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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The characters in the novel frequently linger around gates and pass through gates outside homes and in the fields. The gates suggest major changes in the characters’ lives, as when Hetty passes through the gates as she walks toward the Chase to meet Captain Donnithorne, leaving the innocence of childhood behind and walking into a very adult situation. The gates outside the characters’ homes also represent the attempt to keep the affairs of the heart private. Those who are allowed to pass through those gates are allowed into the heart of the family and into its most intimate secrets. Adam does not create any disturbance when he comes through the gates at Hall Farm: he is an accepted and beloved member of the community, and he enters quietly and respectfully. In contrast, Captain Donnithorne creates a huge ruckus whenever he enters. He loudly calls to Dinah at one point, and at other points he arrogantly makes his presence known. Adam comes quietly into the Poysers’ confidence while Captain Donnithorne brings noise, disturbances, and, ultimately, shame.
The hearth and home are the sources of nourishment in the novel, and their images recur repeatedly as the grounding force of the characters’ lives. The most prominent example of hearth and home is Hall Farm, the home of the Poysers. Each of the scenes at the farm returns to the hearth, where the grandfather sits and around which the whole family gathers. Problems are discussed and conflicts are resolved around the hearth. In the same way, at the Bedes’ home, life revolves around the hearth in the kitchen. Lisbeth’s whole day is spent there, and Dinah is useful and praised when she visits because of her ability to clean, cook, and do chores near the fireplace. The strongest and most worthwhile characters are those who spend the most time around the hearth.
The characters’ choice of clothing represents important qualities of their nature, showing on the outside how they choose to represent themselves to the world. Hetty, for example, dresses in the best finery she can get, whereas Dinah dresses all in black with a simple cap. Hetty’s ostentatious dress symbolizes the shallow, flashy nature of her character, and when her dress falls into disrepair on her trip, it tracks the disintegration of her spirit. By contrast, Dinah’s black gown and simple dress symbolize her practical love of simple things. She chooses not to put herself forward but to shrink into the background and come forward only when she can help others. Characters’ clothing choices reflect fundamental truths about their natures.