The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion
This short story is based on two love triangles, at the apex of both being Phyllis, a secluded young woman who lives alone with her father, a failed doctor in an isolated farmhouse outside Weymouth. It is described as an “obscure island nook” which encapsulates the fact that there was no fresh work for the failed doctor, Phyllis’ father. One day Richard Gould, a failed businessman, turns up at her door and after a short courtship asks for her hand in marriage. The father immediately accepts this offer as he gets the impression that Gould is of higher social status than him and as the sole benefactor he would profit from their marriage.
However, his intentions were well made and although convenient, Gould’s act had forced her father into a mistaken calculation. In his pursuit of illusions, he misses several points, such as the fact he had made her father’s acquaintance before he made hers, giving the impression that he was looking in desperation for a bride. Despite of first impressions, Gould is, in fact, “poor as a crow” but he gives an impression of having class status. The marriage arrangements were not based on love but were simply a convenience, which results in it being for material security rather than a romantic affair.
Gould is then forced to leave to for Bath, an excuse about his father covering up his “pecuniary condition” leaving Phyllis bemused. The date of his return passed and winter arrived. This change of season is a metaphor, which represents the colour of Phyllis’ mood, described now as “lonely in the extreme” as she had no knowledge of why her husband to be had delayed his return. The change back to spring represents a change in Phyllis’ fortunes. Although Gould had kept in contact with her through “regular yet formal” letters, there was still an uncertainty in her condition.
Phyllis’ loyalty however did not waver, which is meant to represent the passivity of women at that time in a male-dominated society. At this change, however, a new influence invades her life, which “charged all youthful thought with emotional interest”. This is the presence of the York Hussars, a military regiment taken from Germany to serve in Britain. They were renowned for their “foreign air and mustachios which drew crowds of spectators wherever they travelled” which shows Hardy’s evident eye for detail that appears time again throughout the story.
Phyllis was sitting on top of a wall at the base of her garden, apparently a favourite spot for her from childhood, when she sees an alien figure walk up the path. One of the soldiers from the Hussars camped nearby was walking up the path, with the manner of “someone who wishes to escape company”. He is in contrast to the splendid men who usually are the visual front to the Hussars and it seems as though this soldier wished to escape the rigours of military life. The soldier notices Phyllis on the wall, who was dressed in “white raiment” typically the colour of innocence and inexperience.
She is captivated by him and falls in love at first sight. After a few days of this they start talking. She finds out his name is Matthaus Tina and how he was forcibly removed from his home to join the army and had quickly reached the rank of corporal. He was well educated and had soon proved himself in the strongly class-based society of the army. These “interviews” occurred on a daily basis; soon the conversation spread to his life at home and his longing for his mother. Hardy introduces a scholarly influence by comparing her pity of him to that of Desdemona, a character from Othello, a tragedy by Shakespeare.
This is an apt comparison, as the piece itself will eventually turn into a tragedy full of mistaken judgements, well-intentioned actions and undeserved misfortune. The wall is a metaphor for the boundary between them; it is described as being in disrepair, which indicates the unstable base for their romance and the lack of unity. All through the story this wall remains between them until finally when Phyllis attempts to break free. She learns that although the regiment appears happy in fact it was “pervaded by a dreadful melancholy” powered by a longing for the return for their home showing a background of natural prejudice.
This need was driven for a hatred of their English officers and English attitude in general. Matthaus is said to suffer one of the worst from this “home-woe” and Phyllis pities him but still declined any form of physical contact or even permit him to cross the boundary line of the wall. Coincidentally news reached Phyllis of Gould through the village of how he only had a half-understanding of their current arrangements and that it was still not finalised. Now as this was still a rumour, it would be indecent of Dr. Grove to approach Gould but it overshadowed all previous thoughts of marriage.
This rumour was also backed up with the fact that Gould’s letters had become more infrequent. Phyllis’ “heart sank within her” as she recognised the fact that her engagement had come to nothing. Despite of this father had noticed her attachment to Matthaus, he warned her not to go outside the boundary in her purpose of pursuing him, effectively making her a prisoner of her own home. However, she had no intention of leaving the garden however and the meetings continued as before. Then one evening an unforeseen accident destroyed her plans said to be decided by “fate”.
She had been delayed by chance and Matthaus waited at the gate for her. The time he was due back in camp came and went but still he stayed. When she finally met him he was extremely late and on his return she heard that he had been stripped of his rank. The tragic consequence of this was that the chances of her father letting her marry him if Gould did not materialise had been slim but now they were practically nil. It was at this point that she makes one of the greatest decisions of her life. Matthaus had suggested that he was planning an escape from the army with several close companions and return to Germany and his mother.
At first she seems amazed but then uncertainty steps in “I fear I am ruining you and your prospects”. However eventually she was persuaded but questions their route to freedom and how they propose to achieve it. Their scheme included stealing a boat and crossing across the channel to France. Here they would hike to Germany using their army wages to buy food and shelter. He asks to meet her just off the highway (symbolic of a turning point in her life) from where they should flee. He tells her that a friend of his, Christoph would also join them along with two others not named but who detested British authority.
Coincidentally when she returned home, however, she found out that her father had spotted her with Matthaus. A confrontation occurred but her father had already decided she should go to her aunt’s to resist the temptation. He had still not given up faith on Gould, as he believed it was in best interest for her to marry him showing a paternal domination of his family. Her heart died within her as she heard this news and the house became like “a prison to Phyllis”, so she let her mind fly to the prospects of Matthaus’ scheme. Her confidence in Matthaus was fulfilled.
On her return, she arranged to meet him at a junction off the main road the following week and when the time arose she waited just off the road hidden in a position where she could see any passers-by. The symbolic junction of the main road represents another turning point in Phyllis’ life where she has an option of which path to choose. She then hears a carriage come down the hill and stop nearby and as fate would have it Humphrey Gould, long awaited, stepped out. The carriage came down the hill as though Gould was lowering himself to Phyllis, in terms of class status.
He talked to the driver about a present he had bought for Phyllis and he admits to treating her “rather badly”. In a rush of indecisiveness, Phyllis tries to make up her mind; should she be loyal to her father and Gould and return home or follow her instincts and leave to a new life. This again represents Phyllis’ lack of decisive action and passivity of women at that time and this concept is repeated several times throughout the story. At this point Matthaus climbs over the gate behind her and “presses her to his breast”.
This is the first time that the metaphorical boundary of the wall has not divided them in their relationship. Phyllis left with them and after a long night of travelling to the coast they meet with the friend, Christoph, just before sunrise. At this point Phyllis makes her final decision and they separate for the last time on a hill overlooking the sea, dooming their relationship itself a metaphor as the sea represents freedom and this is simply describing how close she has come yet as it is dark she is still blind to it, her future an uncertainty.
After she returns to her house, she finds Gould with an expensive gift – a looking glass which “won Phyllis’ admiration” and until that point she had regretted leaving Matthaus. However, things were to take a turn for the worse tragically after Matthaus had left. She finds out that whilst he had been away he had met a new lady, who would be a much better choice as she came from the same upper class background as Gould yet another example of class distinction which was obviously very powerful at that time.
This shows how the value of money dictates Gould’s priorities. It is an irony that she finds this out on that day, as she would then not have hesitated to run away with Matthaus. Phyllis was shocked at this because she viewed Gould as a person who would confide every last detail of truth with her judging by the information in his letters. She retreated to the only place where she could be alone – the old wall-where she dreams about what her life could have been like had she taken the other route. One morning those dreams are brought to an abrupt halt.
On a morning described as being “broke in fog and mist” behind which the faint outlines of tents and the camp were visible from the wall and this is against the permanence and regularity of the natural landscape. The mood is also set in an almost slow-time as Hardy describes in minute detail the landscape, such as “every blade of grass was weighted with little golden globes”, an image captivating the idealistic morning. As she watched in “melancholy regard” she sees a procession led by an English colonel, who represents the cultural background of Anglo – German hostilities.
Two prisoners are led in front of a firing squad, clearly Matthaus and Christoph. After a prayer, they were executed in front of the entire regiment and their bodies ordered to be turned out of their coffins as an example to the men by the English Colonel, resented by the men. Tragically it turned out that they had stolen the boat as planned, and at first sight of land thought it was France and went ashore. It turned out it was Guernsey and the men were arrested and sent back to England so it was ironic that this mission that this mission seemed doomed to failure.
It was simply undeserved misfortune they had arrived in the wrong place and a fault in navigation. On arrest, they had sacrificed themselves for the two other comrades by claiming to be ringleaders. Whilst the others had received a flogging, the punishment for desertion was death and so this order was carried out. As a consequence Phyllis symbolically died of a broken heart and was buried near where the two men lie. The idea of the love triangles that was stated at the start of this essay are the heart of the story.
At the centre of both is Phyllis but on one is Gould and Dr. Grove her father. On the second is Matthaus and his mother, who Phyllis longs to be with. This story is an example of the number of external factors that can shape peoples destinies in life. It shows how chance events, such as Phyllis sitting on the wall at the time of Matthaus’ arrival along with tragic circumstances that arise, can affect the course of change. The idea is that we are powerless to control our destiny, and seeming coincidences may appear to be pre-ordained but fate is out of our control.