How does the author of The Withered Arm make the incredible events appear credible
In this assignment, I am going to discuss how Thomas Hardy makes the incredible events appear credible. To do this I will be examining: the historical contents of the story, with the language used, together with the way the story was structured and by the way that the characters relate to each other. I will also be examining the moral attitudes of when the story was written. Which will enable me to show how it was possible for Hardy to make the advents appear credible. The Withered Arm is an example of prose.
Prose is ‘speech or writing without rhyme or metre’ (Collins Dictionary), as opposed to verse, which is ‘stanza or short subdivision of poem or the Bible’, (Collins Dictionary). The story was written in 1888, and set around the 1820’s within a rural community. Hardy refers to this period in time by writing the ‘Enclosure Acts had not taken effect’ (p19), which occurred in 1836 and when he refers to a boy due to be hung, he writes ‘only just turned eighteen, and only present by chance when the rick was fired’ (p21).
This again indicates the date was around this period as the gradual reforms of the Penal Codes came into effect by 1861, which meant that only serious crimes such as treason and murder carried the death penalty (mastering econ & social history). Hardy adds realism to the story in several ways. He uses his vast knowledge of the mass changes within the rural areas during this period, for example: ‘Egdon was much less fragmentary in character than now’ and ‘farmers’ wives’ rode on horseback then more than they do now’ (p19).
With what appears to be direct speech from a third party narrator, he also adds factual event such as ’tis sold by the inch afterwards’ (p19) as this is where the expression of ‘money for old rope’ stems from and dates back to when the hangman would sells inch long souvenirs after the execution (www. rootsweb). This not only adds to the authenticity of the story, but also leads the reader into believing it is a factual account rather than a fictional story. Hardy also adds to the possibility of the story being credible by establishing the history and preconceived ideas of the characters through the milkmaids.
This is done by the milkmaids talking not only in slang but also using local dialect such as ‘pinking’ and ‘milchers’ (p2) which would only be relevant within the countryside, they also refer to the farmer as’ he’ (p1), which would indicate that the farmer has social standing. This is then confirmed when we are introduced to Rhoda and learn that her isolation from the rest of the milkmaids was due to her having a child out of wedlock with the farmer. This is illustrated within the text by: ‘milked somewhat apart from the rest’ and ‘their course lay apart from that of the others, to a lonely spot high above the water-meads’ (p2).
Although the milkmaids seem to have some compassion for Rhoda’s plight, the following conversation: ‘Tis hard for she’ and ‘He ha’n’t spoke to Rhoda Brook for years’ (p2) seems to have been contrived to show that due to the differences in class, Rhoda has been forced to solely take the burden of the affair which was a typical Victorian attitude towards the morals of unmarried mothers. In addition to this, by the use of dramatic irony as well as the complex relationship between Farmer Lodge and Rhoda, Hardy is able to strengthen any sympathies the reader may feel for Gertrude.
This is established when, the Farmer refuses to acknowledge the boy in town and we can see by the conversation that he has with his new wife, that he has no intension of divulging his secret: ‘one of the neighbourhood. I think he lives with his mother a mile or two off’ (p4). Again giving credence to Gertrude’s vulnerable nature at being the only person who does not know about the affair. Hardy also uses the descriptions of the two women to support the incredible elements of the story.
Rhoda and Gertrude are not only given contrasting personalities but psychical appearances as well, whereas Gertrude is described as: ‘Her face too was fresh in colour, but it was of a totally different quality soft and evanescent, like the light under a heap of rose-petals’ (p4). The contrast of Rhoda’s description is: ‘pale cheek, and made her dark eyes, that had once been handsome’ (p3). Gertrude is seen to be quintessential, which is reinforced with in the text by not only using adjectives such as ‘youthful’, but also by being referred to ‘colour and light’ (p2).
However, the adjectives that are used to descript Rhoda are ‘dull, fading’ and she is always referred to in ‘declining light’ (pg 4-5). As Rhoda, is depicted as having many undesirable qualities, this makes it easier for the reader to assume the side of Gertrude. Believing that due to Rhoda’s jealousy, she would be able and indeed want too afflict some harm to the new bride: ‘This innocent young thing should have her blessing and not her curse’ (p8). Again by using the prejudices of this era Hardy, is able to add further credibility to the story.
He does this by showing Rhoda’s own sense of guilty at the deterioration of Gertrude arm: ‘the sense of having been guilty of an act of malignity increase, affect as she might to ridicule the superstition’ (p10). However, it appears that Rhoda’s guilty stems from the time that she fell pregnant with her son and the change in attitudes towards her from the villagers: ‘she knew that she had been slyly called a witch since her fall’ (p9) and ‘that there must exist a sarcastic feeling among the work-folk that a sorceress would know the whereabouts of the exorcist.
They suspected her, then. ‘ (p11). Through the structure of the story, Hardy is able to continue to infuse the incredible ideas of Witchcraft and curses with realty. With references such as: ‘the surgeon had not seemed to understand the afflicted limb at all’ (p10). This could have been an indication of the lack of medical knowledge at the time. However, the reader is mislead into believing it is due to it being cursed. This is also reinforced by Farmer Lodges reaction: ‘ as if some witch, or the devil himself, had taken hold of me there, and blasted the flesh’ (p10).
By the clever use of literate devices, such as ‘last desperate effort at deliverance’ and ‘turn the blood’ (p16); along with the limited information given to the reader in each of the chapters and suggestive headings such as ‘A Vision’ (6), Hardy is able to increase not only the tension within the story but also ensure that the reader only focuses on the supernatural aspects. Additionally, the use of linear writing allows Hardy to create real life validity, for the characters.
When the reader rejoins the Lodges it is evident that they have both under gone huge personal and psychical changes: ‘married experience sank into prosiness, and worse’ (p14). Farmer Lodge has become: ‘gloomy and silent’ (p14). He attributes the decline in his married as ‘judgement from heaven upon him’ (p15), for the affair he had with Rhoda. This again would be another indication of the morals of the era. Gertrude is now described as: ‘the once blithe-hearted and enlightened Gertrude was changing into an irritable, superstitious woman’ (p15).
With many references to her desperate attempts to cure her affliction: ‘She named to him some of the hundred medicaments and counterspells which she had adopted from time to time’ (p16). Once again Hardy gives the reader the sense of unjustness that has be felled Gertrude, by allowing them to know that it was Rhoda Brooks who had blighted the Lodges married life by inflicting this curse on her: ‘for the indistinct form he had raised in the glass had undoubtedly resembled the only woman in the world who – as she now knew, though not then – could have a reason for hearing her ill-will’ (p15).
By using the deterioration of their relationship, Hardy again adds to the credibility of the story, so when Conjuror Trendle tells Gertrude that: ‘you must touch with the limb the neck of a man who’s been hanged’ and ‘It will turn the blood’ (p16). Although this appears incredible to the reader, we can see that Gertrude is now a desperate superstitious women, who is willing to try anything to rid herself of her affliction and win back her husbands affections: ‘And then she thought of the apparent cause… If I could only again be as I was when he first saw me’ (p15).
Credibility is also added by way of the climax of the story. Hardy begins to limit the readers’ focus, as the tension is built. By Hardy now only writing of Gertrude, he is able to concentrate on her actions and behaviours: ‘Turn her head she would not’ and ‘her knees trembling so that she could scarcely walk’ (p23). Thus ensuring that the reader has no or indeed very little thought of the other main characters. Hardy again is able to add credibility to the story in the way he describes the execution: ‘the execution was over; but the crowd still waited to see the body taken down’ (p23).
This suspends the reader with the thoughts ‘will she, wont she? ‘ and not a thought for the young boy. However, by concluding the story the way he does: ‘Immediately Brook had loosened her hold the fragile young Gertrude slid down against the feet of her husband’ (p23) ‘she never reach home alive’ (p24), Hardy leaves the reader with the sense of pity at Gertrude’s troubled life and not that she had in fact become the epitome of Rhoda’s dream: ‘This is the meaning of what Satan showed me in the vision!
You are like her at last! ‘ (p23). Hardy centres the story on the incredible events of the dream; he is able to add credibility to this by using powerful imagery such as: ‘eyes peered cruelly into her face’ and ‘the incubus, still regarding her, withdrew to the foot of the bed’ (p7). Also by choosing words like phantom, ghastly, spectre and vision, this adds to the connotations that it involves the supernatural.
This is validated by the fact that Rhoda can still feel the affects of the dream the next day: ‘her hand had not calmed even yet, and still retained the feel of the arm’ (p7). In addition to this, Hardy adds the coincidences of the boy hearing the disturbance and Gertrude’s sudden affliction which all occurred simultaneously. This reference by: ‘she had named the night and the hour of Rhoda’s spectral encounter, and Brook felt like a guilty thing.
The artless disclosure startled her she did not reason on the freaks of coincidence and all the scenery of that ghastly night returned with double vividness to her mind’ (p9). Which leads the reader into believing that this was more than a dream. To conclude, I believe that Hardy was able to make the incredible appear credible, by setting the story sixty years before it was written. This was a time of great social and economic changes and until Darwin’s theory of ‘Evolution’, which was published in 1859. The Origin of Species”). It was commonly thought that God had the divine right of birth.
The church played an important part in the lives of both the rich and the poor, sermons would preach evil and Satan, giving people superstitions and the belief in witches and the supernatural. Hardy was also able to play the ignorance’s of people’s knowledge of the countryside to add authenticity. Even today the reader can believe in its credibility, as there is still a fascination with the supernatural and the unknown.