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Constituting one of the dominant symbols in Thomas Hardy’s classic work Tess of the D’Urbervilles are the continually reappearing birds. The birds symbolize varying degrees of freedom, foreshadowing the events of Tess’s life and frequently paralleling them as well. Tess encounters birds in the wild, birds in captivity, and birds that are fatally wounded, each of which represent an important theme in their respective scenes.
One obvious appearance of birds is during Tess’s job on Mrs. D’Urberville’s fowl farm. Tess notes upon arrival at Tantridge that “the lower rooms were entirely given over to the birds, who walked about them with a proprietary air, as though the place had been build by and for themselves…The rooms in which dozens of infants had wailed at their nursing now resounded with the tapping of nascent chicks…hens in coops occupied spots where formerly stood chairs supporting sedate agriculturalists.” (Hardy 57)
One way of interpreting this passage is to see Hardy’s words as a commentary on the social class division. The Stokes family is of a higher social class than the Durbeyfields, but they bought their D’Urberville title. The Durbeyfields on the other hand are peasants from a noble line, now trying to weasel their way into the D’Urberville holdings. Both situations seem to indicate a sense of displacement, like chickens occupying a mansion and ruining what others value.
Also in the home of Mrs. D’Urberville we learn that her love of the birds leads her to allow the birds to fly freely about the room at certain times, which leaves a mess on the furniture. Although the birds are allowed periods of liberty, the freedom is an illusion because they remain confined to the room. Similarly, Tess does not realize that she is already in a cage, trapped by fate in a series of events and circumstances she will not escape.
Birds reappear in the novel when circumstances turn against Tess most harshly, sealing her fate to be rejected and alone for the rest of her life. In the scene of the rape in the forest, Hardy writes: “above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which were poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap” (74). In this scene, the birds serve as a parallel of Tess’s own situation. Like Tess, the birds are sleeping peacefully, unaware of the evil that is occurring. It is also worth noting that Hardy says the birds are in “their last nap” as Tess experiences her last moments of virginity and innocence.
One of the most significantly symbolic appearances of birds occurs when Tess comes upon a flock of dead and dying pheasants in a field. She sees “their rich plumage dabbled with blood; some were dead, some feebly moving their wings, some staring up at the sky, some pulsating feebly, some contorted, some stretched out—all of them were writhing in agony, except the fortunate ones whose tortures had ended during the night by the inability of Nature to bear more” (298).
Although Tess reprimands herself for thinking herself so miserable when these birds seem far more deserving of pity, her situation is in fact very similar to that of the pheasants. Just as the pleasure of the hunters is to shoot the pheasants and leave them to suffer, Alec’s pleasure regarding Tess lies in her demise.
The pheasants also serve as a foreshadowing of Tess’s imminent death. Tess, like the pheasants, has been maimed by the careless actions of selfish others, and is now doomed to writhe on the earth rather than fly, and struggle to survive. Ever since her rape at the hands of Alec D’Urberville, Tess has been crawling through life like the dying pheasants, crippled and wounded, without the mercy of an end. Seen in this light, Tess’s decision to aid the passing of the pheasants is both an act of mercy and of envy. Tess desires to be through with her suffering, but she does not have the comfort of having someone to finish her off. (Presumably, the religious attitude toward suicide keeps her from killing herself.)
Tess of the D’Urbervilles is full of symbols, but the recurring image of birds is especially important to the novel. The birds in Tess of the D’Urbervilles successfully symbolize the progression of Tess’s loss of freedom, parallel her life in the novel, and foreshadow her tragic end. Most importantly, the birds are a constant reminder that Tess is an innocent creature, who is a victim of fate and the actions of others.
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