Thomas Hardy makes abundant use of symbolism in the course of his novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Arnold Kettle, D.V. Ghent, and Howe are few critics who always invariably interpreted almost everything about the novel, setting, characters, background, events on the ground of their symbolical potentialities. The troubles and tribulations of Tess and her family actually symbolize the working out of inexorable historical and economic forces. This interpretation may do injustice to the emotional intensity and somber quality of her individual suffering, but Hardy’s symbolic purpose behind all these is still undeniable. The fact Tess, a helpless peasant girl and, above all, a human protagonist, is placed in a dramatic relationship with the non-human and her destiny is oriented among preternatural powers is highly symbolic. D.V. Ghent sees the earth as symbolic of all that drags Tess, keeps her imprisoned in the coils of forces beyond her ken.
The very accident involving the death of Prince symbolizes the futile struggles of the peasantry against fate. Significantly the accident occurs in darkness. It symbolizes that the whole system of mischances and cross-purposes in the novel is a function of psychic and cosmic blindness. In the darkness she has “put her hand upon the hole” (i.e. on the horse’s wound); – symbolically the gesture is as absurdly futile as all her efforts will be. Tess only becomes splashed with the dead horse’s blood, as she will be at the end. Then the mail-cart’s shaft pierces Prince’s breast “like a sword” – Alexander will be stabbed in the heart with a knife.
Not only the earth but the different landscapes and seasons also serve symbolic purposes. Hardy uses setting and atmosphere for symbolism which is astonishingly blunt. The green and fresh vale of Blackmoor under a blue haze as a cradle of innocence symbolize Tess’s maidenliness and purity. The seasons of spring and summer always in consonance with the happy environment symbolize Tess’s happier days, e.g. her days at Talbothays in summer, when she is filled with a new zest for life and falls in love. Symbolically, her unhappiest days are spent in winter at Flintcomb-Ash, “a starve-acre place”, where the earth is stubborn and where the work is most taxing.
Even we have Stonehenge as a symbol for ‘home’ where the lovers, Angel and Tess, are finally united. Stonehenge is timeless, beyond the vicissitudes of life. Having arrived here after so many wanderings and sufferings, Tess eventually finds her home; “So now I am at home”, she tells Angel.
Even some of the characters can be taken as symbols of certain ideas or concepts. If Tess is a symbol of the suffering peasantry, her sacrifice to Alec is symbolic of the historical processes at work. Alec represents a new class that has newly acquired wealth and bought its way into the gentry. In sending Tess to Alec’s mother, Joan hands her over to the life and mercies of the ruling class. Alec’s seduction of Tess symbolizes the exploitation of the peasant class by the rural aristocracy. The scene of threshing is a symbol of the dehumanized relationships at the new capitalist farms. Angel Clare may be also taken as a symbol of the typical orthodox morality which has double standards, one for the male and another for the female. He symbolizes the snobbery, priggishness, and hypocrisy of the conservative Victorian man till he realizes his blunder.
There are numerous details in the story that often tend to be symbolic. Tess’s meeting with the writer of Biblical texts is such an event. She meets him just after her loss of virginity. We can look upon him as a symbol of a church that merely accuses but offers no consolation. The Dairyman Crick’s story of the man who seduced a girl but refused to marry is equally symbolic of Tess’ own experience. Then we have the references to Tess’s ancestors whose revengefulness, cruelty, and ruthlessness towards their inferior were much emphasized. These references have enough symbolic meaning in so far as they suggest the cruel fate Tess is to meet. After Tess’s seduction, Hardy also says that there might be retribution lurking in the disaster that has overtaken Tess.
On another occasion, we see the symbolic removal of Tess’s walking boots by Angel’s brothers and Miss Chant. Tess’s courage fails her at the Vicarage. Although unknown and unrecognized, she goes up the hill and finds her boots being removed from behind the bush as a result of a cruel misinterpretation of why these boots have been left. Here is an image of scornful rejection, antipathy, and misunderstanding, built up in a masterly way. Angel’s sleep-walking with Tess also represents on the symbolical plane a double truth of his psyche: that he feels tenderly for Tess and that she is dead for him. The name, “Sorrow the Undesired’, the child’s baptism, death, and burial, “Cross-in-Hand’ etc. have always some symbolic purpose or the other to serve in the novel.
Also read: Thomas Hardy’s view on Fate or Destiny