Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented bears one of the more interesting histories with respect to the text's clash with its publishers. Tess was first intended for publication by the newspaper syndicate Tillotson and Son, originally titled "Too Late Beloved." Owing to the perceived controversial status of scenes like the seduction and midnight baptism which occur at the beginning, Tillotson decided not to go forward with publication. Tess would be rejected again by Murray's Magazine and then Macmillan's Magazine.
Finally, Hardy undertook a bowdlerization of his own original text, and the official serialization of Tess of the d'Urbervilles in the Graphic began on July 4, 1891. (The American serial publication of Tess actually preceded this date, on 7 March 1890, by Harper's Magazine). Despite Hardy's omissions and changes in order that his work could be published, the omitted chapters on Alec's seduction of Tess and Tess's midnight baptism of her own baby were printed in the National Observer and the Fortnightly Review respectively (Though, these chapters were presented as separate stories with character and place names modified so that the stories bore no connection to Tess). The summary below is based on the 1912 Wessex edition, which is considered to be the most "complete" in that it contained Hardy's original text before bowdlerization. [Source: Richard Purdy "Tess as a Serial."]
The novel opens with John Durbeyfield, Tess's father, meeting an antiquary on the road and finding out that he held a kinship with an ancient rich family called the D'Urbervilles. Meanwhile, Tess and the other girls of her village (Marlott) engage in a lively dance called the "club revel," descended from May-Day dances of the past. At this dance, Tess is unintentionally slighted by a visiting student (later, this is revealed to be Angel Clare, whom she later marries) who dances with every girl except for Tess.
Quixotically and foolishly happy about the old connection to the D'Urbervilles, Tess's family sends Tess to the neighboring village Tantridge, in order for her to seek an alliance with a well-to-do old lady of the name D'Urberville. Unbeknownst to the Durbeyfields, this family was took the name D'Urbervilles only in order to pose as a family with old money, actually having acquired money more recently through less respected means of trade and commerce. Reluctantly, Tess obeys her family, largely because she felt responsible for the loss of their horse Prince who was impaled in an accident on an errand into town undertaken for her parents. At Tantridge, Tess meets Alec D'Urberville, the son of the above mentioned old lady.
Alec, who immediately desires Tess, contrives to make Tess manage the poultry-farm at Tantridge. During her time at Tantridge, Tess discovers that the old lady is blind and so is forced to rely more on Alec than she may have hoped. Tess makes repeated attempts to deters Alec's advances, but late one night, Alec on horseback rescues Tess from a tiff with some of the Trantridge villagers. Alec seems to genuinely get lost in the fog, but he takes the opportunity to seduce Tess and the narration shows her yielding in a moment of weakness and half-sleep.
Tess returns home to her father's cottage, and subsequently gives birth to a baby boy who dies soon after death. When the parson cannot baptize her child, Tess controversially baptizes him herself at midnight, employing her younger sibling's to help. She names her child "Sorrow" and buries him under a cross she makes herself.
About two years after retiring home, Tess sets out to work as a milkmaid at Talbothays Dairy, a place where she felt that people would not know her history. Angel Clare, the student that slighted her at the club revel happens to be also working at Talbothays, learning the ropes in order to eventually become a gentleman farmer. Despite Tess's promises to herself that she will not succumb to temptation, the two fall in love and Tess eventually agrees to marry him without having confessed her past to him. She does, however, tell him of her D'Urberville ancestry.
Before her marriage to Angel, Tess struggles with the secret. She writes to her mother who advises her to keep quiet. While the pair go shopping in town, a man from Trantridge recognizes Tess and makes some crude comments about her. Although Angel punches this man down and he relents, Tess, filled with anxiety, slips a letter detailing her past under Angel's door for him. Angel overlooks the letter, and when Tess retrieves it again, she destroys it. Tess goes ahead and marries Angel, but on their wedding night spent in an old D'Urberville mansion, she breaks down and confesses her indiscretion, but not before Angel also confesses a similar indiscretion in which (as the narrator describes it) he was "entrapped by a woman much older than himself."
Angel does not in fact forgive Tess, and Angel decides to leave for Brazil, concealing the separation from his own parents. Angel promises to send Tess money, but in his anger, Angel nearly goes through with taking one of Tess's milkmaid friends Izz Huett to Brazil. Meanwhile, Tess takes employment at a starve-acre farm called Flintcombe-Ash and it turns out that her new employer is the man who insulted her in town. She is, however, reunited with her former milkmaid friends at this farm. Tess is generally too proud to ask her family for charity or Angel's family for charity, but the one time she thinks to visit Angel's family she ends up encountering Alec again, who has somehow become a fiery, evangelical preacher who has supposedly been converted by Reverend Clare, Angel's father.
The reformed Alex asks Tess to swear not to tempt him again and they part. However, Alec soon returns to find Tess at Flitcombe-Ash to ask Tess to marry him. Tess refuses him and lets him know she is already married. Alec keeps returning nevertheless, finally saying that Tess has shaken his faith, and no longer wants to be a preacher. Meanwhile, Tess learns that her mother is dying. Upon rushing home, oddly, her father dies suddenly, and her mother recovers.
John Durbeyfield's death, unfortunately, means that the family will be evicted from their home. Tess and her mother and siblings try to find rooms in Kingsbere, the ancestral D'Urberville home, but are unsuccessful. They take shelter in the D'Urberville church vault temporarily. On behalf of her family, Tess finally bows down to Alec's offers for help, also thinking that Angel won't return. She is wrong, however, because in the meantime Angel has been repenting of his treatment of Tess and had decided to return.
When Angel finally returns, Tess is living with Alec at Sandbourne, a seaside resort. Tess says that he is too late, and he leaves, dejectedly. Instead of accepting her fate, however, Tess stabs Alec to death, and runs after Angel. Angel accepts her and the two of them spend a few happy days as man and wife at an empty mansion where they sneak in to find shelter.
The story ends tragically when they must move on from the mansion and walk to Stonehenge. Tess begs for rest, and falls asleep despites Angel's persuasions that they must move on. They are discovered by the police, and Angel tells them to let her finish her sleep. Tess awakes, and movingly remarks, "I am ready." Tess is taken to Winchester prison, where she is executed. The novel closes with Angel and Liza-Lu (Tess's younger sister) holding hands and watching the black flag of execution go up over the prison, and then going off on their way.
Hardy's novel seems to abound with sharp shifts in perspective: natural versus social, tragic versus comic, reason versus sentiment, suffering versus enjoyment. Nature's alternative perspective to social custom often comes in the form of "instinct," "inherent will," and "appetite"--and indeed the narrator describes the "inherent will for enjoyment" and the "appetite for joy" as driving Tess forward time and again in the novel, despite the many social obstacles which seek to pin her down. Though clearly one of the more bleakly tragic works of the era, shifts in perspective disorient the reader in such a way as to displace orthodox notions of tragedy and comedy. As Angel tells her after Tess has thought to commit suicide in order to "save" Angel from her shame, for example, "It is nonsense to have such thoughts in this kind of case, which is one rather for satirical laughter than for tragedy." A personal history of transgression is inevitably funny when narrated by gossip. Yet one can hardly think such a thing is comic when the novel closes with the somber black flag of Tess's execution.
Ultimately, these shifts in perspective tend to prevent anything from being truly seen or known "as it really is." Even the most idealistically Arnoldian character of the novel, Angel Clare, hopelessly fails at being "critical" enough of orthodoxies with which he grew up--despite his apostatical rejection of his father's Calvinist beliefs, he nevertheless fails to see Tess as she is, only accepting her when she seems to live up to some ideal perfection which he imagines. When he finds out that she is "fallen," what has hitherto seemed to him in Tess a beautiful, pagan naturalness now seems the ways of a coarse, uncultured peasant girl ("You almost make me say you are an unapprehending peasant woman," he says).
Perhaps then, such shifts in perspective are in part what has spurred such critical disagreement over Tess. As critic Oliver Lovejoy puts it, "the ideological unwieldiness of Tess of the D'Urbervilles can be explained...partly by the novel's blending of a cautionary tale of the fallen woman and a story about the late-Victorian confrontation with 'the ache of modernism'." Although arguably "modernity" begins far earlier in the Victorian era and its "ache" reflected in earlier novels, it does seem that life experience in Hardy's novel is much less readable, codifiable, and comprehensible than ever before. Characters seem alien to one another, and events of great consequence in the lives of individuals seem contingent largely on on momentary and temporary sentiments (e.g., Tess's "fall," Angel's departure to Brazil, or Alec's "conversion" and subsequent fall back into temptation). Beginning with Henry James, critics of Tess have often noted the "absences" or gaps in narration that control Tess's experiences and speech as aspects which tend to disallow readers from "getting at her," in a word, seeing her as she really is. She is as alien to the reader as she is to the men who are bewitched by her. At times she seems even alien to herself--she hardly knows what she will do at any given moment. For example, besides her "fall" which seems deliberately ambiguous as far as who is to blame and to what extent, other decisions Tess clearly makes herself, such as destroying the letter to Angel or her switch from a devoted to angry in the letters she sends to Brazil.
The remarks which Hardy makes in his preface to the fifth edition might offer a clue as to the logics of the more "modern" novel which he meant to write. Hardy professes that "the novel was intended to be neither didactic or aggressive, but in the scenic parts to be representative simply, and in the contemplative to be oftener charged with impressions than with convictions." Hardy's Tess isn't a work which sticks to anything other than these shifts of perspective, but nevertheless these shifts or "impressions" don't seem any less valid (and are actually more valid, I think) than argument and conviction. Tess yet strives for the Arnolidan "seeing things as they are" and has not given up the project of trying to do so but suggests that "things as they are" are in fact momentary and shifting. Man is far from being rational, reasoned, and consistent and there are many aspects of his sentiment and nature that seem yet to be understood. Still, as "modern" as the "momentary" or the "shifting" might seem, Hardy's novel does not quite resonate with the fragmentation of say, Woolf or Lawrence. I argue that even as the assumptions of reasoned coherence have been cast aside, Hardy's pursuit of impressions resonates with a hopefulness and purpose which renders Tess not simply a pessimistic, gratuitously tragic work as some have charged.