The novel’s protagonist. Tess is a beautiful, loyal young woman living with her impoverished family in the village of Marlott. Tess has a keen sense of responsibility and is committed to doing the best she can for her family, although her inexperience and lack of wise parenting leave her extremely vulnerable. Her life is complicated when her father discovers a link to the noble line of the d’Urbervilles, and, as a result, Tess is sent to work at the d’Urberville mansion. Unfortunately, her ideals cannot prevent her from sliding further and further into misfortune after she becomes pregnant by Alec d’Urberville. The terrible irony is that Tess and her family are not really related to this branch of the d’Urbervilles at all: Alec’s father, a merchant named Simon Stokes, simply assumed the name after he retired.
An intelligent young man who has decided to become a farmer to preserve his intellectual freedom from the pressures of city life. Angel’s father and his two brothers are respected clergymen, but Angel’s religious doubts have kept him from joining the ministry. He meets Tess when she is a milkmaid at the Talbothays Dairy and quickly falls in love with her.
The handsome, amoral son of a wealthy merchant named Simon Stokes. Alec is not really a d’Urberville—his father simply took on the name of the ancient noble family after he built his mansion and retired. Alec is a manipulative, sinister young man who does everything he can to seduce the inexperienced Tess when she comes to work for his family. When he finally has his way with her, out in the woods, he subsequently tries to help her but is unable to make her love him.
Tess’s father, a lazy peddler in Marlott. John is naturally quick, but he hates work. When he learns that he descends from the noble line of the d’Urbervilles, he is quick to make an attempt to profit from the connection.
Tess’s mother. Joan has a strong sense of propriety and very particular hopes for Tess’s life. She is continually disappointed and hurt by the way in which her daughter’s life actually proceeds. But she is also somewhat simpleminded and naturally forgiving, and she is unable to remain angry with Tess—particularly once Tess becomes her primary means of support.
Alec’s mother, and the widow of Simon Stokes. Mrs. d’Urberville is blind and often ill. She cares deeply for her animals, but not for her maid Elizabeth, her son Alec, nor Tess when she comes to work for her. In fact, she never sees Tess as anything more than an impoverished girl.
Milkmaids whom Tess befriends at the Talbothays Dairy. Marian, Izz, and Retty remain close to Tess throughout the rest of her life. They are all in love with Angel and are devastated when he chooses Tess over them: Marian turns to drink, Retty attempts suicide, and Izz nearly runs off to Brazil with Angel when he leaves Tess. Nevertheless, they remain helpful to Tess. Marian helps her find a job at a farm called Flintcomb-Ash, and Marian and Izz write Angel a plaintive letter encouraging him to give Tess another chance.
Angel’s father, a somewhat intractable but principled clergyman in the town of Emminster. Mr. Clare considers it his duty to convert the populace. One of his most difficult cases proves to be none other than Alec d’Urberville.
Angel’s mother, a loving but snobbish woman who places great stock in social class. Mrs. Clare wants Angel to marry a suitable woman, meaning a woman with the proper social, financial, and religious background. Mrs. Clare initially looks down on Tess as a “simple” and impoverished girl, but later grows to appreciate her.
Angel’s brother, a village curate.
Clare Angel’s brother, a classical scholar and dean at Cambridge. Cuthbert, who can concentrate only on university matters, marries Mercy Chant.
Tess’s younger sister. Tess believes Liza-Lu has all of Tess’s own good qualities and none of her bad ones, and she encourages Angel to look after and even marry Liza-Lu after Tess dies.
Tess’s son with Alec d’Urberville. Sorrow dies in his early infancy, after Tess christens him herself. She later buries him herself as well, and decorates his grave.
The daughter of a friend of the Reverend Clare. Mr. Clare hopes Angel will marry Mercy, but after Angel marries Tess, Mercy becomes engaged to his brother Cuthbert instead.