The family is in bad economic straits now, but Durbeyfield is still too lazy to work much. Joan fatalistically downplays the disaster and proposes her plan to Tess. Tess protests at first, but feels so guilty about Prince's death that she agrees to see Mrs. d'Urberville. She warns her mother to not think of marrying her off, though.
Prince's death and Tess's own ideals set her along the inevitable path of her destiny, despite her protests. The economic woes of the once aristocratic family are again emphasized, and seem almost a force of fate itself, pushing her forward. And poverty is often a condition from which people can't escape, leading them to disaster.
Tess sets out the next morning for the village of Trantridge. As she walks she turns back and looks at the Vale of Blakemore, and feels that she is leaving her childhood behind. She has always been the parental figure in the family, even to her mother, so she feels she is once again shouldering the burdens of the Durbeyfields and taking care of them.
Tess's rural homeland is a symbol of the old agricultural society, and her journey into the harsh world beyond represents the new woes of modernity. Her role as the bearer of burdens hints at the theme of Tess as sacrificial victim.
The d'Urberville mansion of the Slopes lies on the edge of an ancient, primeval forest called The Chase, but the estate itself looks very modern and well-kept. The narrator reveals that these d'Urbervilles are not d'Urbervilles at all, but Stokes. The now-deceased Simon Stoke procured his wealth as a merchant, and when he settled in the area he somewhat randomly picked “d'Urberville” as an old and venerable name to make his family seem more respectable. The Durbeyfields are sadly unaware of this, however.
The Chase acts as a symbol of ancient Nature and pagan powers, while the history of the d'Urberville-Stokes offers a sharp critique on society's emphasis on old, respectable names, and the inherent valuelessness of those names themselves. The unhappy coincidence of the Stokes choosing the d'Urberville name instead of another to burnish their reputation is also pointed out.
Tess is approached by the bold, handsome Alec d'Urberville. He tries to flirt with Tess but she rebuffs him shyly. She wants to meet Mrs. d'Urberville, but Alec says she is unwell and cannot see her. Eventually Tess explains her purpose to Alec, describing her family's crest-inscribed seal and spoon as proofs that they are true d'Urbervilles. Alec lies and says that he has the same family crest.
Alec appears as the novel's antagonist, a figure of corruption set against Tess's female innocence and modesty. The seal and spoon are brought up as symbols of the essentially worthless inheritance left to the Durbeyfields by their ancestors.
Alec convinces Tess to linger with him until her ride home returns. He shows her the grounds and tries to feed her a strawberry. She protests but relents. Alec keeps feeding Tess berries and adorning her with flowers as they walk, and she feels overwhelmed.
Alec begins his disastrous attempted seduction. Tess covered in flowers offers a picture of her as an innocent child of Nature, or a sort of pagan fertility goddess.
They sit to have lunch and Alec watches Tess. She looks more mature than she is, and her appearance fascinates Alec. It is hinted that he is to be the “tragic mischief” of her story. Tess blurts out her guilt over Prince's death, and Alec promises to find a place for her on their estate. He says for Tess to not call herself d'Urberville in front of his mother.
Tess is presented as an unintentionally seductive figure, her beauty making her the innocent object of men's lust. Alec's tragic role in her fate is prophesied, and his appeal that she not mention her name highlights both their differences in social standing and the fact that he doesn't want her to know for as long as possible that he isn't actually a d'Urberville.
Tess turns to go and Alec considers kissing her, but refrains. The narrator laments the cruel chance of these two meeting at this precise time. Nature hardly ever offers happy coincidences, but instead prefers disasters and tragic destinies. Alec goes back to his tent and laughs, pleased with the situation.
The narrator fully introduces the theme of injustice and fate, and laments the tragic story that is about to unfold for Tess. She is trapped by the circumstance of this meeting, and cannot escape her future. Alec, meanwhile, likes being in control—a typically masculine way of being.