Tess cries out to Alec Stokes-d'Urberville "Once victim, always victim—that's the law!" while at the bleak and inhospitable farm in Flintcomb-Ash. Alec has tracked Tess down and sought her out and come to her while she is at the grueling work demanded by the "red thresher" leased to thresh Farmer Groby's corn harvest.
Alec, because of Vicar Clare's intervention in his life, had turned to religion and was preaching as an evangelist. When fate intervened through the coincidental accident of putting Tess outside the tent he was preaching in, Alec gave up all evangelical impulses to pursue the passion that Tess continued to inspire in him:
[Alec] "I trouble you? I think I may ask, why do you trouble me?"
[Tess] "Sure, I don't trouble you any-when!"
[Alec] "You say you don't? But you do! You haunt me. Those very eyes that you turned upon me ... The religious channel is left dry forthwith; and it is you who have done it!"
At this meeting, umwanted by Tess, at the corn ricks in Groby's field beside the resting threshing machine and near the lunching fieldworkers, Alec blatantly says to Tess that he, as her first husband, though in action only, had the right to claim her as his own and to thereby save her from the life of drudgery she had constrained herself to in her shame after Clare's rejection (though Clare's estrangement did not include total denunciation as she felt it did). Alec's final remark was an insult to Clare:
"You have been the cause of my backsliding, ... you should be willing to share it, and leave that mule you call husband for ever."
Tess is outraged by Alec's request and final words and in anger throws her heavy leather worker's glove at his face. After both springing to their feet in reaction to Tess's sudden defensive violence, Tess expresses her opinion of a renewed situation with Alec by crying, "Once victim, always victim--that's the law!" This clearly illustrates her conviction that she was always Alec's victim and--one way or the other--would always continue to be Alec's victim. Alec responds by declaring that as surely as he once asked her to be his wife and as surely as she had refused, he was master of her then and would be master of her again.
One importance of this passage is that we see the true inner being of both Alec and Tess. He may have good and kindly impulses in desiring to take her away from her life of hardship, yet at heart he is and always will be the villainous dictatorial manipulator. Tess may yield to violent impulses directed against a persecutor and villain, yet at heart she is virtuous, pure and loyal (though we can see from her angry reaction that the grueling physical labor and overwrought worry are wearing her down presaging her ultimate emotional collapse that then leads to her final misery).
She had not spoken again, remaining as if stunned. ... Tess resumed her position by the buzzing drum [of the thresher] as one in a dream, untying sheaf after sheaf in endless succession.