Analysis: Chapters XX–XXIV
These chapters mark the end of Phase the Third, subtitled “The Rally,” which concerns Tess’s “invincible instinct toward self-delight” as she enjoys a happy period at the Talbothays Dairy and her new romance with Angel Clare. The harsh irony of Angel’s first impression of Tess, that she is “virginal,” is underplayed by Tess’s self-sacrificing virtue throughout these chapters—she even avoids him intentionally when she thinks her friends deserve him more. The plot of this phase is, like that of Phase the First, essentially linear: Tess meets Angel and their relationship grows closer until it becomes clear that he loves her.
A new conflict arises in these chapters between Tess’s new love for Angel and her moral reservations about acting on that love. This conflict and indecisiveness on Tess’s part is mirrored by the new problems that surface at Talbothays Dairy concerning the quality of the butter. Certain agents have caused the butter to become tainted, affecting its taste and attractiveness. Tess feels a similar inner turmoil with the agents that have affected her, which leads her to think that her attractiveness may be tainted even though Angel expresses his love for her.
With Tess’s virtue as uncompromisable as ever, her personal reservations about marrying Angel seem clearly designed to arouse both our sympathy and moral outrage. It seems ludicrous for poor Tess to have to refrain from acting on her passion. Surely any moral code that would force Tess to suffer for the rest of her life for a single error must be deeply flawed. This line of reasoning is Hardy’s argument, but still Tess seems to be fated to suffer, the victim of “the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of things.”
As Angel and Alec are compared and contrasted in previous chapters, Tess is compared and contrasted with the other dairymaids in these chapters. Tess views herself as equal or subordinate to her friends Marian, Izz, and Retty, but Angel sees her as his sole, perfect mate. All of the dairymaids have crushes on Angel, but Angel is interested only in Tess. The final scene in the section—in which Tess and Angel are overcome by their love—is a wonderful conclusion to these chapters, which have focused on the growing attraction between them. The conclusion satisfies the natural progression of their love in a way that is surely meant to appease us. Tess is surprised by Angel’s confession, and a bit shaken by its implications. She is torn because she knows her dark past will stand in the way of her future with Angel, and even as their love continues to grow, these issues and problems do not show any signs of disappearing.