Tess’s identity in Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one that is constructed largely by the expectations of her surroundings. While many parts of the novel may be understood in terms of Tess negotiating aspects of her identity at times of internal struggle, another interpretation may be to view Tess as operating in response to the various conflicting beliefs that others have about her identity. In other words, when Tess considers Alec’s pursuits to marry her, rather than viewing this as an internal battle between Tess’s integrity and her loyalty to her family, we might interpret it as a conflict between her family’s expectations that she will do what is best for them with the expectations grafted onto her by society.
Of course, the various characters throughout the novel have vastly different beliefs about Tess’s identity, and consequently, different expectations about how she should behave. Alec, for example, views Tess as a mere object of his desire. When he does things for her, he expects her to then submit to his will. Her family believes her to be a loyal daughter who will always do what is within the best interest of the family. Angel views Tess as a divine figure, and thus expects her actions to be in line with those of the divine.
By understanding Tess’s character in this way, Tess’s identity seems to be more of a blank slate than a mesh of competing philosophical ideals. Tess’s tragic failings throughout the novel are not the result of her inner failings, then, but are instead the inevitable result of the various evolving expectations towards her. Rather than being a victim of the Naturalistic world that Hardy creates, Tess is a part of the Naturalistic landscape.
Finally, by viewing Tess in this way, she becomes something larger than just a character. She is not simply Tess of the d’Urbervilles. She is an abstract stand-in for all women of this period. Thus, any woman thrust into this situation with the same set of competing expectations will have the same tragic ending. Tess did not fail to navigate the expectations of society, religion, her family, and men. Those expectations are simply incompatible.