In The Tested Woman Plot, Lois Butler examines the evolution of a plot over time. She doesn't just look at "any story." Instead, she focuses on works that contain specific kinds of characters, with unique structural and cultural elements.
She argues that the tested woman plot is "one of the great story machines of all time," and she shows how the plot has been adapted "to myth and drama, to chronicle and to history, and to prose fiction from Hellenistic romance to the novel of psychological development."
After exploring the plot beginnings, with examples like Eve, Susanna, Euripides' Iphgenia, Livy's Virginia and Lucretia, Butler explains how the tested plot is "the single most brilliantly exploited plot in English Renaissance drama." She says that "it structures tragedies, comedies, and romances from early Tudor homiletic plays through the works of Shakespeare, Webster, Fletcher, Middleton, Ford, and Shirley."
But, she doesn't stop there... She continues to follow the plot through Samuel Richardson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot.
Defining the Tested Woman Plot
Before she studies the development in the plot of the tested woman, Butler must first define her terms. She explains that it's not just "any story about a woman who undergoes some sort of testing." Instead, the plot involves three essential elements: "a moral test, a double-stage plot action, and a specific configuration of character function."
But why study a plot in such depth? "Watching a single plot move between genres," Butler explains, "is a superb way to study generic forces at work." And, she later says, "We simply do not know in any depth how literary plots work across periods and genres." So, we take a look at its "manifestations and permutations." We study how writers discuss the testing of women: how women are persecuted and called to account for discretions of which they are innocent; how women are tested as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters; how revelations may prove innocence, guilt, or simple "separateness."
Danger of Cultural Change
The tested woman plot changed through the hundreds of years it was employed by writers. It managed to maintain some consistency or cohesion, though some of the plot elements evolved as the cultural and ideological climate changed. Ultimately, Butler says, "the greatest dangers to the tested woman plot lie in cultural change." The plot is not the same as it once was.