Tess of the d’Urbervilles positions the protagonist, Tess, in an environment in which she is surrounded by people who not only have agendas that conflict with her own, but also have wills strong enough to impose their goals on hers. For example, Tess’s mother and father wish for her to marry rich in order to bring money and security to her family. Tess does not seek financial prosperity in the way her parents do, yet her course of action eventually aligns with their agendas.

Much of Tess’s trajectory is at odds with her quest for independence, beginning with the novel’s inciting incident. The plot primarily begins when Mr. Durbeyfield, Tess’s father, learns that his family is descended from the noble d’Urberville family of old. This revelation motivates Mr. Durbeyfield to concoct a plan to take advantage of this newfound prominence and marry Tess into wealth. Despite Tess’s wishes, this plan of her father’s sets forth a string of conflict which will challenge Tess’s ability to live independently and dictate her own future.

Much of the conflict and rising action of the novel takes the form of Tess’s misfortunes as she struggles to be independent, in spite of the forces working against her. Coerced by her parents to live on a nearby d’Urberville property and oversee the matriarch’s chickens, Tess meets Alec d’Urberville, a supposed cousin of hers who immediately regards her with romantic and sexual desire. Being sent to live with the d’Urbervilles is the first moment in which Tess’s will fails to override another’s, and Alec’s various attempts at seduction follow as the second. Despite all of Tess’s efforts to reject Alec, he eventually forces her into a situation from which she is unable to escape and rapes her, which leads to Tess’s pregnancy. 

Tess experiences a brief span of time in which she successfully follows her own whims as she leaves the d’Urberville property and returns home to have her baby. Despite the eventual death of the child, Tess further sets out to create her own life as she travels to the Talbothays Dairy to become a milkmaid. Here, Tess meets Angel Clare, and thus sets forth further conflict which tests her independence and strength of will. Despite Tess and Angel establishing an intimate and somewhat clandestine romance, Tess does not allow herself to give in to her desires to marry Angel. Tess believes she is unfit to marry such a man, as her past marks her as “impure” by societal expectations of the time, and a marriage between the pair would destroy his reputation too. This determination of Tess’s to not give in to her own desire showcases how even Tess herself serves as an obstacle to her own happiness.

Eventually, Tess’s will once again is overtaken by another’s, as she is convinced by Angel to marry. Despite Tess’s urges to confess to Angel, she is thwarted; though she eventually overcomes her own fear, her attempt to write him a letter doesn’t work, and he denies her the chance to speak on the subject immediately before they are wed. It is only after the marriage that Tess explains herself to Angel. In an intimate moment during their honeymoon, both Angel and Tess confess—Angel to having once had an affair, and Tess to having once had a child with Alec d’Urberville. Despite this, only Tess is able to forgive Angel. Angel, on the other hand, lacks the fairness to show Tess the same grace, leaving Tess to struggle to establish a life alone as he meditates on his feelings and ability to overlook a past society deems morally transgressive. 

Tess’s mother becomes ill and her father dies, forcing Tess to return. Left with a broken family and no source of income, the Durbeyfields must vacate their home. This is where Tess once again encounters Alec, who again urges Tess to be with him in exchange for financial stability for her family. The reader has a brief moment of hope for Tess’s resilience, as she initially rejects Alec’s proposal as she recognizes it for the coercion it truly is. However, when Angel returns to find Tess’s will has succumbed to that of Alec, both the reader and Angel see that her determination has worn quickly. 

In the novel’s climax, Tess finally achieves the independence she has so desired since the beginning. Wanting more than anything to be with Angel, yet encumbered by her relationship with Alec and the hold he has long had over her, Tess murders Alec in his sleep. It’s notable that the murder, much like Tess’s rape by Alec, is not shown, yet both have vast, overarching consequences within the narrative. Indeed, much of this section is disconnected from Tess’s perspective, after hers has been the lens through which the reader has experienced the majority of the novel’s events. That Tess is now so distant suggests she is already lost, a victim of the fate that envelopes her. The resolution, then, is bittersweet; Tess frees herself from Alec and briefly finds happiness with Angel, but dooms herself in the process. The black flag rising in the end confirms that Tess has been executed, and is in a sense now entirely free from the torments that plagued her in life.