When it comes to Tess' villains, the usual candidates are Alec, Angel and Joan. Alec the obvious melodramatic villain. Angel doesn't intend to be cruel to Tess, but he makes her more miserable than anyone. And then there's Joan who sets up Alec to ruin Tess partly to bring some money into the Derbyfield household. It's easy to condemn each, but Hardy provides enough character development to invite our empathy. Each villain had his or her reasons.

Joan and Tess as young women were much alike in full bodied sexual appeal. Also, both were born into a low social rung with little opportunity to advance. But, with some luck and willingness both could advance using their sexual appeal to bond with men of higher rank. Joan took this route, but Tess wouldn't consider such a scheme. Parents often don't understand their children and in that difference parents tend to assume parents know best. Moreover, parents tend to assume responsibility to bend their child's thinking to their, not out of malice but in genuine conviction it's their responsibility. Joan was convinced Tess had a great opportunity to bond with the wealthy Alec, not just for the sake of the Derbyfield household but for Tess' benefit, also. By Joan's standards the plan blossomed. However, by Tess' thinking, incomprehensible to Joan, life with Alec was intolerable.

That Joan set Tess up for her ruin was villainous, but not all villainous acts merit condemnation. The underlying reason for Joan's villainy, her not understanding Tess and assuming she knew best, is common to all parents. Most of us can't condemn Joan unless we're willing to condemn ourselves.