On the way to the d’Urberville estate, Alec drives recklessly, and Tess pleads with him to stop. He continues at a fast pace and tells her to hold on to his waist. She complies only out of fear for her safety. When traveling down the next steep hill, he urges her to hold on to him again, but she refuses and pleads with him to slow down. He agrees to drive more slowly, but only if she will allow him to kiss her. Tess allows him to kiss her on the cheek, but when she unthinkingly wipes the kiss off with her handkerchief, he becomes angry and outraged at her unwillingness to submit to his advances. They argue, and Tess finishes the journey on foot.
The next morning Tess meets Mrs. d’Urberville for the first time and discovers that the old woman is blind. Tess is surprised by Mrs. d’Urberville’s lack of appreciation for Tess’s coming to work for her. Mrs. d’Urberville asks Tess to place each of the fowls on her lap so she can examine and pet them. She tells Tess to whistle to her bullfinches every morning. Tess agrees and leaves. Tess is later unable to blow any whistles, and Alec agrees to help her remember how.
After several weeks at the d’Urbervilles’, Tess goes to the market. Tess has not frequented this market very often, but realizes that she likes it and plans to make future returns. Several months later, she goes to the market and discovers that her visit has coincided with a local fair. That evening, she waits for some friends to walk her home and declines Alec’s offer to take her himself. When her friends are ready to leave, Tess finds that some of them are drunk, and they express their irritation that she has Alec’s attention all to herself. The scene grows unpleasant. Suddenly Alec arrives on his horse, and Tess finally agrees to let him carry her away.
Alec lets the horse wander off the path and deep into the woods, where he tries to convince Tess to take him as a lover. Tess is reticent, and Alec realizes that they have become lost in the fog. He gives Tess his coat and goes to look for a landmark. Still trying to win her favor as a lover, he tells Tess that he has bought her father a new horse. When he returns, Tess is asleep, and Alec uses the opportunity to take advantage of her sexually.
These chapters mark the second half of Phase the First, which is subtitled “The Maiden,” and establishes several of the major characters. Structurally, the main plot follows a linear progression, depicting the direct progress of Tess’s life from the time her father learns of their noble heritage to her falling prey to Alec d’Urberville’s advances. This event is truly a catastrophe for her, because in Victorian England any kind of sexual encounter would earn a young woman moral rebuke and social condemnation, regardless of how the man involved conducted himself. In a way, Tess’s fall can be seen as a direct result of her father’s discovery of their noble descent. Tess is sent to take advantage of the familial connection, but instead, Alec takes advantage of her.
The plot hinges on a great many unfortunate coincidences, including Simon Stokes’s fortuitous decision to call himself “d’Urberville,” the accidental death of old Prince, and Tess’s bad luck in being held up with her drunken friends after the fair. Throughout the novel, many events actually hinge on improbable coincidences. Hardy uses this technique to convey the sense that the universe itself, in the guise of fate, opposes Tess and foreordains her tragedy. Some critics, however, have accused these coincidences of straining the bounds of credulity, making the novel less believable.
With the plot mechanics so neatly worked out, Hardy is able to spend a great deal of time creating his world; indeed, one of the novel’s strongest characteristics is its evocation of landscape and scenery. The Vale of Blackmoor, where the novel is set, is presented as a kind of lovely rustic ideal, where the atmosphere “is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine.” It is a place also where the weather and atmosphere tend to adapt to the action of the story, especially when the confusing, disorienting, eerie shrouds of mist cloak the forest on the night of Tess’s fall.
The imagery of mist and shadows mirrors Tess’s inner landscape, reflecting her own confusion and insecurity. This setting also reflects the mystery within which Hardy cloaks what actually happens to Tess that night. Hardy never reveals the specific details that would enable us to decide for ourselves whether Tess is a willing participant or a victim of rape. Hardy’s narrator does not seem to care about this distinction: the narrator describes Alec’s actions as ruthless, unjust, and coarse, whatever the details, but he does not judge Tess at all. This portrayal of Tess’s fall may have struck Hardy’s original readers as scandalous, since Victorian society would have tended toward the opposite perspective, judging the woman more harshly than the man, regardless of the circumstances. But the narrator avoids commenting on Tess’s behavior by remarking that her disgrace is simply meant to be—it is fated, and is part of the way of the world. If Tess’s misfortune is truly predestined, she is not responsible for it, and she cannot really be judged as good or bad. This conundrum is typical of Hardy—he makes us care deeply about Tess, inviting us to think carefully about the morality and practical wisdom of her decisions, and then shocks us by pronouncing sagely that all of these moral considerations are irrelevant. Even when Tess tries hardest to be good, her bad luck conspires to get her into trouble, as when her virtuous unwillingness to partake in the festivities makes her more susceptible to Alec’s depredations.
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