Chapter 1

Synopsis of chapter 1

Tess of the d'Urbervilles opens with Tess's father returning from market, somewhat the worse for wear after drinking. He is overtaken by Parson Tringham, a clergyman who has taken an interest in the ancient families of the area and their fortunes over the centuries. He addresses Mr Durbeyfield as Sir John.

It turns out that he has discovered the Durbeyfields are really descended from an aristocratic family dating back to William the Conqueror's time, the D'Urbervilles. They are buried in a church in the south of the county.

The news goes to Durbeyfield's head. He orders a horse and carriage to take him home, with food and drink to go with it. The chapter closes with him waiting for the carriage, sitting by the roadside.

Commentary on chapter 1

William the Conqueror: French Norman king who invaded England in 1066. He gave great estates to his Norman followers in exchange for their allegiance.

Battle Abbey roll: Lists of William's knights who fought with him at the Battle of Hastings, and their estates. Battle Abbey is near the actual battle site in Sussex.

Pipe rolls: Lists of revenues derived from these estates kept by the Exchequer.

King Stephen; King John; Edward the Second: descendants of William who reigned 1135-54; 1199-1216; and 1307-27 respectively.

Knight HospitallerKnights Hospitallers: A religious order of knights, which was founded in the twelfth century (during the time of the Crusades to the Holy Land), in order to care for and protect Christian pilgrims. They are also known as the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.

Oliver Cromwell; Charles the Second: Cromwell was Lord Protector (1653-58) after the English Civil War. Charles II (1660-1685) regained the throne after Cromwell's death.

Knights of the Royal Oak: The knights who fought with Charles II at the Battle of Worcester (1650). Charles II had an award made, and a list of intended recipients, but since it was thought not to be politically prudent at the time, they never received the honour.

‘how are the mighty fallen': from 2 Samuel 1:19-25. David laments the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan. The quotation is repeated in ch 54.


It is important in reading the novel to keep a list of the various times and seasons, as they are carefully patterned and sometimes used symbolically. Here, the time is late May, although Hardy gives no idea of the year.


Shaston: Shaftesbury, Dorset. This town is mentioned frequently. One of its features is that it is a hill town, and the market town for the north-east part of the county.

Marlott: Marnhull, some six miles to the south-west of Shaftsbury.

Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor: Blackmoor Vale has a dog-leg shape, running north-south, then partly turning west-east round Marnhull. Hardy is careful to give alternative names to many actual places.

South-Wessex: Dorset

Kingsbere-sub-Greenhill: Bere Regis, in the southern part of Dorset.

Sherton, Millpond, Lullstead, Wellbridge: Hardy's own names for the various other estates the family once owned in the area.

Purbeck-marble: Purbeck is in south-east Dorset. Its marble is some of the finest in the world.

The Pure Drop; Rolliver's: see ch 4 for notes on the village pubs.


antiquary: or antiquarian. A local historian.

black-pot: black pudding, a sausage made mainly of blood and suet

chitterlings: small intestines of pig

club-walking: see ch 2

Effigy, photo by Evelyn Simak, available through Creative Commonseffigies: in some churches, there are to be found marble or stone figures of those buried underneath

genealogist: someone who traces family trees (see antiquary)

haggler: a market trader

hereditary: some titles are passed down from father to son, such as the title of Baronet.

lamb's fry: a fry of sheep's organs.

lustre: fame, nobility

mendacious: lying, untruthful 

parson: vicar, clergyman. The title is mainly used in country parishes only.

pedigrees: aristocratic family lines

skellingtons: skeletons

switch: flexible rod or cane

vamp: tramp, walk

wold: old

Investigating chapter 1

  • First chapters are always very important and need studying closely.
    • What are your first impressions of the characters in ch 1?
    • What events might be anticipated?
  • What is the effect of the Bible quotation?
  • Hardy maybe thinking of some of his own forbears as having done well here, for example, Captain Hardy who was with Lord Nelson at Nelson's death.
    • How does Tess's father react to the news of his more famous ancestors?
  • What does this chapter tell us about the English class system and nineteenth century class consciousness?
  • How does the chapter lead us in to the story?
    • Think in terms of plot, setting and character.
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