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Etched against the background of a dying rural society, Tess of the d’Urbervilles was Thomas Hardy’s “bestseller,” and Tess Durbeyfield remains his most striking and tragic heroine. Of all the characters he created, she meant the most to him. Hopelessly torn between two men—Alec d’Urberville, a wealthy, dissolute young man who seduces her in a lonely wood, and Angel Clare, her provincial, moralistic, and unforgiving husband—Tess escapes from her vise of passion through a horrible, desperate act.
“Like the greatest characters in literature, Tess lives beyond the final pages of the book as a permanent citizen of the imagination,” said Irving Howe. “In Tess he stakes everything on his sensuous apprehension of a young woman's life, a girl who is at once a simple milkmaid and an archetype of feminine strength. . . . Tess is that rare creature in literature: goodness made interesting.”