Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, May 29, 2010

"The Withered Arm" by Thomas Hardy

  "The Withered Arm" by Thomas Hardy (1888-20 pages)

Thomas Hardy (1940 to 1928)  is one of the giants of Victorian literature.     He wrote numerous novels now considered an important part of the canon such as Return of the Native,   The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Far From the Madding Crowd as well as some very wonderful poems.    It has been a long time since I have read any of his books so as soon as I got the suggestion to read this from  Mrs B of The Literary Stew I decided this would be a good opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Hardy and I am very glad I did.

The story is set in rural England in the 1880s on a milk farm.    As the story opens we meet a strange solitary milkmaid who works for the farm owner, Mr Lodge.   She has a 12 year old or so son and we quickly gather there was once a relationship between her and Mr. Lodge and we think Mr Lodge is probably the  father of her son.   A rumor spreads around the farm that Mr Lodge is to marry.   Everyone begins to at once wonder what  the soon to be Mrs Lodge is like.

Hav' anybody seen her?' said another.
There was a negative response from the first. 'Though they say she's a rosy-cheeked, tisty-tosty little body enough,' she added; and as the milkmaid spoke she turned her face so that she could glance past her cow's tall to the other side of the barton, where a thin, fading woman of thirty milked somewhat apart from the rest.
'Well, she's growed up, and her ways be quite a woman's.'
'Of course. What colour is her hair and face?'
'Her hair is lightish, and her face as comely as a live doll's.'
'Her eyes, then, are not dark like mine?'
'No - of a bluish turn, and her mouth is very nice and red; and when she smiles, her teeth show white.'
Clearly there is a good bit of under the surface hostility toward the as yet unseen Mrs Lodge.

Rhonda has a dream in which the new Mrs Lodge, Gertrude, visits  and her  basically shoves her wedding ring into the face of the Rhonda.   In the dream Gertrude has an injured nearly withered arm after Rhonda grabs the arm with the ring hand.   Soon she has such an affliction in reality.    We can see Hardy's style is this account of Gertrude showing her injured arm to Rhonda (who sees her as her replacement):
'How did it happen?' she said mechanically.
'I cannot tell,' replied Mrs Lodge, shaking her head. 'One night when I was sound asleep, dreaming I was away in some strange place, a pain suddenly shot into my arm there, and was so keen as to awaken me. I must have struck it in the daytime, I suppose, though I don't remember doing so.' She added, laughing, 'I tell my dear husband that it looks just as if he had flown into a rage and struck me there. O, I daresay it will soon disappear.'
'Ha, ha! Yes. . . . On what night did it come?'
Mrs Lodge considered, and said it would.

Sadly and not to his credit as Gertrude is a very good person and wife, her increasingly withering arm causes her husband to lose his feelings of love and passion for her.   Gertrude wants more than anything to find a cure for her arm.   Several years go by and Gertrude begins to try  folk ways of curing her arm.   She has never been able to conceive a child and Mr Lodge is a harsh man who begins to feel it was a mistake to marry her and does little to hide his feelings.    Over time Rhonda begins to develop almost an affection for Gertrude as she knows it is not the fault of Gertrude that Mr Lodge abandoned Rhonda and his probable son.   Finally one day Rhonda suggests Mrs Lodge go see a conjurer,  a practitioner of folk medicine.    I will relay no more of the plot so as not to spoil it for others.  

"The Withered Arm" is a wonderful tale in the Gothic manner.   It does have a surprise ending as short stories often do but it is more powerful than the standard cute ending in the O Henry/Saki style.  In this case the ending is very moving and made me rethink the whole story.     This story was first published in a magazine and the public seemed to want surprise endings.   The language of the story is beautiful and with just a few phrases Hardy is able to built a complete world.   The mood of the story is dark and it shows us something about what guilt can do to us.   There are numerous places you can read this story online.

If anyone has a suggestion as to other short stories please leave them in a comment

Be sure and look at Mrs B's very preceptive post on this story


Mel u


Whitney said...

Talk about a dream becoming reality! Poor Gertrude.

Suko said...

Mel, this one sounds excellent. I am off to read it!

Mrs.B said...

Excellent post Mel! Have you read any other books by Hardy? After rereading this story, I finally want to read Jude the Obscure. Have you read that?

Mel u said...

Whitney-yes it was a cruel irony

Suko-I would love to see your reaction to this story

Mrs B-greatly enjoined our joint read of this story-I have not read Jude the Obscure but am close to motivated to try it soon-I am pondering reading the H G Wells story you suggested in June-if you have any other ideas for short stories please leave them and thanks again for this idea

Bethany said...

I am deeply and desperately in love with Thomas Hardy. I wrote my dissertation for my MA on him, and he's still a huge obsession of mine. I loved the Withered Arm, and I recommend that you pick up Wessex Tales. Wessex Tales is a collection of his short stories that I'm sure you'll enjoy.

I have a short review of it over here, if you're interested: