Tess of the d'Urbervilles | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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Tess of the d'Urbervilles | Symbols



Loose hair was a symbol of the so-called fallen women in the Victorian era. When Tess exchanges words with Car, separating her from the group and into Alec's clutches the night of the rape, the argument starts with someone mistaking the treacle pouring down Car's clothing: "'Tis her hair falling down." Car's morals are questionable as one of Alec d'Urberville's favorites.

Later when Tess is in the field with the others, the narrator notes that strands of her hair fell out from under her bonnet. When she baptizes her son, Tess is again noted as having fallen hair. "Her figure looked singularly tall and imposing as she stood in her long white nightgown, a thick cable of twisted dark hair hanging straight down her back to her waist." She is wearing white, a symbol of purity, but her hair is loose. Tess is, by Victorian standards, fallen, but Hardy symbolically and textually argues she is still pure. Just before Tess tells Angel her secret, the narrator notes her hair is loose. Later when Alec watches Tess in a field, Izz mentions her hair is "tumbling down." When Angel finds Tess at Sandbourne, she has been in the middle of dressing her hair: part of it is up but the other part falls over her shoulders, suggesting the fallen status underlying her respectable appearance. Loose hair means loose morals.


Water is symbolic of purity. Like the white nightdress Tess wears for her son's baptism, the water with which she baptizes him is a sign of purification. "Here she dipped her hand into the basin, and fervently drew an immense cross upon the baby with her forefinger, continuing with the customary sentences as to his manfully fighting against sin, the world, and the devil, and being a faithful soldier and servant unto his life's end."

Later when Tess is going to church with Izz, Marian, and Retty, the group encounters Angel Clare "advancing along the lane towards them through the water." He carries the women across the flooded ground. "He came beneath them in the water, which did not rise over his long boots; and stood looking at the entrapped flies and butterflies." After carrying her last, he declares himself to Tess. In the pure flowing water, he says, "Three Leahs to get one Rachel." His reference is to the biblical figure of Leah, the woman Jacob married before he could marry her sister, Rachel. This event is notable because Tess is not necessarily purified by the water.

This moment is partly recreated on the night after Tess reveals her past to her husband. He sleepwalks, carrying her through a river to a grave where he deposits her. Tess considers letting the river carry them both away where they will be dead but together, their sins purified.

On that same night before the telling of secrets, Angel touches her hand, entangling their fingers while both wash "their hands in one basin." "Which are my fingers and which are yours?" he asks. "They are very much mixed." The symbol of water as a purifier, or purifying ritual, is apparent here as it cleanses them together, seemingly echoing the wedding ceremony in uniting them as both wash away past transgressions. Tess's response—"They are all yours"—is telling in that Angel's sins, not hers, will be washed away.

Red and White

The colors of red and white are contrasted throughout the novel. Tess is often described as wearing white, a color associated with purity. At key points in the story, red is used to draw attention to sexuality. When Tess is initially described, she stands out because she wears "a red ribbon in her hair ... the only one of the white company who could boast of such a pronounced adornment." Tess also is described initially as having a "pouted-up deep red mouth."

When Tess is in Alec's carriage, she is noted, again, as wearing white. The house at Trantridge is "crimson brick." Alec's cigar has a red tip, and he feeds her red strawberries. After Tess leaves Trantridge, she encounters a man painting warnings in red paint. Her continued purity is challenged by red that contrasts with her white clothing or white surroundings. Even as she baptizes her son, she is wearing white.

Red and white appear together as part of an ill omen on Tess and Angel's wedding day. The cock crowing in the afternoon is "the white one with the rose comb." Red is also highlighted in the moment before Tess finally tells Angel of her past: "Imagination might have beheld a Last Day luridness in this red-coaled glow, which fell on his face and hand, and on hers, peering into the loose hair about her brow, and firing the delicate skin underneath."

The most striking red, however, is the scarlet heart-shaped stain of Alec's blood after Tess stabs him in the heart. It echoes the perversion of Tess's original purity in her first appearance in her white dress and red bow. Here it is blood on the ceiling of a greedy landlady's well-furnished house in which Tess is living as a rich man's mistress.

Questions for Symbols

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