When Tess first brings the birds to Mrs. D'Urberville in Chapter 9, the narrator notes Tess's feelings about the encounter, observing with a simile that such proceedings are similar to the sacrament of Confirmation in the Catholic tradition:
It reminded Tess of a Confirmation, in which Mrs. D'Urberville was the bishop, the fowls the young people presented, and herself and the maidservant the parson and curate of the parish bringing them up.
In the Catholic Church, Confirmation is a holy sacrament that takes place after a member of the church is baptized. During Confirmation, an individual receives the gifts of the holy spirit and is anointed with oil by a priest, bringing that person into further communion with the Church. In the above passage, a simile is used to compare Tess to a parson and Mrs. D'Urberville to a bishop, both of whom participate in the sacrament of Confirmation together. This simile is simply another means of reaffirming the hierarchy dividing Tess from her alleged blood relatives: her rank is lower within the Catholic Church's power structure than Mrs. D'Urberville's rank. Furthermore, the chickens Tess presents to Mrs. D'Urberville for examination are compared to people receiving confirmation. In all likelihood, Tess was herself once one of those "chickens," vulnerable to the whims of an all-powerful bishop.
In the following passage from Chapter 10, the narrator uses personification and a simile to describe the behavior of the drunk Tantridge villagers, whom Tess walks with on her way back home at night:
They followed the road with a knowledge that they were soaring along in a supporting medium, possessed of original and profound thoughts, themselves and surrounding nature forming an organism of which all the parts harmoniously and joyously interpenetrated each other. They were as sublime as the moon and stars above them, and the moon and stars were as ardent as they.
Both simile and personification in this passage combine to imbue the villagers with greater human dignity than society typically affords them. Hardy dismantles class hierarchy by likening the villagers to "the moon and stars": though they may be lowly in the eyes of upper-class people, these villagers' souls far outstrip their earthly bodies as they ascend to the heavens. Similarly, the moon and stars are personified as ardent, not too haughty to share in the joy of the villagers. In a society stricken by socioeconomic inequality, these working class people share in a moment of happiness, unrestricted by the weight of oppression. That Hardy creates this moment for these characters in the narrative is deeply humanizing.
Alec demands a goodbye kiss from Tess in the following excerpt from Chapter 12. In this passage, the narrator uses a simile to convey Tess’s apathy and lack of agency:
[Tess] thereupon turned round and lifted her face to his, and remained like a marble term while he imprinted a kiss upon her cheek . . . . She turned her head in the same passive way, as one might turn at the request of a sketcher or hairdresser, and he kissed the other side, his lips touching cheeks that were damp and smoothly chill as the skin of the mushrooms growing around them.
Likened to a woman turning her head "at the request of a sketcher or hairdresser,” Tess has lost her will to fight, having realized that Alec can exert power over her in more ways that one. He has a physical advantage over her, in that he is bigger and stronger, and he also has social power over her, since he is male, of a higher social class, and older. Finally, he has socioeconomic power over her, since she is reliant upon him to help raise her family out of assured destitution after their horse dies. For these reasons, among others, Tess does not have agency, and this is further underlined by the other simile in this passage, which compares Tess to a marble architectural structure—an image that underscores her inaction and passivity when it comes to her relationship with Alec. The similes used in this passage thus confirm her role in the novel not as an active subject but as (uncomfortably enough) an object of sorts.
At the end of Chapter 15, the narrator makes an allusion to the downfall of Babylon—documented in the Bible—and compares it to the fall of the House of D'Urberville:
[Tess] would be able to look at [the former D'Urberville estates], and think not only that D'Urberville, like Babylon, had fallen, but that the individual innocence of a humble descendant could lapse as silently.
In biblical scripture, the people of Babylon fell to ruin because they wanted to build a tower tall enough to reach the heavens. God punished them for their arrogance with a curse: suddenly, a group of people who had all been able to speak the same language spoke different languages. Communication broke down and construction on the tower ceased. Equating the fall of the House of D'Urberville to the fall of Babylon implies that the D'Urbervilles went extinct as a result of their own arrogance.
Tess takes this simile one step further, extending it to her own predicament. If both Babylon and the D'Urberville line can lapse into obscurity and cease to impact modern society, perhaps her own tragic situation will "lapse as silently." The decrepit D'Urberville estates give her hope that these problems, which so plague her present existence, may someday no longer affect her.
In Chapter 16, as Tess descends into the Vale, the narrator likens her to a fly on a billiard-table:
Not quite sure of her direction Tess stood still upon the hemmed expanse of verdant flatness, like a fly on a billiard-table of indefinite length, and of no more consequence to the surroundings than that fly. The sole effect of her presence upon the placid valley so far had been to excite the mind of a solitary heron, which, after descending to the ground not far from her path, stood with neck erect, looking at her.
Like the fly, Tess feels inconsequential in the grander scheme of things—the society that surrounds her has done no more to support her than the "solitary heron" who simply looks at her. Like this bird, most of those around her simply stare, offering no help in Tess's time of suffering. She is an object of her natural surroundings: a simple country girl, who, like the fly, does not quite fit in. She appears out of place, too innocent and unworldly in an increasingly fast-paced, industrial society. This passage also emphasizes Tess's spiritual and romantic loneliness: because of what happened with Alec, she has sworn to never marry—a clearly isolating, lonely choice.
In Chapter 16, the narrator describes the Vale of Little Dairies as full of wide open spaces. This spatial imagery mirrors Tess's current journey—both physical and emotional—which, in her mind, will provide her with new opportunities and freedom:
[The Vale of Little Dairies] lacked the intensely blue atmosphere of the rival Vale, and its heavy soils and scents; the new air was clear, bracing, ethereal. The river itself, which nourished the grass and cows of these renowned dairies, flowed not like streams in Blackmoor. Those were slow, silent, often turbid; flowing over beds of mud into which the incautious wader might sink and vanish unawares. The Var waters were clear as the pure River of Life shown to the Evangelist.
The imagery associated with Blackmoor Vale—turbid waters and a blue, melancholy atmosphere—mirrors Tess's tragic experiences there. By contrast, the imagery associated with the new Vale—clear, pure water and fresh air—establish this place as a land of new beginnings, where Tess can leave her old life and sorrows behind. This Vale is also the site of Tess's spiritual salvation, where she too may drink from the waters of the "River of Life," which is a biblical allusion that refers to salvation through Jesus Christ, preached and foretold by the "Evangelist" John the Baptist.
In Chapter 18, the narrator uses a simile to describe Angel's career prospects, as understood through the eyes of his father:
And if Angel were not going to enter the Church, what was the use of sending him to Cambridge? The University as a step to anything but ordination seemed, to this man of fixed ideas, a preface without a volume.
The simile in the above passage is of particular interest because Hardy evokes academia, comparing Angel's education to a "preface without a volume." Angel is held in thrall by the scholarly work of his intellectual predecessors, including Plato and Aristotle. He is well-read, having attended university, and he utilizes the language of secular academia in his everyday life. This education is invaluable to him, shaping his path through the world and his perception of those around him. To compare this education to a "preface without a volume" is to fail to see the value of education for education's sake. From the perspective of Angel's father, ordination is the logical next step following a university education. His narrow-minded view of the world accounts for nothing else.
In spite of the fact that modernity draws nearer and nearer in this time period, religious tradition is still very important for many English citizens. The conflict between tradition and modernity is an important recurring theme in the novel.
In the following passage from Chapter 27, Angel catches Tess off-guard. The narrator uses a simile to liken Tess to a snake:
[Tess] had not heard [Angel] enter, and hardly realized his presence there. She was yawning, and he saw the red interior of her mouth as if it had been a snake’s. She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable of hair that he could see its satin delicacy above the sunburn.
Given Hardy's tendency towards biblical allusion in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, it is generally safe to assume that snake references can be connected directly back to Satan, who appeared in the form of a snake in the Garden of Eden to tempt Eve into sin. The red imagery of the snake's mouth further symbolizes desire in this passage, cementing Tess as an object of temptation from Angel's point of view.
The "coiled-up cable" of Tess's hair continues this snake imagery, evoking Medusa from Greek mythology. Originally a beautiful young woman, Medusa had sex with Poseidon in Athena's temple (in certain versions of the story, Medusa was raped). As punishment, Athena turned Medusa's hair into snakes and placed a curse upon her, making it so that no man could stare directly at her without turning to stone. Both the biblical tale and the myth evoked by this passage's snake imagery hint at Tess's secret about her rape.
In Chapter 30, Hardy uses a simile to compare a quintessential human “appetite for joy” to an overwhelming tide of water:
The "appetite for joy" which pervades all creation, that tremendous force which sways humanity to its purpose, as the tide sways the helpless weed, was not to be controlled by vague lucubrations over the social rubric.
This tidal wave of joy is forceful, swaying the “helpless weed" of social convention. In this passage, Hardy summarizes a key theme that permeates this novel: social convention, when it obstructs the personal freedom and happiness of many, must and will be resisted. Such persistence is noteworthy in the behavior of Tess, who resists her parents’ schemes to climb the social ladder from the beginning, only conceding out of guilt following the death of the family’s horse at her hands. The word “rubric” implies a strict set of regulations and procedures which, if not followed, result in strict censure of the violator. By refusing to place a high value on rank and social status throughout the novel, Tess becomes one such violator. She allows her “appetite for joy” to overcome certain social urges; as a result, she is punished harshly, eventually paying with her life.
In Chapter 35, the narrator uses a simile to describe Tess’s response to Angel’s biting sarcasm:
To fling elaborate sarcasms at Tess, however, was much like flinging them at a dog or cat. The charms of their subtlety passed by her unappreciated, and she only received them as inimical sounds which meant that anger ruled.
Angel treats Tess poorly, refusing to forgive her past sexual transgressions as she forgives his. By likening Tess to a dog or a cat in this scenario, and Angel to her human master, Hardy further elucidates the unjust power imbalance inherent in their relationship—a power imbalance that characterizes many male-female interactions in the novel. This power imbalance becomes self-evident when Angel and Tess’s past sexual encounters are compared: Angel engaged in consensual sex with another woman, whereas Tess was raped by Alec D’Urberville. Angel had power and agency, both of which Tess was denied.
The narrator’s tone in this passage further emphasizes the male/female power hierarchy. Notably, Hardy does not utilize free indirect discourse, choosing to write the entire passage in the narrator’s voice instead of merging the narrator’s voice with Angel’s. Rather condescendingly, the narrator’s simile implies that Tess is naïve and uneducated. If one assumes that the narrator—like Hardy—is male, and that the condescending tone in this passage comes from the narrator and not Angel, one must scrutinize the narrator’s objectivity. He may be yet another contributor to the gendered hierarchy that appears throughout the novel.
The tension between Tess and Angel mounts in Chapter 36 as both characters reckon with their respective sexual histories. Towards the end of the chapter, the narrator makes a key observation about Angel’s behavior, using a simile to remark on the fact that Angel tends to favor image over substance:
[Tess] was appalled by the determination revealed in the depths of this gentle being she had married — the will to subdue the grosser to the subtler emotion, the substance to the conception, the flesh to the spirit. Propensities, tendencies, habits, were as dead leaves upon the tyrannous wind of his imaginative ascendency.
This “imaginative ascendency” dominates Angel’s emotional impulses, sweeping them along like leaves in the wind. Higher mental faculties—including imagination, logical reasoning, and ethical sensibility—well befit a scholar; they do not, in Angel’s case, mold him into an empathetic lover. To Angel, Tess is an object: the image of womanly perfection, as opposed to a person in her own right. Though Angel does not physically assault Tess, his reaction to her sexual past reveals that he—like Alec D’Urberville—views Tess as a character in his own egocentric fantasy, subject to his whims. When Tess refuses to play this role, Angel’s fantasy shatters.
In the following passage from Chapter 36, the narrator remarks on the logical core of Angel's temperament, using a simile to liken it to metal hidden in soft soil:
Within the remote depths of [Angel's] constitution, so gentle and affectionate as he was in general, there lay hidden a hard logical deposit, like a vein of metal in a soft loam, which turned the edge of everything that attempted to traverse it.
This metal at the core of Angel's soul "turns the edge" of anything that dares traverse the soil. Thus, any emotional argument or circumstance that attempts to penetrate the core of Angel's person will encounter hard, emotionless logic. One might argue that this logical core is not, in fact, logical at all—it is, rather, a lack of empathy merely masquerading as logic.
This "vein" of logic at Angel's core is tragic for Tess, but it's rather unsurprising that it exists within Angel, considering Angel's educational background. Brought up in the Church and highly educated in the various schools of philosophy and literature, Angel cares more for aesthetics than rampant, unbridled emotion. Tess, on the other hand, centers her emotions in the natural world, responding simply to the world around her rather than curating an image of what she wishes the world to be.