‘On the Western Circuit’ and ‘The Withered Arm’
What we need to understand is that all is not perfect, however perfect it may seem in appearance. There is always a larger picture to what a person perceives, however well hidden the secrets lie; and the fact that in a married relationship, appearance means nothing at all. In a Victorian society, a lady betrothed to a wealthy land owner is to be indeed just that: a lady, perfect by appearance and with the correct qualities that a lady must possess.
She would respect and obey her husband to a point of prosiness, she would bring him many children to inherit his money and land, and despite the fact that she is well educated, would be bound to care for her children as a women in that society would. In other words, a wealthy land owners wife would be regarded as a lady, and a lady is all. Two of Hardy’s short stories ‘On the Western Circuit’ and ‘A Withered Arm’ show in great detail the role and character of a married woman in the Victorian era. However, both stories also possess, as Hardy would have put it, detail within detail.
The point of my essay is to get across Hardy’s message on a woman’s role in marriage, as Hardy would have done to his reading audience. Throughout the essay it will become plain why Hardy felt so strongly about a woman’s role in marriage, and why he chose to write with women as the main characters. Channeling his opinion through the narrative voice is Hardy’s main technique used to investigate the thorny issue of marriage. Also, both stories show how love occurs between a couple, but society’s expectations prevent the couple from marrying.
In my conclusion, I will give a personal opinion on Victorian marriage, with an understanding of Hardy’s. In Hardy’s era, if you were married there would be a strong presence of high social status, class and wealth of the man and woman. In many ways, a woman’s last name would act as a title, it seems ridiculous that in our society people aspire for love, and a marriage represents love. However, controversially, in the Victorian era, marriage would represent a person’s status. In most cases marriage would have nothing to do with love. In both ‘The Withered Arm’ and ‘On the Western Circuit” we can see clear evidence of this.
When we are first introduced to Rhoda Brook in ‘the Withered Arm’ she is summarized to us as “a thin fading woman of thirty”, immediately the Victorian readers would have presumed that Rhoda is of a very low class and very poor. Her given age would also indicate that she is not a young woman of sixteen already married to a wealthy man, and that her chance of doing so has passed. Throughout the passage about the “milkmaid” Rhoda, the narrative voice also describes her as “thin, worn milkmaid”, “the Lorne milkmaid” and “the thin woman”; not exactly the majestically beautiful woman we would expect to have once been married to Farmer Lodge…
Who we (Hardy’s Victorian audience) would expect to marry this wealthy Farmer Lodge however quickly comes onto the scene. To the milkmaids of Egdon Heath, Farmer Lodge’s new wife arriving in the afternoon was the perfect opportunity for gossip. However none of these milkmaids had seen nor heard of Lodges new wife so gossiped about how they assumed she would be. In their thick southern accents the milkmaids predicted the new Mrs. Lodge to be “a rosy cheeked, titsy totsy, little body enough”, “Years younger than he they say” and “His young wife”.
Once the new Mrs Lodge did arrive, it turned out that these women had predicted correctly, Gertrude Lodge was indeed a young, beautiful woman, well educated and, supposedly, a virgin; the direct opposite of Rhoda. However, after spending a while as Mrs Gertrude Lodge, Gertrude discovers that her arm is withered (supposedly inflicted by Rhoda after a supernatural dream), distorting her physical beauty. However, has it really? Or is it just that their perception of beauty is distorted by the bindings of a proper Victorian marriage.
Gertrude then is no longer Lodge’s perfect wife and their marriage is lost for love, if there ever was any to begin with, and has, as poor Gertrude puts it, “sank into prosiness”. A similar situation occurs in ‘ On the Western Circuit’ where a young lawyer, Charles, described as being “not a great man”, falls in love with a young maidservant called Anna. Howevr the course of true love never runs smooth and Anna’s illiteracy is figuratively a large pot hole along the path of their relationship. The narrative voice hints that the relationship between the two progresses too rapidly as Anna is soon pregnant.
In order for both characters to avoid social embarrassment and rejection they must marry. However Charles’ love for Anna was to do with the beauty of her letter writing which in fact was not hers, it was Edith’s. Edith: the woman already bound unhappily in marriage that with Charles is experiencing love for the first time. So from this we gather that both marriages occurred due to the influence of the Victorian society. Like Lodge, Charles is attracted by a young, pretty woman, both woman are of an inferior social class so see an opportunity to “marry up”. In the end happily married couples?
No. However if both couples had married because they loved each other, instead of what society insisted, would the outcomes have been different? Hardy’s tales of these unfortunate couples indicate to the Victorian audience that all is not perfect when considering marriage. Hardy is telling us that behind these storylines, there is a larger picture. It is in fact quite a sad as this larger picture represents a large majority of Victorian couples, all who believed they were making the right choice by marrying for money and status instead of following their heart and marrying for love.
It was due to this decision that most couples ended up unhappily married, and deeply regretting their decision to carry out marriage in the first place. It is this that spurred Hardy to write from the perception of four women, as opposed to the men. Up until now I have not mentioned the other side to the story, or in other words, the larger picture. Even with Anna’s pregnancy and Gertrude’s withered arm veering marriage off its fairytale track, Hardy presents to his readers yet another complication in their marriages.
The other two women in the stories, Edith and Rhoda, first appear to have nothing to do with the men, Charles or Mr. Lodge. However, we have known from the start that this is no fairytale, instead a tragedy. And more importantly, a tragedy to affect not one, but all of these unfortunate Victorian citizens. The secret behind these two names remains untold to some characters, and in the case of The Withered Arm, Rhoda’s secret is not revealed to the reader until we are in depth of the plot.
In both situations a love triangle occurs; as Edith’s letter writing progresses, so does her love for Charles, and at the same time, Charles love for Anna as he receives her ‘charming’ letters. In ‘The Withered Arm’ it turns out that Rhoda had had a previous relationship with Farmer Lodge that had resulted in a child. This may sound like the beginning of a happy family, but Lodge would not marry Rhoda, simply because of who she was to society; so she was left pregnant and very much alone on the outskirts of a community, abandoned by a man who loved her. I f had had swallowed his pride then e would have ended up happily married with a son.
The on of Rhoda and Lodge is perhaps the greatest victim of all the characters. As a young boy he was lonely and craving love and attention: ‘his mother not observing that he was cutting a notch into the beech backed chair’. Had he not grown up on the fringe of society then maybe his life would not have come to such a tragic end.
When looking at which of the pair had control over their marriage, it became obvious from the start that it was the husband. In the modern day marriage is another word for joined where responsibility’s and respect is shared between the husband and wife. When Anna falls pregnant it is Mr Harnham who sends her away so she does not bring embarrassment to him, and when Charles finds out it is he who decides that they shall marry. Also when Rhoda falls pregnant, it seems obvious that it is Lodge who abandons her so she does not ruin his status.
In many of Hardy’s novels he writes as the narrator, using pathetic fallacy to put the characters emotions across; sometimes these translate as their secrets. When Rhoda is escorting her new friend, Gertrude, across Egdon Heath to find a conjuror whom Gertrude believes will cure her arm and therefore her marriage, Hardy describes the scene as “the dark atmosphere”, “the wind howled dismally over the Heath” and “this solemn country”. All of these illustrate the scene as dismal, an emotion similar to what Rhoda was feeling as she awaits what the conjuror will unearth about the cause of Gertrude’s withered arm. Also at the opening of part two in ‘The Withered Arm’ the ‘darkened room’ reflects Edith’s solemn mood.
It seems absurd that such a religious era should ignore the wishes of the bible when considering marriage. God was an icon to whom people obeyed, but when marrying a companion they did not obey the bible by finding a partner to love. The passage below is taken from ‘On the Western Circuit’ in the narrators voice:
‘Edith Harnham led a lonely life. Influenced by the belief of the British parent that a bad marriage with its aversions is better that free womanhood with its interests, dignity and leisure, she had consented to marry the elderly wine merchant as a last resort, at the age of seven and twenty- some three years before this date – to find afterwards that she had made a mistake. That contract had left her still a woman who’s deeper nature had never been stirred.’ In other words she has never experienced romantic love.
From this, I can conclude that Hardy did not only know, but believed that women were exploited by men to use as items in marriage; these women, represented by Edith Harnham, were bound by “contract” not love to their marriages which left them regretfully as women with a “deeper nature that had never been stirred”. But there was nothing they could do as in the Victorian Society their lives would follow one of two paths: one in marriage or one alone on the edge of society, but neither with love.
Get help with your homework
We'll occasionally send you account related and promo emails