Summary and Analysis
Phase the First: The Maiden:
Tess makes her new home in an old house that had once been the primary house at The Slopes. It is now a chicken coop. The new house is the centerpiece of the estate. Tess must, along with the other staff, bring the chickens one by one to Mrs. d'Urberville for inspection. When Mrs. d'Urberville, a blind 60-year-old woman, asks Tess whether she can whistle (she wants Tess to whistle to the bullfinches that live in a cage in the house), Tess says she can. When she tries later, though, she realizes whistling is a talent she no longer possesses, and so she begins to practice so that she may regain the skill. Alec sees Tess practicing, finds her attempts humorous, and offers to coach her. Tess declines his offer, but he persists until, just to be rid of him, she agrees to let him assist her. Alec, taken by Tess and unaccustomed to being denied, begins to spy on Tess, watching her as she works in the house, even hiding behind the bed curtains on his mother's bed to catch her whistling to the birds.
Tess makes friends with other housekeeping staff members, and they introduce Tess to the dances that they attend on the weekends. The staff goes to nearby Chaseborough to drink at the pub or dance in the dancehall. Because Tess does not have a partner to dance with, she watches the other staff dance. This particular September evening, the cottage staff opt instead for a private dance in the barn of a supplier to the d'Urberville estate. Alec surprises Tess by appearing at the barn dance. He offers her a ride home, which she turns down.
Later, when the cottage staff return home, Tess and Car, another girl who works at The Slopes, get into a fight over Car's jealousy at Alec's attention towards Tess. Alec rides up and rescues Tess from a small mob of resentful women. He takes her away from a beating she surely would have suffered at the hands of the cottage staff women.
Instead of returning directly to The Slopes, Alec meanders along, hoping to take advantage of Tess in a vulnerable state. He finally actually loses his way in the dense fog. He leaves Tess in the woods as he goes to find a cottage for directions back to Trantridge. When Alec returns to Tess, he finds her asleep and rapes her, knowing he has worn down Tess' defenses over the last few months.
Alec uses all types of methods to achieve his goal, from light sexual teasing to forcible rape. One has to believe that it was Alec's intent all along to take any freedoms he chose with Tess. This is foreshadowed by Hardy throughout Phase I in his references to Alec's debauchery and Tess' innocence. From the beginning, Alec has implied that he and she share an intimate link through their common ancestor. (Alec — and the readers — knows this relationship to be false, but Tess does not.) Alec has also been able, in nearly every encounter with Tess, to coerce her to do as he wishes, despite her obvious despair. His predatory behavior escalates from simply refusing to accept her refusal of his advances (the strawberry episode), to putting her in a precarious position (during their wild ride to The Slopes) and then offering her salvation — if she will acquiesce to one small liberty — a kiss in this case, to finally, raping her.
It might be argued that Alec had a history of doing as he pleased, even with the hired help at The Slopes: "It was evidently the gentleman's wish not to be disturbed in this pleasant tete-a-tete by the servantry." Even the cottage workers know what is about to happen, "'Heu-heu-heu!' laughed Car's mother, stroking her moustache as she explains laconically: 'Out of the frying-pan into the fire!'"
Hardy also reintroduces the concept that fate plays a significant part in how people's lives turn out, when he concludes "It [the rape] was meant to be." Fate was not a new concept with Hardy. The ancient Greeks used fate as a guiding force in their plays. To the Greeks (and later Romans) the Fates were, literally, three goddesses — Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos — who control human destiny and life. Late in the novel, Hardy evokes Aeschylus and the Greek idea that we are all destined to be controlled by fate.
Because Alec is of the gentry class in England, there will be no consequences for him to endure. Tess, the victim, is the one who must live with the consequences of the act. This scenario is one of the ways in which this novel was considered controversial by its original readers. Alec is allowed to do as he pleases, abusing power and position, which in Hardy's estimation, was one of the ills of Victorian society and one of the issues with English aristocracy: "One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d'Urberville's mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time." Whether it's fate, or "retribution" for past offenses, or predestination, Tess does not deserve what happens to her. Nevertheless, she is the one who must endure under the burden of the crime perpetrated against her.
Hardy would not offend the sensibilities of his readers by tainting the novel with a lurid sex scene. At the end of Chapter 9, the rape scene is not played out before our eyes. In fact, it is hard to find the actual mention of rape in the entire novel. Hardy leaves out the gratuitous violent scenes. Instead, like a Greek tragedy, the violence takes place off-stage. Indeed, all violence in the Greek theatre was played off-stage as witnessed by Aeschylus' play Oedipus Rex. Even when his main character, Oedipus, blinds himself by gouging his eyes out, we do not see the actual act on stage, which would have offended the sensibilities of his audience. Instead, we see the result of the action, as we will here. What the characters do or how they react is more important than the act.
Now that Alec has conquered Tess, he wants to keep her as his own. But Tess will not let Alec's advances keep her at The Slopes.
copyholders persons who hold land by copyhold; here, possessors of the land at the will of the lord of the manor, who, by custom, normally allowed tenants to stay for longer than the life of the original tenant.
"Take, O take those lips away" from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (Act I, Scene 1, Line 1).
satyrs in classical mythology, minor woodland deities having the head and trunk of a man and the hind legs of a goat, and as being fond of riotous merriment and lechery.
nymphs minor nature goddesses, represented as young and beautiful and living in rivers, mountains, or trees.
Pan Greek god with legs, ears, and horns of a goat, noted for his lust.
Syrinx Syrinx was pursued by Pan, but the gods turned her into a reed, from which Pan made his pipe.
Lotis . . . Priapus Priapus, another lustful god, pursued Lotis, who was turned into a lotus flower.
Sileni plural form of Silenus, a satyr and follower of Bacchus.
Jints (dialect) joints or hip/knee joints.
Praxitlean creation like the work of Praxiteles, Greek sculptor of the fourth century B.C. known for his sensual statues.
Tishbite Elijah, who in 1 Kings 18 mocks the god worshipped by the priests of Baal.
"Sins of the fathers" Exodus 20:5: "I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me."