Names are one of the most important tools for characterization in this novel. Let's start with the most obvious one: Tess's last name. Is it Durbeyfield or D'Urberville, and what are the possible implications of each? Well, Durbeyfield has the word "field" in it, which implies the countryside, and rural simplicity. "D'Urberville," on the other hand, has "ville" in it, which is French for "city." D'Urberville also separates the "D" at the beginning of the name, calling attention to the "Urb-" part of the word. This could imply urbanity (i.e., sophistication), as well as urban, or city life. Besides its rustic connotations, "Durbeyfield" also sounds very Anglo-Saxon, compared to the French-sounding "D'Urberville." Old aristocratic names in England are often French, because of the Norman Conquest in 1066 (check out the Historical Context note in our summary of Chapter One for more on this).
The other important name of the novel is "Angel Clare." His first name, "Angel," of course implies almost other-worldly goodness. He's just so good, he's hardly human. That's certainly how Tess views him: "There was hardly a touch of earth in her love for Clare" (31.6). She views him almost as a guardian angel.
Angel's last name, "Clare," also implies light as opposed to heat: "clair" is French for "light." This interpretation is supported by the narrator's description of Angel's love for Tess. He's not very interested in physical love – he prefers to concentrate on the spiritual side of love. Look at this passage, for example: "Though not cold-natured, he was rather bright than hot – less Byronic than Shelleyan; could love desperately, but his love more especially inclined to the imaginative and ethereal" (31.8). So Angel Clare's rejection of the physical and the earthy is part of his problem – it's what he has to overcome while he's in Brazil. And that overemphasis on the spiritual is reflected in his name. For more on what Angel's name means, check out his "Character Analysis."
You can judge a lot about a person based on their personal appearance in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Alec, for example, is first described as having "an almost swarthy complexion, with full lips, badly moulded, though red and smooth, above which was a well-groomed black moustache with curled points, though his age could not be more than three- or four-and-twenty" (5.29). Alec has the curled black moustache of a stage villain – you know he's going to be a bad guy. His "full lips" imply his earthy physicality (as opposed to Angel's ethereal spirituality). For more on Alec's physical appearance, check out his "Character Analysis" section.
Tess's physical appearance is likewise an important marker of her identity as a character, but not all characters are able to read her appearance correctly. The first physical description of Tess indicates the complexity of her character – different phases of her life are visible in different features: "phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along to-day, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then" (2.21). But not all characters that see her are able to understand this complexity. Some see only the "bouncing handsome womanliness," and assume that she's older than she is because she's so physically mature.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles uses a lot of regional dialect to differentiate between characters. The narrator explains early on that the difference between Tess's speech and her mothers is due to Tess's standardized education. She only uses the regional dialect of the town where she grew up when she's very emotional. For the most part, she uses what we consider standard English – the kind of English that was taught by London-trained teachers in the late 19th century. But when she's distressed by Angel's rejection of her after her confession, the dialect breaks out: "Having begun to love 'ee, I love 'ee for ever" (35.20). The dialect is a marker of her identity as a member of the peasant class that she can never wholly do away with, but it also indicates the layers of her personality – it's something that is under the surface, which can always bubble over.