‘The Withered arm’ is one of Thomas Hardy’s more sombre tale’s. The story illustrates physical and emotional loneliness in all four main characters. Throughout the book Thomas Hardy switches from one characters despair and want for love to the other, this is one of Hardy’s writing skills to keep his reader from putting the pieces together too early on in the story. Thomas Hardy wastes no time beginning his story he jumps straight in, setting the dark mood and chronic atmosphere with comment such as ‘ The evening is pinking in a’ ready. Hardy tells us of the date ‘ but early April’ as if to try and get it out of the way, to get started on the story.
Hardy seems to focus our attention in order o control our response further along in the story, when things begin to get strange. The location is set a little further along in the book ‘The border of Egdon heath, whose dark countenance was visible from a distance’ Possibly the most influential character is introduced to us through village members perspectives. We are now introduced to Rhoda Brooks, a ‘thin fading woman of thirty’ ‘That had once been handsome, seem handsome anew.
Rhoda ‘ milked apart from the rest’ , although we are unsure why, this urges us to carry on reading. We are encouraged by Thomas Hardy to notice that the woman is quite a ‘loner’ and has little if not no friends at all. Throughout the story Hardy suggests in an oblique way, to give the reader only partial knowledge, putting Hardy in control and leading us to assume that Rhoda a rejected girlfriend of Farmer Lodge ‘He ha’n’t spoke to Rhoda Brook for years’ but we have to deduct this information from Hardy’s use of language and clues.
As the story progresses the story switches to Rhoda’s perspective and we begin to see Rhoda’s more jealous and rejected side, as she sends he son to ‘spy’ on farmer Lodge and his new bride ‘I shall want to send you for a few thing to market, and you’ll be pretty sure to meet ’em. ‘ Hardy’s clever way of writing makes us sympathise with Rhoda, especially when he describes the cottage both she and he neglected child live in ‘It was built of mud walls the surface of which had been washed away’ this indicates slight poverty, and brings to light Farmer Lodge’s neglect of his own son.
When Rhoda’s son comes home from market Rhoda immediately ‘orders’ him to ‘Hold up the net a moment. ‘ This is an excellent example of the way Rhoda treats her son, not quite as a slave but not as a proper son, the way she sends him to spy is positively not something any ordinary mother would do. It also amplifies the lack of love and attention she gives him.
Rhoda Brook becomes a very bitter woman whenever the subject of Gertrude Lodge is raised, ‘ I wouldn’t look up at her if she were to pass my window this instant’ she is obviously intent on not liking Gertrude even though they have never met, because she has taken the wealth and lavish life that Rhoda once had with Farmer Lodge, in this sense she is quite a bigot. Rhoda is constantly trying to ‘get one over’ on Lodges new wife, ‘She is not tall. She is rather short. He replied. Ah! Said his mother, with satisfaction. Possibly the scariest part of Rhoda is where she raises a mental image of Gertrude ‘as realistic as a photograph’ this is a witch-like thing to do and creates a very mystic, uncanny atmosphere. The next main character, the boy Rhoda’s son, remains nameless through out the book signifying his insignificance and to emphasise how his mother and father rejected him.
Rhoda’s loneliness and emotional feelings only aid to the boys, and he is a bit of a recluse never wanting to play with the other boys in the village but wanting to stay home ‘he hated going afield on the farms. Hardy seems to be indicating that the boy will come to a bitter end from the beginning. The lack of attention given to him is shown when he ‘cuts a notch, with his pocket-knife in the beech-backed chair’. The tale ends with the tragic hanging of the boy who even the hangman said that ‘ he deserved to be let off’ and Hardy cleverly points that ‘ he only just turned eighteen’ though at this early stage we do not make the connection that its Rhoda’s boy because Hardy used ‘ Half a dozen years had passed’ instead of six years, so the reader doesn’t make a connection.
When Rhoda experiences her ‘dream’ he asks in the morning simply ‘What was that noise in your chimmer, mother, last night? ‘ He even remembers the exact time he heard the thump ‘Just when the clock struck two. ‘ This is not something a small boy of twelve would take much interest in. The dream with Rhoda experiences her “dream” she wakes up and cries ‘Oh – merciful heaven! That was not a dream – she was here’ indicating that something dark is developing. The ‘incubus’ as it as referred to by Hardy creates a mystic atmosphere, drawing the reader into the story.
As Gertrude Lodge goes to visit Rhoda the next morning, the story becomes chilling as we expect to see Gertrude as Rhoda saw her in the dream, ‘Shockingly distorted and wrinkled by age. ‘ As Gertrude reveals the arm to Rhoda the magic and superstition begins to build as Rhoda refers to the ‘incident’ and the arm as a ‘ curse’ and questions what had happened herself, ‘ O can it be that i exercise a malignant power over people’ The way Rhoda questions herself builds the suspense of something evil evolving.
Then as Gertrude refers to the exact time of the incident happening ‘She had named the night and the hour of Rhoda’s spectral encounter’ Then the tension builds as the reader pieces the puzzle together slowly, though Hardy only gives us one piece at a time. As Gertrude turns to Rhoda for help we see how her desperation has grown and how little friend she has ‘Could not you go with me to show me the way? ‘ As the pair go to see Conjurer Trendle ‘Gertrude talked most, Rhoda replying with monosyllabic preoccupation’ showing Rhoda’s not very keen on going but is faithful to her promises ‘Rhoda would have done anything to escape this inquiry.
But she had promised to go. ‘ When ever Conjurer Trendle is mentioned Rhoda seems to turn pale, as if the pair go back far , ‘Not conjurer Trendle ? said her thin companion turning pale. ‘ Here is where magic enters, and plays a big part in the story. He takes Gertrude into a small room and promises to show her who had inflicted her arm. Instantaneously Trendle seems to look at Rhoda as if he sees something within her , ‘ He looked singularly at Rhoda the first moment he beheld her. ‘ He directly tells Gertrude that the arm is ‘ The work of an enemy.
This instant comment gives the reader a chill and implies the true magic held by Trendle. Until Gertrude Lodge goes to visit Trendle she is definitely not superstitious ‘O how could my people be so superstitious as to recommend a man of that sort! ‘ But after her visit she is a different person altogether ‘The once blithe-hearted and enlightened Gertrude was changing into an irritable, superstitious woman. ‘ Hardy is showing the reader that there is no force more powerful than jealousy and the saying ‘ Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ comes to mind.
Yet by the end of the chapter we still do not know whether Gertrude knows the truth or not, as we continue to share Rhoda’s increasing feelings of anxiety, and fear of her being discovered as the culprit. And so Rhoda leaves with her son, and Hardy bluntly tells us this ‘She and her boy disappeared from the neighbourhood’ and Hardy abruptly shifts the narrative perspective from Rhoda to Gertrude. We now share Gertrude’s feelings of loneliness and despair due to her deformed arm.
Gertrude turns into a very evil and selfish person, and begins to pray for some one to be hanged soon ‘O lord, hang some guilty or innocent person soon’ she also says at the hanging ‘oh a reprieve, i hope not! ‘ this is not the old kind Gertrude who helped children in the village, this woman is pure evil. At the same time as Gertrude feels neglected and her and her husband slip-away from each other, she becomes determined not to give up and uses ‘every quack remedy’ Gertrude although ‘five-and-twenty: but seemed older, six years of marriage, and only a few months of love. Here Hardy has complete control over the readers response and we feel that Lodge is the one to blame, for being vain and only marrying both Gertrude and Rhoda for their looks. At this point we begin to sympathise with Gertrude as she has done nothing wrong since the beginning yet has been cursed and the reader becomes torn between feeling sympathy for Gertrude and Rhoda.
This takes our attention from the twist at the end. Fate is a very big point in this story and it plays its part well. Fortune, obdurate hitherto’ fate was stubborn for Gertrude, she missed the hangings every time she tired to go to cure her disfigurement something came up, ‘She was, however, too late. ‘ Until one day everything falls into place, as if by magic! Fate ‘showed her an unexpected favour’ Lodge went away and could not take her with him. Thomas Hardy then suddenly changes and slows the story down describing Gertrude’s trip to the county jail ‘She descended slowly, and was soon amid corn-fields and pastures’ this builds up the longing for something to happen, and to see the out come of Gertrude Lodge’s trip.
As Gertrude is about to cure her deformity , Rhoda Brook and Farmer Lodge are there and it is only the that we piece together the entire story. Hardy had kept our minds from this twist as much as possible using creative language ‘Half a dozen years had passed’ and calmly having the hangman tell us the age of the accused mid-sentence ‘only just turned eighteen’ and changing the narrative style mid-story, keeping our minds focused on identifying with Gertrude and her lonely plight, this keeps us from making the connection. With Hardy’s unique style of writing the ending is completely unanticipated and unpredictable.
The story has many different aspects the paranormal, darkness, and malignant curses. But not once does Hardy force us to accept what he has written he only puts it to us, this makes us acknowledge what he is telling us, because we are not forced to. The withered arm is full of stories of witches and wizardry which would have been believed in the Dorset villages that Thomas Hardy was used to. The exceptional attention to detail such as the sound Gertrude Lodges dress made as she walked into church is, in my opinion, what makes the stories so unique.