Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
When Tess dozes off in the wagon and loses control, the resulting death of the Durbeyfield horse, Prince, spurs Tess to seek aid from the d’Urbervilles, setting the events of the novel in motion. The horse’s demise is thus a powerful plot motivator, and its name a potent symbol of Tess’s own claims to aristocracy. Like the horse, Tess herself bears a high-class name, but is doomed to a lowly life of physical labor. Interestingly, Prince’s death occurs right after Tess dreams of ancient knights, having just heard the news that her family is aristocratic. Moreover, the horse is pierced by the forward-jutting piece of metal on a mail coach, which is reminiscent of a wound one might receive in a medieval joust. In an odd way, Tess’s dream of medieval glory comes true, and her horse dies a heroic death. Yet her dream of meeting a prince while she kills her own Prince, and with him her family’s only means of financial sustenance, is a tragic foreshadowing of her own story. The death of the horse symbolizes the sacrifice of real-world goods, such as a useful animal or even her own honor, through excessive fantasizing about a better world.
A double-edged symbol of both the majestic grandeur and the lifeless hollowness of the aristocratic family name that the Durbeyfields learn they possess, the d’Urberville family vault represents both the glory of life and the end of life. Since Tess herself moves from passivity to active murder by the end of the novel, attaining a kind of personal grandeur even as she brings death to others and to herself, the double symbolism of the vault makes it a powerful site for the culminating meeting between Alec and Tess. Alec brings Tess both his lofty name and, indirectly, her own death later; it is natural that he meets her in the vault in d’Urberville Aisle, where she reads her own name inscribed in stone and feels the presence of death. Yet the vault that sounds so glamorous when rhapsodized over by John Durbeyfield in Chapter I seems, by the end, strangely hollow and meaningless. When Alec stomps on the floor of the vault, it produces only a hollow echo, as if its basic emptiness is a complement to its visual grandeur. When Tess is executed, her ancestors are said to snooze on in their crypts, as if uncaring even about the fate of a member of their own majestic family. Perhaps the secret of the family crypt is that its grandiosity is ultimately meaningless.
Rather surprising for a novel that seems set so solidly in rural England, the narration shifts very briefly to Brazil when Angel takes leave of Tess and heads off to establish a career in farming. Even more exotic for a Victorian English reader than America or Australia, Brazil is the country in which Robinson Crusoe made his fortune and it seems to promise a better life far from the humdrum familiar world. Brazil is thus more than a geographical entity on the map in this novel: it symbolizes a fantasyland, a place where dreams come true. As Angel’s name suggests, he is a lofty visionary who lacks some experience with the real world, despite all his mechanical know-how in farm management. He may be able to milk cows, but he does not yet know how to tell the difference between an exotic dream and an everyday reality, so inevitably his experience in the imagined dream world of Brazil is a disaster that he barely survives. His fiasco teaches him that ideals do not exist in life, and this lesson helps him reevaluate his disappointment with Tess’s imperfections, her failure to incarnate the ideal he expected her to be. For Angel, Brazil symbolizes the impossibility of ideals, but also forgiveness and acceptance of life in spite of those disappointed ideals.