Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1403
Retty Priddle: a young milkmaid, fair and auburn-haired, in love with Angel Clare
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Izz Huett: a pale, dark-haired milkmaid, in love with Angel Clare
Marian: the oldest of the three milkmaids in love with Angel Clare
Under the influence of the warm summer sun and a natural world teeming with the sights and juices of regeneration and fertilization, the attraction between Tess Durbeyfield and Angel Clare continues to grow. Possibly by chance, the two are the first up each day at the dairy, and they view each other in the “aqueous” light of dawn. Tess appears nearly a goddess of feminine beauty, a “divinity.” Clare’s appreciation for her increases; inspired by her awesome and rare beauty, Angel teasingly, affectionately calls her by the names of ancient Greek goddesses, such as Artemis and Demeter. Not understanding these references, Tess asks to be called by her true name. Tess is depressed when she realizes she is much less educated than Angel.
One day a minor crisis hits the dairy. The churn will not produce any butter. Dairyman Crick recalls a previous time when the butter would not come; this happened because a man named Jack Dollop was inside the churn, hiding from an angry mother who claimed he had stolen the honor of her daughter. The story provides a good laugh to all but Tess, who sees in it a reflection of her own shameful past. Tess runs outside, where the sky looks to her like an inflamed wound.
Tess’s fellow milkmaids, Izz Huett, Retty Priddle, and Marian, meanwhile, all admit to an infatuation with Angel Clare. They know their love for him is hopeless, both because he is out of their class, and because they are sure that Tess is his favorite. While Tess knows she is more attractive as a woman and potential wife than her friends, she has vowed to herself never to marry.
Another crisis mobilizes the farmfolk: the butter just made at the dairy is bitter. Dairyman Crick figures it must be due to some garlic in a field where the cows have been grazing. Angel manages to work alongside Tess, and they get a chance to talk. Tess, fighting against her own attraction to Clare, commends the feminine charms of her fellow milkmaids in preference to her own; but her heart is not fully in this evasion, because she feels herself more and more drawn to this dutiful young man. Tess is moved to respect Angel because he acts so conscientiously toward the milkmaids infatuated with him. To Tess, such respectful behavior is unique among the men she has known.
A few Sundays later, Tess, Izz, Retty, and Marian walk to Mellstock for church. Angel, who prefers sermons in stones to those in church, is out in the fields. The milkmaids, dressed in their Sunday best, are checked by a flooded lane. Angel sees the women, and volunteers to carry each of them across. For the panting, lovestruck women, to be so close to their beloved Clare is an agonizing pleasure. The last to be carried across is Tess: “Three Leahs to get one Rachel!” says Angel, referring to the Bible story in which Jacob must endure seven years of marriage to Leah before being allowed to marry his true love Rachel. The incident forces Tess to admit that there was “no concealing from herself the fact that she loved Angel Clare.”
One day, Angel and Tess work near each other in an isolated part of the dairy. Tess’s aesthetic power, her concord with the natural world’s beauty, and her tremendous, singular lips move Angel, perhaps against his rational judgment, to leap up and embrace his beloved. Tess instinctively but briefly yields to the embrace of her lover before she pushes him away because her cow may be upset by this unusual sight. Clare avows his love for Tess. The horizons of these two lives will be forever altered.
Phase the Third contains the most extended pictorial descriptions in the novel, as well as some of the most beautiful, poetic, evocative prose Hardy ever wrote. Throughout these chapters, Hardy correlates the minds and hearts of his characters with the warm, passionate, fertile, natural world they inhabit. The sensuous atmosphere at Talbothays is evoked through descriptions of the season and environment—Hardy’s portraits of the landscape communicate the conditions governing this phase of Tess’s life. “Rays from the sunrise drew forth the buds and stretched them into long stalks, lifted up sap in noiseless streams, opened petals, and sucked out scents in invisible jets and breathings.” In an environment so rife with “germination,” it is inevitable that Tess and Angel are “converging, under an irresistible law, as surely as two streams in one vale.” Hardy underlines the connection between nature and human behavior: “Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Var Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate. The ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings.” Tess, being a pure and natural woman, feels suited to this environment, and is happier here than she has ever been.
Hardy’s metaphors in Chapter 20, in which Angel and Tess court in the aqueous light of dawn, are extraordinarily thorough and beautiful. Tess’s transcendent beauty is communicated through natural metaphors. She herself, says Hardy, lights up the environment as if by phosphorescence. Tess is connected to Nature, part of its entirety, linked to the birds flying through the morning fog. “Birds would soar through [the fog] into the upper radiance, and hang on the wing sunning themselves, or alight on the wet rails subdividing the mead, which now shone like glass rods…diamonds of moisture from the mist hung, too, upon Tess’s eyelashes, and drops upon her hair, like seed pearls.” Tess is completely unalienated from Nature. Hardy’s language becomes poetic: its use of finely observed details and its implicit association between Tess and the environment point to Hardy’s later career as a poet.
Given the extraordinary vision Tess presents, Angel Clare can scarcely be blamed for idealizing her. To the sensitive and intellectual Clare, Tess is reminiscent of mythical figures of womanhood. She encapsulates the attractions of the entire opposite sex. Hardy tracks Angel’s thoughts carefully here: “She was no longer the milkmaid, but a visionary essence of woman—a whole sex condensed into one typical form. He called her Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names half teasingly, which she did not like because she did not understand them.” Tess fears such adoration and simply wants to be seen for who she is. Call me Tess, she says, and so Angel does.
Knowing she plans not to marry, Tess, in self-negating and self-protective fashion, tries to turn Angel’s attentions to the other milkmaids, her friends Izz Huett, Retty Priddle, and Marian. Hardy presents another aspect of romantic love through these characters, who as a group illustrate the direct connections in Hardy’s mind between women, love, and Nature. “The air of the sleeping-chamber seemed to palpitate with the hopeless passion of the girls. They writhed feverishly under the oppressiveness of an emotion thrust on them by cruel Nature’s law—an emotion which they had neither expected nor desired….The differences which distinguished them as individuals were abstracted by this passion, and each was but portion of one organism called sex.” Their love is pure, involuntary, and so egoless that it makes the milkmaids seem not individuals but only a part of their sex (or gender). Their love contains no thoughts about consequences (class differences make a marriage unlikely), and thus no anxious calculations about the future. Nature, a blind and undiscriminating force, causes these women to experience love. As natural beings, the milkmaids inevitably are attracted to Angel. He is an acceptable man, and they, as women, must desire such a man. The impulse to love, Hardy shows, comes from outside our conscious selves.
In Chapter 24, Hardy describes the lovers’ first embrace in passionate terms, but he also makes clear that Angel is a creature of impulse, somewhat taken aback by his own actions. By shading celebration with qualification, Hardy gently hints that the love of Angel for Tess will not be a case of happily ever after.