How does Hardy encourage us to sympathize with Gertrude and Rhoda
Thomas Hardy encourages you to sympathize with Rhoda, “A Lorn Milkmaid”, from his description of her and the situation that she is in. At the beginning of the story Hardy introduces her as “a thin, fading woman of thirty”. This makes you sympathize with her because her beauty and health are fading at an early age. Hardy describes how the radiance of the fire, “made her dark eyes, that had once been handsome, seem handsome anew.”
The woman that “milked somewhat apart from the rest” seems to be left out from the others like an outcast, a situation that no one likes to be in. We also find out a little later in the story that she lived somewhat apart from the rest too, “Their course lay apart from that of the others, to a lonely spot high above the water mead”.
The other milkmaids talk about Rhoda and her circumstance in her presence as if the “thin worn milkmaid” wasn’t there. You get the sense that she is talked about badly behind her back, “She knew that she had been slily called a witch since her fall.” Here you feel sympathy for her because she is not accepted by the other milkmaids and villagers.
Even the others admit that it is hard for her, “‘Tis hard for she,” and the fact that she has a young son adds to the sympathy you feel for her, because she is poor and is a single mother having been abandoned by her partner, Farmer Lodge, who “ha’n’t spoke to Rhoda Brook for years.” Also, Farmer Lodge does not admit to have anything to do with the boy. Evidence of this is when his new wife questions him about the “poor lad”. He replies that he thinks the boy “lives with his mother a mile or two off”, when clearly he knows who the boy is.
Another thing that makes you sympathize with Rhoda is the poverty she is in. Her house “was built of mud walls, the surface of which had been washed by many rains into channels and depressions that left none of the original flat face visible; while here and there in the thatch above a rafter showed like a bone protruding through the skin.”
Another way in which Hardy encourages you to sympathize with Rhoda is that we learn of her being driven away along with her son, “Her face grew sadder and thinner; and in the spring she and her boy disappeared from the neighbourhood of Holmstoke.” This encourages sympathy because she is driven out of her home by the circumstances.
We also sympathize with Rhoda when we read of her son being wrongly executed – he was present when the crime was committed.
The executioner said that, “if ever a young fellow deserved to be let off, this one does: only just turned eighteen, and present by chance when the rick was fired.” But the authorities “are obliged to make an example of him,” to try and cut down the rise of the “destruction of property”. The boy was the only thing of value left in her life, and this only added to the problems she had.
Thomas Hardy encourages you to sympathize with Rhoda because of her independence. “Rhoda said she was well enough, and, indeed, though the paler of the two, there is more of the strength that endures.” This makes you sympathize with her, because you admire the way she persists until the end, and that she looks after the boy on her own, despite the poverty she is in. Further evidence of her independence is when she refuses “to have anything to do with the provision made for her.” (In Farmer Lodge’s will, he left a “payment of a small annuity to Rhoda Brook”).
The final point that Hardy uses to make you, the reader, sympathize with Rhoda is her lack of progress in her life. “Eventually she appeared in her old parish … Her monotonous milking at the dairy resumed, and followed for many long years, till her form became bent, and her once abundant dark hair white and worn away at the forehead”.
This encourages sympathy because she did not really progress in her life. She went back to work as a milkmaid in the dairy and she lived in the same village. Therefore in her lifetime, she did not really achieve much.
There are also, however, negative points that make you feel unsympathetic towards Rhoda. For example, she is very jealous of Gertrude; evidence of this is that she gets her son to spy on Gertrude, to see, “if she is dark or fair, and if she’s tall – as tall as I”, and, “if her hands be white”. Although she has not met Gertrude, she is already jealous of her because she has taken her place as Farmer Lodge’s wife. She was so obsessed with her jealousy that “the figure that had occupied her so much during this and the previous days was not to be banished at night.” The dream she had that night reveals the underlying hatred she has for Gertrude, because somehow she causes Gertrude’s arm to wither.
Afterwards when they meet together on their own, Rhoda asks how Gertrude’s health is, and she uncovers “her left hand and arm and their outline confronted Rhoda’s gaze as the exact original of the limb she had beheld and seized in her dream.” This makes you feel unsympathetic towards Rhoda, because she is responsible for Gertrude’s suffering which Gertrude did not deserve. But you have to take into consideration that it was done subconsciously.
Another point against Rhoda is that she feels pride in her newly discovered power, when after the conjurer confirms that it was she that caused the withered arm, “for the first time a sense of triumph possessed her”. This encourages us to be less sympathetic towards Rhoda, because, by being proud, she is being inconsiderate to Gertrude and she is pleased to see Gertrude’s beauty lessened.
AltAhough she was sorry about the effect on Gertrude, she never reveals her dream to her or to the conjuror, nor makes any attempt to try and reverse what had happened. This seems to be because she sees Gertrude as a “useful friend” and fears losing her “irretrievably”. This is another point against feeling sympathy for Gertrude.
Further evidence of Rhoda seeing Gertrude as a “useful” friend is that she thinks of her as her “patron”, i.e. a benefactor of higher social standing. If she was truly her friend, she surely would have confessed the truth.
Also, Rhoda does not care about the effect on Gertrude as shown by her thoughts the afternoon before they journeyed to Conjuror Trendle.
“There was a horrid fascination at times in becoming instrumental in throwing such possible light on her own character as would reveal her to be something greater in the occult world than she had ever suspected.”
She thinks she can use this opportunity to find out whether she is a sorceress. This makes the reader less sympathetic towards Rhoda, because she is using Gertrude to satisfy her curiosity about her supernatural powers, whilst Gertrude is suffering with the withered arm.
The final point against Rhoda is that her deep underlying resentment against Gertrude is revealed in the final chapter of the story, when she attacks her and shouts, “Hussy – to come between us and our child now!” Then she expresses a sense of righteousness by saying, “This is the meaning of what Satan showed me in the vision! You are like her at last!” forgetting that it was she that was responsible for the withered arm that had brought Gertrude to the jail to cure her disease.
However, she did not consciously intend to harm Gertrude. The affliction was carried out by a power (the unconscious hatred she feels towards the younger woman who replaced her) over which she had no control and although she perhaps should have confessed when she became aware of what she had done, she was afraid of the consequences for a woman in her situation.
Thomas Hardy also encourages you to sympathize with the other main character, Gertrude, because of her young age, “Beside him sat a woman, many years his junior – almost, indeed, a girl.” This makes you sympathize with her, because she is vulnerable and she has her whole life ahead of her, but it is blighted by the withered arm.
Another thing that makes you sympathize with Gertrude is her kind nature. She is always being kind and considerate. For example, when she sees Rhoda’s son staring at her, she tells her husband that, “the poor boy may have looked at us in the hope that we might relieve him of his heavy load, rather than from curiosity.” Her kindness is shown by her generosity, when she told the boy, “I’ll come and bring you some better boots, and see your mother.” Then we learn that it is not just to Rhoda and her son she is kind, when the boy says, “She gives things away to other folks in the meads besides us.” This is further evidence of Gertrude’s kind-heartedness.
Her sweet appearance is another way in which Hardy encourages us to sympathize with her. Evidence of this is when Rhoda sees Gertrude for the first time, “The figure and action were those of the phantom but her voice was so indescribably sweet, her smile so tender, so unlike that of Rhoda’s midnight visitant”. Gertrude’s sweet appearance is in sharp contrast to Rhoda’s hate-filled vision of her the night before.
Hardy also encourages us to sympathize with Gertrude because she is the one who is suffering from the withered arm, out of no fault of her own, and she seems helpless against it.
Gertrude suffers physical pain from having the withered arm and this pain gradually gets worse. When she first shows Rhoda, she isn’t that worried about the arm, she describes it as being, “nothing serious, but I cannot make it out.” The next time Rhoda sees her, Gertrude says that “it is no better at all; it is rather worse. It pains me dreadfully sometimes.”
Gertrude also suffers emotional pain from having the withered arm. She says that she “shouldn’t so mind it,” “if – if I hadn’t a notion that it makes my husband dislike me – no, love me less. Men think so much of personal appearance”. This is because she feels as though her husband does not love her as much as before the withered arm came about. Following on from this, “Mr and Mrs Lodge’s married experience sank into prosiness and worse”. Their marriage starts to break apart because of her situation.
The final point which encourages us to sympathize with Gertrude is her death, which “took place in the town three days” after the ‘turning of the blood’. Hardy also suggests to us that her “vitality” was “sapped” by “the paralysed arm” and this contributed to her death. This makes us sympathize with her, because her life has been wasted by the withering of her arm, which was wholly responsible for the cause of her death.
Hardy also makes you feel less sympathetic towards Gertrude in the story by her manner changing in desperation for a cure. “The once blithe – hearted and enlightened Gertrude was changing into an irritable, superstitious woman, whose whole time was given to experimenting upon her ailment with every quack remedy she came across.” This makes you feel less sympathetic towards her, because she is no longer the kind, caring woman with whom the reader sympathized earlier in the story. Now all she seems to care about is herself and her beauty. But this is understandable because in the next sentence it says that “she was honestly attached to her husband, and was ever secretly hoping to win back his heart again by at least regaining some of her personal beauty.” Later on in the story we learn that “by this time the young woman’s state was such that a gray mist seemed to float before her eyes”.
Another way in which Hardy makes you less sympathetic with Gertrude is when she gets even more self-obsessed and longs for an execution. She did not care whether it was a “guilty or innocent person” that was hanged; she just wanted it to happen “soon.” When she is at the executioner’s house, she even calls the boy that is about to be hanged – “it”, as if he wasn’t a human. At this the executioner is surprised, “It – He you mean; he’s living yet.” The evidence shows that she has become very self-obsessed and is desperate to get hold of the remedy; this is further evidence of her manner changing from thinking about others. Further evidence is when the executioner talks about waiting “in case of a reprieve.” Her reply is “O – a reprieve – I hope not!” Then he goes on to tell her that, “if ever a young fellow deserved to be let off, this one does;” She does not in any way show sympathy towards the young boy who is to be hanged.
Having said this, the situation is understandable because of her situation. She is under great mental and emotional pressure, to get a cure for her withered arm and in doing so, win back the love of her husband. This perhaps makes the reader sympathize with her even more, because it is a mark of desperation.
Thomas Hardy switches the focus of your sympathy throughout this story. At first you feel sympathy for Rhoda and her situation of poverty and isolation. Then the sympathy switches to Gertrude, because the jealousy of Rhoda seemed to have caused the withering of Gertrude’s arm. It turns back to Rhoda again, when she moves away from the neighbourhood, and Gertrude turns into an irritable and superstitious woman. We sympathize with both Rhoda and Gertrude towards the end – the mental and emotional pain Gertrude has and Rhoda’s son is unjustly executed. Also at the end Gertrude dies, and Rhoda returns to the same dairy and lodging.
I sympathize more with Gertrude overall, because she had the withered arm through no fault of her own and she was completely helpless against it. Her young age adds to the sympathy, because she has her whole life ahead of her and it is shattered by the withered arm. Even when you don’t feel as sorry for her in the story, it is understandable because of the mental/emotional pain she feels from having lost her beauty and the love of her husband. On the other hand, whilst Rhoda suffers rejection from the villagers and does not consciously set out to curse Gertrude, she does not do enough to try and help Gertrude with her problem; neither do I feel that she is sorry enough for the harm she has caused.
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