Ilustration of Tess on hilly pink terrain with trees and clouds in the background

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

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Critically examine Thomas Hardy's use of symbolism in Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

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Tess of the d’Urbervilles was written by Victorian novelist and poet Thomas Hardy in 1891. It tells the story of poor farm girl Tess Durbeyfield whose father discovers that their family is descended from one of the noblest families in England, the d’Urbervilles.

The importance of symbolism in literature is that meaning is given to people, animals, and objects that is more than their original meaning. I will examine a few ways in which symbolism is used in Thomas Hardy’s last novel.

When Tess kills Prince, the Durbeyfield family horse and primary source of income, she seeks out and goes working for the d’Urbervilles. It is, therefore, the death of Prince that launches the novel’s action. Prince is also a symbol of Tess and her family. He bears a regal name but is forced to live a life of menial labor.

The Durbeyfields still own a spoon which bears the family’s crest. This spoon is the only thing the family has that shows the truth of their heritage. As an item, the spoon is not only very small but has no real useful purpose. It is a symbol of how the name d’Urberville also has no real purpose or usefulness when it comes to having any real influence anymore.

Although the novel is set in rural England, it moves to Brazil when Angel, after rejecting Tess, moves to began a career in farming there. To nineteenth-century England, and to Angel, Brazil represents an ideal, a far-off land where dreams can come true. It is also symbolic of his relationship with Tess. Angel is an idealist and a romantic and when he first sees Tess:

What a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature that milkmaid is!

But, when he discovers that Tess is not a virgin:

I repeat, the woman I have been loving is not you . . . Another woman in your shape.

Angel, although an excellent farmer, is not very worldly wise and his time in Brazil is not what he had dreamed. The experience also makes him realize how, like Brazil, he had put Tess on a pedestal and expected too much from her. Brazil symbolizes reality for Angel.

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It is interesting to see that Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Ubervilles starts out with positive symbols of peace and happiness, but then it ends with symbols of darkness and sadness. In the beginning of the novel, Tess, along with other women of her home town, is wearing a white dress during a May festival. The opening scene portrays peace, hope and happiness because the color white symbolizes virtue and purity; the time of year also symbolizes a period of youth, birth, and playfulness since it is during the spring. On the opposite end of the novel,  however, the cloudy and cold days of winter create a mood of gloominess and darkness. In the end, one black flag waives in the distance and marks the death of Tess at a young age for a crime she would never have committed in the beginning of the story. There are also Christian symbols throughout the novel that depict Christianity's influence on Victorian society. Alec dresses as a parson when he is converted by Angel's father; Tess and her friends from the dairy farm dress nicely and go to church on Sundays; and, Tess's baby is not allowed to be buried in the cemetery of the churchyard. All of these symbols help to aide the author in relaying the story from all aspects of life so that the reader may fully understand the culture and society from which Tess hails. Other symbols include the landscape, the weather's changing, parental figures, the Fortune Teller book, and the ever-present symbol and value of money.

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