It is August, and the sun looks like an ancient god. Illuminated are the red arms of a reaping-machine in a field of corn. The machine starts to tick and then three horses move forward, and the machine revolves. The animals in the cornfield retreat before it, but their refuge gets smaller and smaller and doom inevitably finds them. In the wake of the machine women bind up the corn, and they seem an integrated part of nature.
Hardy first invokes the ancient sun-worshipping religions, and compares that with the ominous industrial reaping machine. It emotionlessly kills the creatures of the field and its turning arms are those of inexorable fate. Again the rural women are portrayed as being at one with Nature.
One woman is described in particular, as she has the most beautiful figure, but a bonnet is pulled low over her face and she never seeks attention. She binds corn monotonously, and at last her beautiful face is revealed as that of Tess. Much time has passed and she has changed. She is now working the land in the Vale of Blakemore.
We are reintroduced to Tess, as she has changed so much from the innocent girl of the novel's start. She is again representing the older world of agriculture and simple nature, and is placed next to the industrial machine to emphasize the contrast.
After breakfast they go back to work, but now Tess glances off at the hills until a group of children arrive. The oldest girl carries an infant in her arms. When Tess finally takes a break the girl, who is Liza-Lu, brings the baby to her and Tess nurses it. The other workers look away politely.
Hardy breaks the news of Tess's child slowly, avoiding dramatics. Alec's rape could never be undone emotionally, but now his child acts as a physical proof for all society to see and condemn.
Tess holds her child indifferently for a while, but then suddenly kisses it fiercely. The other women discuss her seemingly conflicted feelings, and the rumors of “a sobbing one night last year in The Chase,” and they lament that this should happen to the prettiest girl.
Most everyone knows what happened by now, and Tess cannot avoid her past in Marlott. She has unwillingly taken on the role of a mother, and her actions toward the child show her inner turmoil—both anger and love.
After many months of regret, Tess had finally decided this week to go out into the fields and work. She tries to put the past behind her and take comfort in the beauty of nature, which no longer reflects her pain. It has been so long that her community has mostly forgotten about her scandal, or hardly gives it a thought, but to Tess it is still constant suffering. Yet her suffering only comes from the expectations of convention, and no longer from her inner emotions.
Tess is once more among Nature where she belongs. Hardy emphasizes again the arbitrary rules of society that condemn her. If she was going by her own moral compass, she would not be suffering as greatly as she is now. It is the judgment of others, which Tess even emphasizes in her own mind, that cause her pain now.
Tess works until evening and then is cheered by her lively female companions. But when she returns she finds that her baby is sick. The child is technically an “offence against society,” but Tess forgets all that in her desire to save his life.
The child is perhaps doomed from the start because of its unhappy birth. Despite all of society's judgment, Tess instinctively assumes the role of mother when her child is ill.
The child gets rapidly worse and Tess despairs that he hasn't been baptized. She has accepted that she might go to Hell, but she cannot let her child die unsaved. She asks her father to send for a parson, but Durbeyfield is feeling especially proud of his heritage and scornful of Tess's shame, so he refuses.
It is now revealed how much Tess has thought about her own damnation. She accepts that she is bound for Hell—thereby accepting society's unfair condemnation of her—but selflessly wants to save the baby. Even her own father is affected by the general condemnation of Tess.
The child gets worse, and Tess feverishly imagines him being tortured in Hell. She decides to baptize him herself, hoping it will be “just the same” as a parson. She fills the washing-stand with water and her siblings gather around, awed. She takes up the child and her sister holds open the Prayer-Book.
This act makes sense as the last desperate hope of a young girl, but Tess also now begins to assume her position as a religious figure, appearing like a priestess as she acts out her own version of a baptism.
In the candlelight Tess is transformed into an “immaculate,” “regal” figure in white. She names the child “Sorrow” after a Biblical phrase, and she sprinkles water on his head, and they pray, and the children say “Amen.” Then Tess recites the thanksgiving words, and so sincere is her faith that her face appears transfigured and purified. To her siblings she doesn't look like Tess anymore, but “a divine personage with whom they had nothing in common.”
The next morning Sorrow dies, and the siblings cry but Tess remains serene, feeling that if God won't accept her child then he is not a God she wants to believe in. Tess then wants to give Sorrow a Christian burial, so she goes to a parson. She asks if her baptism was the same as if he had done it, and the parson is impressed with her dignity and takes pity on her, and says (untruthfully) that it was. But then he refuses to let the baby be buried in the churchyard, until again Tess convinces him with her sympathetic pleas.
Tess is still filled with the calm dignity of assuming her religious role, and so is able to make independent and potentially blasphemous decisions for herself. The parson is also affected by her state, and he goes against the technicalities of his religious position and acts as a sympathetic man. Hardy clearly values the spirit over the letter of the law.
That night Tess buries her child by lantern-light, having bribed the sexton to get into the churchyard, and she constructs a small cross and lays flowers on the grave. It is a makeshift memorial, but made complete by her maternal love.
Tess has found this religious role as a strength within herself, and here she completes her own version of the Christian burial, acting in the face of society's condemnation.