Tess decides to visit Angel’s family to discover what has happened to him and begins the long walk to the vicarage. She takes off her boots and hides them, planning to put them on again for the walk home. She overhears Angel’s brothers discussing Angel’s unfortunate marriage, and when they find her boots, they assume they belong to a peasant. Tess is ashamed and unhappy and decides not to meet Angel’s family after all. She begins the walk home, but she stops before a barn in which a passionate sermon is being delivered. She looks inside, and sees none other than Alec d’Urberville.
Phase the Fifth, “The Woman Pays,” moves the tragic forces of the novel into high gear. When Angel leaves Tess, Tess is too proud to ask his family for help. But since she is also too dutiful toward her own family not to give them half the money he leaves her, her life begins to unravel completely. In other words, because she remains loyal to her sense of self and to other people, the situation in which Alec and Angel have placed her becomes impossible. The happiness she knows at Talbothays is completely shattered, and the contrast between jovial Talbothays and cold, hard Flintcomb-Ash hammers home Tess’s new life situation.
In these chapters, Angel visits or runs into several family members and acquaintances who all try to tell him that Tess is a noble and loyal wife. When Angel visits his parents, it seems that Angel is more conventional than his parents in his definition of wifely virtue. The Bible passage that they read says nothing about premarital celibacy, but Angel seems to believe that chastity is an absolute virtue. While the Bible passage seems to describe Tess accurately, Angel cannot recognize her in it. He is blinded by his failure to accept Tess for who she really is. In this section, Angel proves himself more judgmental and inflexible than his mother, who turns out to be surprisingly adaptable. When Angel runs into Izz, she freely admits that no one could love him more than Tess, even though she too loves him. But Angel is unable to register these testaments to Tess’s worth, as he is still sleepwalking through life. He takes Tess’s transgression as a personal attack on him, which makes him unable to see her clearly. Even his family, who has been preoccupied with social distinctions, can actually accept Tess as she is—and they have not even met her.
In addition, the decline of Tess’s physical appearance also indicates the sharp downturn in her life: she even cuts off her eyebrows to make herself unattractive to lustful young men. Tess’s reencounter with Alec d’Urberville is staged at the moment of her greatest weakness, as she has gone to ask for help from Angel’s parents. While “[grieving] for the beloved man whose unyielding judgment has caused her all these later sorrows,” she encounters the man who condemned her to that judgment, and the stage is set for Tess’s hardest challenge: to avoid the temptation to give in to Alec d’Urberville again in order to help herself and her family. Hardy has arranged his story so that Tess’s most admirable strengths, such as her loyalty to her family, tempt her toward her worst mistake. Fate manifests itself again in Tess’s visit to Angel’s family, in which her tragic course is once again influenced by improbable circumstance. Had Tess not happened to overhear Felix and Cuthbert criticizing Angel’s marriage, she might not leave when she does and see Alec at such a despairing and vulnerable moment. Fate impinges upon Tess’s life at every turn. Often, when faced with a difficult decision, the choice she selects makes her situation much worse. But her bad decision-making is not due to a lack of thought and consideration, since Tess spends entire chapters deliberating about which course to take. Instead, the consequences of her actions seem predestined. Even in her spontaneous choices, like her impromptu decision to leave the church, there is no way Tess could possibly know that she would then, in turn, run into Alec. Moreover, Alec’s conversion from sexual predator to religious preacher appears the most improbable event of all. For this circumstance, Angel’s own father Reverend Clare is responsible, adding the final surprising touch.