Conflict in Victorian Verse and Prose: Hardy and Others

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The term "conflict," the driving force behind any plot, indicates the clash of wills, desires, goals, tastes, or physical forces that animates the plot of a literary text and generates suspense, thereby engaging the readers in the action of the text as they anticipate the outcome of the conflict. In the Victorian novel as in the Victorian melodrama, the greatest single source of suspense is the writer's placing the protagonist in physical danger — as, for example, when Hardy's Alec confronts Tess in The Chase in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Almost as powerful is the writer's posing the readers a problem — a mystery or dilemma — that they and one or more of the characters, acting on behalf of the readers, must resolve; for example, in The Moonstone, Collins offers the twin mysteries of the disappearance or theft of the diamond and the peculiar behavior of Rachel Verinder for Sergeant Cuff to unravel, the fakirs being merely red herrings at this point in the narrative. Of course, conflict may exist in texts that are not principally narrative in nature, as is the case in Hardy's elegiac lyric "Convergeance of the Twain," in which the opposition of the iceberg and the Titanic represents the conflict of man, armed with technology, against the forces of nature; here, although the conflict has no plot to which to contribute, it plays a significant part in the reader's formulating the poem's theme.

There are several methods or schemes for describing and evaluating the nature of conflict in literary texts:

1. Internal versus External Conflict

The simplest method of describing a work's conflict involves determining whether the conflict exists chiefly inside a character's mind or is largely outside that character's mind. For instance, in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, when Alec D'Urberville offers to rescue Tess's mother and siblings from poverty if she will become his mistress, the conflict of the novel is both external (Alec as the tempter who would lead Tess away from the path of morality and propriety, and the judgment of Victorian society, which will see her conduct as improper without assessing the morality of her motivations) and internal (Tess's having to abandon her moral code by overcoming her personal and moral revulsion of Alec and the identity he would impose upon her in order to save her family from destitution, a matter that is of the highest importance to her ethically).

2. "Versus" Conflict Scheme: Man vs. Nature, —vs. Man, —vs. Himself, —vs. Society

The most conventional system for classifying conflict compels the reader to regard a conflict as falling under one of the following headings involving the term "versus" (Latin: against, or opposed to):

a. Man versus Nature: for example, Troy's attempting to swim against the current in Lulworth Cove and avoid drowning in Far From the Madding Crowd. Rarely, however, is this type of conflict not infused with other elements of conflict — for example, apart from the sheer hardships of the journey on foot, what considerations render Tess's walk to her in-laws' home difficult for her?

b. Man versus Man: this conflict may be largely physical, as in Gabriel's struggling to get the drunken farmhands to awaken and assist him in protecting the ricks in Far From the Madding Crowd, or may have a strong emotional component, as when Tess confronts Alec about his attempting to prevent her re-union with her husband, Angel Clare, at the end of Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

c. Man versus Himself: The struggle between the twin but opposed halves of Dr. Henry Jeckyll's personality in Stevenson's novella exemplify the most extreme form of this internal conflict. Diggory Venn's trying to determine whether he should intervene when he realizes that Christian Cantle is losing Tamsie's coins in dicing with Damon Wildeve in Hardy' The Return of the Native involves the character in a mental, emotional, and moral conflict of a more subtle nature.

d. Man versus Society is really a form of man vs. man conflict. Dickens in Hard Times has his novel's paterfamilias, Thomas Gradgrind, offer this sort of conflict for his erring children, Thomas and Louisa, after they have been to see Sleary's horseriding, by asking them rhetorically, "What would Mr. Bounderby say?" Dickens then equates Mr. Bounderby with Mrs. Grundy in the melodrama Speed the Plough, who epitomizes the restrive and coercive judgments of society, as does the expression "The world and his wife" in the novel;s of George Eliot. Social judgment in Hardy is often delivered by the rural chorus, who meet on the Rainbarrow in The Return of the Native and in the public houses of Casterbridge in The Mayor of Casterbridge to judge the actions of the story's principals. The Skimmington Ride, planned by Joshua Jopp and the other frequenters of Peter's Finger in The Mayor of Casterbridge, is an example of how social judgment may lead directly to a man versus man conflict.

3. The last method of describing conflict: a four-part adjectival classification

a. Physical: Farfrae's wrestling with Henchard in the hayloft in The Mayor of Casterbridge is a clear example of a conflict that, outwardly at least, is physical. However, the motivation for the conflict, Henchard's jealousy of his former employee, and Henchard's attempting to be fair by tying one arm around his back reveal that few conflicts are ever completely physical. Physical conflict, although important in the confrontation of hero and villain at the climax of a melodrama such as The Miller and His Men, is usually relatively unimportant in serious works of fiction. The physical toil of manual labour is the least significant of Tess's difficulties, for example.

b. Mental: Diggory Venn's attempting to outwit Damon Wildeve in the nocturnal dice game in The Return of the Native exhibits a chiefly mental conflict, although Diggory's being in love with Tamsie, Damon's wife, certainly provides a strong emotional component. The plan to unmask the hypocritical Godfrey Ablewhite as the thief in The Moonstone, although largely mental, also involves an emotional component, the vindication of Rachel's fiancé.

c. Emotional: As we have seen, this may be largely internal (Anne's attempting to overcome her sense of panic in order to rescue the unconscious Bob from the press gang in The Trumpet-Major is a good example), or the complement to a largely external conflict (Troy's manipulating Boldwood through his love for Bathsheba, first extorting money from him and then revealing that hey and Bathsheba are already married in Far From the Madding Crowd).

d. Moral: In Far From the Madding Crowd, Gabriel possesses the knowledge that Troy is responsible for Fanny Robin's condition but is reluctant to accuse him directly to Bathsheba in order to spare her emotional anguish; this reluctance to spell out the nature of Troy's immorality places Gabriel in a moral dilemma, for neither course of action will be effective in preventing Bathsheba from loving Troy and placing herself, her farm, and her employees in Troy's control. Behind Dr. Jekyll's final physical conflict with Mr. Hyde in Stevenson's novella lies a significant moral conflict, for Edward Hyde is essentially his son, his own creation, a part of himself, so that the doctor is compelled to make the choice of protecting society from Hyde by destroying him along with himself or permitting Hyde to take full control of his mind and body, thereby losing his own consciousness and personality.

Last modified 19 December 2001