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Looking at "The Withered Arm" by Thomas Hardy

Categories: Thomas Hardy

Looking at “The Withered Arm” and at least two other short stories, comment on how Thomas Hardy uses the female characters to influence the reader’s response

To prepare for this essay I have read a selection of Thomas Hardy’s short stories: “The Withered Arm”, “The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion”, “The Distracted Preacher”, “Tony Kytes, the Arch Deceiver” and “Absent-mindedness in a Parish Choir”. The first three stories have been studied more closely than the latter two, and will be used to answer the essay title.

Given that a reader’s response may be influenced by many factors, such as time of reading, gender, and personal values it is still clear how Hardy expects his readers to respond. Hardy has moulded the language in many ways, resulting in an intricately woven and complex idea of each character in the reader’s mind.

There are certain similarities in each story. Hardy seems to use clever twists of coincidences which are not the fault of the unfortunate character/s involved.

Tragedy and death also tend to characterise his stories, for example, Matth�us and Christoph are shot and Rhoda Brook’s son is hanged. The reputation of women plays a big part in all three of the short stories.

“The Withered Arm” differs from the other two stories as it has two main women characters, who are naturally compared, in a subtle but effective manner.

Rhoda Brook is first introduced into the story through another characters speech, as “she” and later in the sentence is described as a “thin worn milkmaid”.

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This gives the reader a clear picture of Rhoda before she even enters the story: she is shown as little more than a solitary victim of other people’s gossip. Hardy then presents Rhoda in her home, which is in the lonely and rural countryside. The house is made of mud-walls and is rather rundown and ramshackle: “in the thatch above a rafter showed like a bone protruding through the skin”. The house and Rhoda seem similar as their looks are both past their best. Rhoda is often presented in the context of a serious and lonely landscape: “thick clouds made the atmosphere dark”. Rhoda is never a happy character and Hardy shows this well, through descriptions of gloomy landscapes.

Rhoda has broken social convention by having a son out of marriage and it seems as if she is being punished for this as the story unravels. Rhoda struggles to look after her son alone, and lives in near poverty. Rhoda does not seem particularly disturbed by her situation but it has cut her off from the rest of the small farming community.

Hardy has cleverly associated Rhoda with sadness and superstition. Whenever Rhoda is being mentioned in the story the atmosphere is anxious, sad or tense, for example: “Brook felt like a guilty thing”. Initially, Hardy places Gertrude on the bright forefront, emphasizing her outgoing, carefree personality, while Rhoda is left as a figure in the background. Rhoda’s speech is limited but even when she does speak it is normally about Gertrude.

Hardy uses Rhoda to show the harshness of social convention on women. Rhoda is eventually so excluded from her community that she moves away. Rhoda is threatened by her reputation as she does not want Gertrude to find out about her being the possible cause of the damaged arm. Overall, Rhoda’s situation provokes a sympathetic response from the reader.

Gertrude is initially introduced into the story with the landscape in her favour: “the low sun was full in her face, rendering every feature, shade, and contour distinct”. She is shown as generous, caring, (helping those less fortunate than herself) gentle and innocent; emotionally and sexually. Her speech and behaviour are described with gentle language: “innocent young thing”.

Gertrude changes considerably over time, and is slowly transformed into the spectre of Rhoda’s dream. Hardy prepares the reader by starting to taint Gertrude with Rhoda’s main associations, and gradually Gertrude becomes a darker and more sinister figure. This is shown clearly when Gertrude’s subconscious mind is praying: “O Lord, hang some innocent or guilty person soon”. She is described as “cunning”, “shrivelled” and “furtive”. Hardy shows what a monster an innocent young woman can become while trying to cope with the harsh world of the 1800’s when her marriage and reputation is all she has. Gertrude failed her marriage in two ways, firstly she did not have children, and secondly, Farmer Lodge no longer found her attractive because of her withered arm (and this was the main motive for her wanting to cure it).

Hardy showed that without a respectable marriage and children, many women felt that their lives were inadequate. Social convention and reputation ruled many women’s lives. This makes the reader feel sympathetic towards women living in that time, and highlights the amount of freedom women have today.

“The Melancholy Hussar”, contains one main female character, Phyllis Grove, who is presented as a figure of the past. Throughout the story Phyllis is rarely described physically; she is an invisible character. Hardy describes Phyllis’ feelings extensively through direct authorial comment, as she says very little.

Phyllis is also closely connected with the landscape, and is part of its timelessness. At the beginning of the story, Phyllis’ seclusion is shown through this: “secluded old manor houses and hamlets lie in the ravines”. In addition, the landscape at this stage in the story is very bleak, symbolising the bleakness of Phyllis’ lifestyle. Phyllis spends most of the story outside, and words describing her are most energetic outside: “climbs”, “walks” and “clambers”. When Phyllis becomes dislocated from what makes her happiest, she becomes dislocated from her landscape; Phyllis was indoors for weeks after she saw Matth�us and Christoph being shot. To highlight Phyllis’ shyness, she uses the fog and mist to hide her away and protect her.

Hardy uses Phyllis to show women’s isolation, which can be due to men; Phyllis’ father is unsympathetic towards her situation and Phyllis’ only hope of having a better life would be through marriage. Phyllis’ life seems to be mapped out before the story unravels because she is connected with men right at the beginning of the story, in this case her father. Phyllis’ only escape from her desperate isolation seems to be to marry, suitable Humphrey Gould, and their engagement is used by Hardy to convey the fact that marriages were seen as respectable and even an accomplishment.

Hardy uses the York Hussars as a contrast to “suitable” and “ordinary” Humphrey; the Hussars are shown with excitement and passion “crowds of admirers” and “foreign air”. Hardy then uses contrast once again regarding Matth�us Tina; this man is different and catches Phyllis’ attention. When Phyllis is with Matth�us she is especially alive, as her speech is direct and not shown through reported speech or authorial comment. Also, this seems to be the only time she can actually be heard. In addition, she is described using the most animated language when she is with Matth�us: “flushed”, “agitation”, and “shaked”. The reader wants Phyllis and Matth�us’ relationship to survive, as Phyllis is obviously so happy with him. This is what makes the ending so tragic.

The stone wall is the place of Matth�us and Phyllis’ meetings, and it symbolises an important boundary between them. This figurative language used by Hardy is not only showing the physical but also the moral boundary (Phyllis’ engagement) between the two lovers. Phyllis has a quiet independence, which Hardy shows through her willingness to elope with Matth�us; she is prepared to defy social convention.

Hardy shows Phyllis as a victim of circumstance and coincidence, because when she hears that Humphrey has bought her a present, the only thing that holds her back from eloping is her conscience and honesty. Here Hardy indicates that one small, seemingly insignificant moment can change one’s life forever. This can make the reader feel quite insecure and that the world is unjust; Phyllis suffered for the rest of her life simply because she was a good person.

Irony is used when Phyllis is buried near Christoph and Matth�us, near the wall where Matth�us and her met. The most well known marriage vow contains “until death do us part”, though ironically they failed to be together in life, and death brought them together. It is also ironic because marriage was meant to be Phyllis’ escape from her secluded life but in fact it was marriage that prevented her freedom.

Hardy’s harsh world also extends to men: for example in “The Withered Arm” when Rhoda Brooks’ son is hanged. In fact, Matth�us and Christoph were subtly shown as heroes because they took the blame for the other two people found in the boat and as a result were shot.

The final story “The Distracted Preacher” contains one main female character, Lizzy Newberry. Lizzy completely strays from the social conventions of the time. Lizzy, like Rhoda, is introduced to the reader through someone else’s speech, but in a completely different manner: “she won’t have” is used when Mr Stockdale is being informed about her, telling you immediately that she is confident and assertive. Lizzy’s personality is also shown through her leading Mr Stockdale to various destinations and giving him instructions. Hardy makes it clear that Mr Stockdale cannot take her for granted as he is always the one waiting for her and how he looks forward to seeing her: Mr Stockdale “longed for the morrow”. He cannot control her life as she is so independent and unpredictable.

The environment surrounding Lizzy is “snug and cheerful”, unlike the rural countryside of Rhoda’s and Phyllis’. Other environments associated with Lizzy are smugglers caves such as “Daggers Grave”; these show her life as exciting and exhilarating. Hardy makes Lizzy the first to speak between her and Mr Stockdale; she is confident as she is the one that approaches him. Lizzy being a widow puts her in a good position as she can be sexually experienced yet single, without it being a scandal.

Hardy uses very sophisticated language to describe Lizzy, this shows her subtle superiority and sophistication. He also uses animated language such as “ascended the hill” and “tripped at a quickening pace” to show her freedom. Hardy shows Mr Stockdale as rather na�ve, by him automatically assuming that a conversation is about love or marriage, when Lizzy is talking to the miller. Also, it takes him a long time to understand what Lizzy does to make money, even after so many clues: Lizzy’s irregular sleeping patterns, her absence from her bedroom at night and him discovering a man’s freshly washed clothes in his room.

Lizzy dresses like a man when going smuggling, symbolising her masculinity. In fact, Lizzy is like the man of the house; she makes all the choices and makes money. At one point, Lizzy handles money and this is very symbolic of her freedom. In the other two stories men are hurt physically and in this story Hardy uses this to show Lizzy as masculine; she was shot in the hand. In “The Withered Arm” Rhoda is jealous of Gertrude for being with Farmer Lodge, and in “The Melancholy Hussar” Phyllis stays inside for four weeks because she is so upset about Matth�us.

In this story, however, Mr Stockdale gets upset about Lizzy. For a few days he becomes “sad” and “restrained” when he starts to suspect that there might be another man in Lizzy’s life. Also, there is a lack of choices for Mr Stockdale regarding his job “brought with a single eye to ministry”; in the previous stories the women tend to lack choices. Social convention expected women to centre their lives around men but Lizzy was not prepared to give up her life for a man. Lizzy even suggests that Mr Stockdale gives up his ministry to marry her.

I think Hardy implies that money plays a big part in independence, because in the previous short stories women were restrained because of their lack of money, and in this story Lizzy is economically independent and has freedom.

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” “”He’s dead,” she pouted.” This quote shows Lizzy’s rebelliousness but ironically, she ends up writing a book called “Render unto Caesar”. Lizzy’s marriage and apology to Mr Stockdale show that she eventually conformed to social convention. In the author’s note Hardy says he would have preferred Lizzy to marry Jim the smuggler, and emigrate to America, and that the other ending was only written because of the expectations of the time of publishing. So, even Hardy had to conform to the conventions of the day. The latter ending is more modern and clearly shows the influence of time on Hardy and his admiration of Lizzy.

Throughout these short stories Hardy has shown a wide range of characters and has used different women in varying ways to achieve different purposes. Hardy is shown to have a good understanding of the women in that time through these stories. Even though all three of the short stories were written in the third person, Hardy has used language ingeniously. He has evoked many responses from the reader, but predominantly it is one of sympathy for the women.

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Looking at "The Withered Arm" by Thomas Hardy. (2017, Nov 06). Retrieved from

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