Phase the Sixth: The Convert, Chapters 45–52: Summary and Analysis
The man at the threshing machine: a stranger to the agricultural world who operates a mechanical thresher, dictating an inhuman pace of work
Tess can scarcely believe this man is Alec. His bold, masculine face is ill-adapted to the looks of a pious preacher. When he sees her, the effect is “electric.” He is dumbstruck, briefly unable to preach. After finishing his sermon, Alec catches up to Tess. She wishes to have nothing to do with him; he claims merely to want to save her soul, on account of how he has “grievously wronged” her in the past. Tess scoffs at his conversion, which she thinks is an easy way for Alec to buy off the consequences of his evil deeds, and at his religious ideas, which she disbelieves because her husband has transmitted his own religious skepticism to her.
When they walk by a stone called “Cross-in-Hand” Alec asks Tess to swear that she will tempt him no longer. Tess reluctantly does so. The stone, she soon discovers, is not a holy relic as Alec said, but a “thing of ill omen” commemorating a murder.
A few days later, Alec finds Tess in the fields at Flintcomb-Ash. He wishes to inquire about her material condition. He offers a marriage license to Tess, who replies that she loves and is married to someone else. Alec realizes she is a deserted wife, and is upset that Tess will not allow him to protect her.
Later in February, Alec knocks at Tess’s door, asking her to pray for him. “How can I pray for you,” Tess asks, “when I am forbidden to believe that the great Power who moves the world would alter his plans on my account?” Tess says she has religion but doesn’t believe in anything supernatural. She echoes to Alec several of the rationalist, anti-religious arguments she has learned from Angel Clare. These logical arguments demolish Alec’s new-found religious convictions.
On a March morning, Tess is working at Flintcomb-Ash, feeding wheat into a mechanical thresher, when Alec, having shed his parson’s outfit, seeks to talk to her. “You have been the cause of my backsliding,” he says, “and you should be willing to share it, and leave that mule you call your husband for ever.” Tess impulsively slaps him across the face, drawing blood. “Whip me, crush me,” she baits him. “Once victim, always victim—that’s the law!” He shakes her by the shoulders and tells her, “Remember, my lady, I was your master once! I will be your master again.”
When Tess finishes the exhausting day’s work, Alec reappears and walks her home. Going straight at Tess’s chief anxiety, he informs Tess he has enough money to keep her family out of need. Tess hesitates before making a full refusal of this offer.
Once at her cottage, Tess writes a long, passionate letter to her husband, pleading for kind treatment. She is devoted to Angel but needs rescuing from an enemy.
Meanwhile, Angel, in Brazil, is reconsidering the entire moral scheme by which he has judged his wife. He realizes “the beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses”—he should not blame Tess for what she did against her will. An Englishman who is his traveling companion advises Angel that he was wrong to leave Tess, that he should have judged her not according to what she had been in the past, but according to what she promised to be to him as a wife in the future. When this stranger dies of fever, Angel takes his words to heart and shifts from being Tess’s critic to her advocate.
One morning, about a week before her term at Flintcomb-Ash is up, Tess’s younger sister, ‘Liza-Lu, arrives with dire family news. Joan is seriously ill and John, still in uncertain health, refuses to do any work. At home, Tess nurses her mother, who gets better, and works on the family garden so the family will have enough to eat.
One night, when she and other villagers are at work in a field burning brushes, Tess is surprised by the sight of Alec D’Urberville...
(The entire section is 2,940 words.)