Hardy uses comparison throughout the novel to reveal character and theme. The most obvious comparison is between Angel and Alec. The juxtaposition of Angel, who represents the ideal love of Tess, is contrasted with Alec, who represents the sexual possession of Tess. Since neither character is a perfect personification of good or evil, Hardy has both men exhibit both passion and coldness when they interact with Tess. Angel is passionate about Tess and his love for her, while he coolly dismisses her after learning of her torrid past. Alec is at first cool in his treatment of Tess as a possession, a symptom of his class, and then he decides later that he cannot live without her.
Hardy's Tess is filled with these side-by-side comparisons. Peter J. Casagrande, in his book Tess of the d'Urbervilles: Unorthodox Beauty, coins a new word "beaugly," a combination of the words "beautiful" and "ugly." He argues that the novel is chock-full of these comparisons: poor/rich, good/evil, Angel/brothers; Tess/her siblings; high class/low class, and past/present. Even the title of Casagrande's work, "Unorthodox Beauty," suggests a beauty that is does not conform to the standards by which other novels before or since Tess have been judged. Hardy himself points the out the rationale for his philosophy: "The business of the poet and novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things." Another Hardy critic, Linda Shires, makes the observation that, Hardy's treatment of his characters is "blatantly non-stereotypical." Now we have a novel that challenges stereotypes and sets the tone for several other Hardy works.
The poor versus rich comparison should not escape modern readers. Alec's seemingly endless wealth contrasts with the Durbeyfield's abject poverty. Hardy uses this juxtaposition to demonstrate the difference between the "haves" and the "have nots." However, even Hardy makes the point that at sometime in the distant past, just as Alec and his kind take advantage of Tess and her kind, the ancient d'Urbervilles had their way with the poor of their time: "Doubtless some of Tess d'Urbervilles mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time." But Hardy does not forgive the sins of the past or present saying, "To visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter." While not forgiving Alec for his misdeeds, Hardy does make some attempt to understand Alec's actions as a part of his class.
Also, Hardy attempts to comprehend good and evil. The poor down in Marlott have adapted a fatalistic attitude best represented by the saying, "It was to be." Tess questions the contrast between the forces that have dealt her a less than fair hand — "I shouldn't mind learning why — why the sun do shine on the just and unjust alike." Tess' query is one that has perplexed men since the dawn of time: why is there good and evil in the world? Hardy invokes the ancient Greek views on good and evil, along with the Torah and the Old Testament and New Testament of the Bible, as well as Milton's view found in Paradise Lost in an attempt to understand what motivates men to perpetrate either good or bad.
Another contrast is found in the families themselves, the Durbeyfields and the Clares. The Durbeyfields, even though impoverished, have a closeness that binds them. Tess' weakness is her siblings and their well being. In fact, Alec uses his wile to tempt her, much like the character of Satan uses temptation in the Bible and in Milton's Paradise Lost. Hardy describes Tess' siblings as "six helpless creatures, who had never been asked if they wished for life on any terms, much less if they wished for it on such hard conditions as were involved in being of the shiftless house of Durbeyfield." Angel and his brothers, on the other hand, do not share the closeness that Tess' siblings share. Angel's brothers would find it difficult to aid each other, let alone others who might be in dire circumstances. Hardy comments "they [the needy] were to be tolerated rather than reckoned with and respected."
Hardy also contrasts the lifestyle of the farms where Tess works: Talbothays and Flintcomb-Ash. Hardy describes the Talbothays region in breathtaking terms of green valleys and abundant life. "The river itself, which nourished the grass and cows of these renowned dairies, flowed not like the streams in Blackmoor . . . The Froom waters were clear as the pure River of Life shown to the Evangelist . . . ." Flintcomb-Ash, on the other hand, is described as "sublime in its dreariness." Marian, Tess' friend from Talbothays, calls the farm a "starve-acre place," not like the lush dairy at Talbothays. Hardy also sets up a contrast between the men who run each farm. Flintcomb has Farmer Groby, a mean-spirited man who demands that his workers work even harder. Mr. Crick from Talbothays uses humor and aplomb to motivate his workers.
These contrasts serve to reveal the nature of the people, places, and situations that Tess encounters. They also enable Hardy to make subtle and not-so-subtle observations about how people, both good and bad, interact act with and affect one another, for good or ill.