I Know Why the Caged Bird Screams

Home 2009 Archive I Know Why the Caged Bird Screams

Julia Traylor

Note: This essay is one of the first place winners of the 2009 Walter F. Spara Writing Competition.

In today’s literary world, birds have become symbolic ambassadors of Romantic connotation. From the immortal freedom of Keats’ nightingale to the esoteric purity of Shelley’s skylark, students have been conditioned to view birds as the lofty representatives of a natural world that both sympathizes with and brings hope to the human plight. Thomas Hardy, however, introduces a new species of winged metaphor. Far from the idealism of a Romantic, Hardy does not cast his birds in such a sepia-toned hue. Rather, they resurface time and again in his works as acquiescent accessories to iniquity—so far removed from the ethical codes of humanity that they abandon the Victorian struggle for standards in favor of the Darwinian struggle for survival. Hardy’s birds are paradigms of naturalism, a literary movement that favors realism in its precise depiction of setting and character, yet casts the Darwinian theory of evolution as the catalyzing force behind each social and environmental phenomenon. Consequently, the birds that appear in Tess of the d’Urbervilles augment Hardy’s philosophy of naturalism by demonstrating Nature’s indifference to Man’s morality, paralleling Tess in her surrender to Natural Law, and foreshadowing the cruel consequence of Natural Selection in Tess’s demise.

Tennyson’s familiar depiction, “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (“In Memoriam, A.H.H”), is congruent with Hardy’s portrayal of a natural ferocity that harbors no sympathy for human suffering. The birds present during Tess’s rape, for instance, are not ruffled by the criminal incident taking place below them; they do not even offer an indignant coo to comfort the protagonist in her hour of trial. On the contrary, “Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which were poised gently roosting birds in their last nap … But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel?” (90). After Tess retreats in dishonor and desperation to her home in Marlott, she seeks comfort in the company of woodland creatures, hoping that they will corroborate her innocence, yet even this small plea is ignored: “Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges … she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference” (107). These indifferent birds, often presented as unconscious in keeping with their lack of conscience, are thus incapable of soothing Tess’s blighted integrity because they have no comprehension nor care for such a mortal concept.

Birds frequently appear in seemingly innocuous passages simply to provide contrast to Tess’s torment. In blithe disregard—and sometimes mocking antipathy—of her hardship, these birds seem to confirm Tess’s estrangement from happiness with every cavalier chirp. During her ethical quandary at the Talbothays, she walks the pastures in daily anguish over her moral right to marry the man she loves. Yet, the birds transcend the fog of her confusion to a world of clarity from which she (and morality) is forbidden: “Birds would soar through it [the summer fog] into the upper radiance, and hang on the wing sunning themselves, or alight on the wet rails subdividing the mead, which now shone like glass rods” (161). When she reaches her emotional threshold and can withstand no more, she again seeks shelter in nature, only to be scorned by its distant disaffection: “Only a solitary cracked-voiced reed-sparrow greeted her from the bushes by the river, in a sad, machine-made tone, resembling that of a past friend whose friendship she had outworn” (164). This sparrow makes a sad pantomime of Tess’s sorrow, though its tone is one of vague nonchalance rather than compassion. Even during her few moments of happiness in the good graces of her lover, the birds stand by with unflappable detachment: “They stood still, whereupon little furred and feathered heads popped up from the smooth surface of the water; but, finding that the disturbing presences had paused, and not passed by, they disappeared again” (234). Through the ostensibly insignificant appearances of these birds. Hardy creates a separate world, inaccessible to morality and convention, and detached from mankind in its misery and mirth alike.

The most moving examples of Nature’s refusal to be moved are the “strange birds from behind the North Pole[that] began to arrive silently on the upland of Flintcomb-Ash” (337). While Marian and Tess labor under the greatest duress and most inclement winter weather to exhume rutabagas, these “spectral” spectators watch their painstaking progress with the aloof hope that the girls will “uncover something or other that these visitants relished as food” (338). These pitiless animals are described as “gaunt spectral creatures with tragical eyes—eyes which had witnessed scenes of cataclysmal horror in inaccessible polar regions of a magnitude such as no human being had ever conceived … and retained the expression of feature that such scenes had engendered” (337). At first, these stolid sentinels seem jaded by experience with nature’s superior sadism, yet the reader soon finds that the birds are more indifferent than world-weary: “with dumb impassivity, they [the birds] dismissed experiences which they did not value for the immediate incidents of this homely upland—the trivial movements of the two girls” (338). Thus, these eerily exotic nomads epitomize Hardy’s notion of Natural Selection—a universal code of survival, impervious to the compelling voices of sympathy and morality alike.

Hardy’s use of winged fauna also serves to parallel Tess herself. There are many overt analogies that make direct comparisons between the protagonist and birds in general. In her anxiety, she is described “as a frightened bird, [which] could not leave the spot” (151); in her happiness, “they marked the buoyancy of her tread, like the skim of a bird which has not quite alighted” (235). Moreover, in times of uncertainty, Tess is most likely to seek shelter in places that suggest nests. When Angel gives her a deadline for acceptance of his marriage proposal, she flees to a thicket of pollard willows : “Here Tess flung herself down upon the rustling undergrowth of speargrass, as upon a bed, and remained crouching in palpitating misery broken by momentary shoots of joy” (216). After an unexpected confrontation with an aggressive stranger, she finds shelter in the foliage of holly bushes, where “She scraped together the dead leaves till she had formed them into a large heap, making a sort of nest in the middle” (324). Hardy also refers to Tess with aviary-inspired euphemisms, such as, “Tess was now carried along upon the wings of the hours” (243), and “as everybody knows, fine feathers make fine birds” (262). By creating such a distinct correlation between Tess and birds. Hardy prepares the reader for what such comparisons later suggest.

For instance, the congruent relationship between Tess and poultry is indicative ofTess’s corresponding captivity in a society of inflexible social doctrines. When she arrives atTrantridge as the “supervisor, purveyor, nurse, surgeon, and friend” to a “community of fowls” (71), a parallel is established between the chickens’ domestication and her own. Tess, like the poultry, has been bred in the captivity of convention and hypocrisy and is completely ignorant of alternatives to such domestication; she cannot yet understand a life beyond social expectation. In keeping, the arena in which the fowls live was once a garden—suggestive of the Garden of Eden before the knowledge of sin—yet this once-virginal paradise has been demoted to a hen-pen by human intervention: “The community of fowls to which Tess had been appointed… made its headquarters in an old thatched cottage standing in an enclosure that had once been a garden, but was now a trampled and sanded square” (71).

Similarly, Tess is a creature born into a fenced-in world, completely bereft of the untamed purity of an existence before the “trampling” of civilization.

Songbirds, once so suggestive of freedom and sanguinity, instead function to parallel Tess’s tainted liberty. Mrs. d’Urberville’s finches, for example, may be free to flit about the room, yet they are never truly unrestricted by time and space: “Mrs. d’Urberville slept in a large four-post bedstead hung with heavy damask curtains, and the bullfinches occupied the same apartment, where they flitted about freely at certain hours, and made little white spots on the furniture and upholstery” (76). Likewise, Tess’s ostensible freedom of choice seems to be the compelled product of social obligation, a constraint that does not allow room for the debate of free will. Even her choice to work at the Trantridge mansion is more obligation than decision, as the pressures from both her family and her social conscience coerce her judgment. In keeping, the result of such limited liberty is not worth much more than excrement.

After Alee violates Tess’s virtue, Tess’s insecure innocence is also compared to the insecure song of a bird whose nest is threatened by a snake. As Tess observes her native forest for the first time since her desecration, the narrator notes, “It was terribly beautiful to Tess to-day, for since her eyes last fell upon it she had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson” (95). Hardy’s analogy is inspired by Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece: “The adder hisses where the sweet birds sing; / What virtue breeds iniquity devours” (lines 871-872). This subterranean allusion to rape is the only actual (though indirect) indication that Tess was in fact the victim of force rather than ignorance. Thus, in the same way that the songbird’s innocence is destroyed as the serpent silences its song, Tess’s integrity is destroyed as Alee silences her freedom of choice.

Hardy also makes a deliberate association between the heroine and herons. Herons, by definition, are solitary creatures noted for their remarkable ability to be completely still. They appear three times in the novel, and in each instance, they parallel Tess’s complete isolation and stillness of character. In the first case, a heron appears as the silent sentinel of the Talbothays dairy farm: ‘The sole effect of her presence upon the placid valley so far had been to excite the mind of a solitary heron, which after descending to the ground not far from her path, stood with neck erect, looking at her” (131). At this point in the novel, Tess has been emotionally and physically alienated from the external world, and like the heron, her static spirit will not be moved by hope for forgiveness; she condemns herself to the immobility of guilt. In the second appearance, herons are the cautious observers of a dawn rendezvous: “At these non-human hours they could get quite close to the waterfowl… if already on the spot, [herons] hardily maintained their standing in the water as the pair walked by, watching them by moving their heads round In a slow, horizontal, passionless wheel, like the turn of puppets by clockwork” (160). These birds again represent Tess’s isolation and caution. Though she is in the company of her lover, she is still in exile from his ethical world, and her heron-like caution proves to be prudent indeed. The final emergence of the heron is perhaps the most crucial; ‘The Herons” apartments in Sandbourne (440), where Tess sojourns with Alee, is laden with symbolism. As the plural title suggests, we find that Tess is not the only heron in this final chapter—there are three. Alee, Angel, and Tess have all become isolated and immobilized by obsession: Alee with his fixation on Tess, Tess with her passion for Angel, and Angel with his mania for purity.

Though Hardy uses poultry, songbirds, and herons to parallel the relationships between his characters and their environment, the most vital bird of his flock is the harbinger of Tess’s demise. From the very beginning, we are unwittingly made aware of Tess’s transience: “The season developed and matured. Another year’s installment of flowers, leaves, nightingales, thrushes, finches, and such ephemeral creatures, took up their positions where only a year ago others had stood in their place when these were nothing more than germs and inorganic particles” (158). Tess, represented by such small, innocent songbirds, is as susceptible to the ebb and flow of life as her symbolic counterparts. Similarly, the family tomb reminds the reader of life’s brevity (and Tess’s in particular) with the reference to marten-holes: “Within the window under which the bedstead stood were the tombs of the family, covering in their dates several centuries … their brasses torn from the matrices, the river-holes remaining like marten-holes in a sand-cliff” (423). From the nightingales of tree tops to the martens of the shoreline, these small birds have no small significance in foreshadowing the fate of our ephemeral protagonist.

The cock is yet another notorious herald of misfortune. As the wedded couple Tess and Angel embark on their honeymoon, the crowing of a cock interrupts their journey to nuptial bliss, foreshadowing the chasm yet to come: “It [silence] was interrupted by the crowing of a cock… and his notes thrilled their ears through, dwindling away like echoes down a valley of rocks” (257). The cock crows three times directly at Clare, signifying the latent deception and imminent death of a honeymooner. In the biblical story of Peter (which also means “the rock,” as echoed in “a valley of rocks”), a cock crows three times to remind him of his triple denial of Christ. Peter later pays for this transgression with his life, nailed to an inverted crucifix. This scriptural allusion foreshadows the unveiling of deception at the farmhouse (as both Tess and Angel reveal their pasts). Angel’s denial of Tess, and Tess’s subsequent fatality, while creating a vivid association between Tess and martyrdom.

Perhaps the most obvious omen of Tess’s impending doom is illustrated by the pheasants. After a “well-to-do boor” (324) recognizes Tess as the harlot of Marlott and harasses her on the road, she flees to a nearby plantation and hides under the deciduous foliage. She spends a sleepless night in this comfortless nest, haunted by strange, macabre sounds in the surrounding forest. At the first light of dawn, she finds that a bevy of wounded pheasants has been suffering by her side throughout the long night: “Under the trees several pheasants lay about, their rich plumage dabbled with blood; some were dead, some feebly twitching a wing, some staring up at the sky, some pulsating quickly, some contorted, some stretched out—all of them writhing in agony, except for the fortunate ones whose tortures had ended during the night by the inability of nature to bear more” (326). In empathetic pity, she breaks the necks of those whose tenuous hold on life had not yet been severed, thus portending her own broken neck and reprieve from life’s suffering. The hunters that had wounded the pheasants for mere sport are also analogous to Tess’s antagonist. Alee: “She had occasionally caught glimpses of these men in girlhood … a bloodthirsty light in their eyes … she had been told that, rough and brutal as they seemed just then, they were not like this all the year round, but were in fact quite civil persons saver during certain weeks of autumn and winter” (326). Though in the camouflage of chivalry. Alee d’Urberville was also a ruthless hunter. He had wounded Tess beyond hope of recovery for the mere thrill of the hunt, and like the hunters. Alee would be the indirect cause of her untimely demise.

In the closing chapters of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the prophesy of the birds is consummated. In bold defiance of Aloe’s advances, Tess is likened to a desperate sparrow—or a woman facing the gallows: “’Now punish me!’ she said, turning up her eyes to him with the hopeless defiance of the sparrow’s gaze before its captor twists its neck… ‘Once victim, always victim—that’s the law!’” (387). Soon enough, this inexorable law of unyielding oppression comes to claim Tess’s life. However, Tess is ready to face her fate. She remarks in a seeming offhanded manner, “the sight of a bird in a cage used often to make me cry” (456), yet she willingly succumbs to a social law that relegates her few remaining hours to “rows of short barred windows bespeaking captivity” (464). In the end, she trades a few moments of liberty, wrought by her own tiny grasp, for an ignominious death wrought at the rigid, ubiquitous hands of hypocritical justice. The one element of life that Tess controls completely is death, and by murdering Alee, she chooses her own corporeal demise over emotional and spiritual murder. In this way, Tess’s execution frees the bird from its cage.

Hardy effectively utilizes bird imagery to symbolize the philosophy of Naturalism, parallel the characters affected by its tenets, and foreshadow the consequences of its harsh reality. However, the birds do not apply to Hardy’s fiction alone; they characterize an era. The Darwinian theory of Natural Selection was a nascent element of literary thought in the Victorian Age. The law of Nature contrasted sharply with the law of Man and God, and many of his contemporaries were offended by the ostensible pessimism and atheism of its proponents. Hardy, for one, was harshly criticized for his works, from Tess of the cl’Urbervilles to Jude the Obscure, and eventually ceased writing novels altogether. Yet, his contribution to Victorian Literature has provided an analysis of social evolution that, in turn, inspired a social revolution. Though the readers of his day balked at Hardy’s suggestion of rape, the critics of today also balk at the suggestion of sexual hypocrisy—thanks to him and others who dared to name the elephant in the room, or bird in the cage.