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Tess, the main character and protagonist, is examined in depth in the novel, and practically every scene of the book is related to her in some way. In the beginning of the story, Tess is a sixteen-year- old girl living with her impoverished family in Marlott. She is a pure and innocent beauty, who is comparatively well educated, reliable, and responsible. In fact, it is her innate sense of responsibility that compels her to go to Trantridge to seek a job with the rich D'Urbervilles to whom she is distantly related; her family needs extra money, and she obliges. In Trantridge, she is confused by Alec D'Urberville's bold advances that lead to her seduction. Fearful of the man who has stolen her innocence, she returns home to her parents and soon finds out she is pregnant. Ashamed of her situation, Tess goes into a self-imposed seclusion.
After the birth of her son, Tess gains enough courage to go back to the fields to work and even nurses her baby there. One night when she returns home from working, she finds her son extremely ill. She wants to call the parson, but her father will not let her. She christens the baby herself and calls him Sorrow. The next day the child dies, and Tess must bury him herself in a forgotten corner of the cemetery.
After Sorrow's death, Tess realizes she can no longer stay at home. She finds work as a milkmaid at Talbothay's farm, where she meets Angel, the handsome and educated man of her dreams. Surprisingly to Tess, Angel is also attracted to her. Because of her past, she tries to discourage Angel's attention, but he is totally enamored and begs Tess to marry him. She says no at first, for she wants to reveal her past to him. She writes him a letter, which explains her past sins and assumes he reads it. Since he says nothing to her, she believes he has forgiven her. On the day of her wedding, she discovers her unopened letter under the rug. On the night of her marriage, she at last confesses to Angel. He is horrified that she is not the pure and innocent young lady he thought; as a result, he rejects her and moves to Brazil.
Tess returns home and cares for her ailing parents and her siblings, while working hard in the fields. She is too proud to ask for help from Angel's parents. Alec finds out where Tess is and repeatedly offers help, for he wants to win her over again. Tess continually refuses his offers. When her father dies, the family is forced to move out of their home in Marlott and wind up camping out in a cemetery. Alec appears and again offers his financial assistance with strings attached. Tess, in dire need and feeling like she will never see Angel again, finally accepts Alec's temptation.
Angel returns from Brazil, finds Tess, and begs for forgiveness. She tells him it is too late, for she is living with Alec. It is Tess's worst nightmare; however, to think she might pass up an opportunity to be with her beloved husband, but she knows that Alec will never release her. As a result, in anger and frustration, she stabs Alec to death. She spends her last few days, before her arrest and execution, living in bliss with Angel, the only man she has ever loved.
In Tess, Hardy creates an amazing, courageous, and resilient woman with an innate capacity for recovery. Her resourcefulness and determination are reflected several times in the book, including the baptism of her baby and discussing it with the parson, her decorating Sorrow's grave, her striking out on her own to find employment, her refusal to go to the Clares for financial aid, and her loving Angel in spite of the cruelty he has inflicted on her. She is also determined to stand up to Alec, and time and again refuses his tempting offers. It is only when she feels that fate has totally defeated her and her family, who are homeless and live in poverty, does she give in to Alec's offers. He has convinced her she will never hear from or see Angel again. When Angel reappears, her love for him gives her the strength to kill Alec, her seducer and tempter.
In spite of her faults, Hardy creates Tess as a strong and admirable character. The author conveys the idea that his protagonist is more sinned against than sinning.
Angel is the youngest son of the Vicar of Emminster. He is handsome, bright, and well educated. Since he chose not to go into the ministry like his two older brothers, his father does not send him to Cambridge for further studies. As a result, he chooses farming for his vocation and goes to Talbothay's Dairy to learn all that he can. At Talbothay's, he falls in love with Tess.
While at Talbothay's, Angel shows that he is rigid in his beliefs. Although he loves Tess, he wants to make her over into his own image of womanhood. He teaches her what he wants her to know and gives her books to read that he thinks she should read. Because Tess idolizes him, she is easily led. Because she seems so open, pure, and innocent, he is easily deceived. Therefore, when Angel learns the truth about Tess's past on his wedding night, he cannot forgive her or accept her as his wife. He sends her home to her parents and goes to Brazil.
In Rio, Angel meets another Englishman to whom he confides his past. He is flatly told that he was a fool to have deserted Tess. As a result, Angel begins to re-evaluate all of his beliefs, especially those related to morality. He realizes he has been terrible to his wife and hopes for a reconciliation after his return home. But the year of separation from Tess riddles him with guilt and shame. He returns to Emminster a changed man, both physically and mentally.
Angel immediately goes in search of his wife and finally finds her in Sanbourne, living with Alec D'Urberville. He is heartbroken that she has rejected him, but he does not blame her. As he is ready to board a train and leave Sanbourne and Tess behind forever, she approaches him and tells him that she has killed Alec. Angel proves he truly has changed, for he still accepts Tess and tries to protect her. He hides her away for five days in a vacant mansion, where they spend their real honeymoon in total happiness. Angel proves he is now forgiving, kind, thoughtful, and optimistic; unfortunately, these positive traits reveal themselves too late.
Hardy develops Angel as an interesting and complicated character, full of contradictions and confusions. In many ways, he is a modern man, as indicated in his rejection of immoral, aristocratic families, such as the D'Urbervilles, and in his negative reaction to orthodox Christian beliefs, as preached by his father. At the same time, he is dogmatic and rigid about his morality. He feels a woman should be pure and chaste, the conventional Victorian picture of femininity. As a result, he cannot forgive Tess for having had an affair with Alec, even though he has had an affair with an older woman in London. He cruelly sends Tess away, departs for Brazil, and does not communicate with her for a year.
In spite of his hardness and his cruel treatment of Tess, as a result, there is also much "good" in Angel. He has an affectionate nature and truly loves Tess at the time of their wedding. He is patient with her, teaching her many things, especially those he feels like she should learn. He stands up for her against his parents when they judge her to be a poor choice for a wife. When he leaves her, he gives her money and makes arrangement with the Clares to provide for her needs while he is in Brazil. In the end, his goodness shines through in his kind treatment of Tess and his forgiveness of her past sins. Unfortunately, it comes too late to save Tess or their marriage.
Alec is the wealthy son of Mrs. D'Urberville. His appearance, like his personality, has no refinement. His dark-complexion with crude red lips and black mustache paint him nothing short of a villain. In fact, he becomes a satanic character who is always tempting the innocent Tess.
As a wealthy young man, he is used to having his own way. When he spies innocent and beautiful Tess, he wants her for his very own, and will do anything to have her. In fact, he takes advantage of her youth and naiveté and seduces her. Tess stays with him only for a few days before realizing his evil nature. When she leaves him, Alec is furious to be losing something that he wants and swears vengeance.
At first it seems that Alec has repented, for he becomes an itinerant preacher. But the moment he sees Tess again, his passion rises. He gives up the ministry and begins a full-time pursuit of the girl he has lost. Constantly rejected by her, he creates bigger and bigger temptations to win her back. When he sees her totally broken and her family living in a temporary tent in the cemetery of the churchyard, Alec sees a golden opportunity to get what he wants. He makes one last temptation to Tess to save her and her family. Tess, out of desperation, accepts his offer. Tess, however, feels trapped by this evil man and sees her only way of escaping him is through his murder.
Alec is portrayed as a totally despicable character from start to finish. He is violent, selfish, headstrong, adamant, and demanding. Although he makes generous offers to financially care for Tess and her family, it is for a self-serving purpose; he wants to win Tess as a wife. She is a challenge for him, only because he cannot have her, whereas other women throw themselves at him for financial gain. His purpose in the story is to bring misery to Tess by repeatedly casting his long shadow across her life. In the end, Alec receives his just rewards.