tess to visit their d'Urberville relations. Tess initially objects to the plan, but with the family horse now dead, she relents and goes to the d'Urberville family to seek money or work.
Several themes appear early on in the novel. First, is the part that fate plays in our lives. Hardy uses the device of a poor family learning of their former circumstances and former history. It is only by chance that Parson Tringham and John Durbeyfield pass on the road, an encounter that gives the parson the opportunity to share information he has about Durbeyfield's ancestors. In fact, it was even chance that led Parson Tringham to suspect that the d'Urbervilles and Durbeyfields were connected at all; he simply happened to see the Durbeyfield name of John's wagon while he (the parson) was investigating the "vicissitudes of the d'Urberville family." The question becomes, would they have been better off not knowing that they were descended from nobility? Initially, the information seems like a boon to a family that, before the end of these four chapters, is in dire need of help, but it sets off a chain of events that, in the end, bring only tragedy.
A second theme appears in Chapter 1 when Parson Tringham mentions "how the mighty are fallen." In this novel, we will see how the mighty have fallen and how the poor arise from their situations in life only to be forced down again by circumstances beyond their control. Hardy here is preaching against the attitudes that Victorian England held at the time, that the wealthy control the lives of others. He seems to be making the argument that social position has a devastating effect upon the lives of those who must endure under the weight of class repression.
Hardy's use of the celebration of May Day, or May 1, is also significant. First, this is the where readers get their first glimpse of the young girl Tess. Dressed in white, she is a symbol of innocence and purity and gaiety at the celebration. Tess is among her friends at a May Day dance in Marlott, their hometown. Second, Hardy notes that such clubs, which are forgotten in the cities, still retain their former glory in the country where Tess lives, another indication that Tess is neither sophisticated nor worldly — a character trait that leaves her unprepared for the advances of a worldly man like Alec d'Urberville.
Finally, May Day itself is an ancient celebration, dating back to pagan times, when the Romans celebrated the goddess Floralia, who represented new spring flowers. Maia, the goddess of May, was celebrated for spring growth and replenishment. In this way, Hardy connects the Christian world and pagan world in the celebration of a former pagan holiday that had taken on Christian overtones. In this setting, Hardy describes Tess as "a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experienced . . . for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkle from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then." In essence, she is a lovely, innocent young girl on the brink of womanhood. (Ironically, Tess meets her future husband, Angel Clare, during the dance the girls perform, but she does not dance with him. Later both will recall this meeting, and both will express the sentiment, "if only . . . .")
haggler/higgler a dealer who travels from place to place selling wares or goods, such as fruit.
wold old (dialect).
Women's club-walking A procession by the members of a local club or clubs: esp. the annual festival of a benefit club or friendly society.
vamp trudge, tramp, walk (dialect).
Cerealia celebration in honor of Ceres, Roman goddess of the harvest.
Old Style days the time before 1752 when Great Britain replaced the Julian Calendar, old-style dating, with Gregorian, or new-style dating.
Market-niche the amount of alcohol that he would normally drink on a market day.
Uncribbed, uncabined after murdering Banquo, in Macbeth (3.4.24-25), Macbeth refers to himself as "cabined, cribbed, confined."
Whitsun Holidays the time around the seventh Sunday after Easter, Whitsuntide or Whit Sunday. Club-walking and other festivities were held in parishes at Whitsuntide.
clipsing and colling hugging (dialect).
diment diamond (dialect).
fess pleased (dialect).
poppet [Obs.] a doll, or puppet.
Sixth Standard in the National School the highest level available in school supported by government funds run by the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church. The first schools were established in 1811.
Mommet a term of abuse or contempt (dialect).
larry commotion, disturbance (dialect).
Oliver Grumble's Oliver Cromwell['s].
plim swell (dialect).
vlee fly; a one-horse hackney-carriage (dialect).
Mampus crowd (dialect).
rafted disturbed, unsettled (dialect).
outhouse a building separate from but near a main building. In nineteenth-century British usage, outhouse probably does not refer to a privy.
Revised Code reference to the Education Department's Revised Codes of 1862 and 1867, which linked the funding for schools to their size and to student performance on standardized assessment examinations.
"Nature's holy plan" from Wordsworth, "Lines Written in Early Spring" (line 22).
limed caught with birdlime; here, Abraham is compared to a bird ensnared in bird-lime.
off-license without a license; here, Rolliver's is not licensed to sell alcohol for consumption on the premises.
gaffer a foreman of a group of workers.
sumple supple (dialect).
"green malt on the floor" the expression refers to pregnancy before marriage.
nater nature (dialect).
Stubbard-tree a kind of apple tree.