Under the trees several pheasants lay about, their rich plumage dabbled with blood; some were dead, some feebly twitching a wing, some staring up at the sky, some pulsating quickly, some contorted, some stretched out—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. With the impulse of a soul who could feel for kindred sufferers as much as for herself, Tess’s first thought was to put the still living birds out of their torture, and to this end with her own hands she broke the necks of as many as she could find, leaving them to lie where she had found them till the gamekeepers should come, as they probably would come, to look for them a second time. “Poor darlings—to suppose myself the most miserable being on earth in the sight o’ such misery as yours!” she exclaimed, her tears running down as she killed the birds tenderly.
Tess stumbles upon the pheasants at the end of Chapter XLI, feeling like a “hunted soul.” The dying birds symbolize her own condition. It is a strange and unexpected image, since throughout all the scenes of farm life we have witnessed in the novel, there has never been any killing. Farming is always associated with production, never with loss or sacrifice. But hunting is different: it kills creatures, and does so unnecessarily. It is gratuitous cruelty. The image of silently suffering victims of violence evokes Tess’s quiet acceptance of her own violation at the hands of Alec, which was also gratuitous. In a literary sense, these flightless birds stand in sharp contrast to the high-flying birds of Romantic poetry—we recall that Angel is compared to Shelley, who wrote an ode to a skylark. Romantic birds leave the Earth below to soar into a higher plane of existence, but the birds here have no such luck, having been shot down as Tess has been.
Tess’s killing of these suffering birds suggests that she is killing off that part of herself that has quietly accepted many years of agony. After this scene Tess begins to show a more active resolution that culminates in her final murder of Alec. Her newfound activity may not save her; indeed, her punishment for the murder, presumably death by hanging, will snap her neck just like she snaps the necks of these pheasants. Nevertheless, it may be preferable to her earlier passivity, providing her with a nobler way to face her fate.