Imagery and Symbolism

The symbols in Tess of the d’ Urbervilles are really omens, but the narrative gives the impression that something is being seen rather than felt. Hardy’s writing is observant and he is acutely sensitive to the visual. He uses graphic effects, such as large slogans written in red paint, which he uses to establish clear moral boundaries. However, he also incorporates signs in the subtlest of ways. The description of the little marks of wear and tear on buildings and furniture points to the passage of time at the human level.

Hardy’s use of classical mythology allows him to sidestep the touchier aspects of the novel. Villagers are juxtaposed with demigods in the context of rural life, something particularly noticeable in the description of the dance at Chaseborough in Chapter 10. For Hrady dance symbolized a community’s ability to survive and indicated its degree of coherence. Trantridge’s degraded and lowly condition is indicated by the fact that the dance takes place in a remote barn, with the dancers likened to "a sort of vegeto- human pollen". The scene is also suggestive of passionate paganism.

On of the most pervasive images in the text is the colour red, and Tess is closely associated with it, to the point where Hardy seems to have stained her in blood. She stands out from the other girls at the beginning of the novel because she is wearing a red ribbon that stands out from her white dress. Angel Clare’s first glimpse of Tess is of her ribbon. Soon after she is bathed in Prince’s blood and becomes shrouded in the image – even the house of the d’Urbervilles is made of red brick. But not only is she surrounded by the colour, it is also a part of Tess herself. Her snake-like mouth is very red, and when she finally kills Alec the reader is drawn to the red on white of his blood on the ceiling of the lodging house, growing until it "had the appearance of a gigantic ace of hearts". Images and omens also converge.

When Tess dances at the club-walking she is not only mostly white but also tanned by the sun. This imagery runs parallel to her redness until the sun and blood come together in Phase the Seventh – ‘Fulfilment’. As a girl the sun shines on Tess, as it does at the dairy. It is an image of fertility and bounty. However, when Tess and Angel court during the misty hours before the sun rises, Tess is elevated spiritually for Clare: she is the celibate Artemis to him, "a visionary essence of woman". It is only when the sun rises that she becomes the physical dairymaid. When Tess eventually agrees to marry Angel their lives are suspended at the equinox. They wed in the middle of winter, close to the longest night of the year. Thus the sun could be seen as deserting and betraying Tess, as it becomes a force that stains or marks her, like her red ribbon and the blood of the horse:

"The sun was so low on that short last afternoon of the year that it

shone in through a small opening and formed a golden staff which

stretched across to her skirt, where it made a spot like a paint-mark

set upon her."

She falls asleep on a bed surrounded by red curtains, only revealed by a ‘shaft of dazzling sunlight’.

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