Style and Technique
The main plot technique employed is that of the use of a stranger intruding on a close-knit society and in some way disrupting the normal rhythm of its lives. Although Hardy uses three intrusions rather than just the normal one, they are only vaguely threatening or suggestive of the supernatural, climaxing at the moment when the hangman sings his song of self-disclosure and his audience backs off in shock. Otherwise the tone is kept at a humorous level, through such well-used devices as the depiction of rustic talk, fondness for drink, and the miserliness of Mrs. Fennel, particularly as it is opposed by her naïve but generous husband.
Mrs. Fennel’s efforts to keep the dances short are particularly comic, perhaps made more realistic by Hardy’s memories of his boyhood, when he was a musician at such occasions and would play for hours. The pursuit of the fugitive is particularly reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s comic petty officials, such as Elbow and Abhorson in his Measure for Measure (1604). Their clumsy efforts are, the reader knows, doomed from the start.
Hardy’s characterization of country folk and country customs is as well done here as in any of his novels. His depiction of community has been especially praised. So also has his description of the local landscape. The sharp division of town and country seen in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) is seen here as well, but this time from the rural point of view. The cottage stands remote and isolated, even though only three miles from town. Its isolation is further emphasized by its weather, the nighttime, and the rugged contours of the downland. Hardy’s tale takes on its solidity from the sense of real place, closely detailed. The rainy night may be described as a gesture to some supernatural tale, but the concrete emphasis is on what life was really like for the shepherds, where a baptism was one of the few causes for celebration and a stranger’s visit the highlight for the year.