Throughout literature history writers have made use of people’s fascination with the macabre. Hardy like many other Victorian writers enjoyed writing short stories which have a lot to do with his fascination with the supernatural. He was an eminent writer who wrote in different types of genres. Two of the famous novels written by Hardy are “The Return of the Native” and “Jude the Obscure”. The word supernatural is defined as ‘things that cannot be explained according to natural laws the Withered Arm is full of inexplicable events such as Rhoda’s vision and Conjurer Trendle’s way of intuiting that Gertrude’s ailment was the work of an enemy.
The withered arm like many of Hardy’s stories has an unexpected ending mainly due to complex relationships between the main characters. Hardy tries to convey the idea of Wessex as a historical landscape by using personification and thereby comparing things to the human anatomy. For example Rhoda’s cottage which has ‘channels of depressions’ which are reminiscent of the skin of an aged person. The simile ‘the thatch above a rafter showed like a bone protruding through the skin’ gives the impression the rafter is rather like a human being.
Egdon Heath is a ‘brooding’ and mysterious’ place; it has an un-hospitable landscape, very few people choose to live there. The ‘dark countenence’ of Egdon heath seems to look down on the main characters. Although many would describe Casterbridge as an enlightened city it is the exact antithesis of what we would expect from a so-called civilised place, where hanging is a form of entertainment. It is every bit as barbaric as the old fashioned and superstitious country side. In a good short story there is usually one narrative thread and a focus on 2 or 3 main characters and themes.
The three main characters in The Withered Arm are Farmer Lodge, Rhoda Brook and Gertrude Lodge. There are complicated love affairs which lead to retribution. Hardy introduces protagonists through the conversations of pirifial characters. He also tries to raise some questions in the readers mind as to what will happen next. Hardy presents Rhoda Brook as a woman who was once beautiful but has aged prematurely. The milkmaids with whom she worked with made her feel ostracised. She was a social pariah due to her illicit liaison with Farmer Lodge twelve years previously which caused her to become pregnant and have an illegitimate son.
Her home was apart from the other milkmaids, it was above the water meads. Rhoda’s incipient jealousy manifests itself when she asks her son to spy on his step-mother so she can compare herself to her; she wanted him to report back to her about his step-mothers deminior. Gertrude Lodge is a complex character with facets to her personality which transpire as the story progresses. Hardy uses a number of techniques to convey her character. He uses the gossip and rumours spread by the minor characters.
From the conversations of the milkmaids we find that Gertrude Lodge is a ‘rosy cheeked, girl’ with a ’tisty tosty’ little body. Gertrude is “years younger” than farmer Lodge. There are passages of conventional character description of her external appearance, ‘her face too was fresh in colour, soft and evanescent’. Hardy employs the narrative device of Rhoda’s son as a spy to convey more information about her; he reports to his mother about his impression of Gertrude, his description of her suggests she is a “lady complete” with “lightish” hair and a face which is as “comely as a live doll’s”.
Hardy emphasizes the way Gertrude has a personal impact on other major characters, she has a deep impact on Rhoda when they first meet, she made a favourable impression and Rhoda reproached herself for ever being malevolently jealous in the first place. Gertrude’s own actions imply much about her personality at the beginning of the story. She is philanthropic in her attitude towards the poor. She “gives things away”; she even gave Rhoda’s son “better boots”. There are also direct authorial comments which leave us in no doubt as to Gertrude’s virtues. Hardy describes her as an ‘innocent young thing’ who, was so ‘indescribably sweet’.
Therefore, the initial impression we have as a combination of all these techniques is of an innocent, virtuous young women who is the victim of Rhoda’s jealousy. However Gertrude’s character changes significantly as the affliction on her arm deteriorates. Consequently she becomes involved with the world of superstition and witchcraft. The condition of her had bought up question marks on her marriage to farmer lodge especially when she suggests her husband could have “struck” her there which demonstrates an element of physical abuse Gertrude receives from farmer Lodge.
After visiting Conjuror Trendle with Rhoda she had began using wizardry hoping it would cure her arm after having visited the conjurer for a second time he told her a remedy which was infallible he said she must “touch with the limb the neck of a man who’s been hanged,” as “it will turn the blood and change the constitution” because of this Gertrude’s character changes incredibly as she begins to pray for no reprieve which shows how evil she has become. Conjurer Trendle, another interesting character created by Hardy, lives alone, well away from society in general.
His house is five miles away from Holmstoke and it is in the “heart of Egdon heath” he is reputed to be able to cure illnesses that are the work of the devil. He is described as an “exorcist” who has infallible powers. The atmosphere in the location where he lives is sinister. Egdon Heath is reminiscent to the heath in king Lear with it’s associations with insanity “thick clouds made the atmosphere dark though it was as yet only early afternoon.
The conjurer does not like his business to be well known or given any kind of publicity. He did not profess his remedial practices openly’ after he had cured something he would always say “perhaps it’s just chance”. He makes a living by selling local products ‘ his direct interests being those of a dealer in furze, turf, ‘sharp sand’ he can deal with ailments that are beyond the reach of ordinary medicine, he has the power to make watts miraculously disappear he does not accept any financial remuneration. He has a distinctive appearance, he is a ‘grey bearded man, with a reddish face’ as soon as he examines Gertrude there is a suggestion of his paranormal powers, and he is able to tell immediately it was the work of an enemy.
The intensification of Rhoda’s jealousy of her rival in love culminates into a ‘night-marish’ vision. Rhoda’s dream occurred a fortnight after Gertrude’s return with farmer lodge. She went to bed with a picture of Gertrude in her head. She had a vision of her enemy, it was so vivid she was unsure weather it was real or a dream. She saw Gertrude holding her left hand out ‘mockingly’ to show Rhoda her wedding ring to make her feel jealous. Gertrude’s face changed dramatically. Her features were ‘shocking, distorted and wrinkled by age’ she was sitting upon Rhoda’s chest as if she was trying to suffocate her.
Rhoda then ‘swung out her right hand’ and threw the figure of her by grasping the left arm and ‘whirled it backward to the floor’ Gertrude also had a ‘night marish’ vision at the same time as Rhoda’s. As a result of this vision the discolouration on Gertrude’s arm had appeared it corresponded exactly to what Rhoda’s hand would look like. At this point hardy creates a sense of ambiguity in that the reader is not sure as to whether or not Rhoda’s vision was real or a dream. At the end of the story hardy brings together the three main characters in a tragic denouement. Attentive readers would realise Gertrude turns into a vicious person.
As anticipated there is a twist in the tale, the victim of the execution is Rhoda’s son, which creates a tragedy for the three main characters. Rhoda cursed Gertrude after seeing her near the corps of Rhoda’s son she said “this is the meaning of what Satan showed me in the vision! You are like her at last! Gertrude did not know the identity of the victim this was partly because she had not attended the execution, the shock of touching the corps “turned her blood” but it affected her so profoundly, it was too much for her constitution to take, Gertrude unfortunately passed away 3 days later due to the previous events.
All the lives of the main characters were blighted because of their belief of superstition. After the hanging farmer Lodge becomes a benefactor to young boys such as his son by ‘giving up the farms in Holmstoke’ and selling it. The money gained he left for young boys and Rhoda however Rhoda did not accept the money. According to some people Hardy is the master of short stories. Most of these short stories have a focus on one main narrative thread. The Withered Arm is mainly about Gertrude Lodge and when she became involved with the supernatural.
The three main characters in the Withered Arm are, Farmer Lodge, Gertrude Lodge and Rhoda Brooks. Short stories have limited amounts of characters as this builds up to the unexpected endings. Hardy uses various techniques to arouse the reader’s sense of intrigue and thereby compel the reader to its natural conclusion. At the time the Withered Arm was written, women in this rural society were either tied to the land like Rhoda or to their husbands like Gertrude. Furthermore, women had relatively few rights of property and movement and therefore enjoyed rather little freedom.
The story reveals the life, beliefs and values of a countryside community. In Hardy’s time there was no access to the modern media which resulted to oral tradition which was the art of story telling. Stories which include supernatural tales, such as this one were popular with the reading public in late Victorian Britain. Personally I enjoyed reading the Withered Arm mainly because of the situation of Rhoda Brooks which grabs attention due to her illegitimate son. I particularly found it interesting because of Gertrude’s beliefs in the supernatural. I thought it was worth reading to the end of the story.