“Tess’s plot has narratavized development not as unfolding maturation but as the wrenchingly undergone gaps—barely overcome—of emotional dislocation, not just as separate “phases” but punishingly disjunct stages in life’s aggravated, broken plotline.” “The Self Phased Out” Novel Violence
The narrative structure in Tess is both revealing and troubling to behold. The narrative structure in Tess, as Stewart describes, is at times frustratingly disjointed and episodic. But this fragmented structure ultimately aids Hardy in what I believe to be his larger commentary on the disjointed and obscure way in which strife exists in our own lives.
Tess, one cannot deny, experiences a great deal of misfortune and anguish in the novel, but it is worthwhile to note that readers never see these moments, not fully, not as they happen. Tess, as Hardy so cleverly engineers, is unconscious or otherwise lacking agency in her scenes of anguish. And thus we as readers are left helpless and clueless, just as we would otherwise be in our own “narratives,” our own life experiences. I think Stewart is right to comment on Hardy’s representation of “life’s aggravated, broken plotline,” because that is what makes Tess such an intimate experience for readers, since we can actually see ourselves and our own strife in Tess’ journey. We each have aspects of our past we may be unaware of (as Tess’ family is of their ancestral connections), we each have responsibilities and expectations—both willingly and unwillingly—placed on us (as Tess herself experiences). Most chillingly, we are united in our time, whether it be moments or years, in a place of obscurity. Just as Tess is haunted by a hazy, gloomy, incomprehensible experience in The Chase, we all have moments of uncertainty or wrongdoings we regret. Additionally, the episodic nature of the narrative is similar to how we think of our own lives: in fragmented moments, in periods of time. We cannot think of time as linear—the previous sentence proves this point: we cannot simply appreciate time in its entirety, but in commonly-disjointed, uneven fragments. Thus, such a narrative isn’t a point to criticize in Tess, but an element to praise. Hardy has attempted (and in my view succeeded) to represent a human narrative in its real form and the human experiences as the hazy struggle it is.