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.