Part of the difficulty in interpreting Angel—or Tess, for that matter—is that Hardy's skill at creating the sense of psychological depth and complexity makes it hard to remember that these are fictional characters, and not real people. Even Angel, with his "Hey! I'm fictional!" name.
It's pretty hard to come away from this novel without being angry with Angel. Why doesn't he dance with Tess at the May dance? Why does he leave her on their wedding night? What makes him so stubborn? And why doesn't he have his epiphany about Tess's inherent purity a little sooner? Angel's bad timing, almost as much as Alec's predatory obsession with Tess, propels the tragedy forward. Angel is clearly not the villain of the novel—Alec's got that role in the bag.
So what are we to do with this character?
As we discuss in the "Character Clues" section, Angel's name is a good place to jump into a discussion of his character. His last name, "Clare," implies light, as opposed to heat: "clair" is French for "light." This interpretation is supported by the narrator's description of Angel's love for Tess:
Though not cold-natured, he was rather bright than hot—less Byronic than Shelleyan; could love desperately, but his love more especially inclined to the imaginative and ethereal. (31.8)
Angel is more interested in the spiritual side of love than the physical—Byron is a poet from the English Romantic period who had a reputation with the ladies, and Shelley was a poet from the same period who was more of a philosopher than a ladies' man. Angel's rejection of the physical and the earthy in favor of the spiritual and ethereal is what makes him have a hard time accepting Tess's history. That emphasis on the spiritual is reflected in his name.
His first name, "Angel," also implies almost other-worldly goodness. He's just so good, he's hardly human. That's certainly how Tess views him:
"There was hardly a touch of earth in her love for Clare." (31.6)
She views him almost as a guardian angel.
But he's a guardian angel who is absent at key moments in her life. During the rape scene, the narrator asks, "But where was Tess's guardian angel?" (11.61). The pun on Angel's name is so obvious that it's hard not to read that way—where was Angel at this point? Why had he not danced with Tess at the May dance, or turned back to ask about her when he caught sight of her and was interested? Because his timing was bad.
So a closer look at Angel Clare's name suggests two problems with his character: his bad timing, and his total rejection of physical reality in favor of idealized spirituality.
Can we blame Angel for his bad timing? He's always coming too late, or too early. When Tess first meets Alec at Trantridge, the narrator asks why Tess is "seen and marked and coveted that day by the wrong man, and not by a certain other man, the exact and true one in all respects" (5.72). Angel is that "exact and true" man, but Alec "see[s]" and "covet[s]" her first. Angel saw Tess on the village green, but she only made a "transient impression" on him then (5.72)—when he sees her again at Talbothays dairy, it takes him months to realize that he'd seen her before. The narrator doesn't seem to want us to blame Angel: he makes the problem of bad timing a universal one—something that everyone in the world suffers from:
In the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of the things the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving. Nature does not often say 'See!' to her poor creature at a time when seeing can lead to happy doing; or reply 'Here!' to a body's cry of 'Where?' till the hide-and-seek has become an irksome outworn game. We may wonder whether at the acme and summit of the human progress these anachronisms will become corrected by a finer intuition, a closer interaction of the social machinery than that which now jolts us round and along; but such completeness is not to be prophesied, or even conceived as possible. (5.73)
Here, the narrator asks why everyone screws up timing, and wonders whether, at some future point in "human progress," these screw-ups might become less frequent. But for now, these missed connections happen all the time. If there's a "well-judged plan" for all of us, we "execut[e]" it poorly. The bottom line is that it wasn't anybody's fault that Angel didn't dance with Tess at the May dance.
Even if we can't blame Angel for his bad timing at the May dance, we can blame him for his stubbornness in leaving Tess on their wedding night, right? Sure, but only if you look at him as a person, and not as a character in a novel. Angel is more spiritual than physical, and more ideal than real—and when he discovers that his ideal bride is actually a real, flesh-and-blood woman, with a real, physical history, he can't deal with it. He needs to change his outlook on life, and realistically (and Hardy is all about psychological realism), that kind of adjustment takes time.
Even Tess, who thought she knew Angel so well, is surprised by his stubbornness:
She was appalled by the determination revealed in the depths of this gentle being she had married – the will to subdue the grosser to the subtler emotion, the substance to the conception, the flesh to the spirit. Propensities, tendencies, habits, were as dead leaves upon the tyrannous wind of his imaginative ascendency. (36.101)
Wow, that's a lot of philosophical jargon. The narrator is saying that Angel might be "gentle," but he has a "determination" in his "depths"—he's "determin[ed]" always to put the "spirit" before the "flesh." Everything else—his "habits" of "gentle[ness]," and even his love for Tess, are nothing to this "imaginative ascendency."
Tess's confession about her traumatic history flies in the face of that basic, fundamental characteristic in Angel—his tendency to idealize and to spiritualize everyone and everything. That's just a part of his character, and it's impossible to expect this character to accept Tess and her history without a serious readjustment.
It takes a lot for someone as deeply and completely convinced of his own beliefs as Angel is to change his mind. He never stops loving Tess—and he does love her—but it takes a while for him to reconcile her past with his ideas about sexual morality. He is, in many ways, a free-thinker, and he likes to think of himself as totally unconventional.
However, when Tess tells him that she'd had another man's child—even though her pregnancy was a result of rape—his reaction is in line with conventional Victorian thinking about women and sexuality. He's not just condemning her for having had sex before marriage; his reaction, as we suggested above, is more philosophical: it's hard for him to accept that she's not an ideal, ethereal, perfect woman.
So what makes him change? He begins early on in his travels to re-think his inherited ideas about morality:
"Who was the moral man? Still more pertinently, who was the moral woman?" (49.9)
He realizes that "the beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed" (49.9).
This is a serious adjustment for Angel—he admits immediately after Tess tells him about Alec that she was "more sinned against than sinning" (35.51). He never did blame her for the rape. It was the consciousness that she had a physical, sexual history that bothered him. So his realization that Tess was never morally in the wrong isn't what brings him around.
What finally brings him around is the realization that Tess could be both: she could be a real, flesh-and-blood woman with a physical, sexual past, and she could still be his ideal. It didn't have to be one way or the other. He remembers "Tess as she had appeared on the day of the wedding," and the way that she had looked up to him almost as a "god"—she "uncovered" her "simple soul," and was as spiritual and ethereal as they come.
Tess embodies both the physical and the spiritual, but for a long time, he wasn't able to see past the physical.