Compare and contrast the ways in which Dickens and Hardy use superstitious beliefs
“Halloa, below there! “- this straightforward and seemingly innocuous introduction to the stranger, who becomes entangled within the complexities of the signalman’s eventful life, is one that we have heard several times throughout the tale. Dickens has, however, over the course of the story, altered the significance of this line. At the commencement of the story, the manner in which this exclamation is received may lead the reader to believe that the signalman is, in fact, the spectre.
But we later learn that it is the spirit himself that will use this line. By repeating the same three words, Dickens has imprinted them in our minds and therefore enabled us to see the irony of them when reflecting upon the happenings leading to the untimely death of the signalman. In The Withered Arm, however, we are not presented with a recurring line, but a repeated sense of sincerity. Hardy has made each of the characters to sound very common and poorly educated (“He do bring home his bride”), though this is not the case with Rhoda Brook.
The townsfolk seem to be very quiet and afraid of Rhoda: – they allow their superstition to drive them into timidity, consistently referring to her as “Mrs Brook” or addressing her with both of her names, which is a very formal manner of life. It is as if failure to do so will lead to harsh consequences. Hardy has enhanced this by creating a dream in which the realism of Rhoda’s powers are revealed, though she appears to be unaware of the magic she possesses and attempts to dismiss the dream as a subconscious warning of her brutal emotions which she directs towards the young wife.
Rhoda, herself, seems afraid of the devastation that she has created, as she “slept no more that night”. Subconscious illusions are a repeating factor in The Signalman also: we can not be sure whether the ghost is a prophet from the future who is physically alive or merely an object of the signalman’s imagination, an overpowering image to which he has surrendered his worries to. Both of these stories were written for a “typical” Victorian audience, which would have been largely superstitious and therefore more likely to accept the morals of the story and adopt them into their lifestyle.
Though the belief of witchcraft was almost extinct by the time of the publication of these stories, it was very common for a Victorian author to base their tale on Shakespearian plays, which were written at a time when witchcraft was accepted as a widespread tradition. Hardy has attempted to recreate this atmosphere, suggesting that the setting was before the industrial revolution, in a time of poverty and primitive technology, which would not only have interested the readers, but also enable him to create lifestyles without being accused of inaccuracy.
The Signalman seems to have been set much closer to the time in which it was written: we can tell this by the vivid description of both the railway line and the appearance of the main characters: “a dark sallow man, with a dark beard and heavy eyebrows”. This rapid and yet highly productive description of the scene is especially helpful in aiding our visualisation of the setting. The stranger in The Signalman, whose name we are never told, seems very out of place throughout the story. We are told of a “dark tunnel”, a “dismal place” and we can interpret the description of the signalman to be an analysis of a very dark character.
Victorians were much more easily frightened than in the present day. This daunting figure would raise alarm within the minds of the readers, therefore arousing their suspicion. When the stranger appears, he speaks with great confidence and enthusiasm, suggesting that he has been brought up surrounded by many people of different cultures, and now he has entered this life of solitude. He is filled with curiosity as he repeatedly questions the tasks set before the signalman and then requesting a second visit, so that he may learn more.
The signalman, however, seems very drawn back and quiet, partially due to his fear of the stranger but also due to his solitary lifestyle. This severe contrast in characters allows the audience to assume that the stranger is a typical person, meaning that the signalman stands out as a more abnormal element of the story.
Rhoda Brook, from The Withered Arm, has also adopted this sense of curiosity, as seen in a rapidly spoken discussion with her son concerning the appearance of Gertrude: “Well, did you see her? / “Yes; quite plain”/ “Is she ladylike? “, etc. Both Rhoda and the stranger are developed in the same way: both ask a string of questions at the person toward whom their inquisitiveness is based upon, only becoming contented when finding a blemish with their “subject”: Rhoda is delighted to discover how short Gertrude is whereas the stranger in The Signalman seems adamant about proving the visions imaginary: “Do you see it”/ “No, it is not there”/ “Agreed”.
The manner in which the man said the single word “agreed” seems abrupt and confident, as if to say that he knew the answer before the question was asked. A cloud of inscrutability surrounds every character involved within The Signalman: we are never told any names until the very end at which we see the signalman referred to as “Tom”. We are never told the name of the narrator or of his nature of visit. Dickens has calculatingly refrained from naming his characters to create an added sense of mystification and intrigue.
This was a very innovative idea of the time, as it was the usual fashion to create a synopsis of all of the main characters. It must be remembered that this is a short story rather than a novel, which almost annihilates the necessity of such details. Hardy, however, does quite the opposite. He has developed all of his characters, as well as infringing upon their backgrounds and relationships with other characters. We can interpret the characters as being almost mythological, as if from a folk tale.
This will allow an almost entirely unique and imaginary universe in which the author depicts the events and the reader creates emotion. In both stories, suffering is a key theme. It is also one which can be linked directly to the enigmatic and therefore also the supernatural. Gertrude Lodge is put through suffering after the unbearable disfigurement on her arm. This unfortunate incident, made more recognisable by Gertrude’s otherwise exquisite manifestation, is equalled by the torment that Rhoda, the person responsible for the transformation, has been put through.
She is disorientated about the horrendous act of which she had no control over, which has put her through several stages of emotion. In The Signalman, we are once again presented with vast amounts of suffering: the signalman has been subject to six months of visitation from the phantom, during which time he seems to have been afraid of making contact with the outside world, hence his renunciation from the stranger when he first made his appearance.
In both of these cases, the author has inserted this emotion to gain sympathy from the readers. This is a much-needed feature as it displaces the illusion of superstition. One clear comparison that we can make between the two stories is the clear-cut way in which the supernatural happenings are presented: it is extremely common to have an inexplicable set of events to which there is an endless debate over what the author meant for us to believe.
This is not the case here, however. In the Signalman, though the nature of the spirit is clear, it’s reasons for making itself known are highly unobvious. In the Withered Arm, our attention is driven directly to the dream which Rhoda envisions. This is a declaration of abnormality, and we are able to make accurate decisions, regarding the author’s intentions, about what we are supposed to believe.
In conclusion, I feel that both Dickens and Hardy have equally unique, though equally powerful methods of communication when discussing the aspects of the uncanny. Both authors, through styles of their own, have allowed us to broaden our acceptance of what is possible. Personally, I feel that Hardy was the more successful of the two, due to his presentation of the consequences as well as showing the power to be true, unlike Dickens, who’s tale is likely to confuse the reader depending upon their own interpretation skills.
Hardy has enhanced our visualisation by showing the effects on the other characters, as well as the subject of the ill-doing. By doing this, he has also altered the setting from a pleasant, countryside scene, to a dark, dismal and overpowering environment. This has harsh effects on Gertrude, as we are shown that her beauty is dismissed before she had even begun to scratch the surface of the shell of self-contempt.
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