Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 467 words.)