“Don’t you really know, Durbeyfield, that you are the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles . . . ?”
On his way home to the village of Marlott, a middle-aged peddler named John Durbeyfield encounters an old parson who surprises him by addressing him as “Sir John.” The old man, Parson Tringham, claims to be a student of history and says that he recently came across a record indicating that Durbeyfield descends from a noble family, the d’Urbervilles. Tringham says that Durbeyfield’s noble roots come from so far back in history that they are meaningless, but Durbeyfield becomes quite self-important following the discovery and sends for a horse and carriage to carry him home.
At the same moment, Durbeyfield’s daughter Tess enjoys the May Day festivities with the other women from her village. Durbeyfield rides by in the carriage, and though Tess is embarrassed at the spectacle, she defends her father from the mockery of the other girls. The group goes to the village green for dancing, where they meet three highborn brothers. Tess notices one of the brothers in particular, a young man named Angel Clare. While his two brothers want to keep traveling, Angel cannot pass up the opportunity to dance with these women. The girls ask him to choose his partner, and he chooses a girl other than Tess. They dance for a short time, and then Angel leaves, realizing he must catch up with his determined brothers. Upon leaving, Angel notices Tess and regrets his decision to dance with someone else.
When Tess returns home, she receives a twofold alarm from her mother, Joan, who tells her that her father comes from noble lineage and also that he has been diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Mrs. Durbeyfield has consulted the Compleat Fortune-Teller, a large, old book, for guidance. A believer in such astrology, she keeps the book hidden in the outhouse out of an irrational fear of keeping it indoors.
Mr. Durbeyfield is not home, but is instead at Rolliver’s, the local inn and drinking establishment, probably taking the opportunity to celebrate his newly discovered heritage. Tess and the family are not surprised to hear of his whereabouts. Tess’s mother goes to fetch her husband from the inn but does not return. The narrator explains that her failure to return may result from Mrs. Durbeyfield’s enjoyment in sitting at Rolliver’s with her husband, since it is time that they can share alone. Tess becomes worried and asks her little brother Abraham to go to Rolliver’s and see what is taking their mother and father so long to return. Sometime later, when still no one has returned home, Tess goes after them herself.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles begins with a rich, lavish description of the landscape that provides the setting of the novel. This description helps establish the context and feel of the story that is to follow. The novel is set in Wessex, a rustic and historical part of southwestern England that relies heavily on farming. This area, as we see it, has its own distinct customs, rituals, beliefs, and culture, and its inhabitants speak with a noticeable rural accent. Hardy became well known for the richly detailed description in his novels, which serves an important function: as Hardy documents and includes many realistic details to present the area more fully, he enables us to enter into the story ourselves in a more concrete and richly imagined way.
We are introduced to the Durbeyfield family on the day in which the legend of their distant, defunct, yet still marvelous aristocratic heritage is revealed. When told of this legacy, Mr. Durbeyfield feels immediately liberated from his poverty and low social stature, even though his situation does not change. Mr. Durbeyfield has already become enraptured in a dream that takes him from rags to riches. Similarly, we first meet Tess at an event that marks a holiday from her everyday life. At the May Day dance, all the young women dress in white, carry white willow branches and white flowers, and dance with each other. This local custom is, at its root, a symbolic ritual of purity and springtime. These women seem to enjoy the custom, perhaps because it allows them the chance to play a symbolic function beyond their insignificant social roles. The arrival of the three young brothers excites the women, heightening the specialness of the affair. When Angel stops to dance with one of them, it is as if he is a prince who has come in search of a princess, even if only for a dance. Most of the women, including Tess, are anxious to be chosen, and somewhat jealous when they are not. Acceptance from a handsome man from a higher social class would mean a lot to them. Like Mr. Durbeyfield, these young local women yearn to escape poverty and the low social stature that their rural setting allots to them.