Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In an act of contrition, Henchard visits Elizabeth-Jane on her wedding day, carrying the gift of a caged goldfinch. He leaves the bird in a corner while he speaks to his stepdaughter and forgets it when she coolly dismisses him. Days later, a maid discovers the starved bird, which prompts Elizabeth-Jane to search for Henchard, whom she finds dead in Abel Whittle’s cottage. When Whittle reports that Henchard “didn’t gain strength, for you see, ma’am, he couldn’t eat,” he unwittingly ties Henchard’s fate to the bird’s: both lived and died in a prison. The finch’s prison was literal, while Henchard’s was the inescapable prison of his personality and his past.
The bull that chases down Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane stands as a symbol of the brute forces that threaten human life. Malignant, deadly, and bent on destruction, it seems to incarnate the unnamed forces that Henchard often bemoans. The bull’s rampage provides Henchard with an opportunity to display his strength and courage, thus making him more sympathetic in our eyes.
When a wagon owned by Henchard collides with a wagon owned by Farfrae on the street outside of High-Place Hall, the interaction bears more significance than a simple traffic accident. The violent collision dramatically symbolizes the tension in the relationship between the two men. It also symbolizes the clash between tradition, which Henchard embodies, and the new modern era, which Farfrae personifies.