Angel Clare is the youngest son of the Reverend and Mrs. Clare. He goes against what the family had intended for him, a career in the ministry, like his father and brothers. Instead, Angel pursues a career that seems opposite of what his family would like for him — farming. His education comes from his schooling and from his personal experiences. He seems more in tune to the true nature of religion, but in a more practical sense, unlike his university-educated brothers. Farming puts Angel on a level with the common folk who inhabit the rural English countryside. He even rejects the popular notion of farm folk as "Hodge," or — as Hardy describes it — "the pitiable dummy" portrayed in the newspapers. Angel arrives at Talbothays to educate himself in the workings of a farm and falls for an unpretentious dairymaid, Tess.
Angel enters the novel at the very beginning, as the nameless young man who dances with the girls of Marlott and then disappears, nameless to the girls and readers. He reappears at Talbothays, when he is 26 and Tess is 20.
Angel is a good man. He begins his relationship with Tess by offering to tutor her in history or any subject of her choosing, to make up for her lack of higher education. She gently refuses, but he cannot help but fall in love with a gentle girl. His gentlemanly ways also come to the fore when he offers to carry all four dairymaids over a swollen creek when the girls are on their way to church. It is a perfect excuse for all of the girls — Izz, Retty, Marian, and Tess — to get closer to their desire, Angel Clare himself. He is sincere in his search for a good, hard working woman who will be a help to him on his own farm. His choice of Tess seems an obvious one to him. However, his family has chosen Mercy Chant, a fine lady and woman, to be his bride. He is disappointed in their choice because he has no need for a frilly lady on a farm; instead, he must have a wife willing to work the same jobs and hours as himself. Angel chooses Tess without ever having his family meet her.
Angel detests old families and makes his views known to others. Tess hears of his views and thinks that her future with Angel may be cut short if he learns of her ancient lineage. When he does learn of her family history, he does not make a big issue of her heritage. He seems likely to have more of an issue with his own views of love and marriage. Angel adheres to Tess' wishes when she asks him to leave her. He observes her from a distance, not making any overtures that could be misleading. He waits several chapters to proclaim his love for Tess and waits for her response. He finally convinces her of his intentions to marry her, but his views of love and marriage seem to have very little flexibility: "Yet Clare's love was doubtless ethereal to a fault, imaginative to impracticability." His weakness is his impractical, idealistic love of Tess. He later regrets his rashness and quick decisions and strives to make up to Tess.
Like Tess, Angel has a past, when he was nearly lead into a relationship with a woman in London. When Tess relates her own tale, he seems to have forgotten his own lurid tale and denies Tess the forgiveness that she so willingly grants him, thus indicating a flaw in Angel's character: his intractability. This flaw sets up the reason for Angel to reject Tess as a wife and begin his excursion to Brazil.
Angel's life is characterized by quick decisions that are not well thought out. He seems reasonable but makes decisions based on impulse, not rational thinking: his quick proclamation of love for Tess, his intent to go to Brazil, and his asking Izz to accompany him to South America. He sees the errors of his ways and regrets his past declarations: "Viewing her [Tess] in these lights, a regret for his hasty judgment began to oppress him." He seems to have thought out the association with Tess, and the loss of a future life with Mercy Chant. He later asks Tess for forgiveness — "Tess! Can you forgive me for going away?" But he exhibits the kind of decisions that ordinary people make in everyday situations. He promises to take care of Tess after she kills Alec and to make Liza-Lu as his wife after Tess is gone, and he lives up to that promise. Thus, Angel is a character likeable to most readers.
Angel is Hardy's voice of agnosticism and the views of religious "freethinkers," those who reject of "the tenets and traditions of formal religion as incompatible with reason." The movement looks to associate with religion but without its formal ties to a church per se. Angel could be construed as a deist; that is, he sees God as a creative, living force, but he rejects formal religion. We see this when Hardy writes, "Angel preferred sermons in stones to sermons in churches and chapels on fine summer days." He chose Tess for her ability to be a good wife for a farmer, not for her religious views. Says Hardy, "Angel never would have made orthodoxy a condition of his choice." When describing Tess to his parents, Angel makes a point to tell his parents that Tess is a good Christian woman:
Angel waxed quite earnest on that rather automatic orthodoxy in his beloved Tess which he had been prone to slight when observing it practised by her and the other milkmaids, because of its obvious unreality amid beliefs essentially naturalistic.
Angel has cleared the last obstacle with his parents and returns to Talbothays to convince Tess to marry him. Thus, Angel represents the practical, no-nonsense facet of religion that Hardy himself would have championed.