Hardy's use of imagery

An example of Hardy's technique – chapter 5

The best way to observe Hardy's method is to study passages closely. The following points can be made about Hardy's use of imagery from the last third of Ch 5, starting at 'Tess wished to abridge her visit...;'

  • The description of the gardens of 'The Slopes' is done quite factually. They are obviously quite extensive and opulentStrawberries, photo by Walter J. Pilsak, available through Creative Commons
  • The focus soon settles on the strawberries being cultivated. Strawberries are regarded as something of a luxury fruit, and are, of course, red (see Colour symbolism)
  • The distinguishing of varieties (here 'British Queen') suggests there is some professionalism in the gardening. Yet there is no mention of the fruit being grown for commercial purposes: the d'Urbervilles clearly don't rely on this as an income. Instead it is an expensive hobby, part of the d'Urbervilles playing at being farmers and horticulturalists
  • These strawberries seem to be forced to grow early. In nature, they would not yet be ready.

All this can be gleaned from the details: Hardy does not need to spell it out by comment or by further images of luxury or parasitism.

  • As part of the action, Alec wants to put the strawberries in Tess's mouth. He wants to feed her, again a sign of dependence as well as play. Tess has come to be helped, but not by this kind of 'forced feeding'
  • Tess submits to it, 'like one in a dream'. This is one of the few similes there are, and it is such a simple one. It suggests the unreality of the whole procedure
  • Alec's action is described as 'prodigality', that is, far more than is needed, wasteful. The word would also remind Hardy's readers of The Prodigal Son another ostentatious spender.

The narrative then describes Alec's smoking in a 'blue narcotic haze' as he watches Tess eat:

  • The 'narcotic' suggests a drug-like sense
  • The haze anticipates the blurring of boundaries and definitions, seen again in the mists of the wood where she is violated
  • Only then does Hardy comment on the danger Tess is in, highlighting the association of blood / red, and how Alec is fixated by her well developed bust.

In other words, Hardy's method is not so much to use imagery as decoration, or as a series of likenesses to gain a more detailed description. Rather, his details are used more for their associations, acting as signifiers of future events, and, as such, they have a symbolic purpose.

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