To ward off the men who might find her attractive, Tess puts on a handkerchief as though she has a toothache and clips her eyebrows. She arrives at Flintcomb-Ash to find Marian already at work. Marian calls the farm a "starve-acre place," not like the lush dairy at Talbothays. The work is digging rutabagas, harvesting corn, and making the thatch for roofs. It is indeed difficult work for men and women alike. Tess agrees to work until April 6, also know as "Old Lady-Day."
The two friends work in the rain and snow at the farm. Marian writes to Izz Huett, who later comes to Flintcomb-Ash for work as well. One day, when it is too cold to dig swedes, the ladies are sent by the farmer to make roof thatching in a nearby farm. Also working there are Dark Car and the Queen of Diamonds, both former employees of the d'Urbervilles at The Slopes. These "two Amazionian sisters" do not remember Tess from their previous encounter.
Tess meets her employer, the farmer, the same man who had insulted her in town in Chapter 33 and who appears again in a second chance encounter in Chapter 41. He is mean and vengeful toward Tess, telling her, "But we'll see which is master here." He urges the girls to work harder, and Tess stays behind to finish her work with Izz and Marian. Tess is overcome by exhaustion and faints. As she recovers on a haystack, she overhears Izz tell the story of Angel asking her to accompany him to Brazil. Tess decides to contact Angel's parents to ask about Angel.
The next Sunday, Tess sets out for Emminster, a 30-mile roundtrip walk for her. A year has passed since her marriage to Angel, and she is determined to make her plight known to her in-laws and to see if they have heard from Angel. She removes her walking boots, stashes them in a nearby bush and puts on her dress boots to impress her in-laws.
Angel's brothers discover Tess' boots, not knowing she is nearby, and takes them back to the Clare's vicarage. Tess loses her nerve to see the Clares and returns to Flintcomb-Ash dejected and depressed. On the way back to the farm, Tess encounters Alec d'Urberville, now an evangelical "fire and brimstone" street preacher.
The contrast between Flintcomb-Ash and Talbothays is clear. Flintcomb-Ash is described as "sublime in its dreariness." Conversely, Talbothays is portrayed as ideal and beautiful, "the verdant plain so well watered by the river Var or Froom." Flintcomb has Farmer Groby, a mean-spirited man who demands that his workers work even harder. Mr. Crick gets results from his workers with humor and aplomb, even regaling them with his humorous tales, as evidenced by the William Dewy tale from Chapter 17 and the Jack Dollop tales from Chapters 21 and 29.
The indifference that Angel's brothers show towards Tess is not altogether surprising based on what we already know of them. However, it is Tess' first encounter with her brothers-in-law, and she hears for herself their contempt for her marriage to Angel and for Angel himself — "His ill-considered marriage seems to have completed that estrangement from me which was begun by his extraordinary opinions." The brothers, both ministers themselves, have little regard for those in desperate situations, reserving their charity to those they deem worthy to receive it. Mercy Chant, whose name implies sympathy and kindness, adds her own insensitive opinion when Tess' boots are discovered in some bushes, viewing them as belonging to "[s]ome impostor who wished to come into town barefoot, perhaps, and so excite our sympathies." Thus, all three — Mercy, Cuthbert, and Felix — display a lack of compassion that Tess could use at that moment. Hardy further emphasizes the uncharitable nature of these three in his descriptions: Hardy describes the brothers as "starched and ironed"; he describes Mercy as "a trifle guindée and prudish." The word guindée in French means "stiff" or "formal."
This episode recalls earlier episodes in which action or inaction rest on a single turn of fate. By encountering her brothers-in-law first, Tess is exposed to unkind and uncharitable notions about herself and her marriage to Angel. Hardy says "it was somewhat unfortunate that she had encountered the sons and not the father, who, despite his narrowness, was far less starched and ironed than they, and had to the full the gift of charity." If Tess had met her father and mother-in-law first, the outcome might have been different.
In these chapters, Tess also is reunited with Alec d'Urberville, who is in the guise of a street corner minister. Alec claims to have repented of his former sins, recanting his past excesses, taking up the teachings of Reverend Clare and the lessons of St. Paul. Nevertheless, as is made clear in the following chapters, Alec is a hollow cleric. Even though he himself condemns the faithless in his sermons, he will leave his ministry to pursue Tess.
mommet (dialect) a term of abuse or contempt.
"dust and ashes" Job 42:6.
Cybele the Many-breasted Phrygian fertility goddess who, in the form of a mother with many breasts, symbolizes nature.
"clipsed or colled" (dialect) embraced.
swede-hacking a swede is a Swedish turnip, or rutabaga.
Old Lady Day April 6, date used to set the beginning or ending of employment.
copy-holders people who hold land by copyhold.
wroppers (dialect) wrappers.
"early Italian conception of the two Marys"` because of their weepings and pensive looks, they resemble painted representations from the Renaissance of Mary, the mother of Christ, and Mary Magdalen after the death of Jesus.
"like the moves of a chess player" death is sometimes represented as a chess player.
reed-drawing preparing straw to be used as thatching material.
"white pillar of a cloud" from Exodus 13:21.
percipience a perceiving, esp. keenly or readily.
premonitory giving previous warning or notice.
thirtover (dialect) thwart-over, meaning perverse.
guindée stiff, stilted, formal (French).
prudish like or characteristic of a prude; too modest or proper.
impressibility the state of being impressed or impressionable.
contravene to go against; oppose; conflict with; violate; to disagree with in argument; contradict.
habiliments clothing; dress; attire.
supervened came or happened as something extraneous or unexpected; to take place; ensued.
"Publicans and Sinners . . . Scribes and Pharisees" they were biased in favor of those who had fallen.
publican in Britain, any owner or proprietor of a pub.
Antinomian a believer in the Christian doctrine that faith alone, not obedience to the moral law, is necessary for salvation.
"O foolish Galatians . . . " from Galatians 3:1.