Tess Durbeyfield is a child of poverty, inept parents, and minimal education, although she is intelligent and would have continued at school had circumstances allowed. At 16 she is inexperienced in the ways of men, especially those with money and power. She is highly principled, honest, and nonjudgmental. Hardy represents her as a kind of natural Eve figure: genuine, in touch with the countryside and wilderness, and physically voluptuous. Tess is a victim of fate and of two men in her life. She is raped by Alec d'Urberville and has a son who dies soon after birth. Although she wants nothing to do with Alec, he returns to her life and pursues her until necessity forces her to relent. Tess is also the victim of Angel Clare whose cruelty is as crushing as but different from Alec's. Angel flees, leaving Tess alone and vulnerable. Tess's love for Angel reflects deep and abiding passions accompanied by a destructive sense of pride.
Angel Clare has strong opinions on religion, class, and morality. Part of his attraction to Tess is her authenticity and purity as a "simple" country girl. Angel rejects a number of the religious beliefs his father and brothers endorse, and his father has thus denied him a university education. Despite disapproval of his family's rigidity and snobbishness, Angel is as rigid as they are, although he would not see himself as such. When he learns about Tess's past, Angel is unyielding and harsh because his vision of her is altered: he cannot accept a "fallen woman" despite her innocence in the event and proof of the purity of her character. His rejection and abandonment of her diminish his character. Although he eventually sees his actions as extreme and realizes that Tess deserves better, he is too late to make amends for having ruined Tess's life.
Sexually aggressive and entitled, he pursues Tess, who has no interest in him. When he cannot have what he wants from her—as he easily seems able to obtain from other women—he rapes her. Not proud of his behavior, he later offers to marry Tess, but she refuses. Several years later Alec claims to have changed his ways and has become a preacher. However, he gives up his faith to pursue Tess, which he does relentlessly. His exact feelings for Tess are never clear, but he does support her family and provide her with material comfort. Whether he is repentant, evil, or merely arrogant and spoiled is also debatable. What is clear, though, is his generosity comes at a price—possession of Tess.