What is the meaning of the recurring symbol of herons in Tess of the d'Urbervilles? Besides The Heron Inn where Tess kills Alec, is there any further meaning behind this symbolism?
Bird symbolism can be important in Hardy.
Tess is identified with herons not only in terms of The Heron Inn but also when she arrives at the dairy. It is worth quoting the passage below at length, as it so well exemplifies Hardy's naturalism. He tells us that nature is indifferent to humans:
The sole effect of her [Tess's] presence upon the placid valley so far had been to excite the mind of a solitary heron, which, after descending to the ground not far from her path, stood with neck erect, looking at her.
Suddenly there arose from all parts of the lowland a prolonged and repeated call—“Waow! waow! waow!”
From the furthest east to the furthest west the cries spread as if by contagion, accompanied in some cases by the barking of a dog. It was not the expression of the valley’s consciousness that beautiful Tess had arrived, but the ordinary announcement of milking-time—half-past four o’clock, when the dairymen set about getting in the cows.
In other words, what we might in literature interpret as a sign heralding Tess's bright new start in life—the cry of the heron—is actually just nature going about its normal business, utterly indifferent to the fate of a lone young woman.
Herons appear again at the dairy. Once again, they represent a mechanistic nature, divorced from human life or human concerns:
At these non-human hours they [Tess and Angel] could get quite close to the waterfowl. Herons came, with a great bold noise as of opening doors and shutters, out of the boughs of a plantation which they frequented at the side of the mead; or, if already on the spot, hardily maintained their standing in the water as the pair walked by, watching them by moving their heads round in a slow, horizontal, passionless wheel, like the turn of puppets by clockwork.
Later, Tess lives with Alec at The Herons—and Hardy deliberately repeats the name several times. At this point, Tess has become like the herons—a passionless puppet in Alec's hands. As Tess explains to Angel when he returns: "I didn’t care what he did wi’ me!" But Angel's return awakens Tess, and she kills Alec. She is like the herons in that she is subjected to the fate of an indifferent universe, but she is unlike them in that, when awakened, she shows agency. Whether her tragic end was as inevitable as the circles made by the herons is up to the reader to decide: that the murder occurs at The Herons suggests it might have been.
One of the motifs of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles is the circularity of life with nature's ruling presence. As part of the dominating presence of nature and the recurring cycle of life, the herons symbolize the spirit of this omniscient presence. With Darwinian determinism the circles of life over which Tess has no control recur throughout Hardy's novel. In Chapter XX, for instance, Hardy opens his chapter with reference to Spring and the resumption of the cycle of nature. On the dairy farm, Tess and Clare meet often. One day they
studied each other, ever balanced on the edge of a passion. All the while they were converging, under an irresistible law as surely as two streams in one vale.
Mirroring the actions of creatures of nature, Tess and Clare are living lives as determined as their fellow creatures. As they enjoy a romantic walk, the herons act as a symbolic reminder that Tess and Clare, also, are subject to the
"irresistible law" of the circularity of life:
At these non-human hours they could get quite close to the waterfowl. Herons came, with a great bold noise as of opening doors and shutters, out of the boughs of a plantation which they frequented at the side of the mead; or, if already on the spot, hardily maintained their standing in the water as the pair walked by, watching them by moving their heads round in a slow, horizontal, passionless wheel, like the turn of puppets by clockwork.
Thus, as the irresistible circularity of life, the herons also symbolize the Darwinian determinism of life as well as Hardy's characteristic fatalism as Tess is often identified as a captured bird.