Most of the unfortunate events that unfold in Tess' life in 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' are caused by the loss of her virginity out of wedlock. The question of whether Tess was coerced or seduced, and how much she is to blame for what happens in The Chase is fundamental to assessing how much sympathy Hardy wants the reader to have for her.
There is plenty of evidence throughout Chapter XI that could be seen as conducive to Tess’s ordeal being viewed as coercion, which more or less would exempt her from blame. Hardy clearly wanted to present his eponymous female protagonist as a ‘pure’ woman throughout the novel, despite the course her life takes. This is made clear in Chapter XI when her body is alluded to as ‘beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow’. The use of sibilance in ‘tissue’,’ sensitive’, ‘gossamer’ and ‘snow’, and the connotations of fragility in ‘gossamer’ ‘sensitive’ and ‘snow’ all project images of Tess’s delicacy and softness on the reader, and therefore make it seem more of a travesty when she ‘receives a coarse pattern’ (the word ‘receive’ bearing connotations of unwillingness on her part). The word ‘snow’ also makes Tess seem sexually pure, due to its white colour (which is often representative of virginity) and its temperature; snow is cold, and ergo doesn’t suggest sexual passion, which is a heated emotion. Depicting Tess as sexually innocent and pure in this way makes it seem as though the events that occur in The Chase aren’t consensual. Making the events in the Chase appear against Tess’ will would have made it easier to evoke pity in a Victorian reader; any suggestion of culpability on Tess’ part could threaten the innocent image Hardy is attempting to perpetuate of her. Throughout Chapter XI, Hardy presents Tess as actively resisting Alec’s advances. He states that Tess had, ‘refused (Alec’s offers of company) several times before’, and that she ‘gave him a little push’. Alec also states that she ‘snubbed’ him. To a modern reader, at times, Tess can be seen as passive in this chapter, which makes her seem more responsible for her actions – however, it’s got to be considered that in its Victorian context, any small rejection by a woman of Tess’s status, of a man of Alec’s would be seen as extremely bold; women were expected to be passive, and to adhere to men’s desires. Hardy uses emotive verbs, like ‘refus(es)’ ‘push(es)’ and ‘snubs’ to make it clear to the reader that Tess doesn’t wish to be intimate with Alec. It is also significant that Tess’ sexual encounter happens when she is ‘inexpressively weary’ and ‘sleeping soundly’ – she is physically weak, and is not only physically incapable of defending herself against Alec, but also physically incapable of giving her consent to sexual intercourse. ‘Rape’, in a court of law, is not defined as directly going against someone’s will and testament; it is defined as not gaining consent - for sex to be consensual, both parties have to say yes, not just ‘not say no’. Tess doesn’t ever give Alec her consent, so the events could arguably be seen as coercion, and not Tess’ fault.
However, it cannot be denied that Tess doesn't completely reject Alec – she doesn’t ever directly tell him ‘no’. She is passive at a lot of points throughout the passage when she could’ve easily argued against him. Alec directly asks Tess whether he ‘may treat (her) as a lover’ and she responds with ‘I don’t know – I wish – how can I say yes or no when –‘. Hardy's portrayal of Tess's confused stream of consciousness, along with his excessive use of hyphens, makes Tess’ syntax seem dislocated; she is interrupted by her own thoughts, and is presented as not knowing what she wants. This could easily be interpreted by Alec as an affirmative answer to his question that’s shrouded by Tess’ maidenly modesty – lack of clarity in Tess’ words at a critical moment makes it easy to blame her for what happens; she doesn’t clearly reject Alec, she ‘expresses no further negative’; she doesn’t say ‘no.’
Hardy doesn’t make it implicit if Tess is coerced or seduced by Alec; there is a lot of ambiguity. This can be seen in the setting of the scene, in ‘faint, luminous fog’. The ‘fog’ suggests lack of clarity in the events that take place, which can be seen as parallel to the reader’s experience of them – Alec’s intentions, and Tess’s feelings are ambiguous. The phrase ‘faint, luminous’ is also an oxymoron – the setting of the scene can’t quite decide itself, much like the reader can’t quite decide definitively how to interpret the events that take place, and whether Tess is to blame.
In conclusion, it is ambiguous whether Tess is coerced or seduced in The Chase. It is implicit however, that Hardy doesn't want the reader to blame Tess for what happens; she isn't portrayed as a sexually overt character at all - even if she is seduced rather than coerced, she is still at Alec's whim, she hasn't made her choices completely for herself, so therefore, in my opinion, can be exempted from blame.