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Hardy’s Portrayal of Contemporary Society Essay

Hardy makes his novels seem reflective of the time they are set by creating domestic issues, which incorporate views held specifically in that period. He also uses descriptive language and various other techniques to fully portray the landscape and feel of that time and also to portray feelings and emotions; like loneliness, which is a main issue in ‘The Withered Arm’. Because Hardy lived in the period his story was set there was no need for him to research into alternate terminology (most of the story is riddled with archaism) all the archaic words used would have come naturally to him.

I also think that most of the domestic issues raised in the story could have been inspired by personal experiences – I think one of Hardy’s main sources was personal experience. The role of women in 19th century England is shown to be very different to that of today and even typical of outdated English tradition. The people running things are all men (the leading dairyman, Farmer Lodge, Davies) and it seems that if women want to get anywhere they would have to marry a successful male (this points out how much bad and loveless potential the marriage of Lodge and Gertrude had).

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When Gertrude goes to the ‘County Jail’ she is told to ‘use her beauty, impaired though it was, as a pass-key’, this shows how important looks are in this period and how men see women and use them. We see that Farmer Lodge is attracted to Gertrude mainly because of her physical appearance and the appeal of her as a new accessory. ‘You must expect to be looked at my pretty Gertrude’. Farmer Lodge is proud of his new wife but does not seem to show her much respect, we also see this evident when Gertrude is cursed and Farmer Lodge gradually begins to ‘love her less’.

The woman he had married for her grace and beauty was contorted and disfigured; moreover, she had brought him no child’. The fact that he was losing interest in her because she gave him no child also shows us that he is very serious about his business, and needs a son to take his place and look after the business when the time comes, he may also want a new son to start fatherhood again and try to be a better father than he was, he may want to ‘turn over a new leaf’ and forget about Rhoda and his illegitimate child.

Many people from small country villages may be superstitious, this could be the result of strict religious following or myths being kept running through generations more smoothly because of the small communities and the closeness between the people. These cult beliefs could make it very difficult for some people to thrive in their community and even survive, as we see in Rhoda’s case, who is targeted and rejected also because of the villager’s suspicions of her being a witch.

At that time a witch could have been put on trial and probably killed for her practices or even looks. Rhoda is genuinely disturbed by her encounter with Gertrude in her dream and did not practice any ritual curse to affect her; this shows that she did not mean to harm Gertrude on purpose, but perhaps sub-consciously. The Withered Arm explores values of the people at that time by creating specific and varied characters that have contrasting opinions and different views and feelings on a number of issues.

When the characters interact they paint a colourful picture of values and feelings, which is interesting to watch or be involved in. The setting is Holmstoke, a rural village that is a main source for the feel of the story and I think suits the characters; it also works well because it is an isolated setting, which encourages a single culture. The lower class manual working characters in The Withered Arm would mostly be described as rustics and are definitive for their style of language, beliefs, closeness to one another and often loyalty.

In this story the rustics are portrayed as being typical in their superstitious and gossiping personalities. Rhoda even questions herself in the story as a holder of supernatural power – ‘Can it be that I exercise a malignant power over people’. Rhoda is a rustic which is one of the reasons (probably the main reason) why Farmer Lodge left her to marry Gertrude, Lodge and Gertrude are both in a higher class than Rhoda so they think they are better suited.

The majority of the rustics work on the farm which links them to the animals, which they seem to see in a more mechanical way based on gain, (food, money) – ‘flank’ of that ‘motionless beast’, this may also be a view held by the people one more step up – Farmer Lodge – the rustics may be seen as machines to keep the farm in order and get money. Because the rustics usually work in lower class manual jobs, Farmer Lodge is their employer and has a certain degree of power over them, and therefore expects a certain amount of respect, his image and wealth also place him in a higher class.

The class system in this story is mainly based around occupation, income and image. The community are mainly made up of traditionalist folk as a result of the time setting and area. When Rhoda and Farmer Lodge have an illegitimate child together a very emblematic situation arises, Rhoda is alienated from society because of her bastard son while Farmer Lodge retains respect of the community because of his economic power over the rustics.

Farmer Lodge constantly worries he may have made the wrong decision all through the story but tries to ignore and forget about Rhoda until it’s too late, ‘He thought of Rhoda and her son: and feared it might be a judgement from heaven upon him’. Lodge seems to be a confused and somewhat childish character who sees woman as objects to be flaunted, this shows in his treatment of Gertrude and the desired effect on the community. They are mostly impressed and perhaps somewhat intimidated by Gertrude’s arrival, though that may have been one of Lodge’s intentions.

Gertrude and Lodge seem different to the rustics, probably because of their higher class, Gertrude rejects any ideas of superstition – ‘how could my people be so superstitious as to recommend a man of that sort! ‘ Main morals one was to follow regarding marriage in Wessex at that time were to stay loyal and not to have sex out of marriage, and have no illegitimate children. Hardy is constantly switching the reader’s attention between the four main characters who structure the face of the community.

They all seem to face loneliness and depression at some point in the story which suggests difficulty and complication of being respected and appreciated in that setting. The first three chapters are devoted to Rhoda, and Hardy makes her loneliness and isolation immediately apparent by not including her in the conversation the other people are having ‘he hadn’t spoken to Rhoda Broke for years’. Rhoda doesn’t respond to comments made about her, which makes her seem even more isolated ‘She knew she had been slily called a witch’.

Rhoda is also in physical isolation ‘milked somewhat apart from the rest’, her loneliness is concluded at the end of the story when her son dies and everyone still chooses to ignore her. Rhoda’s loneliness and emotional feelings only aid to the boys; who Hardy never even gives a name in the story, to emphasize how un-important he is and how his parents ignore and reject his feelings. His Father showed no apparent interest in him, ‘took no outward notice of the boy whatever’, and he is described as ‘one of the neighborhood’ by him.

His mother uses her son to spy on Gertrude and their relationship seems more like that of an evil queen and her slave than of a mother and son. Rhoda shows little (mostly no) affection for the boy, and he is only used to run errands, ‘hold up the net a moment’. Rhoda also shows no recognition of his feelings, neither does his father ‘took no notice of you’, and neither of them picks up on how frustrated he is underneath ‘his mother not observing that he was cutting a notch with his pocket-knife in the beech-backed chair’.

The boy does hint at some feelings for his mother when he asked her what had happened the night of her dream, but when he goes on to ask ‘you fell off the bed, surely? ‘ the reader can’t be sure whether the boy was eager to hear of some pain towards his mother, or was just concerned. The novel ends with the death of the boy, but because of the way Hardy portrays the boy’s innocence throughout, the reader would tend to feel sympathy – as there was no one to stand up for him – the boy dies a lonely death.

Gertrude is treated suspiciously, although rather distantly, by the surrounding community because she is so different, Rhoda’s son is described by Lodge as a ‘country lad’ which makes Gertrude a definite ‘city girl’. When Gertrude is described by Rhoda’s son she is likened to a ‘live doll’ which may be how all of Wessex see her – inaccessible (in her box) and a perfect depiction of female beauty which all the men want, though the price tag is too high (would have to be handsome, wealthy, intelligent, etc. and all the women would want to look like (though the box is closed to them as well) so they are all left looking at her through the glass, all becoming more and more envious of her or Lodge, but not being able to do anything about it, and perhaps feeling so inferior in her presence as to be embarrassed, so many would want to avoid her. She is another important character that conveys loneliness.

On her first arrival Hardy hints at her shyness, ‘all other eyes were fixed upon her’, she becomes quite embarrassed and doesn’t want to become a public display when her gown whistles loudly ‘the lady coloured up more than ever for very shame at the noise’ and ‘seemed to wish her noisy gown anywhere bout on her’. Rhoda describes her as the ‘Most useful friend she had ever had’ which may show how Rhoda is sub-consciously or even consciously using her to get her ex-husband back.

She soon becomes obsessed with her ailment and devotes much time trying to find a cure for it ‘whose whole time was given to experimenting upon her ailment with every quack remedy she came across’. This causes her to turn to Rhoda for help, which shows her desperation and physical loneliness (lack of friends), which is ironic as it was Rhoda who was the supposed cause of her ailment.

Gertrude becomes more lonely and depressed as her husband begins to lose interest in her, this is when she begins to realize why Farmer Lodge married her (physical), this was again evident when Farmer Lodge had ‘insisted’ she go to see a doctor for her ailment, she may also begin to feel guilty for not giving Lodge a child, which could lead her to feel trapped (lack of child is an argument against her).

On her second visit to Trendle she travels alone which is a sign of her developing mental isolation. Gertrude also dies emotionally alone, her husband standing with his ex. Farmer Lodge is much respected by the community throughout most of the story because of his position, although his new wife raises suspicion and gossip with the rustics, ‘Years younger than he they say’.

Loneliness only becomes truly apparent in the last chapter, where Hardy presents him as someone that suffers rightfully as a punishment for the miss-treatment of his son, his wife, and his ex. He loses everything and dies alone, but leaves his property ‘to a reformatory for boys’ which shows he may have had thoughts and feelings towards what happened to his son, though this is as depressing as it is refreshing because of it being too late for him to put things right.

Gertrude sees Conjurer Trendle as more of a joke when the idea of visiting him is suggested ‘I will think no more of him’ when Gertrude decides to go with Rhoda to talk to Trendle they decide to meet at ‘the edge of the heath’ ‘to escape suspicion of their mystic intent’ this shows that Gertrude did not want Lodge to know where she was going, probably because he would of thought about Trendle in the same way she had at first and would have stopped her. Loneliness is also conveyed when describing the journey to Casterbridge as well as Conjuror Trendle, – it was a ‘solemn country’ with a ‘dark atmosphere’ where the ‘wind howled dismally’.

Hardy creates a depressive and rather un-welcoming picture in the reader’s mind, which emphasizes Trendle’s isolation and loneliness. Conjurer Trendle doesn’t have much faith in his workings as a warlock and refuses to take any money for his services, which may be because the title ‘Conjurer’ was forced upon him by the way he acted or looked, this shows how harsh the rustics can be in deciding and expelling the ones they suspect. Other parts of the story also show the incorporation of traditional beliefs into everyday life in the community.

When Gertrude finds a supposed cure for her ailment it is said she had an un-conscious prayer lingering in her mind – ‘O Lord, hang some guilty of innocent person soon! ‘ maybe this sub-conscious wish for harm to fall on someone for her gain is why it was Rhoda’s son who was killed and why Gertrude finally dies. This is the same idea behind Rhoda’s sub-conscious wish for something to happen to Gertrude in order for her to get her ex-husband back, in the end they all end up losing out (and dying) which again shows the impact superstition can have on a community.

Hardy uses descriptive language mainly to describe places to portray loneliness. When describing where Rhoda and her boy live he conveys a scene of a depressing, lonely landscape, ‘a lonely spot’ with a ‘dark countenance’, he uses this image of a face to give the quality of a person to their home. This use of personification gives the impression that nature is against the character, and shows how nothing goes right for Rhoda. This descriptive paragraph uses pathetic fallacy, how the environment is in tune with the emotions of the characters.

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