Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales are filled with fascinating themes that make readers think deeply about the stories' characters and plots as well as about their own lives and experiences. Let's look at a few of these themes.
First, Hardy explores the trials of life and the need for perseverance. In "The Withered Arm," for example, Rhoda has an illegitimate child with her landlord, Farmer Lodge, and leads a difficult life of poverty. She eventually has to move away because of the conflict with Gertrude. Her son even ends up hanged. Yet Rhoda continues to persevere even amid her trials.
Second, Hardy writes much about relationships, marriage, and their difficulties. Again in "The Withered Arm," Lodge refuses to marry Rhoda even though he has a child with her. He chooses Gertrude instead, which gives rise to Rhoda's jealousy and the series of strange events that follow.
In "The Distracted Preacher," Mr. Stockdale falls in love with Lizzy but cannot marry her, because his conscience won't support her smuggling activities. In "Fellow-Townsmen," a love triangle arises between Barnet, Lucy, and Mrs. Barnet, with Barnet realizing that he really wants Lucy, but their relationship continues to be sidetracked over and over.
Third, Hardy delves into the struggles of social class. The troubles between Rhoda and Lodge arise from their difference in social status in "The Withered Arm," for instance, as does the hesitation Lucy shows toward marrying Barnet in "Fellow-Townsmen" (Lucy is of a lower social class). Indeed, excessive class consciousness can lead to great unhappiness.
Fourth, Hardy focuses on the supernatural and its mysteries as well as on superstition. This is especially evident in "The Withered Arm." Readers are never sure whether Rhoda actually has any supernatural power or actually did anything to hurt Gertrude's arm, but Rhoda thinks she does, and that leads to all kinds of difficulties. Gertrude also believes that her malady is supernatural, and she becomes extremely superstitious and paranoid because of it.