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...
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