Tess is the protagonist, and not just because she's the title character. She's also the moral center of the novel – the narrator consistently sympathizes with her, and her moral outlook is continually shown to be the best one. But early critics of the novel believed that Tess was morally culpable for being raped, as well as for everything else that happened to her – up to and including, of course, the murder of Alec.
Hardy knew how critics would respond to her, and he's on the defensive throughout the novel. The narrator is Tess's only constant friend and sympathizer. Angel, her "true" husband and supposed soul mate, doesn't understand her until it's too late. Even her own mother doesn't understand her, as she admits to Angel towards the end of the novel: "I have never really known her" (54.36). Tess is certainly a difficult character to understand, both for characters in the novel and for readers. So let's take a closer look at a few passages to try and clarify a few things.
Tess's physicality is referred to so frequently in the novel that it's hard not to think of her attractiveness as her defining characteristic. Some characters in the novel aren't able to see past her good looks. The scene in which she first meets Alec D'Urberville is the first instance of this:
She had an attribute which amounted to a disadvantage just now; and it was this that caused Alec D'Urberville's eyes to rivet themselves upon her. It was a luxuriance of aspect, a fullness of growth, which made her appear more of a woman than she really was. She had inherited the feature from her mother without the quality it denoted. It had troubled her mind occasionally, till her companions had said that it was a fault which time would cure. (5.63)
The "luxuriance of aspect" and "fullness of growth" is a polite way of saying that Tess is curvaceous, and surprisingly developed for her age. OK, let's do away with euphemisms: she has big chest. Later on, when Alec runs into Tess again, he can't stop talking about her mouth: "Surely there never was such a maddening mouth since Eve's!" (56.125). Why does Hardy mention this? Because it's important to point out that Alec's obsession with Tess is purely physical, and his physical attraction to her has to do with her beauty.
But Angel is physically attracted to Tess, too. What's the difference? Let's look at the passage in which Angel is staring at Tess (unbeknownst to her) and studying her face:
How very lovable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it; all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation. And it was in her mouth that this culminated. Eyes almost as deep and speaking he had seen before, and cheeks perhaps as fair; brows as arched, a chin and throat almost as shapely; her mouth he had seen nothing to equal on the face of the earth. To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward life in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening. (24.8)
Angel is generally an ethereal, spiritual person – less interested in physical realities than he is in the spiritual or ideal aspects of things. And in general, that's how he views Tess – until he really looks at her face, and especially her mouth. Notice the "yet" in the second sentence. The "yet" suggests that her face is "lovable to him" in spite of the fact that it's physical, and not ethereal. So, yes, he's sexually attracted to her, because no "young man with the least fire in him" could help it, but she is lovable to him in spite of it, and not because of it.
Tess herself views her own physical beauty with pride, only to think that Angel is proud to have a pretty wife. At other times, she is self-conscious and embarrassed about her good looks. When she travels alone after Angel has left her, she goes so far as to disguise herself so that she'll be able to avoid the unwanted remarks and leers of men on the road. She snips off her eyebrows and ties a bandage around her chin (52.2). She somehow sees her own physical attractiveness as a sin – it's something she cannot help, but her physicality tempts men, and causes them to accuse her of deliberately tempting them, as Alec does: "You temptress, Tess; you dear witch of Babylon!" (56.125).
The descriptions of Tess's physicality, and the different attitudes towards it taken by the three main characters, lead to another question about Tess's character: is she a kind of mythic "every woman," who can stand in for some universal female experience, or is her experience unique? Some characters see her as ideal and mythic, but she insists that she's not – she's just a regular girl. Let's look at some of the passages that suggest the ambiguity:
Tess's eyes are "neither black nor blue nor gray nor violet; rather all those shades together, and a hundred others, which could be seen if one looked into their irises – shade behind shade – tint beyond tint – round depths that had no bottom; an almost typical woman" (14.24). Her eyes are every color of the rainbow, and then some? How does that work? Her eyes are somehow universal – they make her an "almost typical woman." Looking into her eyes is like looking into the eyes of any woman, anywhere – and from any time – but only "almost." Hardy backs away from saying that she is a "typical woman," and says she's only almost a "typical woman."
But Angel, who should know her better than anybody, still sees her that way:
He called her Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names half teasingly, which she did not like because she could not understand them.
"Call me Tess," she would say askance; and he did. (20.10-11)
Angel calls her by the names of ancient Greek goddesses. Demeter is the goddess of the earth and of fertility – this makes sense, because Tess has already repeatedly been associated with fertility rituals (remember the May Dance?). Artemis is the Greek goddess of hunting, and of the moon, and – ironically – of chastity.
But Tess is too complicated to be summed up as either of those characteristics – as an "earth goddess" or as the "goddess of chastity." Neither one of them is really true, and neither one of them gets at her complexity as a person. Both are, to use the academic term, reductive – they reduce her to a single, simple term or idea. Tess doesn't know who Artemis or Demeter are, but she knows she doesn't want to be reduced like that, so she says, "Call me Tess." Her desire to be called by her own name is her way of asserting her own individuality – she's not an ideal woman, and she's not reducible to a single term or idea. Her own name is the only way to capture her complexity as a character.
But even after Angel stops trying to reduce Tess to these overly simple ideas, he still refuses to acknowledge her complexity as a character: whenever she references her past, he laughs it off, as though she could have no history before coming to Talbothays. How could such a fresh, pretty country girl, he thinks, have any kind of dark past or history to tell? What stories could that exterior hide?
One example is when she starts to tell him about Alec, and he makes light of it, saying 'Tell it if you wish to, dearest. This precious history then. Yes, I was born at so and so, Anno Domini – " (30.35). So, in a way, Angel fails to see past Tess's exterior as much as Alec does. The difference is that Angel can't see past his idealized vision of Tess as a timeless, ideal woman (who would therefore have no history), and Alec can't see past his vision of Tess's gorgeous looks.
Part of what early critics of Tess of the D'Urbervilles objected to was Tess's lack of traditional Christian doctrine. If she blamed herself for being raped, and spent the rest of her life shunning men and trying to atone for her "sin," they might not have objected to her so much. In that case, the novel would have become a cautionary tale about the dangers of being too sexy.
But Tess realizes that what happened to her really wasn't her fault – she didn't even know what sex was before she went to Trantridge. She had no way of defending herself against Alec because she didn't fully understand what he wanted. She realizes that she's the victim and, in a moment of mental anguish, she asks herself why she should suffer so much:
Never in her life – she could swear it from the bottom of her soul – had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently? (51.8)
So Tess doesn't blame herself – which early readers saw as problem number one. In addition, she's not all that well schooled in Christian doctrine. She goes to church regularly, but doesn't always understand what she hears there. Her faith pertains more to what she sees in Nature (with a capital "N") than what she hears in church. Angel teasingly calls her a pagan when they're at the dairy together, and Tess recalls his remarks when they're at Stonehenge just before her arrest. Tess feels a connection to the ancient, primeval, mysterious stone circle, and says, "One of my mother's people was a shepherd hereabouts, now I think of it. And you used to say at Talbothays that I was a heathen. So now I am at home" (58.34). Tess feels connected to the pagan history of Britain through her mother's family, and that's an association that Hardy has stressed from the beginning of the novel.
Tess gets all her prettiness from her mother, but that "gift" is "therefore unknightly, unhistorical" (3.13). Because her mother is a commoner, and isn't related to an ancient, noble family like her husband, Jack Durbeyfield/D'Urberville, Tess's prettiness is likewise common, or "unknightly." But to call it "unhistorical" seems problematic – the history of her mother's family might not be written in history books, or found by antiquarians like the Parson Tringham who discovers the Durbeyfield's connection to the D'Urbervilles, but that doesn't mean that it has no history.
In fact, Hardy frequently alludes to the ancientness, or even the timelessness, of Tess's femininity. Her mother collects ancient ballads, and seems to represent all the old traditions of Britain – the May Dance, for example, is a relic of an even older fertility ceremony dating back to pagan times and the worship of the ancient Roman goddess Ceres (2.6). That ceremony connects Tess to her matrilineal heritage (her lineage through her mother) as opposed to her patrilineal heritage (you guessed it – her D'Urberville lineage through her father). And Tess's matrilineal heritage connects her to ancient, druidical, pagan times.
That's the real question, isn't it? The whole tragedy of her life seems to have been caused by "misreadings" of Tess – Alec's failure to see past her physical beauty to her complex spiritual core; Angel's failure to see her human side or to acknowledge that she has a history.
Hardy obviously wants the reader to understand Tess – his defensiveness of her is almost tender at points. Critics have postulated that he might even have been in love with her himself, even though she was a fictional character he had invented. The basis for this (probably flawed!) assumption is the line in a letter he wrote: "I have not been able to put on paper all that she is, or was, to me." Even Hardy himself found it difficult fully to comprehend the layers of Tess's character. Part of interpreting her correctly, then, is simply acknowledging that complexity.