Geographical symbolism

Photo by Derek Harper, available through Creative CommonsLandscape is never a background in Hardy's work; it is a living and dynamic force, moulding the characters and helping determine their actions and responses. Hardy creates a symbolic landscape, each novel having a different set of symbols. See Commentary on Ch 16 for an initial discussion of symbolic geography.

External geography and inner landscapes in Tess

Hardy's main landscape symbolism lies in the contrasts of the two valleys of Blackmore Vale (Ch 4) and the Valley of the Frome (Ch 16), and the plateau in between where Flintcombe-Ash is situated:

  • They are often contrasted (e.g. Ch 44) to bring out their meanings in Tess's life, as they become symbolic of her inner landscapes – the lush fertility of the Frome valley echoing the growth of Tess and Angel's passion, just as the arid landscape of Flintcombe mirrors the disappointment of her hopes.

Woods and forests have a similar function:

  • The Chase (Ch 11) belongs to prehistoric time but also represents Alec's chase of Tess
  • The New Forest is where paradise is re-established briefly, whose trees provide a pastoral cover (see Patterns of the past).

The farms in the novel also provide a network of contrasting communities in which Tess finds either acceptance or rejection:

  • 'The Slopes' is a purely artificial construct, a fake farm, where the unrealities of Alec's ancestry are played out, bringing destruction and turmoil to Tess
  • Talbothays is a place where Tess belongs, both as dairymaid, and in the smaller community of lovers (see Landscapes of desire vs. landscapes of community)
  • Flintcombe-Ash is a place of alienation for Tess, and also where Tess's past is re-enacted (Ch 42, 43).

Such towns as there are feature detrimentally for Tess, who is a country and village girl:

  • Kingsbere is a place of death and the past (Ch 52)
  • Sandbourne's modernity seems unreal (Ch 55), and it too becomes a place of death.

See also: Journeys (in Parallels and repetitions); Tess as a secular pilgrim

Places of testing

In the Commentary on Ch 43, places of testing are discussed. Testing can imply both:

  • temptation - at Trantridge, 'The Slopes' and Sandbourne
  • suffering - at Flintcombe-Ash and Kingsbere.

Seasonal imagery in Tess

The cycle of the seasons is significant for any novel set in a rural setting, the seasons generating both imagery and structure for the agricultural year and its activities.

More on the significance of seasons in literature: Read the eighteenth century poet James Thomson's long poem The Seasons for one of the fullest expression of this in English Literature.

The construction of a timeline of Tess of the d'Urbervilles demonstrates several cycles of seasons:

  • The book's opening, in high spring in May, is significant (Ch 2). Here are girls all in bud, as it were, anticipating future courtship and marriage. The symbolism of the dance is undoubtedly pagan, perhaps part of ancient fertility rites
  • The time at Talbothays occurs over the height of summer into a long autumn, and images of fertility, heat and prosperity abound. What is significantly important is that they parallel Tess's growing passion for Angel (see the appropriate paragraphs in Ch 23, 24)
  • Ironically, Tess and Angel's wedding on New Year's Eve, in the depths of winter, when it would seem much more appropriate to have had it earlier, as part of the autumn fruitfulness. But we have to remember, in dairies, autumn is NOT the season of fruitfulness, but a gradual running down of the supply of milk
  • The wintry aspects of Flintcombe-Ash are also powerfully portrayed. The description of the Arctic birds is particularly dramatic and full of symbolic overtones (Ch 43), and should be studied closely.
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