This valuable discussion of melodrama, sensation novels, and tragedy in Hardy fiction originated as a personal response in the form of an e-mail to some questions I raised after quoting from a recent work of mystery fiction. In adding it to the Victorian Web with the author's permission I have made no changes other than dividing the e-missive into paragraphs and removing the opening "Dear George" and the closing "Philip." If anyone would like to join in the discussion, please do so, sending your comments to me at george at; replace "at" by "@." [GPL].

Your question regarding the coexistence of melodrama and tragedy is one worthy of the Thomas Hardy Poem of the Month. The strict, theatrical meaning of the term "melodrama," a suspenseful play using music at key moments to heighten suspense and underscore the contrast between virtuous and evil characters, only tentatively applies to your question about the lost letter and the tragic fate of Tess. The common expectation of the working-class melodramas of the Surrey side was that, since poverty equalled virtue and wealth equalled vice, the poor but virtuous hero and heroine would always triumph in the final scene, sometimes through the benevolent intervention of Providence, as in The Rent Day.

The term "melodrama" in theatre is roughly equivalent to "Sensation novel" in fiction, so we might examine your question in relation to East Lynne (1861), the classic Sensation novel by the obscure "Mrs. Henry Wood." In this highly "melodramatic" work, the hero wins, ultimately at the sacrifice of the heroine, with whom, nonetheless, we do not consistently identify because of the questionable motivations for some of her behaviour.

Now, Tess's "purity" is undoubted (at least, by Hardy and his narrator) from the title page, with its pertinent quotation from Hamlet: her name is "wounded" because she lacks a Horatio to tell the world and its wife her version of events and reveal that her motives (if not her conduct) were always pure. After more twists and turns of plot than one finds in East Lynne the pure heroine is destroyed by patristic society for the crime of taking vengeance on her defiler; in fact, since she lives with Alec as his wife, her conscience lulled by affluence for herself and financial security for her family, she attacks Alec only when he threatens to prevent her from joining the man she truly loves, the ethically-challenged Angel (whose name, nevertheless, suggests he is the morally pure male lead of the melodrama).

Hardy began his fiction-writing career as a Sensation novelist (Desperate Remedies) and could never quite get over the predisposition to melodramatise events, if only to maintain reader interest when such works as The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Return of the Native were running in serial. But because Michael Henchard and Eustacia Vye are not the utterly pure protagonists that Hardy insists Tess is, late Victorian readers probably accepted the justice of their falls (especially that of the morally dubious Eustacia) and therefore did not see those novels as tragedies. But Hardy, equating Hamlet and Tess from the first, clearly sees Tess as utterly virtuous victim and therefore as a tragic heroine. In other words, Hardy felt it legitimate to use melodramatic — well, Sensation novel — devices within a work that he knew all along was tending towards the tragic, conventional expectations about the fate of the virtuous heroine notwithstanding.

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Created before 2001

Last modified 16 April 2024