Tess's father, Mr. Durbeyfield, is jokingly told by a minister that his family is the direct lineage of an old, noble family that was once thought to be completely gone. There's nothing left of the family's land and fortune, except the family name (d'Urberville).
However, Mr. Durbeyfield and his wife see this as a chance to move up on the social ladder. They devise a plan to send their daughter to become acquainted with a rich woman who's last name is d'Urberville. From then on, Tess is left to try to maintain her dignity and honor and to pick up the pieces of her broken life that resulted from her parents' need to be important.
This was my first time reading anything by Thomas Hardy. I was warned that he was cynical man, and I'll agree that Hardy's prose is cynical, yet heartrending. I couldn't help feeling bad for Tess through all her troubles. This is not a happy novel. For a moment, you think that things will get better for Tess, but the fates seem to be against her.
The landscape of the novel changes with the mood of what's happening. The land itself almost seems to be a living person that he described. He uses vivid, beautifully described imagery to describe people and places in his novels. There are themes of theology (Hardy had internal conflicts with believing in God), virtue, the boundaries of love. He employs everything from Greek mythology to modern (or what was modern in his day) poetry.
There are no illusions of a happily-ever-after in this story. This was simply a beautiful novel, a novel that portrays its female heroine as the strong woman she was. She could put more modern women heroines to shame.