Tess of the d'Urbervilles


Thomas Hardy

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Tess of the d'Urbervilles: Metaphors 6 key examples

Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Tess the Vessel:

In the following passage from Chapter 2, the narrator uses a metaphor to better depict Tess's childlike innocence, as well as to foreshadow that this innocence will be lost:

Tess Durbeyfield at this time of her life was a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience.

Tess is likened to a vessel that is open to new experiences but also vulnerable. Experience has not yet entered into this "vessel" at the beginning of the novel, and no one protects her in her state of childish vulnerability. Class inequality and poverty both strip Tess of her childhood, violating her and permitting her to be violated. This violation—not only of Tess, but of all impoverished children and the entire working class—is something Hardy heavily criticizes in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. 

From a stylistic perspective, it is crucial to note that the narrator precedes his metaphor with the phrase "at this time," suggesting that Tess will, at some point, acquire knowledge and experience that will "tincture" the vessel of her mind. Though the foreshadowing here is subtle, early comments like this lay the groundwork for the more overt foreshadowing in later passages, building anticipation in the mind of the reader as the narrator recounts the series of tragic events that make up young Tess's life.

Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—The Durbeyfield Ship:

In Chapter 3, the narrator spends a long time describing the plight of the Durbeyfield children, metaphorically comparing them to compare "souls" riding as passengers in the familial "ship" that their parents have constructed:

All these young souls were passengers in the Durbeyfield ship—entirely dependent on the judgement of the two Durbeyfield adults for their pleasures, their necessities, their health, even their existence. If the heads of the Durbeyfield household chose to sail into difficulty, disaster, starvation, disease, degradation, death, thither were these half-dozen little captives under hatches compelled to sail with them—six helpless creatures, who had never been asked if they wished for life on any terms, much less if they wished for it on such hard conditions as were involved in being of the shiftless house of Durbeyfield.

This metaphor highlights the lack of agency that the young Durbeyfield children—indeed, that many young children—have in determining their fate. Class inequality and the impoverished state of her family drove Tess to seek employment at the D'Urberville mansion, putting her in harm's way. The ship sailed by her parents has unfortunately steered Tess towards disaster. Overall, however, this metaphor downplays the fact that neither Durbeyfield parent had very much agency in steering the ship themselves, given that they were poor, working-class people living in an inequitable society.

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Chapter 6
Explanation and Analysis—Tess is Pricked by a Rose:

At the beginning of Chapter 6, Tess reflects on a thorny rose that, affixed to her breast, pricks her and draws blood. She views this as a bad omen, and the narrator takes this moment to foreshadow the tragic events that will soon befall her:

[Tess] fell to reflecting again, and in looking downwards a thorn of the rose remaining in her breast accidentally pricked her chin. Like all the cottagers of Blackmoor Vale, Tess was steeped in fancies and prefigurative superstitions; she thought this an ill-omen—the first she had noticed that day.

There are many literary elements at play in this particular passage. The roses given to Tess by Alec symbolize his harmful, romantic intentions, as he's more likely to "prick" her and draw blood than to bring anything positive into her life. This injury foreshadows the more direct injury Alec will do to Tess later on in the novel, both directly—as he physically harms her when he rapes her—and indirectly, as he damages her chances of finding happiness and love in a married state. It is ironic that in this situation the rose pricking Tess is more of a red flag than Alec's suspicious behavior upon their first meeting. The combination of irony, metaphor, and foreshadowing highlight Tess's innocence and naiveté. 

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Chapter 14
Explanation and Analysis—Pagan Sun Dieties:

At the beginning of Chapter 14, the narrator utilizes personification to present the sun as both a male figure and a deity:

The sun, on account of the mist, had a curious sentient, personal look, demanding the masculine pronoun for its adequate expression. His present aspect, coupled with the lack of all human forms in the scene, explained the time-old heliolatries in a moment. One could feel that a saner religion had never prevailed under the sky. The luminary was a golden-haired, beaming-faced, mild-eyed, God-like creature, gazing down in the vigour and intentness of youth upon an earth that was brimming with interest for him.

Personification in this passage infuses the sun with distinctly masculine sexuality: the earth is "brimming with interest" for the sun as he gazes at her with "vigour." This sensuousness is not condemned, but rather described as rightfully inspiring religious fervor. In the narrator’s mind, it appears that the pagans may have been correct to deify the sun. This position aligns with Hardy’s general position on religion in the novel, wherein natural objects and a simpler, pastoral lifestyle are more moral and praiseworthy than dusty, out-of-touch religious convention. In other words, this masculine sun deity acts as a natural replacement for the masculine God of the Christian religion.

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Explanation and Analysis—Woman and Nature:

In Chapter 14, the narrator uses a metaphor to describe the appearance of field women, one of whom happens to be Tess:

But those of the other sex were the most interesting of this company of binders, by reason of the charm which is acquired by a woman when she becomes part and parcel of outdoor nature . . . a field-woman is a portion of the field; she has somehow lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her surrounding and assimilated herself with it.

This metaphor exists within a longer literary tradition of comparing women to nature. The narrator asserts that these women are not simply objects of admiration framed against a natural backdrop, but that they are the backdrop themselves—simply part of the landscape. This metaphor diminishes women, placing them in a position in which they have very little agency: they either blend into the background or stand at the fore, but they never act as an independent subject. The narrator paints these women into his scene, ordering them as he wishes. This effect—of the narrator "drawing" women into his narrative landscape—is reinforced in a later passage in which one young woman in a pink jacket (Tess) is described as "the most flexuous and finely-drawn figure of them all."

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Chapter 35
Explanation and Analysis—Angel and Social Class:

In Chapter 35, Angel reverses his position on Tess’s social status upon discovering her sexual history with Alec D’Urberville. Though Angel admits that Tess was more "sinned against" than "sinner," he cannot help but express the opinion that there is something inherently degenerate in her familial line, using a metaphor to equate Tess to an "exhausted seedling":

"Decrepit families postulate decrepit wills, decrepit conduct. Heaven, why did you give me a handle for despising you more by informing me of your descent! Here was I thinking you a new-sprung child of nature; there were you, the exhausted seedling of an effete aristocracy!"

This stance on heritage was not uncommon during the time period in which Hardy wrote Tess of the D'Urbervilles. At the turn of the 20th century, new scientific discoveries resulted in the widespread proliferation of eugenics, a social and scientific movement aimed at “purifying” the population of all undesirable traits by preventing certain people from producing children. As an ideological precursor to the eugenics movement, many people believed that certain "social ills"—sexual impurity, alcoholism, vagrancy, etc.—had a genetic and therefore familial basis. If individual members of a family exhibited these "degenerate" qualities, the entire family might have been termed "degenerate." Angel uses similar pre-eugenic logic here, asserting that "decrepit families postulate decrepit wills, decrepit conduct" as a means of explaining what he views as Tess's sexual impurity.

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