Document Type


Date of Award



Thomas Hardy, Criticism and interpretation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

John H. Hagan

Second Advisor

Philip E. Rogers

Third Advisor

Bernard Rosenthal


Thus, though there is a considerable amount of criticism on [Thomas Hardy’s] novels, there is a clear absence of any significant close structural reading. The study which follows proposes to fill this gap offering an examination of three novels that is neither synoptically nor microscopically limited, nor restricted to a particular critical angle. It offers simply a close structural analysis of Hardy’s fiction, considering individual novels as separate and cohesive artistic units. It returns to fictional plot, to a close examination of narrative orderings. It proposes to describe in detail the way in which structural technique crucially participates in the fiction’s overall aesthetic and thematic effect. It is an attempt to demonstrate that plot in the work is something more than mere obtrusive artifice. Rather, it will be implicitly argued, structure is so intimately and organically connected with Hardy’s vision of life that it is required by—part of, and inseparable from—the theme. The presumptions and suppositions underlying the study are loosely and simply Aristotelian, that meaning resides in and is revealed by structure, and that to understand theme it is necessary to see how the work is made, how blocks of event relate, interact, and cohere to form an aesthetically integrated whole. The study will, it is hoped, not repeat the past mistakes either of establishing algebraic or geometric patterns or of banishing “plot” from the respected critical lexicon surrounding the fiction. Instead, it will try to maintain the valuable insights and perceptions of the past and enhance them by considering again a too long neglected element. This, then, is the critical background and theoretic assumption motivating this present study; hence the first half of the title, "structure and meaning in Hardy's fiction.”

There is, however, an important second part of the title, “an examination of three major novels.” It is usually assumed that in Hardy’s fictional work there are six major novels. Therefore, why consider only three here? There are two reasons for such selectivity. First of all, given the nature of this particular study, it is simply impractical to consider all the major novels. To dwell at the comprehensive length required by the method on six separate novels would result in a study much too long. It seems far preferable to examine three novels fully rather than six sketchily. Secondly, the intention here is merely to demonstrate the usefulness of the structural approach to Hardy’s fiction, leaving to the reader the extension of the method to the work not discussed.

But why these three novels in particular? Admittedly, the study omits three of Hardy’s finest novels, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. There were several important considerations involved in this choice. First, Far from the Madding Crowd is the novel most often singled out for detraction because of its obvious structural design and schematically plotted action. Consequently, it has fallen into disfavor among recent critics. Of all the novels, it seems to have suffered most from the oversimplification of early critics and the condescension of modern ones. It especially is in need of reexamination to determine if its ingenious plotting is merely heavy-handed awkwardness, or indeed an integral part of a complex aesthetic experience. The Woodlanders is the most ignored of the six novels, and is usually passed over as a good transitional, but otherwise inadequate, fiction. It too, then, is largely neglected in recent discussion, and, not even deplored structurally, it is usually given merely the critical cold-shoulder. Contrary to such accepted opinion, however, it seems a particularly rich novel which opens up a wealth of unexpected issues and insights when examined by the approach given it here. Jude the Obscure, on the other hand, is perhaps the most often considered book among recent Hardy students. However, the cause for such attention has surely not been its structure. Typically, it is simply assumed that the novel is loosely constructed at best. Its fragmentation is granted as an aspect of its contemporary appeal, and structure is forgotten in an effort to relish its “modern” poignancy. To discover, then, whether there is, in fact, an important structural pattern or rhythm to the action created there, which participates in and contributes to its attractive authenticity of feeling, certainly would be to enhance rather than to detract from its appealing experience. These three novels, then, appear particularly appropriate for such structural reconsideration now. (The introduction to each section which follows more fully elaborates these reasons for selection.)