‘Old Mrs Chundle’ is a short story set in a village in southern England. It was written by Thomas Hardy between 1880 and 1890. It is a story of a kind popular at that time, a gripping story which is amusing but also has a character we can sympathise with. It is set against the background of country people to whom religion and the clergymen who represented religion were very important. Clergymen were treated with great respect and people attended church services regularly, with the church activities being a main focus of their lives.
This was especially the case in rural communities. ‘A Visit of Charity’ is a short story set in a very different place, a small town in America in 1949. It concerns the activities of a Campfire Girl, which is a kind of Girl Guide, and the sort of group which middle class girls of that time would join. These girls would take the aims and activities of the Campfire Girls seriously, and the story is about Marian, who is visiting the elderly in order to acquire points. She needs points to obtain a badge.
Both stories have a common thread which makes them comparable, although they are so different – attitudes to and treatment of the elderly and to charity, in the sense of caring for the elderly. Both concern the interactions between a do- gooder ( Hardy’s curate) and Welty’s Marian) and old ladies (Mrs Chundle and the old ladies in the Home) In ‘Old Mrs Chundle’ we meet the curate, new to the parish, who wants to create a good impression, certainly to his superiors. He is a refined young man who sketches ‘he thought he would make a little water colour sketch’.
He does not speak in the dialect of the locals which shows how he is socially above them and more educated than them. He uses patronising phrases such as ‘my good woman’. He is not able to understand what makes a person like Mrs Chundle tick, as he does not have any experience. The rector, who is from the same social background as the curate, has learned a few things from experience, and warns the curate ‘you should have left the old woman alone’. The curate cannot understand why anyone would lie about going to church. He is not able to cope when things become difficult or messy and he gives up.
When the smell of Mrs Chundle’s oniony breath blasts into his face from the ear trumpet, such a unpleasant incident as could be expected from an elderly person, is outside of the curate’s ideal world. He is disheartened and discouraged easily when faced with a setback. He immediately plans to back out of helping Mrs Chundle, preferably without telling her. This shows the curate as a rather cowardly person. It would have been better for him to explain to Mrs Chundle that his idea had not worked, and that he would try to think of something else.
He only wants to help her in a superficial way in order to promote himself as doing the job as he thinks it should be done. He cannot cope. He avoids going to see Mrs Chundle after the pipe is removed so as not to have to discuss it with her, and by the time he does go, she is dead. He then feels guilty at having let her down and that she thought so highly of him she put him in her Will, and kneels in prayer. However this is only for some minutes, then he “rose, brushed the knees of his trousers and walked on’.
In other words, he brushed Mrs Chundle away. The image of him brushing dust off his trousers is a symbol of brushing away the old lady. However, the death of Mrs Chundle upset him – “his eyes were wet” and Hardy tells us that the curate was “a meek young man”. The curate “stood still thinking”, and perhaps he was considering how badly he had handled the situation. Hardy leaves us to wonder whether the curate really does not care about what has happened, or whether during his reflections he has considered better ways of dealing with people in the future.
Mrs Chundle is portrayed as an independent and capable old lady – she grows and cooks her own food, and runs a comfortable home. She respects the clergy ‘I don’t want to eat with my betters’. She has never travelled. No one seems to have helped her overcome her deafness and she is pleased by the curate’s efforts, enough to put him in he Will. Yet she does have neighbours who care about her. The gulf between the social class of Mrs Chundle and the curate is emphasised by the fact that he is never named and she is. Marian, in ‘A Visit of Charity’ is by contrast a young teenager.
She is going to visit some old ladies whom she does not know in a Home, for the purpose of earning Campfire Girl points. She does not really want to do this as she is frightened of what she might find. She only takes a plant to earn an extra point. Her main interest is to get away as quickly as possible-” any old lady will do. ” She probably feels under pressure from the girls in her group to acquire these points, so as to be the same as all the other Campfire Girls. The nurse at the home is impersonal and cold. She is not very responsive to Marion as she has seen Campfire Girls before and knows why they have come.
She represents the institution – she is dress in white (a cold colour) her hair is like a ‘sea wave’ (the sea is cold and you can drown in it). The language used in the two stories helps to set the scenes and enable the reader to picture the situations and understand the characters. In ‘A Visit of Charity’, the scene is set at the beginning as a “very cold” day. The American term “Campfire Girl” shows us that the story is set in America and the description of Marion’s clothes gives us an idea that the time is late 1940’s to 1950’s.
The atmosphere in the story is cold. The Home is on the “outskirts” of the town, isolated rather than in the cosy centre. The city is said, ironically, to have beautified the Home with “dark prickly shrubs”. The author uses the ideas of hot and cold, light and dark to paint a rather grim forboding picture of the Home. The character of the nurse is given formal language, which symbolizes the coldness of the Home. She speaks curtly and strangely formally’Aquainted’…. Instead of ‘do you know ‘ or ‘have you met’.
She refers to the plant by its Latin name “multiflora cineraria” instead of as a ‘pretty plant’. She says “Visitor! ” to the old ladies, as if this was a command instead of an introduction. The nurse’s speech is short sharp and sparse which is unfriendly. Her mode of speaking adds to our image of the treatment of the old ladies being a time wasting duty or unpleasant job rather than them being treated as people who need care. The two old ladies have a conversation rather in which they repeat what each other say “Did not” – “Did so. “Pretty flowers” – “they are not pretty”.
By use of this kind of repetition, there is emphasis on the pointlessness of the conversation, and the pattern of the words, “pretty” and “not pretty” draws the reader’s attention to this. One of the old ladies refers to the plant as “stinkweed” and the adjective “stink” could refer to the ladies or to the Home. During the visit, in the old ladies’ room, Marion has difficulty speaking “Marion breathed”. She also forgot her own name. Yet a sharp contrast is presented when she leaves the Home to go back into her own world, because she shouts a command to the bus driver “wait for me”.
In the Hardy story, the language often reflects the different age in which the story was written and uses words or constructions which strike us as old fashioned for example, ‘ had not been a week ‘ ‘passed on his way hither’. The curate had a ‘cambric handkerchief’. The language used in the speech of Mrs Chundle is strange to us but if read aloud, the patterns reflect her west country dialect. The words given to the curate and to the rector contain only formal language ,similar to the story itself. The language is quite stilted, compared with that in ‘A Visit of Charity’, which is more similar to today’s language.
Hardy conveys the warmth of Mrs Chundle in her dialect, and in the detail of her home – a ‘wood fire’ sounds cosy. Her foods are warm – ‘boiled bacon’ onion stew’ and they are homely. The rector is put across as a warmer, gentler character than the curate. The rector has been in his job for ‘thirteen years’ which conveys an older more experience man. He ‘chuckles’ which softens him compared to the curate. ‘Old Mrs Chundle’ consists of formal old fashioned English, and speech dialect. ‘A Visit of Charity’ consists of less formal English, because it is American and was written later. The speech is not in dialect.
There is more variety of language in ‘Old Mrs Chundle’. The old ladies in ‘A Visit of Charity’ are portrayed as insane and physically repulsive ‘like a sheep bleating’. The Home is horrible. It smells ‘like the interior of a clock’The old lady’s hands were claws and one of them screamed. The whole place made Marian feel sick. Eventually Marian escaped through the heavy door. The whole experience made her scared of old people, since these old ladies were presented as being so unpleasant and frightening. The grimness of the Home is conveyed by the imagery of the ‘heavy door’ through which Marion ‘escapes’ (as if from a prison).
The picture is completed by the ‘prickly’ plant outside of the heavy door. If the Home were warm and welcoming and a kindly place, the door would have been described as being made of a warm type of wood and there would have been pretty or attractive plants and flowers as a welcoming sign. The imagery of a kind of prison frontage, coupled with the day being cold gives us an impression of the attitudes of the Home. Whilst Mrs Chundle is portrayed as an eccentric deaf old lady, she is shown as real and warm, with a home. She has neighbours and is part of a community.
The curate tried to bring her into the church. However, the old ladies in ‘A Visit of Charity’ are portrayed as mad and disgusting, made more so by their horrible uncaring surroundings and impersonal carers. The two stories show how care of the elderly had changed in the years between when they were written from being respected within a community to being degraded in a Home, and only visited for the visitor’s motives. At least the curate, although he does not entirely have Mrs Chundle’s welfare as his main concern, does do something to help her, but nothing is done for the old ladies in the Home.
A further contrast between the two stories is shown in the way we are introduced to the elderly people. In Mrs Chundle, our character is referred to by name frequently and she has a charming way of speaking in the west country dialect; dialects often depict warm, simple types of people. In ‘A Visit of Charity’ the nurse tells Marion ‘there are two in each room’ and Marion wonders of what are there two. The nurse is actually referring to elderly people but shows by this expression no respect for them. She also does not greet them by name – she rudely announces ‘visitor’ not even explaining who the visitor is.
This shows how the old ladies in the Home are regarded with contempt and as of low importance, certainly not as proper human beings. The thoughts of Marion likening some of her experiences in the Home to sheep and bleating enhances the impression conveyed to us of the care or other wise of the elderly ladies. One old lady does refer to her room mate as ‘old Addie’ but it is not clear whether that really is her name or just ranting on the part of the old lady. These two stories illustrate the giving of charity in different ways.
In the ‘Old Mrs Chundle’, the curate tries to help the old lady mostly because it is his job, but she is shown as being in a community that cares. Although the efforts of the curate were short lived and perhaps not from purely selfless motives, the neighbours cared for her and she lived in her own home and was happy in her own way. The curate was not really cruel to her and she appreciated him more than he deserved. However, in ‘A Visit of Charity’ no caring character appears and no character gives anything to the old ladies – the nurse is doing a pain job and the girl is gaining points for herself.
The old ladies get nothing from these two people. It is probably rare for anybody to totally give of themselves for nothing in return, but in these two stories, the character who gains most is clearly Mrs Chundle. The stories illustrate the fact that the best care and concern comes not from paid workers ( curates or nurses) but from the people in the community (in the Hardy story the neighbours, but they could be family). Care of the elderly in the late nineteenth century rural England and immediately post war America is not really comparable.
However, there has been for many years a decline in care in communities and the help of neighbours family or religious organisation and an increase in care from social workers medical workers and paid homes. This is a trend in societies in the western world, where the elderly are increasingly thought of a nuisances (the government does not want to increase the Old Age Pensions as it thinks the money can be better spent, and hospitals do not want to treat old people as some doctors find it more cost effective if the old person dies) rather than as assets to be respected for their knowledge and experience.