Thomas Hardy’s use of colour in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’

Note: This article will probably make more sense if you have read the novel, and contains spoilers!

Some thoughts on Hardy’s use of colour in the aforementioned novel, based on my first reading of it!

Thomas Hardy is one of those writers who really paints a picture. He does so using exuberant imagery, and he pays particular attention to colour. ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ was my first brush with Hardy and my above points are what stuck out to me most in his work. His use of colour is so pronounced in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ that the reader can pretty much predict the story of the heroine from her first introduction. The common colours associated with the character of Tess are red and white, which tell us a great deal. Here’s the piece of text we are going to work with:

“A young member of the band turned her head at the exclamation. She was a fine and handsome girl – not handsomer than some others, possibly – but her mobile peony mouth and large innocent eyes added eloquence to colour and shape. She wore a red ribbon in her hair, and was the only one of the white company who could boast such a pronounced adornment…”[1]

Tess is introduced in chapter two, as a “fine and handsome girl”[2] in amongst a crowd of other girls wearing white at the May Day dance. It should be noted that her youthful nature and naïveté are highlighted by her “large innocent,”[3] eyes, which act as red flags to the reader, as young, innocent girls are frequently taken advantage of. This fear is heightened further, due to her unique beauty, as beauty equals desirability. What Hardy is saying here, is that we have a beautiful, innocent woman, who is likely to attract the attention of several men, that this is dangerous. Those who have read the novel will know that this is definitely true. Another aspect that makes Tess stand out is a red ribbon running through her hair, deemed as a “pronounced adornment.”[4] Why can’t she have a red sash around her waist instead of a ribbon in her hair? Probably because hair is associated with sex and beauty. Here the use of colour comes into play, as we have the contrast of red and white, which Hardy uses to discuss the central theme in the novel, which we will get onto later.

Hardy’s frequent juxtaposition of the colours of red and white strikingly allude to Freud’s ‘Madonna-Whore complex,’ the idea that a woman has one core persona, either the chaste virgin, or the promiscuous whore. As you probably guessed, white is associated with purity and virginity, and red is associated with lust, sex and promiscuity, follow the footnote for more on that![5]… and this next one for my thoughts on Freud’s concept in Gothic literature![6] It is worth remembering that Freud’s idea developed in the early 1900s, after Hardy’s novel was published, so Hardy did not write ‘Tess’ with the complex in mind, but it can still be applied retrospectively.

The immediate contrast of these colours that collide on Tess’ physical person tell the reader that these two personas will dominate her life, and how she is viewed by those around her.

Let’s break this down further. Imagine a wedding dress with a splash of red paint on it. One would describe it as ‘tainted,’ or ‘stained.’ To me, by adding the splash of red in the form of the ribbon against the white dress, Hardy is telling the reader that Tess’s virginal image, which we get from the colour white, will be tainted by some sort of sexual scandal. I’m getting all of this from the colours, backed up by my own knowledge of Freud’s theory. What will be the result of such a sexual scandal? Hardy also pays attention to the countryside in the novel, emphasising the presence of the colour green. Green is associated with nature, fertility and childbirth… see where this could go? This observation is further validated by Hardy’s specific note that the May Day festivities are occurring, a time of year that celebrates new birth and fertility. Green also throws in a hint of jealousy too, which becomes relevant when Tess has to contend with the men in her life.

The use of these two colours, and these two personas, brings us to the biggest question in the novel – what persona does Tess fall into? Madonna or Whore? It’s up to the reader to decide, but the point of the novel, in my opinion, is to argue that she is not just one set ideal, as Angel discovers, she is not one set woman, but a multifaceted character… that being said Hardy argues for her purity in the subtitle of the novel: ‘a pure woman faithfully presented.’[7] So really Hardy is saying that she is the pure virginal figure… even though she is not a virgin literally as she is raped by Alec… but is metaphorically as she did not consent? See what I mean? This is the central contention in the novel, and I do think this particular question is timeless. The themes within the novel explain why Hardy had trouble publishing ‘Tess’ in the Victorian era as censors frequently got in his way. It also demonstrates how Freud’s idea doesn’t really fit in with the idea of a modern, 21st century woman, explaining our different reaction to the novel. I’ve not yet encountered a person, or source, that places the blame on Tess, but to a Victorian audience, the above debate would have been more heated. Hardy previews Tess’s story, and this central idea through his deft use of the colours of red and white during her first introduction.

So, from her introductory paragraph, I ascertained that the young, innocent Tess will be embroiled in some sort of sexual scandal, that will call into question her purity and chastity. This is signalled by her physical description, and particularly Hardy’s use of colour, which invokes Freud’s infamous ‘Madonna-Whore complex.’ There is also the idea that a child will be on the horizon, based on the presence of the colour green and the time of year, which is frequently associated with fertility. Guess what? My prediction was pretty much spot on. The colours also feature throughout the novel in other forms, such as red in the form of blood, white in the form of milk, and the two colours collide at the end of the novel again when Tess murders Alec. The colours of red and white are always present for significant plot developments within the novel, as the central question that they represent drives the narrative forward.

I guess this post doubles as a close analysis exercise, as all these observations stem from one paragraph, particularly a couple of sentences within said paragraph.

Thanks for reading!


[1] Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (London, Penguin Classics, 2003) p. 14.

[2] Ibid., p. 14.

[3] Ibid., p. 14.

[4] Ibid., p. 14.

[5] Madonna-whore complex – Penn State

Available at:

[6] https://khambayswordswordswords.blog/2019/10/11/on-the-madonna-whore-complex-of-women-in-gothic-literature/

[7] Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (London, Penguin Classics, 2003) p. 1.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a second year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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