Other images and symbols

Psychological symbolism

Although Hardy would have been aware of the work of the early psychologists and psycho-analysts, he was probably drawing on an older tradition of gothic symbolism in making some episodes psychologically symbolic. In this, the mid-nineteenth century American writer, Edgar Alan Poe, could have been a model for Hardy.

Two key incidents which demonstrate this technique are:

  • The incident of Angel's sleepwalking. This is the most obvious example of gothic melodramatic symbolism (Ch 37). Angel's subconscious sees Tess as dead and wishes to bury her in a setting befitting her ancient ancestry. The way he manages to circumnavigate all sort of obstacles to do this suggests forces in Angel of which he is unaware or which he is repressing
  • A more ambiguous incident is that of Tess's letter going under the carpet (Ch 33). Is this to be interpreted as an act of Fate working against Tess, or could it be seen as a subconscious wish to push the past 'under the carpet' (a common idiom)? Hardy's ambiguity here is best seen as part of a gothic convention that offers dual explanations for strange happenings.


Motifs are little words, phrases or images that constantly recur through a literary or musical work, and are often imbued with symbolic meaning. Hardy's contemporaries, the composers Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, both use musical motifs (or leitmotifs), as one of the main structural devices for their operas.

One little example in Tess would be the phrase 'O – O – O' mainly uttered by Tess in moments of distress:

  • Ch 28 ends with this motif as Tess wrestles over whether to tell Angel or not. The phrase echoes the words, 'O my heart'
  • Ch 56 has the phrase repeated as part of an image of torture, and the threefold repetition is then picked up a few pages later with 'Drip drip drip' as Alec's blood comes through the ceiling.

Another motif is the speck on the horizon becoming larger and larger (see also Perspectives and viewpoint);

  • Frequently this is used of Alec (Ch 7, 46): as soon as Hardy mentions a spot moving, the readers know it might be Alec
  • Hardy then reverses this in Ch 57 when it is Tess who is the approaching dot.

Other images

  • Images of entrapment form a distinct group (see Tess as a victim), with mentions of snares (e.g. Ch 43, 46). The episode of the pheasants (Ch 41) is the culmination of this, an enacted or symbolic episode
  • Another significant image is the fly image. The note on Ch 16 parallels it to Shakespeare's lines in King Lear:
'As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport' (Act 4 sc i)
  • Another reference to the image is in Ch 43, where the insignificance of the girls is stressed as part of the bird's-eye perspective (see Perspectives and viewpoint). There is also a hint of danger and even entrapment.

For similes derived from the Bible or classical mythology, of which there are many, see also: Allusion and rhetoric (in Style); Subtexts.

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