The Withered Arm
Suspense is the creation of excitement at the approach of the climax, whether of the whole novel, or just a particular chapter or scene. Tension is the feeling of uneasiness or stress caused by suspense, not knowing what will transpire next. It is clear that the two are very closely interrelated, and when they are employed in a text they have significant effects on the reader. Suspense and tension keep the reader guessing about what will ensue, therefore drawing the reader into the story and, crucially, maintaining their interest so that they want to read on.
Thomas Hardy uses not only his own writing techniques and description to create suspense and tension in his novels, but also the behaviour and development of his characters. At the beginning, we are presented with the four characters of Rhoda Brook, her son, Farmer Lodge and Gertrude. We are unsure how their relationships will develop. This uncertainty creates tension, and right from the start, the reader’s interest is evoked. When Hardy wrote The Withered Arm in the late 1800’s, a belief in magic was common among all people of the time.
This is embodied in the story by the characters Rhoda Brook and Conjuror Trendle, who are described as being a witch and a white wizard respectively. The inclusion of a magical and supernatural theme in the story is a good way of interesting the reader and creating tension, because as witchcraft and magic are subjects most people in a modern audience know little about, they add to the reader’s unawareness and curiosity about events in the story. Suspense and tension are created in chapter two, when Gertrude arrives with farmer Lodge.
We learn that Rhoda has an illegitimate son with farmer Lodge, and therefore understand her jealous interest in his new bride. She tells her son to “give her a look, and tell me what she’s like… If she’s dark or fair, and if she’s tall – as tall as I”. When her son returns from his reconnaissance Rhoda interrogates him – it is clear she is desperate for every detail. The boy couldn’t see how tall she was, because she was sitting down, and Rhoda tells him to watch her at the church the next day; “Go early and notice her walking in, and come home and tell me if she’s taller than I”. When he comes back with the information – ‘”She is not tall.
She is rather short. ” – It is clear that Rhoda is delighted: “Ah! ” said his mother with satisfaction’. This scene creates tension and suspense because the reader is wondering how Rhoda Brook’s obsession with Gertrude will manifest itself later on in the story? The reader is left guessing until the onset of Chapter three, where the consequence of Rhoda’s constant psychological fixation on Gertrude is revealed. It is mentioned at the end of chapter two that “from her boy’s description and the casual words of the other milkers, Rhoda Brook could raise a mental image of the unconscious Mrs Lodge that was realistic as a photograph. In chapter three Rhoda has a vision while she sleeps.
Gertrude appears as a spirit, looking old and wrinkled, seats herself heavily on Rhoda’s chest and thrusts her wedding ring into Rhoda’s face. Rhoda struggled and then “In a last desperate effort, swung out her right hand, seized the confronting spectre by its obtrusive left arm, and whirled it backward to the floor. ” The dream is extremely real and frightening for Rhoda, and it changes the story completely for the reader. Whereas before it was a story about rural life, now it’s an altogether darker tale that incorporates magic and superstition.
The change of atmosphere adds tension, as do Rhoda’s violent actions. The reader is in suspense, as there are a lot of unanswered questions; what will happen now? Where will the story go from this crucial event? What will happen to Gertrude? The latter question is answered later in the chapter, when Gertrude turns up at Rhoda’s door unexpectedly, with a gift for her son. Gertrude reveals that a strange ailment has afflicted her arm and when she reveals it and is questioned about it, it becomes clear to Rhoda that it was made at the same time as she had her vision and Rhoda’s handprint can be seen upon it.
When Gertrude becomes a regular visitor to the cottage, the reader’s intrigue is increased again, as once again they do not know what will happen next – the suspense remains as there are important questions; will Gertrude cure her arm? When, in the last paragraph of chapter three, Rhoda mentions that she has been “slyly called a witch” since she had farmer Lodges child, suspense is increased because both the reader and Rhoda are unsure whether she is a witch or not. Another example of the creation of suspense and tension can be found in chapter four when Gertrude and Rhoda visit conjuror Trendle.
Gertrude hopes that the White Wizard will cure her withering arm, whilst Rhoda fears that she will be revealed as the witch who performed the curse. When they arrive at the house, Conjuror Trendle sends Rhoda out of the room; this has the effect of unnerving Rhoda and simultaneously adding to the reader’s intrigue. He then reveals a face to Gertrude in the egg white, but neither the reader nor Rhoda are told who Gertrude sees – “[Gertrude] murmured a reply in tones so low as to be inaudible to Rhoda”.
On the way home the conversation is stilted, and it becomes clear from her responses and manner that she has discovered Rhoda’s secret; “Was it you who first proposed coming here? ” “How very odd, if you did! ” Hardy creates suspense and tension in this scene by allowing the reader to form their own opinion as to what Gertrude saw. This scene is very tense, because Rhoda is left, literally, in suspense as she waits to find out if she has been revealed.
The suspense is drawn out right up until the journey home, as Gertrude says nothing when she comes out of Trendle’s house – “What did you see? ” “Nothing I – care to speak of. In the last sentence of chapter four it is bluntly told that Rhoda left the village. “… her face grew sadder and thinner; and in the spring she and her boy disappeared from the neighbourhood of Holmstoke”. This one-line dismissal of a major character completely changes the story. By this point in the story, the reader’s suspense is beginning to wane as they would have formed possible outcomes and plot developments to do with Rhoda and her son, and about her becoming a witch, but by having them leave unexpectedly, the reader is forced to create fresh predictions, thus renewing the suspense and tension.
The shortness of the exit, and the lack of Hardy’s trademark description, adds to the reader’s shock, because they were not built up to or prepared for Rhoda’s leaving; it is a surprise. As the condition of Gertrude’s afflicted arm deteriorates, so too does her marriage. For Farmer Lodge, the withered arm is an anaphrodisiac and he becomes “gloomy and silent”.
Gertrude grows increasingly lonely and forlorn, and this impels her to seek out remedies of all types in the hope of regaining some of her beauty, and winning back her husbands love – “If I could only again be as I was when he first saw me! Complying with her husbands wishes, she destroys her medicines, but her yearning for a cure does not diminish. She wishes to try another type of cure entirely, and so she travels to Conjuror Trendle once again. As Gertrude’s initial natural wish to cure her arm becomes darker and obsessive, suspense and tension are created once again. Similarly to the curse itself, this appearance of a darker theme in the story creates tension.
The reader can also tell that the obsession is heading to a climax, but as the outcome is not known, the reader is left in suspense. The obsession progresses after chapter 7, when Gertrude meets with Conjuror Trendle and he informs her of a possible cure: to rub her afflicted arm on the neck of freshly-hanged person. It is here that the story grows even darker, once again prompting questions from the reader: Will she go through with the cure?
Gertrude is hesitant about it, and the task seems so revolting that it is not clear whether her need for a cure is strong enough to overcome her fears – “Of all the remedies that the white wizard could have suggested there was not one which would have filled her with as much aversion as this”. This doubt creates tension, because the reader is again left in suspense, and the closer to the climax we get, the tenser it becomes, especially as Gertrude’s desire to complete her task increases. She “longed for the death of a fellow creature” and at night “her unconscious prayer was ‘O Lord, hang some guilty or innocent person soon! ‘”.
This huge change of character, from sweet and gentle, to sinister and morbid, praying for death, shows just how obsessed with curing her arm Gertrude is, and this gradual development of her character also helps to create suspense because the reader wants to see if her character finds a hanging soon, or she goes mad, or changes her behaviour again. This uncertainty creates more suspense and tension because the reader is not sure what will happen, we can not easily predict the outcome. Eventually, Gertrude hears of the hanging of a young boy taking place in a nearby village and, with her husband away on business, she sets off on a cart horse.
When she reaches the village she proceeds to locate the Hangman, and explains to him about her arm. He agrees to help her to sneak in after the hanging. When she is waiting below the gallows, Hardy excellently describes the feelings of Gertrude and this increases the tension. He shows just how terrified she is – “she could scarcely discern anything; it was as though she had nearly died”, and this emotion and fear acts as a build-up to the climax; we are held in suspense until the end, just after Gertrude’s arm is finally cured, she hears Rhoda’s Brook shriek from behind her – Rhoda is standing there with Farmer Lodge at her side.
The deceased boy is their son. The double shock of the restoration of her arm and the revelation of Farmer Lodge and Rhoda is too much for Gertrude, and she collapses, and dies before she gets home. The long and intricate description that Hardy uses throughout the book is key to the creation of suspense and tension within the story. He often describes the setting in great detail which, as well as increasing the reader’s interest and giving them a clear mental image, creates an atmosphere and gives the scene a palpable sense of tension.
To take an example from chapter five; “thick clouds made the atmosphere dark, though it was as yet only early afternoon, and the wind howled dismally over the slopes of the heath”. The dense description sets the scene perfectly and by taking the reader into the setting he ensures that events within the story have more effect on them. Because the description of the characters feelings is so good we relate to them better, and consequently we feel the tension and suspense more.
I have shown that Hardy develops the suspense and tension in a variety of ways in The Withered Arm. He is able to maintain the reader’s interest through the developing plot, the themes and language techniques employed in the story – the magic and superstition underpinning the story, compelling the reader to read on, the extensive description that creates tension and a sense of place, as well as the emotions of the characters as they develop; all these things stimulate the reader’s interest.
The whole story builds to a climax; at the start Rhoda finds out about Farmer Lodge’s marriage to Gertrude, then as the characters develop, many things change, and by the end Gertrude is alone and Rhoda and Farmer Lodge are there together, at the climax. The suspense is held right until the end. I believe that the section where Rhoda leaves creates the most tension and increases the suspense. In this example, ironically, it is the lack of Hardy’s description that affects the reader – it is uncharacteristic and therefore amplifies the sense of change.
It changes the story dramatically, because the reader believes Rhoda to be the main character; the one that we are relating to, and suddenly she is gone, leaving us with little relationship in the story again. We then follow Gertrude until the climax whereupon we are reintroduced to Rhoda. Hardy’s way of making us see the plot from both sides is a great way to increase tension, especially when Rhoda disappeared and we did not know what she was doing or feeling.