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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
PHASE THE FIRST - THE MAIDEN
The novel begins with John Durbeyfield, the poor and lazy father of Tess, walking towards his home in Marlott. He is greeted by the elderly parson Trigham and is addressed as "Sir John". He is very excited to learn from the parson that his ancestors came from the elite family of D'Urbervilles. He takes this revelation seriously, ignoring the information that the family no longer has fame or wealth, and demands to be called Sir. Feeling aristocratic, John also orders a carriage to take him home.
The first chapter introduces the readers to John, a poor, lazy peddler who begins to act crazily when he learns that he is descended from an elite family. Hardy foreshadows, in this opening chapter, that things will change for the Durbeyfields (to whom Tess belongs) as a result of the D'Urbervilles (to whom Alec belongs). Unfortunately, the change is not a positive one as John expects, but a tragic one that destroys the life of an innocent young lady.
Hardy, in depicting John's behavior in this chapter, is poking fun at human beings who hear what they want to hear and act crazily when they try to be something that they really are not.
In the village of Marlott, preparations are being made for the May- Day Dance, which is about to begin. Every girl in this dance is to wear a white dress and carry a peeled willow wand in her right hand and a bunch of white flowers in her left hand. John's daughter, Tess, is a participant in the dance. Angel Clare, who comes to the dance as he passes through the village with his two brothers, regrets that he has not chosen Tess, who is quite pretty, as his dancing partner. He also notices that she is watching him.
In this chapter, Hardy depicts the simple pleasure of country life at the May-Day Dance. All of the young ladies have dressed in white and carry willow wands and white flowers, a picture of purity. But there seems to be a longing for something more. They want to appear more elegant than their poor working class background permits (just as John has wanted to be something more aristocratic than a peddler). Each of the girls is also attracted to Angel Clare, who is obviously of a higher class and whose manners are much better than those of the Marlott boys. When Angel dances with one of the girls, all of the others envy her, including Tess. In fact, she experiences her first pangs of heartache due to Angel. This simple heartache foreshadows the true heartbreak that Tess will feel later when Angel deserts her.
This chapter has Tess rushing back home to check on her father after having seen his earlier peculiar behavior. She learns from her mother, Joan that her father's odd behavior is because of the D'Urberville connection and not due to excessive drinking. Her mother also tells Tess that her father has just learned he has a problem with his heart, and has gone to Rolliver's Inn to gather strength from drinking. Tess is upset that her mother has let him go and offers to go and bring him home. Joan says she wants to go out and will fetch John from the Inn. Tess is left to watch after her younger brothers and sisters. She also thinks about Angel Clare, the suave young man at the dance. When it grows late and her parents fail to return, she goes out to find them.
The readers are further introduced to the Durbeyfields. They are obviously a poor family lacking many basic amenities of life. The father is not very responsible, choosing to call a carriage in order to feel aristocratic and going to the Inn to gain strength from drinking. The mother is not much more intelligent or responsible. She is superstitious and often consults her fortune-telling book. She also goes to retrieve her husband and obviously stays at the Inn to drink with him. In contrast to her irresponsible parents, Tess is portrayed as loyal (standing up for her father even when she is embarrassed by him and rushing home after the dance to check on him), concerned (that her father is at the Inn drinking), and responsible (she offers to go and retrieve her father from the Inn, stays behind to baby-sit her siblings, and finally goes to bring both her mother and father home).
It is important to note that this entire chapter, set in the dark, somber house, is a complete contrast to the previous chapter where all is white, bright, gay, and elegant as the young ladies dance at the May-Day Dance. Throughout the book, Hardy will use such contrasts to develop his plot, mood, and theme.