In the middle of a description of the Durbeyfield family, Hardy inserts the observation that the children of the family are trapped in the “Durbeyfield ship”: “If the heads of the Durbeyfield household chose to sail into difficulty, disaster, starvation, disease, degradation, death, thither were these half-dozen little captives under hatches compelled to sail with them” (Hardy 24). The choices of their family control their fates.
When Tess is sent to meet her pseudo-relatives, Hardy observes that Alec D’Urbervilles is “potentially the ‘tragic mischief’ of her drama” (42). We are not told why Alec might be a source of pain to Tess, but his role is hinted at by his physical description: he possesses “touches of barbarism” in his manner (42). His affect on Tess is equally alarming. She becomes “half-hypnotized” by Alec, mindlessly doing as he wishes.
So Tess and her siblings are controlled by their parents. Tess also falls under the spell of Alec. What then connects the two seemingly different moments? Well, after Tess mentions her family’s connection to the D’Urbervilles and her claim to their support, Alec declares that “My mother must find a berth for you” (43). A berth is an usual way to describe a place in an upper class household, as it is a term usually reserved for reference to a bed or place on a ship. The berth might therefore be considered a place on the D’Urberville “ship” instead of the Durbeyfield “ship”. Given that we have already seen Alec’s control over Tess, it is logical to conclude that he could take the place of the “heads of the Durbeyfield household” in deciding Tess’ fate. Given that he is “potentially the ‘tragic mischief’ of her drama”, this does not seem to bode well for her (24).