She had no fear of the shadows; her sole idea seemed to be to shun mankind—or rather that cold accretion called the world, which, so terrible in the mass, is so unformidable, even pitiable, in its units.
When Tess returns home to Marlott after Alec d’Urberville’s sexual exploitation of her, she sinks into a depression and eventually does not leave the house except at night. Here, the narrator explains that she feels afraid of nothing except what others say about her. Her intense fear reveals how dangerous and hurtful the judgment of others can be, especially when Tess did nothing of her own free will to merit such judgment.
She could not have borne their pity, and their whispered remarks to one another upon her strange situation; though she would almost have faced a knowledge of her circumstances by every individual there, so long as her story had remained isolated in the mind of each. It was the interchange of ideas about her that made her sensitiveness wince. Tess could not account for this distinction; she simply knew that she felt it.
When Tess looks for work at other dairies after she and Angel part ways, she thinks of returning to Talbothays, but knows she would not be able to stand the pity and judgment of the people who work there. Here, she reflects on the idea that she does not so much mind if other people know what happened to her. Rather, what others will say about her makes her unable to return. She does not judge herself for what has happened, but fears the judgment of others so much that she gives up a well-paying job to avoid the situation.
Never in her life—she could swear it from the bottom of her soul—had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently?
Tess acknowledges that she did not deserve Angel’s cruel treatment of her for actions that she did not choose to commit. For the first time, she questions why she has experienced such misfortunes when she did nothing to deserve them. Tess, who was raised with a religious and superstitious world view, spent her life believing that bad things only happen to those who knowingly commit wrongdoing. However, here she begins to realize that the world hands out capricious judgments.