Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

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This short story is typical of Thomas Hardy’s writing in that it occurs among country people within the bounds of Wessex, the fictional name he gave to Dorset and its surrounding counties in the southwest of England. It is told humorously but with deep insight into the local people’s sense of community, manners, and speech. Many of Hardy’s short stories, especially in his collection Wessex Tales (1888), deal with the “rustic chorus,” as they appear in his major novels. Many of these tales are set in the past, having been supposedly handed down for two or three generations, remembered for some quirky event or character.

“The Three Strangers” is a good example of this. Set two generations before the time of its writing, it deals with a particular quirky episode concerning a hangman. By the time the story was written, hangings had ceased to be public, and the offences for which the death penalty was given had been greatly reduced. Sheep stealing no longer carried the death penalty, for example.

Hardy, like Charles Dickens before him, was fascinated by public hangings and the folklore that grew up around them. Such folklore is reflected in another of the Wessex Tales, “The Withered Arm,” where the superstition that touching a hanged man’s neck cured certain diseases is made a central motif. Even his major novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), climaxes with Tess’s hanging, an incident based on a boyhood memory. However, unlike Dickens, Hardy did not protest the method of execution nor examine the causes of the crimes that led to hanging.

In “The Three Strangers,” the furthest that Hardy will go politically is to suggest the considerable sympathy felt for the escaped prisoner, based on the sense that sheep stealing does not merit such a severe punishment. The usual alternative, penal deportation to the colonies, is not, however, mentioned. Hardy makes no attempt to comment on the economic conditions that led to men starving. The emphasis is on the humor of the situation: the audacity of the prisoner, the coincidence of the hangman joining him, and his brother finding him in the situation.

Such avoidance of political statement is interesting in the light of the controversial reception of Hardy’s novels written after 1883, particularly Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure (1895), both of which deal with poverty and repression in a principled and systematic way, placing the causes in the rigid English social system. Here in the short story, social class is not an issue, except that the depiction of peasants and shepherds, it could be argued, is for the amusement of a middle-class readership wanting to see a pastoral but archaic lower class. Whether Hardy himself is a mediator of a rather superior patron in doing this could be argued.

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