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Symbolism in Tess of the D'Urbervilles Research Papers

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Tess of the D'Urbervilles, like many of the literary works by Thomas Hardy, offers a critique of modernity. Tess is a symbol for the primitive or natural. Her status as a symbol for nature is established in many ways. The major events of Tess' life involve animals:

  • The horse who died when she fell asleep
  • The pheasants she kills to ease their suffering
  • The cows present when she falls in love with Angel

Tess is raped by Alec, eventually giving birth to his sickly child. These events demonstrate that Tess, like nature, is desirable and defined by her productive capabilities. Alec represents humanity's cruelty toward nature, including the onslaught of pollution and technology. Tess' status as a symbol for nature is also confirmed when she visits natural locations. At Stonehenge, Tess ultimately surrenders to society when she lays down on the stone altar. She knows that the police will see her executed. Ultimately, Tess does not ever fit within the confines of middle class morality, despite her efforts to keep the love of her husband, Angel.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the story about fate.  Like a hunted animal, Tess cannot escape her destiny.  However, Hardy reminds the reader that fate and character are two different things.  The numerous shades of color show that Tess (and indeed all humans) is more complex than the simple Victorian dichotomy.  Tess could be a pure woman and still have sexual desires; she could commit murder and be more than the hunted animal.  She could be a human being.

Symbolism in Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Angel and his family, on the other hand, represent the efforts by society to civilize and tame nonconformists. Angel's father directly attempts to change others by converting them to his religion. Angel's brothers attack Tess for her more naturalistic ways, preferring instead the woman hoped to be Angel's wife, Mercy Chant. Mercy Chant is viewed as a more respectable choice for marriage both because she is religious and because she is a teacher. Her educated status is a significant departure from Tess' own low-class, uneducated background.

The numerous hues of red demonstrate that Hardy is foreshadowing the myriad of ways in which the color red will reflect the varieties of life.  Red is not a single color, and Tess cannot be painted with a single stroke of sin.  Indeed, her sin calls into conflict the idea that she is a “pure woman.”  For a Victorian audience, sexual sin was unforgiving in a woman.  Additionally, in the end Tess becomes a murderess.  How, then can such a woman be described as pure?  Hardy’s use of the myriad shades of red shows that everything in life lies along a spectrum between opposites: from the purest white to the darkest black.
Indeed, Tess’s coloration in white is supposed to demonstrate her virginal purity.  The red ribbon in her hair is a hint that nothing is as pure as it seems.  Tess can then be contrasted to Alec, who is portrayed in terms of red and black, traditional colors for Satan.  At the novel’s dénouement, red staining white will again come into play.  Hardy does not allow the readers to see the murder, but more effectively treats it through both symbolism and the Mrs. Brooks’ point-of-view:

As she did so her eyes glanced carefully over the ceiling, till they were arrested by a spot in the middle of its white surface which she had never noticed there before.  It was about the size of a wafer when she first observed it, but speedily grew as large as the palm of her hand, and then she could perceive that it was red.  The oblong white ceiling, with this scarlet blot in the midst, has the appearance of a gigantic ace of hearts.

However, in keeping with the theme that each color has a myriad of different hues to represent various aspects of personality, it is worth noting how he uses the color white in representing Tess.  Surely, someone who was of the purest white could not be set upon a path that would lead to sexual impurity and murder.  In Chapter 11 (where the rape occurs) Alec comes upon Tess surrounded by a thick fog.  “The obscurity was so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves.  Everything else was blackness alike”.

The whiteness here has a connotation of death; Tess has taken on a ghostly quality.  There are two forces at work here.  On the one hand is the virginal white of Tess’s purity, on the other is the mortal nature of life itself.  Everything must one day die, including Tess’s virginity, however destructive or evil that might be.  The blackness that surrounds her is Alec himself, the rapist who sets Tess along the path to her ultimate fate.


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