Thomas Hardy Short Fiction Analysis
Although the short stories of Thomas Hardy share with his novels the fictional setting of “Wessex,” certain character types, and the philosophic concerns of his better-known writing, they necessarily lack the scope and sometimes majestic sweep of his longer works. Nevertheless, many of the short stories stand on their own as effective and moving pieces of literature. Hardy was proud that they were often based on and permeated with local legends and folktales; still, the stories are not merely country fables. Even when they have strong elements of the grotesque or the supernatural, these aspects are not included primarily for the sake of shock or to suggest an allegorical moral. Instead, Hardy builds around these elements to construct telling and convincing psychological portraits of his characters.
“The Withered Arm”
Perhaps the best known of these stories is one with a plot which almost makes it a ghost story, “The Withered Arm.” Rhoda Brook, a tenant of Farmer Lodge, has had an illegitimate son by her landlord. When the farmer returns to Wessex with Gertrude, his new wife, Rhoda is intensely jealous. Although she has never seen Gertrude, she is able to imagine her clearly from her son’s descriptions. Finally, one night Rhoda has a dream or vision: “that the young wife, in the pale silk dress and white bonnet, was sitting upon her chest as she lay.” The “incubus,” as Hardy calls it, taunts Rhoda, nearly suffocating her with its weight. In desperation, Rhoda reaches out and grabs the specter’s left arm; she throws the specter to the floor, after which it promptly vanishes. The next day, Rhoda meets Gertrude in person and finds that she actually likes her; in a few days, however, Gertrude complains to Rhoda about a pain in her left arm which had begun at the time of Rhoda’s dream. There is a mark on her arm like fingerprints, which shocks Rhoda as much as it dismays Gertrude. The arm begins to waste away and Lodge’s love for his wife diminishes in proportion. Gertrude persuades Rhoda to take her to a local medicine man, Conjuror Trendle, in spite of Rhoda’s fear that she will be revealed as the source of Gertrude’s suffering and lose her new friend. Trendle shows Gertrude the image of the cause of her afflicted arm; although the reader never sees the image directly, Gertrude immediately turns cool toward Rhoda, and soon after Rhoda and her son leave the area.
Some years later, Gertrude has developed into “an irritable, superstitious woman, whose whole time was given to experimenting upon her ailment with every quack remedy she came across,” hoping to win back the love of her husband. Finally, she turns again to Conjuror Trendle, who assures her that the one cure for her arm is to touch the neck of a newly hanged man. While Lodge is away on business, Gertrude rides to Casterbridge, where there is to be a hanging. She arranges to be near the body after it is cut down and, in spite of her revulsion, she touches the neck and feels the “turning of the blood” which will cure her arm. She is immediately interrupted, however, by the dead man’s parents—Rhoda and Lodge. Gertrude collapses and soon dies from the stress and shock of her experience: “Her blood had been ‘turned’ indeed—too far.” Rhoda Brook finally returns to the area to live out her days in seclusion, refusing the money which Farmer Lodge leaves her when he dies.
Although this tale follows the outlines of the horror story genre, Hardy does not place his emphasis on the horror of the withered arm or the hanged man, as, for example, Edgar Allan Poe would; nor does he seek for a deeper meaning behind the affliction as Nathaniel Hawthorne might. Instead, the supernatural element is almost taken for granted. The tone of the narrator is lightly skeptical, suggesting the possibility of some psychological origin or even physical cause for the disability, but the concentration and the concern of the story are on the characters, first of Rhoda and then of Gertrude. The reader sees a lonely woman who, wronged by a man and deprived of his love, then loses her one friend. The second part of the story concentrates on Gertrude’s desperate desire to restore her physical beauty and the love of her husband, even if she must experience horror to accomplish that end.
“The Fiddler of the Reels”
A similar use of the supernatural to build psychological effects is seen in “The Fiddler of the Reels.” The Fiddler is Wat or “Mop” Ollamoor, a veterinary surgeon whose pastime is playing the fiddle at inns, parties, and fairs. Although the men of the area do not care much for him, he seems to have an almost magical power over women when he plays. There is, in fact, something slightly satanic in his character; he “had never, in all likelihood, entered a church at all. All were devil’s tunes in his repertory.” One woman who is particularly affected by his playing is Car’line Aspent, who finds herself forced to dance whenever Mop Ollamoor plays, no matter what she is doing or thinks she desires. She is so caught up by the fiddler that she even detects his footsteps on the road by her house when he is on his way to visit another woman. Her passion is such that she finally rejects the marriage proposal of her former lover, Ned Hipcroft: “He could not play the fiddle so as to draw your soul out of your body like a spider’s thread, as Mop did, till you felt as limp as the withywind and yearned for something to cling to.”
Ned moves to London where he makes his living as a mechanic for four years; he finally receives a letter from Car’line, telling him that she is now ready to marry him after all. Ned accepts Car’line’s reconsideration gratefully, although he is temporarily taken aback when Car’line arrives with the daughter she has had by Mop. The couple marries and the three live happily in London for a few years until they decide to return to their hometown in Wessex. Stopping in an inn on their return, while Ned takes care of some business, Car’line notices Ollamoor sitting in a corner with his fiddle. Her former lover begins to play, and Car’line once again finds herself forced to dance. The fiddler continues, never stopping, until Car’line collapses from exhaustion. When Ned returns to the inn, he finds that his wife has collapsed, and his daughter, whom he has come to love as his own, has disappeared with the fiddler.
The figure of Wat Ollamoor in “The Fiddler of the Reels” is obviously drawn from the legends which associate the devil with music, especially that of the fiddle. (Mop is also compared to Paganini, who was rumored to have drawn his power from the devil.) Once again, however, Hardy does not attempt to concentrate on the unearthly power of the musician; his concern is rather with its effect on his characters, especially Car’line. In this woman’s infatuation and helplessness, one can see the obsessiveness and sexual passion which also drive Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
“The Fiddler of the Reels” is set in a time of great change for England in general and Wessex in particular. The events in the story take place during the year of the first world fair, the Great Exposition of 1851. There is a strong contrast between this homage to the industrial revolution and the more mystic and communal affairs of a small, obscure village. The coming of the railroad to that village is just one sign of the disappearance of a way of life which had lasted for centuries. It is because of these changes which were rapidly transforming Hardy’s country during his lifetime that many of his short stories and tales are set in the past.
“The Distracted Preacher”
One of Hardy’s best re-creations of the past of Wessex is his lengthy story “The Distracted Preacher.” The preacher of the title is Mr. Stockdale, a Wesleyan minister living in the 1830’s during King William IV’s reign. Being new to town, he takes lodgings and discovers his new landlady, Lizzy Newberry, to be a beautiful young widow. The two are almost immediately attracted to each other and soon fall in love. Stockdale soon discovers, however, that Lizzy is not as totally respectable as she appears. First, she obtains some illegal smuggled liquor to cure the preacher’s cold; next, Stockdale notices that she seems to sleep late, until he eventually realizes that she is often out of the house all night. Gradually, he realizes and she reveals to him that she is working with a group of smugglers who help to support the town during the winter and that in fact she, with her cousin Jim Owlett, is a leader of the smugglers. Naturally, the minister is shocked and disapproves of such activities, but his concern for Lizzy eventually overcomes his inhibitions. He accompanies her on several of her missions and does not betray her when the king’s men search the town for the hidden liquor. In the end, however, Stockdale cannot live with both Lizzy and his conscience, and he leaves the town to take a church elsewhere in England.
Up to this point, Hardy’s story is entertaining, humorous, and revealing. The dilemma of the preacher, caught between his strict view of morality and obedience to the state and his love for Lizzy, is presented comically. Stockdale appears naïve and innocent, yet he is tempted to become Lizzy’s partner in crime as well as in life. The ending, however, is anticlimactic and disappointing. Two years after Stockdale has left the village, he returns and meets Lizzy again, learning that she has been forced to give up smuggling after a raid in which Owlett has been caught and she has been wounded. This time, the two marry and she writes a religious tract based on her experience:Stockdale got it printed, after making some corrections, and putting in a few powerful sentences of his own; and many hundreds of copies were distributed by the couple in the course of their married life.
Although this ending also has humorous overtones, Hardy himself did not care for it. In a later note accompanying the story, he explains that the marriage and “happy ending” “was almost de rigueur in an English magazine at the time of writing.” The ending which Hardy would have preferred would have corresponded to the end of the “true incidents of which the tale is a vague and flickering shadow.” In those true incidents, Lizzy and her cousin Jim marry and eventually go to America while the preacher is left alone. “The Distracted Preacher,” then, in addition to being a good example of Hardy’s storytelling ability also illustrates the problems which writers can have because of the commercial demands placed on their art.
“A Few Crusted Characters”
Hardy’s affection for Wessex and for the past ways of life of which it still contained traces perhaps comes through most clearly in the collection of character sketches titled “A Few Crusted Characters.” These tales are framed by a coach ride during which one of the passengers is revealed to be John Lackland’s son, who left Wessex thirty-five years before and has returned with a thought of settling down in his old home area. His presence prompts his fellow travelers to reminisce about people he had known and other local characters, but, at the end of each recollection, it is revealed that the characters are dead or that the places in which they lived and worked have been changed. When the carriage reaches Lackland’s hometown of Longpuddle, he walks about the area but finds himself disappointed:None of the objects wore the attractiveness in this their real presentation that had ever accompanied their images in the field of his imagination when he was more than two thousand miles removed from them.
Looking at the gravestones of the people he had known in his youth, he realizes, fifty years before Thomas Wolfe, that you can’t go home again: in returning to this spot it would be incumbent upon him to reestablish himself from the beginning, precisely as though he had never known the place, nor it him. Time had not condescended to wait his pleasure, nor local life his greeting.
Once again, Lackland leaves his village and is never seen again.
“Barbara of the House of Grebe”
Hardy’s fascination with the past is probably seen most thoroughly in his collection A Group of Noble Dames. As in “A Few Crusted Characters,” the reader is presented with stories about a number of women of title or property told by a group of men before and after dinner. One of the best of these, “Barbara of the House of Grebe,” also demonstrates Hardy’s predilection for the grotesque. Lady Barbara is a young woman who spurns the advances of her neighbor, Lord Uplandtowers, and elopes with a commoner, Edmund Willowes. The couple soon discovers that their love cannot overcome their financial needs, and they appeal to Barbara’s parents for forgiveness. The parents accept the return of the young people on the condition that Willowes spend a year on the Continent with a tutor to prepare himself for a life in aristocratic society. While traveling, however, Willowes is badly burned while rescuing some people from a burning building. When he returns, he is so disfigured that Barbara cannot bear to look at him, and he leaves again for Europe. Lord Uplandtowers renews his pursuit of Lady Barbara and eventually succeeds in marrying her after she is legally declared a widow.
Uplandtowers is disappointed, however, because he realizes that Barbara does not love him with the same passion she felt for Willowes and because she gives him no male heir. Barbara later receives a statue from Pisa which was commissioned by Willowes while he was traveling in Italy. It is a perfect, full-length replica of her former husband before his disfigurement, and she hides it from her husband. Uplandtowers is annoyed and jealous of the statue’s handsome features, but stops thinking of it when it disappears. He soon realizes, however, that Barbara has been leaving her bed at night and wandering off. Following her, he observes her enter a secret room where she has placed the statue and watches as she embraces and kisses the figure, apologizing to her dead husband for not having loved him enough. For revenge, and to turn his wife’s thoughts back to him, Uplandtowers has the statue mutilated to resemble Willowes after the fire. The alteration terrifies Barbara, but she still refuses to renounce her love for Willowes. Finally, Uplandtowers locks her in a room with the statue and forces her to gaze on it until her spirit is broken. Uplandtowers’s victory, however, becomes a new kind of defeat. His wife becomes obsessively attached to him, “till at length her very fidelity became a burden to him, absorbing his time, and curtailing his liberty, and causing him to curse and swear.” In addition, although Barbara bears her husband eleven children, only one—a girl—survives to maturity, and the estate passes to a nephew.
Barbara’s story illustrates another set of Hardy’s concerns: the importance of character rather than mere appearance, the vanity of class prejudice, and the folly of forcing someone to love against his or her will. These themes, expressed in simple, colloquial, and compelling language, make Hardy’s tales more than merely an interesting sidelight to the major writings of a great novelist.