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Hunted Women in Victorian Society: Bird Imagery in 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles'

By Edited Feb 2, 2016 1 1

In British Victorian literature, the representation of women has often been symbolized by nature and by images that are suggestive of wild and natural elements. The bird is a common natural icon frequently linked with females living in this society. Thomas Hardy, going along with this portrayal of women as wild natural beings, uses bird imagery throughout Tess of the d'Urbervilles and often describes Tess, herself, as an avian creature. Hardy's novel is plagued with words and phrases that call the iconic bird to the reader's mind, as well as contains a number of scenes in which actual birds play a central role. The reader moves with Tess throughout the novel as she migrates from place to place with the changing circumstances of her life, much as a bird flies in search of warmer weather when affected by the cycle of the seasons. The story begins with Tess as a pure maiden, whom then goes to work on a poultry farm where she is sexually violated by Alec d'Urberville. Awhile after bearing and, subsequently, burying his child, Tess finds employment on a dairy farm called Talbothays, where she meets Angel Clare and falls in love with him. She marries Angel and soon tells him about her impurity, which leads him to abandon her so that he can make a living in Brazil. Tess moves around to and from home, finds jobs in random towns and goes to work at a farm called Flintcomb-Ash. Tess' migratory habits continue for the rest of the novel as she moves with her family and marries Alec. She then murders Alec when Angel reappears, the only means by which she can be properly accepted by him, and is inevitably sentenced to death in return. Throughout all of these changing circumstances in Tess' life, Hardy continues to use repetitive bird imagery, which exemplifies the patriarchal perspective of women as weak and powerless beings that need to be and are captured by predatory males with Victorian ideals (and large guns). Hardy's ongoing theme of women as birds, being hunted by sexual males and rendered helpless in their captivity, is encapsulated by the scene in which Tess falls asleep in an improvised "nest" after running from a farmer, only to wake up in the middle of a bloody massacre; dead and dying pheasants lay prostrate on the ground, the gruesome result of a masculine hunting expedition (275-277).

On her journey to work at Flintcomb-Ash, Tess encounters a farmer whom Angel had previously punched for insulting her honor by alluding to her connection with Alec (Hardy 275, 214). This farmer confronts Tess during her trek and brings up her relation with Alec, as well as the incident of Angel striking him. Tess, with "her hunted soul," remains silent (as she typically does throughout the novel) in the face of the farmer's harassment (275). Hardy's use of the word hunted suggests that Tess, as well as most women, is being sought after by a predatory hunter, namely the male sexual predator. Tess, realizing her situation and being driven by fear and "anguish," flees from the farmer "with the speed of the wind" (275). Tess' flight from this man makes her reminiscent of an avian creature because a birds' main means of transportation is through the air, making their speed at which to travel dependent on the wind. After leaving the farmer behind, Tess runs into the shady depths of a plantation until she believes she is safely out of harm's way. She then proceeds to gather "dead leaves till she had formed them into a large heap, making a sort of nest in the middle," which is similar to the way in which a bird would use leaves and twigs to build itself a home in a tree, far away from predators lurking somewhere in the distance (275). Tess' makeshift abode lacks the comforts of a home, however, and she suffers a restless night hearing eerie sounds, which she attributes to wild animals (276).

Rising out of her "nest" as the morning's sunlight penetrates through the trees, Tess surveys her surroundings and discovers that the weird noises she heard in the night had come from dying pheasants that had been hunted down and injured "by some shooting-party," but who "had escaped and hidden themselves away" at the same location in which Tess had found her own safety (Hardy 275, 277). These damaged birds, like Tess with her damaged purity (i.e. broken hymen), exhibit the natural response of inferior creatures to take flight and find a safe location away from the pursuit of predators. This reaction of hiding from the hunters, however, is problematic due to the hunters' unwillingness to give up their pursuit of a species whom they deem inferior, as well as to both the birds' and Tess' inability to move, literally in the case of the pheasants and metaphorically in Tess' mind. The predators' persistence in catching their prey is suggested when Tess speculates that "...they probably would come - to look for them a second time" (277). She realizes that the hunters will most likely return for the pheasants, which is representative of how predatory sexual males, like the farmer, Alec and Angel, stalk women in order to imprison them for personal benefit, to satisfy some uncontrolled desire. In the case of the patriarchal male, this unrestrained desire is displayed by the "bloodthirsty light in their eyes," which signifies a vicious hunger for sexual power over females, who are included with the birds as "weaker fellows in Nature's teeming family"(277).

The second issue in hiding from one's predators remains in the hands and minds of the prey. After the injured pheasants run away from their hunters and go into hiding, "they had maintained their position till they grew weaker with loss of blood" (Hardy 277). The birds remained in their safe location only to suffer longer and eventually die. Tess' mind suffers through most of the novel, similar to the way in which the birds do in this scene, causing her to have many instances of suicidal ideation. One of these instances can be seen when she is laying in her "nest" and states that she wishes her brow-bone were already "bare" (275, 276). Tess' desire to be put out of her misery is also implied when Hardy writes that the injured pheasants were "all of them writhing in agony, except the fortunate ones whose tortures had ended during the night by the inability of nature to bear more" (276). Only in death can the birds find an end to suffering, just as Tess only escapes from her "tortures" through her own death at the end of the novel (276). Tess realizes that these dying pheasants are her "kindred sufferers" and, wanting to do for them what she wishes someone would do for her, "she killed the birds tenderly" by breaking "the necks of as many as she could find" (277). While empathizing with these birds, Tess becomes "ashamed of herself" for being depressed, as she exclaims, "to suppose myself the most miserable being on earth in the sight o' such misery as yours . . . I be not mangled, and I be not bleeding" (277). Tess remains physically unharmed in this scene, but she still has a deeply rooted emotional basis for her suffering, even though it is "based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature" (277). Tess is aware that her suffering is due to the patriarchal views and gender expectations in society and she admits that these Victorian ideals are unnatural, but she is already so enmeshed in them that her mind has become "mangled" by the conventions continually forced on her (277). Though knowing the cause of her agony, Tess views herself like the predatory male views all females, as powerless to do anything about her situation. Tess, therefore, continues to retain the conventions imposed on her by Victorian expectations and, in this way, maintains her own mind's view of gender constraints until she loses her strength and her mind in the same way the pheasants drained of blood and the energy keeping them alive. Her long suffering under the male-dominated society causes her to eventually snap, killing Alec in order to be wholly accepted by Angel. Driven to murder, Tess loses her mind and, in doing so, finally gets someone to put her out of her misery, even if not in so kindly a manner as she did for the birds.

Hardy uses the image of hunted birds in Tess of the d'Urbervilles to signify the persistent pursuit of women by male sexual predators in Victorian society. Men continually chase Tess throughout the novel like the hunters track their prey, but Tess only flees and hides as the birds do, which leads her to grow even more powerless. As a female trapped in the cycle of a vicious hunt, Tess is so entrenched in Victorian ideals that her mind has become distorted, leaving her seemingly no escape from these gender constraints. Tess suffers mentally in a way similar to the injured pheasants' physical suffering and she realizes that the only means of escaping patriarchal imprisonment is through death. She helps the pheasants escape their misery, but does not escape herself until she is driven completely insane by societal expectations. By killing Alec to become Angel's rightful property, Tess takes the Victorian gender perspectives to the extreme, accentuating the view that a man gains ownership of a woman by taking her virginity. It is only after being pushed to the drastic solution of murder that Tess' suffering finally comes to an end by her being extricated from the society altogether. In Tess', as well as the birds', suffering and death, Hardy suggests that the pursuit of male sexual predators and the ideals of Victorian gender constraints cause women severe anguish and distress, which can eventually lead to extreme acts of insanity if these patriarchal ideals are taken too far.

Works Cited

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d'Urbervilles. 1891. Bedford Books: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1998.

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Comments

May 1, 2012 9:38pm
Etcetera
I must read this book again and attend to the bird imagery. Interesting article.
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