Study Guide

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Thomas Hardy

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Red and White

These two colors come up all over the place in Tess, frequently together. OK, having made that observation, let's look at a few examples, and think about why Hardy might have considered those colors to be so darned important. Red is often associated with sin and/or sexuality in Western art and literature (just think about "the woman in the red dress" in the Matrix), while white is usually associated with purity and chastity.

Hardy mixes these two colors so frequently that it's hard to ignore – in the very first scene in which we see her, Tess is wearing a white dress with a red ribbon in her hair – "the only one of the white company who could boast of such a pronounced adornment" (2.14). So Tess is wearing white (the color of purity), but is also the only woman in the group wearing a red ornament to off-set the white. This could be Hardy's way of waving a red flag (pun intended) at the reader, to show us that Tess 1) isn't like the other girls, and 2) is somehow going to trouble the traditional distinctions between purity and sexuality.

Let's look at one more example, from the very end of the novel: Mrs. Brooks, the landlady at the hotel where Alec and Tess have been staying, discovers that Alec has been murdered when she notices that "The oblong white ceiling, with this scarlet blot in the midst, had the appearance of a gigantic ace of hearts" (56.18). This example is a little more ambiguous. The white (representing purity or innocence?) is being stained with red (representing guilt or sin?). But the shape of the bloodstain is telling, too – it forms the shape of a heart. Tess has told Alec that he had broken her heart, and she stabbed him in the heart. Whose is the guilt represented by the bloodstain? It's not really clear. But the frequent mixing of red and white throughout the novel suggest that these are exactly the questions Hardy wants us to be asking.

Cows

There's an awful lot of loving attention to detail in the descriptions of the cows at Talbothays Dairy, don't you think? Not only are individual cows frequently referred to by name, we get these vivid descriptions of the shape, size, and color of their udders. Just look at this example: "The red and white herd nearest at hand […] now trooped towards the steading in the background, their great bags of milk swinging under them as they walked" (16.25).

OK, the udders are "great bags of milk" that "swing" heavily. Fine. If it were just this one description, we'd try to ignore it. But here's another, from the very next paragraph: "their large-veined udders hung ponderous as sandbags, the teats sticking out like the legs of a gipsy's crock; and as each animal lingered for her turn to arrive the milk oozed forth and fell in drops to the ground" (16.26).

Udders and breasts usually represent fullness of life and fertility – just look at images of earth goddesses from almost any culture. (Here's an image of the ancient Greek goddess Gaia, the goddess of the earth. Notice how prominent her breasts are?)

So the graphic descriptions of the cow udders in Tess probably have something to do with Hardy's interest in nature, or maybe even in the ancient worship of fertility goddesses that he references elsewhere (see "Club-Walking" below).

Club-Walking

The club-walking scene at the beginning of Chapter Two has to be important, because it's the first time we see Tess. And what's she doing? She's participating in the modern form of what is actually an ancient tradition that had to do with worshipping the earth and the fertility goddesses. Tess and the other women of Marlott don't know about the origins of their club-walking, but they perform the traditional ceremony every year just the same.

The narrator says that of all the villages in that part of England, "the club of Marlott alone lived to uphold the local Cerealia. It had walked for hundreds of years, and it walked still" (2.6). The "Cerealia" is a ceremony worshipping the Roman goddess "Ceres," the goddess of the earth and all growing things (including wheat and other "cereal" grains). It was traditionally a female ceremony – no boys allowed – because women were associated with fertility (what with child-bearing and all), and men weren't. So this early scene ties Tess to an ancient female lineage that is even older than the D'Urberville family on her father's side. It also associates her with fertility rituals and Nature with a capital "N."

The Chase vs. The Slopes

Speaking of Nature with a capital "N," we have to talk about the importance of The Chase. After all, one of the most important scenes of Tess's life takes place there. The Chase is all that remains of the ancient, primeval forest that used to stretch all across Wessex, the fictional county where all of Tess of the D'Urbervilles takes place. Why is it important that The Chase be so ancient? Well, one reason might be that the ancient-ness of The Chase provides a stark contrast to the surprisingly modern house that Alec D'Urbervilles lives in. The Slopes is brand-spanking new: "everything looked like money – like the last coin issued from the Mint" (5.22). The idea of old and new, past and present, nature and civilization somehow overlapping or coexisting is one that Hardy brings up again and again.