Tess of the d’Urbervilles is rich in symbolism, which becomes noticeable in as Tess drives the wagon in Chapter IV. Tess has a dream about a man of nobility who stands laughing at her and looking down on her plight. Tess wakes up to realize that she has literally killed her Prince, the family’s horse, and along with it the family’s means of support. Symbolically, the inability of the Durbeyfields to deliver the load of beehives mirrors their inability to transcend their social class. Even with the knowledge of their supposed noble heritage, without physical productivity, the calamities that befall them in the present stunt the Durbeyfields’ dreams of future social mobilization and other lofty goals. The novel thus prioritizes work and contribution over nobility and entitlement. As Prince’s death immobilizes their only marketable good, the Durbeyfields must suffer the tragedy that lies ahead.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles follows a simple but carefully constructed pattern. Hardy establishes a set of basic plot mechanisms that govern the structure of his story and employs them without drastic variation. The novel is divided into seven phases, each of which tells a concise and particular story within the larger story of Tess’s life, and accomplishes some specific goals in moving Tess from her simple country life to her tragic circumstances at the end of her life. These chapters successively show Tess’s development into a responsible young adult. The responsibility she feels for the death of Prince compels her to pay her family back. This guilt leads her to visit the d’Urbervilles and puts her into an uncertain and potentially dangerous situation. These chapters also mark the beginning of her downfall, as she blindly offers to work at Trantridge for the sake of her family.
Though it is early in the novel, distinct pictures of each of the characters already start to emerge. We can see Tess’s highly developed sense of responsibility as she answers her brother Abraham’s questions and completes the work neglected by her parents. Tess’s beauty and nobility of character are also emphasized, as are her strong conscience and sense of familial duty. Mr. and Mrs. Durbeyfield’s weaknesses—his laziness and her simplemindedness—add a degree of urgency to Tess’s family responsibilities. If not for Tess, the Durbeyfields might be very badly off indeed. Alec is obviously lascivious and opportunistic, an impression reinforced in every scene in which he appears. He is repeatedly associated with darkness and dark colors, reflecting the shadiness of his own character. From his first meeting with Tess, he behaves awkwardly and inappropriately, addressing her with intimate nicknames like “my pretty coz.” Alec’s unappealing traits are easily recognizable. To an extent, at this point in the novel the characters seem somewhat one-dimensional. Even Angel Clare, who appears only briefly in this section, is portrayed as graceful, kind, and life-loving, presaging what we see of him later. But at the same time, by giving us a strong sense of these characters and what kinds of things they are likely to do, Hardy is able to generate a great deal of suspense, drawing us into his plots of seduction, betrayal, and loyalty. Moreover, the changes that we see later in the novel seem momentous, surprising, and important after this vivid beginning.