At the inn, Tess’s young brother Abraham overhears Mr. and Mrs. Durbeyfield discussing their plans for Tess to take the news of her ancestry to the wealthy Mrs. d’Urberville in the hopes that she will make Tess’s fortune. When Tess arrives, she realizes her father will probably be too tired and drunk to take his load of beehives to the market in a few hours. Her prediction comes true, so she and her brother Abraham deliver them instead. On the way, Abraham tells Tess of their parents’ plans, and then the conversation veers onto the topic of astronomy. Knowing that stars contain clusters of worlds like their own, Abraham asks Tess if those worlds are better or worse than the world in which they live. Tess boldly answers that other stars are better and that their star is a “blighted one.” Tess explains that this shortcoming is the reason for all of her and her family’s misfortunes.
Abraham falls asleep, leaving Tess to contemplate. She too eventually falls asleep and dreams about a “gentlemanly suitor” who grimaces and laughs at her. Suddenly, Tess and Abraham are awakened by a calamity. Their carriage has collided with the local mail cart, and the collision has killed Prince, their old horse. Realizing that the loss of their horse will be economically devastating for her family, Tess is overcome with guilt. The surrounding foliage seems to turn pale and white as Tess does. The carriage is hitched up to the wagon of a local farmer, who helps them bring the beehives toward the market in Casterbridge.
Later, Tess returns home ashamed, but no one blames Tess more than she does herself. Tess remains the only one who recognizes the impact that the loss of the horse will have. The farmer helps them return Prince’s body back to the Durbeyfield’s home. Refusing to scrap or sell the body, Mr. Durbeyfield labors harder than he has in an entire month to bury his beloved horse.
In part because of her guilt over the horse, Tess agrees with her mother’s plan to send her to Mrs. d’Urberville. When she arrives, she does not find the crumbling old mansion she expects, but rather a new and fashionable home. She meets Mrs. d’Urberville’s son Alec, who, captivated by Tess’s beauty, agrees to try to help her. Alec says that his mother is unwell, but he says he will see what he can do for Tess.
When Tess returns home, she finds a letter. It is from Mrs. d’Urberville, offering her a job tending the d’Urbervilles’ fowls. Tess looks for other jobs closer to home, but she cannot find anything. Hoping to earn enough money to buy a new horse for her family, Tess accepts the d’Urbervilles’ job and decides to go back to Trantridge.
On the day Tess is scheduled to leave for the d’Urbervilles’ home, Mrs. Durbeyfield cajoles her into wearing her best clothes. Mrs. Durbeyfield dresses Tess up and is pleased by her own efforts, as is Mr. Durbeyfield, who begins speculating about a price at which he will sell their family title. When Alec arrives to retrieve Tess, they become uncertain that she is doing the right thing. The children cry, as does Mrs. Durbeyfield, who worries that Alec might try to take advantage of her daughter.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles is rich in symbolism, which becomes noticeable in as Tess drives the wagon in Chapter IV. Tess has a dream about a man of nobility who stands laughing at her and looking down on her plight. Tess wakes up to realize that she has literally killed her Prince, the family’s horse, and along with it the family’s means of support. Symbolically, the inability of the Durbeyfields to deliver the load of beehives mirrors their inability to transcend their social class. Even with the knowledge of their supposed noble heritage, without physical productivity, the calamities that befall them in the present stunt the Durbeyfields’ dreams of future social mobilization and other lofty goals. The novel thus prioritizes work and contribution over nobility and entitlement. As Prince’s death immobilizes their only marketable good, the Durbeyfields must suffer the tragedy that lies ahead.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles follows a simple but carefully constructed pattern. Hardy establishes a set of basic plot mechanisms that govern the structure of his story and employs them without drastic variation. The novel is divided into seven phases, each of which tells a concise and particular story within the larger story of Tess’s life, and accomplishes some specific goals in moving Tess from her simple country life to her tragic circumstances at the end of her life. These chapters successively show Tess’s development into a responsible young adult. The responsibility she feels for the death of Prince compels her to pay her family back. This guilt leads her to visit the d’Urbervilles and puts her into an uncertain and potentially dangerous situation. These chapters also mark the beginning of her downfall, as she blindly offers to work at Trantridge for the sake of her family.
Though it is early in the novel, distinct pictures of each of the characters already start to emerge. We can see Tess’s highly developed sense of responsibility as she answers her brother Abraham’s questions and completes the work neglected by her parents. Tess’s beauty and nobility of character are also emphasized, as are her strong conscience and sense of familial duty. Mr. and Mrs. Durbeyfield’s weaknesses—his laziness and her simplemindedness—add a degree of urgency to Tess’s family responsibilities. If not for Tess, the Durbeyfields might be very badly off indeed. Alec is obviously lascivious and opportunistic, an impression reinforced in every scene in which he appears. He is repeatedly associated with darkness and dark colors, reflecting the shadiness of his own character. From his first meeting with Tess, he behaves awkwardly and inappropriately, addressing her with intimate nicknames like “my pretty coz.” Alec’s unappealing traits are easily recognizable. To an extent, at this point in the novel the characters seem somewhat one-dimensional. Even Angel Clare, who appears only briefly in this section, is portrayed as graceful, kind, and life-loving, presaging what we see of him later. But at the same time, by giving us a strong sense of these characters and what kinds of things they are likely to do, Hardy is able to generate a great deal of suspense, drawing us into his plots of seduction, betrayal, and loyalty. Moreover, the changes that we see later in the novel seem momentous, surprising, and important after this vivid beginning.
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