AD's English Literature : Plot Structure of Thomas Hardy’s Epic Novel, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’: How does it differ from a Dramatic Novel?

Plot Structure of Thomas Hardy’s Epic Novel, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’: How does it differ from a Dramatic Novel?

 Critics (i.e. Prof. L Abercrombie) have divided the novels of Thomas Hardy into two forms: the dramatic and the epic. In a dramatic novel there are a number important characters and the action arises out of the conflict of these actions.  Epic Novel is the story of a single person. There is no sub-plot as in dramatic novel. The main interest centres round- the career of the hero or heroines. However, the entire action of the epic revolves round the life and fortune of the single heroic individual. It is the story of his rise and fall, of the vicissitudes that he faces in the course of his or her life. Conflict there is, but it does not arise out of the characters. It is rather an impersonal conflict between the dominant individual the one hand, Fate or environment, on the other. Thus the Epic Novels in Hardy always create the impression of vast colossal forces ranged automated individual and pounding him to atoms. Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jute the Obscure are the two important Epic Novels  of Thomas Hardy.


Tess of the D’Urbervilles is an Epic Novel in structure. It is a story of single individual- a milkmaid. The story begins with Tess, ends with Tess and is concerned with Tess throughout. There are -no details, no digressions, no divert our attention- from the heroine even for a single moment. As the story proceeds and Tess’s misfortunes and hardships increase the vast nature background changes in harmony with the human situation. There is no such change of background in the dramatic novels in which the nature background remains more or less fixed.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy considers both the “Rights of Man” and, with equal sympathy, the rights of women. The thought that Hardy subtitled his novel “A Pure Woman” infuriated some Victorian critics, because it flew in the face of all they held sacred. Hardy had questioned on a strict code of morality, unequally applied to men and women. In such a sense Tess is epical.

Another difference between the two is that while in a dramatic narration is objective, the writer remaining mostly in the background, in Epic Novel he enjoys great freedom and comes out into -the open with his views and comments. In his dramatic novels, therefore, Thomas Hardy introduces a group of rustic characters. They perform the function of the chorus in a Greek tragedy; they maintain a running commentary on character, action and situation. We do not find any such ‘rustic chorus’ in the Epic Novels, for there the novelist directly airs his views and he comments on character and action. Thus in Tess there is no set of rustic characters and we frequently find Hardy intruding upon the scene and aiding the onward march of the plot by his comments. As the rustics are the chief source of humour in the Wessex novels, Tess suffers a great deal by the absence the minor characters. Dairyman, Dick is the solitary person who enlivens the story by his humorous anecdotes.

Thomas Hardy 
The action of the Epic moves with a “magnificent surge and sweep’, with an admirable unity of tone and singleness of purpose, and at every step we are conscious of cruel. Destiny is attacking the poor girl and sending her to her doom. Every event that happens seems to have a cause. The plot is superbly, even architrirally constructed in scenes. As a building rises brick by brick, so the plot is built by scenes. The resonance of the tale makes itself over and over again: the superb opening, the death of Prince, the horse, the lovely elegiac scene of the sleep-walking, the episodes of agricultural life at Flint Comb Ash, the climax at Stonchenge, is powerful and original imaginative inventions.

Admirable as the structure of this magnificent Epic is, still it suffers from a number of serious defects. “In the first place there is Hardy’s flouting of normal probability in his instance on a number of unlucky chances.”“No doubt in life the unexpected often happens, but sometimes this unexpected is undesirable and sometimes it is desirable. But in the novel it is always the undesired, unexpected that happens. A number of such unlucky chances readily come to mind. Tess’s written confession slips beneath the carpet and never reaches Clare, during her visit to Emminster she happens to meet the brothers and then does not have the heart to fact the parents; she goes to Tallbothays and Clare also happens to come to this very dairy as “student of kine” etc.
Similarly, unconvincing is the character of Tess, she is mighty, sensitive for a farm hand, as Alec puts it. Her sensitivity of conscience is amazing when we take into account her birth and upbringing and remember that conscience is a matter of early training. Her character has been shrewd and worldly wise than a peasant girl of her age, might naturally be assumed to be.

Another grave short-coming of the novel is the sudden conversion of Alec. It fails to carry conviction. “The great psychological surprise in the book is Alec’s Conversion from a preacher into a teacher ‘His conversion comes as a surprise to us for he is by nature not capable of any profound development. Moreover, the whole episode is entirely unnecessary. His rediscovery by Tess could easily have been contrived, in some other more natural and probable manner.

The plot of the novel suffers from other improbabilities as well: We fail to understand why Tess should degrade herself by becoming the mistress of Alec whom she hates: No doubt her brothers and sisters were starving, but she could easily have got help from the parents of Clare. He had clearly directed her to them? It was a matter of self-respect with her. But could she save her self-respect by becoming the mistress of Alec?

Then again why should she, and how could she, commit the murder of Alec. She was a born humanitarian and could not harm even a worm or a fly. Her heart melts with pity at the sight of poor suffering peasants who had been wounded by some hunters. But still she stabs Alec. Whatever might have been the provocation hers was not a nature capable of murder? Hardy has tried to gloss over the improbability be referring to a possible murderous strain in the D’Urbervilles blood. But still it does not carry much weight. Moreover, the murder seems unnecessary. She should easily have gone away with Angel and the shadow of Alec would not have fallen across their lives. They could have easily obliterated the past by migrating to some foreign land.

Victorian society preferred to avoid talking about sex, but Hardy believed the elimination of sex from popular writing produced “a literature of quackery.” In Tess of the D’Urbervilles sex is often associated with nature; it is presented as a natural part of life. The scene of Tess's seduction by Alec takes place in The Chase, an ancient stand of woods that dates from before the time of established societal morality. The valley of the Froom, where Talbothays is located, is described as so lush and fertile that “it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate.” Tess and Angel fall in love there. Tess's three milkmaid friends toss and turn in their beds, tortured by sexual desire. “Each was but a portion of the organism called sex,” Hardy asserts. Later, when Tess forgives Angel his “eight-and-forty hour’s dissipation with a stranger,” Angel cannot forgive her similar fault. Hardy condemns such unequal treatment.

Besides the glad acceptance of a murderess on the part of Clare, seems rather forced and unnatural. No doubt his outlook had been widened during his stay in Brazil, but still there are limits to the development of a character. That the Angel Clare who could cast off his loving wife, knowing full well that she was more sinned against than sinning should now accept her o very easily even though now she is a fallen woman and murderess, is a pill that the readers find hard to swallow. But despite such faults, it remains a great Novel.

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