Plot Construction of Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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      Thomas Hardy is one of the greatest novelists of the modern world. It is admitted on all hands that he is a skillful maker of plots. All his novels are constructed admirably and well. He is indeed a master of plot construction. His novels are deliberate in their comprehensive plan. He comes before us as a great story-teller who allies his rich inventive power with his sense of symmetrical development. Unlike Dickens, Thackeray and many others he shows a great mastery in plot construction.

      Thomas Hardy is one of the greatest novelists of our age. We know him as the skillful maker of plots. In his method of plot construction, he follows Fielding. He builds the structure of his plot brick by brick and stone by stone like an expert mason. His training as an architect must have helped him in designing logical and symmetrical plots. But their beauty is often marred by accidental happenings.

      Regarding Hardy’s plots Neil in his book A Short History of English Novel, has observed, “His plots are, for the most part, simple. The passions he depicted are the elemental, of love, greed, jealousy, ambition, the thirst for power and knowledge, and the springs of action that move his characters are psychological. In the course of his development as a novelist Hardy’s interest shifts from the outer framework of experience to the inner world of feeling. His novels become moral dramas in which the conflicts of wills, impelled by passions, predominate. But these conflicts are not entirely determined from within, they are disturbed and complicated by the repeated workings of blind chance. Chance in its purely malevolent aspect is an important though invisible, character in every Hardy’s novel.”

      The favorite theme of Hardy is love around which his plots are built solidly. The Mayor of Casterbridge is the only exception. But in all other novels, the plot rises from the fact that two or more men love one woman, or two or more women love one man. The eternal triangle is always present in his novels. This triangle is very simple in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. We can explain it by means of a simple figure:-

      /            \
Alec         Angel

      Tess is loved by both Alec and Angel. The plot of Tess is superbly simple without any complexity in action. It suggests Hardy’s mastery and control on the various elements of plot. But in other novels, though the plot is simple, this triangle is comparatively complex. Cazamian observes, “His plots are not simple. They grow out of elementary passions; ambition, greed, love, jealousy and the thirst for knowledge; and the springs which move them are psychological. More and more as he progresses in his career Hardy tends to shift the construction of his novels to the inner world; he writes a moral drama, shows us a conflict of contradictory wills, guided themselves by feelings. But the development of these conflicts is crossed at every moment by accidents which interrupt them. Ironically, malevolent, fatal chance is, as it were, an invisible third party in all the relationships of human beings; now it seems to express an obscure cruelty lurking in the universe now, in a more philosophical guise, it is the experimental revelation of laws which probability demands that they should be some day crushed. In this latter sense, chance becomes the chastisement of the unavoidable selfishness of every life. Whether one aspect or the other is prominent, the repeated working of the inimical luck is largely responsible for the tragic atmosphere which Hardy’s heroes succeed rarely in escaping.”

      Pointing out another weakness of Hardy, Allen remarks, “Hardy’s chief weakness in plot arises from his view of causality. He is intent on showing that the stars in their courses fight against the aspiring man or woman who would rise above the common lot through greatness of spirit of ambition or of passion. Here his problem was difficult indeed and it is not surprising he never solved it. For the universe itself to become suddenly hostile to man could only be shown through the working of what may be called freak coincidence. It is silly to blame Hardy for the emphasis he places on coincidence, he just believed in coincidence.”

      Another minor defect in Hardy is that he is not very inventive. He does not invent many types of plots. Most of his plots are based on one situation and that is love.

      “But these failures in the management of his plots matter less in Hardy than they would in any other novelist; they are botches, but they do not ruin the work, because though large enough when measured in terms of plot they are small when seen against the vastness and the strength of the design behind the plot. Plot in Hardy is his attempt to express the significance of the great design in purely human terms. Failure was almost inescapable for Hardy, as a man of his time and place, had no completely adequate myth through which his view of the nature of things could be bodied forth.”

      In spite of these weaknesses Hardy remains a superb master of plots. His greatness in this sphere is unquestionable. A.C. Ward observes, “Though the architectural structure of his plots may have been overemphasized, he certainly had the architect’s ability to deal with massive structures. His best novels are built in grandeur, and he was truly impressive in his power to communicate the brooding spirit of great places of Egdon, of Stonehenge, of the Vale of Blackmoor. His most memorable characters, also, are conceived on the grand scale. Though Tess is a broken peasant girl, she is immense in her power of endurance.”

Fielding’s Concept of Plot

      Hardy follows the convention of Fielding so far as the plot construction is concerned. He thinks that every novel must have a plot and a story. Its action is to be governed by a single idea or by a presiding interest. The story is a result of this idea. Its structure, framework, or design should be definite. This structure has nothing superfluous about it. As Fielding Hardy aims at tracing a single pattern in the carpet of life, that is, he represents a special vision of reality by following a process of elimination. Like Fielding his first love in his novels is the story. He thinks that the novelist should not waste his reader’s time if he has no exceptional story to tell him. In this respect, Fielding follows Shakespeare whose first love in the drama is nothing else but the story.

Architectural Quality of Hardy’s Plots

      Thomas Hardy constructs the plot of a novel as a mason builds a house. His early training as an architect is calculated. Every stone has its place and every crumb of mortar bears its part. He never allows the logic of events to move even a bit from its-appointed sequences. The broad sweep of design proceeds hand in hand with its accuracy of details. The ends of final issues in the Wessex novel, are foregone conclusions. Things and circumstances being as they are, the results will be as they must be. This is so because of all great writers of the English fiction Hardy alone has in equal proportions the two great gifts of imagination and inventive power. Being an architect by profession he gives to his novels an architectural design, for he employs each circumstance in the narrative to one accumulative effect. He coordinates all incidents and events skilfully and well. The structure of his every great novel is built brick by brick and stone by stone. While giving the minute details Hardy does not lose sight of the harmonious whole. Therefore the whole design appears perfectly clear in its outline. Within its framework, it is quite complete also. In this design, Hardy attaches a great importance to the situation and circumstance. A number of chance-happenings or coincidences govern the course of great events in the Wessex novels. The plots of Hardy are mostly agricultural, so they have got an idyllic charm about them.

Simple, Organic and Symmetrical Plots

      At first Hardy conducts his narrative very slowly. Like Shakespeare Hardy starts with a wonderful scene. The opening of a novel written by Hardy is always very simple and direct. It gives the keynote of the whole novel. When Hardy introduced his characters and also unfolded the situation, he quickens the novel into passion. Then it begins to move with an increasing momentum to an incalculable goal. Then the main figures come into conflict. There is strong attraction or repulsion and the spirits are touched. Then there is a sense of pity, a period of waiting, a breathless space, an ominous stillness and a pause. At last with an increased force and motion it goes forward to the final issues. The inherent necessities of things cause their effects, tragic or comic triumphs of the right or the wrong and the end is told with solemnity and grandeur, this grandeur is the logical climax of converging trivialities. There is a current of inevitability running through all the events in the novel. The deepest impression of every one of Hardy’s novels is always of something fated and inevitable in the sequence of events. This impression is made e to Hardy’s skill in episode and his power in climax, his genius in invention and his genius in imagination. These things show how Hardy is a scientist turned novelist. He is a mathematician dealing with dramatic and poetic material. The plots of Hardy move in direct lines. There are no digressions or superfluities in them, They are simple, organic and symmetrical. Nothing is allowed to impede their progress. Though the part of an external fate is great in them, yet the life or motive at the center of each plot is essentially psychological. Given certain characters in certain circumstances the result is inevitable.

Plot Construction in Tess

      It is admitted on all hands that Thomas Hardy is a successful maker of plots. His novels have got a well-knit plot. They are built up admirably and well. He seems to work like a great builder. His early training in the art of building proves very useful for this purpose. Every word has its own place in the scheme of his novels. Every person fills an important place in it. Every event has got its bearing on the progress of the story towards its tragic end. The plot of a novel written by Hardy is like a lotus, for it unfolds itself gradually, regularly and systematically. He tries to give us a simple plot.

      Tess of the d’Urbervilles illustrates most of these qualities. But its plot is complex and has got a tragic background also. All the threads of this plot have been manipulated or adjusted successfully and well. They produce a very fine artistic effect on us. We have got the emotional actions of the heroine of this novel. We have got the devilish pursuit and the cruel persuasion of Alec d’Urberville to destroy her innocence and beauty. There are the emotional disturbances of Angel Clare together with his conventional morality lying deep into his subconscious mind. Thomas Hardy has combined all these things successfully and well. The present novel shows it very well that Hardy is able to control all the material of his plots like a master. As usual its plot grows out of passion and ambition. It shows how the writer of the Wessex novels is a very good story teller also.

Three Divisions in the Plot of Tess

      Like every other drama novel or story Tess of the d’Urbervilles admits of three divisions namely the beginning, the middle and the end. The middle of the novel can be elaborated into the three sub-divisions of the conflict, the climax and the denouement or falling action. The present is built on the epic pattern. That is the novelist concentrates on the life story of a single character named Tess. Hardy has introduced his characters very well. The opening of the novel is wonderful. We are first introduced to Mr. John Derbyfield and then to Tess and her mother etc. The father of Tess comes to know that he belongs to the ancient family of the d’Urbervilles. This thing turns his head. He celebrates the discovery with heavy drinking. His wife wants to make Tess a lady. She sends her to Trantridge to claim kinship of Alec d’Urberville and his mother. Alec impresses her badly. When she returns home but to be forced to go back to look after the poultry of Mrs. d’Urberville when the family horse, Prince dies. She goes there to earn money for buying another horse. She returns after losing her virginity. Thus the exposition of the novel is over.

      Now we come to the conflict in the novel. When Sorrow the undesired dies, she goes to Talbothays and works there as a dairymaid. She meets Angel Clare and falls in love with him. Angel woos and wins her. But Tess does not want to deceive him, because she is a righteous and honest woman. There is an inner conflict between the heart and the soul of the heroine in which the former wins. At last Angel Clare marries Tess. Then they confess their moral troubles to each other. The result is the desertion of the newly-wed wife by her husband. Angel Clare goes away to Brazil. Tess has to work very hard at Flintcomb-Ash. Alec reappears in her life. He renews his approach to Tess and tempts her. Tess struggles against this temptation but in vain. She writes a very moving letter to her man asking him to return and save her.

      Now we come to the crisis and climax of the novel. Like Satan in the Bible Alec continues his cruel persuasion of Tess. The crushing poverty together with the death of her father forces her to yield before the villains. When Angel Clare returns to rejoin her, she comes to know how deceitful and false Alec has been. Then she stabs him to death. She goes to Angel Clare and passes an interlude of happiness. In the end she is arrested and hanged. Thus the President of the Immortals ends His sport with Tess.

Defects in the Plot

      Tess of the d’Urbervilles is characterized by certain defects also. It has got certain improbabilities in it. There is something psychologically improbable about the sleep walking scene. We are shocked when Tess surrenders her soulless body to Alec. Again we fail to understand why she stabs Alec d’Urberville when she herself has gone over to him. It is something very strange to see that Angel Clare does not accept Tess in the beginning but he accepts her when she commits a murder - All these things strain our sense of probability. In spite of all these things Tess of the d’Urbervilles remains a masterpiece of Thomas Hardy, for he has left behind no better novel than this.


      The plot of Tess of the d’Urbervilles illustrates all these points very well. It deals with the tragic story of a beautiful woman named Tess who is forced to sin by a man she hates, and is cast out by the man she loves. The first man is Alec d’Urberville, who shows her green gardens and robs her maidenhood. She becomes the mother of an illegitimate child who dies later on. Then she is married to the second man named Angel Clare. She loves him with her soul and worships him like a god. But this man leaves her when he learns of her reluctant affair or moral trouble with Alec. The result is a very hard life for her. She has to undergo an ordeal while working at Flintcomb Ash. Alec reappears but to raise a storm of anger in her. She is compelled to surrender her soulless body to him i.e. to the poverty of her family. When Clare returns to her, she kills her seducer and is hanged to death. This is the brief summary of our novel. It deals with the life of a poor young girl who thinks that she is born to live on a blighted star. The character of Tess is her destiny to some extent, Heredity and environment play their part in bringing about her tragic end. All these things show that Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a master-piece of Thomas Hardy. Its plot is faultless in many respects, It is indeed a great epic in prose.

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