Colour symbolism

An example

Throughout Ch 5, the colour red keeps recurring:

  • It is the colour of the luxurious strawberries
  • Tess's lips are described as 'rosy'
  • Tess had also been offered roses, often associated with red (and symbolising passion).
More on fruit, flowers and Tess: This linking of fruit and flowers with parts of Tess's body could just be an innocent echo of the pastoral tradition. However:
  • The fruit and possibly the flowers too, have had their development artificially accelerated (just as Tess seems more physically well developed that most girls her age)
  • They are inappropriate - Tess has come to find material help, not objects of adornment
  • Alec sees her as decorative, the fullness of Tess's body enhancing this impression. This puts Tess in a dangerous physical situation.
  • Earlier in Ch 5, Alec is described as having 'full lips, badly moulded though red and smooth', suggesting his sensuality. (He also has a 'well-groomed black moustache', suggesting elegance and menace.)
  • The house has been described as of red brick 'like a red geranium' and 'of the same rich crimson colour' as the lodge, which contrasts with the green of surrounding foliage.
  • We think of green as the colour of nature; crimson as that of luxurious materials and of blood.

The significance of colour

By themselves, these references may not add up to much, until they are placed in the wider context of the novel. Hardy builds up a consistent opposition of red to white as the narrative progresses, which comes to symbolise Tess's dual nature (see Inner conflicts: body against soul). This in turn is externalised in her relationships with the two men - Alec the ruddy, physical man, and Angel the ‘white' ethereal / idealistic one.

Red in Tess

  • Red is the colour of blood. The shedding of blood occurs at significant moments, beginning with Prince's death (Ch 4), which is what precipitates Tess towards Alec:
'She became splashed from face to skirt with the crimson drops'

This blood symbolises Tess bearing the guilt of the horse's death, just as later she bears the guilt of Alec's death

  • The red of Alec's blood (Ch 56) ironically forms an ace of hearts on the white ceiling: the murder is an act done out of love and passion
  • Red is the colour of the threshing machine (Ch 47, 48). At one level, the machine becomes an image of hell, suggesting evil and danger
More on the threshing machine: The machine also represents Fate. It is the machine that predetermines the work rate for the whole team of humans. Once set in motion, they have to meet its demands.
  • Alec's cigar glows red, so red again suggests danger here rather than physicality.

White in Tess

  • Tess often wears white, as at the first time she is seen (Ch 2). In Ch 11 she is wearing a 'white muslin dress' just before she is violated, suggesting her innocence. Her tissue is 'white as snow' which is violated (readers may assume the sudden presence of red blood as Tess's virginity is taken)
  • White is also associated with the soul / spirit - the mists surrounding Tess are white
  • As milk is also white, Tess's job as a milkmaid maintains the association, though her work is set against a background of green at Talbothays.

As the novel progresses and Tess struggles against the increasing degradation of the circumstances in which she finds herself, so the colours associated with Flintcombe-Ash become drab browns and duns.

The orchard incident

One event that combines the red / white symbolism closely is the incident in the overgrown garden in Ch 19:

  • The weeds are red, yellow and purple
  • The cuckoo-spittle and thistle-milk are white
  • The ‘sticky blights' are from a disease typical of apple trees. They appear white when on the trees but when they rub off on Tess's naked arms, they become red ('blood-red stains') on contact with the skin
  • Tess's exalted state, when colours and sounds become fused in what is called synaesthesia, produces fire (redness) in her cheeks
  • The ‘apple-blooth' or blossom is white with red tinges on the edge.

The symbolism indicates deception and entrapment. Tess's emotions and her physical sensations are heightened so that she perceives things which are not true:

  • Angel is not a good player (or a white angel)
  • His harp (also angelic in association) is a poor second-hand one.

The whole setting suggests the original deception of the Garden of Eden, which leads to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise. Hardy's readers would know that what seems innocent and pure now can result in regret and suffering.

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