Tess has not seen Alec since she left his family’s service. When she sees and hears him testifying to his religious conversion, she is struck dumb with a sudden terror. She withdraws, but Alec sees her and runs after her, claiming he has to save her soul. He says he has found God through the intercession of the Reverend Clare. Tess, angry and disbelieving, excoriates people like Alec, who ruin other people’s lives and then try to secure a place in heaven by suddenly converting. She then asserts that she cannot put her faith in Alec’s religion when a better man than he—meaning Angel—does not believe in that religion. Alec expresses fear of Tess, and as they come to a stone monument called the Cross-in-Hand, he asks Tess to swear that she will never tempt him again. She agrees and Alec leaves, reading a letter from Reverend Clare to calm himself. Tess asks a shepherd what the Cross-in-Hand signifies, and she learns that it is an object of ill omen.
The omen proves correct a few days later, when Alec approaches Tess in the fields and asks her to marry him. He proposes that they go to Africa to be missionaries. Tess replies that she is already married, and she asks the distraught Alec to leave. She begins another letter to Angel but is unable to finish it.
At Candlemas, Alec again approaches Tess. This time, he asks her to pray for him. Tess replies that she cannot pray, and she recites Angel’s reasons for doubting the validity of church doctrine. Alec appears shaken, and Tess asserts that she has a religion but no belief in the supernatural. Alec says that he has missed an opportunity to preach in order to see her, and he says that he is bothered by the fact that he has no right to help or protect her, while the man who does have that right has chosen to abandon her. Tess asks him to leave before their conversation can taint her husband’s honor.
In early spring, Tess has been assigned a stint of difficult work as a thresher on the farm. Alec appears again, saying that he is no longer a preacher and beseeching Tess to come away with him. He says his love for her has strengthened, and he is upset that her husband neglects her. Tess slaps his face with a leather glove. He becomes angry, but calms himself, asserting his desire to be her master and telling her that he is her true husband. He says he will be back in the afternoon to collect her.
Alec comes back that afternoon as he promised. He walks Tess home and asks her to trust him to take care of both Tess and her family. Tess again refuses his offers, and that night she writes a letter to Angel, finally confessing her loyalty and her love and asking for his help against the temptation presented by Alec.
Though Alec d’Urberville seems at first to have undergone a remarkable transformation from a rake into a pious and religious man, he discards this posture so effortlessly and quickly that it seems to have been a superfluous charade—Alec’s attempts to contain his desire for Tess seem weak at best. Indeed, we may wonder why Hardy chooses to reintroduce Alec as a convert at this point in the novel, given that he seems to be very much the same man as before. One effect of this choice is to heighten dramatically the bitter irony of Tess’s predicament. Tess continues to suffer as a social outcast because of a disgrace that is much more Alec’s fault than hers, yet the hypocritical Alec has the luxury to repent and even win acceptance as a preacher. Tess’s plight as a woman thus appears incredibly unjust, reinforcing the message given in the subtitle of this section of the novel: “The Woman Pays.”
Alec’s reintroduction into the novel comes at Tess’s lowest moment, but his new pitch still does not work on her. She has not seen Alec for a long time, but she has clearly thought about him and what he did to her. Tess is observant and distrusting of Alec, and she views his conversion as a plot to win her back. The converted Alec appears to her as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, intending to prey on her, or like a devil in disguise, come to tempt her a final time. Indeed, we might well view the relationship between Tess and Alec as an allegory of good struggling with the temptation offered by evil.
Alec continues to tempt Tess with money and security, the two things that would help her family the most, and in doing so he tests her ability to resist evil. His promise of financial security is attractive, but not quite attractive enough. Tess has learned her lesson about risking herself and her happiness for the sake of money. She is a much stronger woman now and is more knowledgeable about conniving men, especially Alec. This strength deters Alec and makes him feel weaker and more vulnerable because his plot is not working. Alec is successful, however, in making Tess doubt herself.
As Tess struggles with Alec’s temptation, her need for Angel becomes more and more desperate. If Angel were to return to her and do his duty as her husband, her problems would greatly diminish. She writes to Angel and pleads that he not judge her on her irretrievable past. Ironically, Alec asks Tess to do the same thing for him, claiming that he has changed, that Tess tempted him, and that he must not be judged based on his past mistakes. Tess’s situation thus makes her very vulnerable to Alec’s persuasions. She is obviously heartbroken and needs to be loved more than ever. She is also distraught by her family’s ever-worsening financial situation. Alec’s reasoning seems more valid to Tess than it has in the past. In a way, Tess and Alec are similar in that they have both fallen and ask for forgiveness for their indiscretions.
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