The Role of Female Characters in Cociety in Thomas Hardy's Works

The Role of Female Characters in Cociety in Thomas Hardy's Works

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Discuss how Thomas Hardy portrays the role of female characters in
society in at least two of his short stories.

Thomas Hardy was a prominent author as well as a poet who was born in
1840 and died in 1928. During his long life, he wrote about one
thousand poems and fifteen novels. He lived for the majority of his
life close to Dorchester. Hardy obtained assorted ideas for his
stories whilst he was growing up. An example of this was that he knew
of a lady who had her blood ‘turned’ by a convicts corpse and he used
this in the story ‘The Withered Arm’. The existence of witches and
witchcraft was acknowledged in his lifetime and it was not typical for
several people to be executed for practicing witchcraft.

In this essay, I am going to explore how the writer Thomas Hardy
portrays the role of female characters in society in at least two of
his short stories. This social isolation is apparent often in Hardy's
stories, the main character - now identified as Rhoda - isolated from
society partly through choice but also due to rejection by others. In
addition, this division is again shown by a comment Lodge makes later
on in the story; Rhoda does not live with the rest of the village but
instead outside it, "a mile or two off". The physical distance is
symbolic of the social divide.

Rather than re-inventing herself in another part as perhaps a widow,
she chooses to stick it out with the talk and allows it to happen. She
also allows herself to be marginalized in her community.

We also read about the milkmaids gossiping concerning Rhoda's
situation, "Tis hard for she" signifying a small hamlet environment
where news spreads fast. The reason for the gossiping is that "Farmer
Lodge" has just got married to an upper class girl, "He do bring home
his bride to-morrow, I hear". Rhoda is outwardly silent but she has
already developed a jealousy and burning hate for Farmer Lodge's wife.
She wonders what superior upper class girl he has married and sends
her son to spy on the new arrival, "Well, did you see her?”

Another type of division particularly evident in "The Withered Arm" is
class. The first signs of this are shown fairly early in the tale,
Farmer Lodge refusing to address his own son because of the son's
lower class. Instead, he simply rides past "...having taken no outward
notice of the boy whatsoever." Class is the main issue that divides
Rhoda and Farmer Lodge; despite his feelings for her and the fact that
she carried his son, Lodge chooses to marry a woman of higher status

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(Gertrude) to preserve his status and respectability. This
respectability was often, however, as in this case renounced by Hardy
in his tales, preferring to show the lower classes as better and more
respectable people at heart.

Rhoda continued refusing to see the new arrival but inside the mental
upper class image remained increasing in hatefulness until she dreams
about her staring cruelly at Rhoda while sitting on top of her. This
completely proves the upper class view of the time as Gertrude, "was
sitting upon her [Rhoda's] chest as she lay" showing the upper class
in control of the weaker lower class, Rhoda then, "seized
the...obtrusive left arm" therefore awakening from her dream.
Gertrude, at the start of the story, shows a certain amount of
confidence and independence. Although she is young and inexperienced,
Rhoda's son says she is 'growed up and her ways be quite a woman'. She
uses her own initiative leading to her making her own friends in the
form of Rhoda, and doing charitable work of her own accord -"She gives
away things to other folks...besides us" the irony being Gertrude is
unwittingly giving boots away to her husbands real son. She takes her
responsibilities seriously and her role as Farmer Lodge's wife is an
important one in the village. At that time, it was common for the
landlord's wife to take care of the parishioners and Gertrude seems to
fulfill this function competently.

Rhoda is also shocked, "could hardly believe the evidence of her
senses" because the evil creature is kind, friendly and, "should have
her blessing and not her curse".

Gertrude becomes Rhoda's, "most useful friend she had ever had"
proving the advantages to a lower class person having an upper class
friend even though there isn't a real difference between them, "as
regarded their powers and weaknesses". During the conversation they
discuss, "one little ailment" that Gertrude recently is suffering
from. Rhoda realises it as, "the original of the limb she had beheld
and seized in her dream" while Gertrude innocently comments, "it is as
if some witch, or the devil himself, had taken hold of me there". A
common belief about secluded and divided people at the time was they
had magical powers and it becomes apparent that some milk women,

"suspected her [Rhoda]".

Another form of prejudice reveals itself, Farmer Lodge begins to
admire Gertrude's virtues less because of her disfigurement, "it makes
my husband - dislike me - no, love me less". This slowly pulls her
away from her husband and, indeed, the rest of society.

Basically this signifying the preconception that a main role of a
woman is to look beautiful, Gertrude is so troubled she becomes
superstitious as to the cause of the deformity. She is seriously
undermined by feeling unattractive. Gertrude starts to lose emotional
independence. Feeling that she has become unattractive to Farmer
Lodge, - 'he loves me less' - she becomes obsessed with getting rid of
the withered arm and therefore winning back his love. Her thoughts and
actions now revolve around him. It seems that she is still acting
independently because she has not suddenly started consulting him over
everything she does but everything she does is more focused on him.
Even her trips to Rhoda's are no longer just visits but means of
finding information. Progressively she changes, due to this stress,
from a person whose 'voice was so indescribably sweet, her glance so
winning, her smile so tender' to 'an irritable superstitious

Eventually she changes so much wanting to visit Conjuror Trendle, who
is set apart like Rhoda, lower class, and rumoured to have magical
powers. Immediately Rhoda gets, "a haunting reason to be
superstitious" as she believes that the conjuror will show her as the
"witch" that had "struck" Gertrude, she agrees to take Gertrude,
"though with much misgiving". Upon arrival, Trendle promptly
proclaims, "Tis the work of an enemy" and offers to show Gertrude an
image of the enemy. After seeing the image Gertrude promptly returns
home when questioned she responding she saw, "Nothing I - care to
speak of". The relationship has been irreparably damaged and they are
both back behind the same divide of classes before they befriended,
Rhoda then moves away from Holmstoke thus signifying this.

Trendle is again consulted for help and he recommends a superstitious
cure which, "will turn the blood and change the constitution". She
carries out the plan, which involves touching a, just hanged, man's
neck as it puts a, "mastering desire" back into Gertrude. It causes
her to become impassive waiting for a man, "guilty or innocent" to be
hanged soon, almost expecting for a lower class person to have to
sacrifice his life for her, the upper class, restoring her beauty and
pleasing her husband, "If I could as I was".

Upon hearing of a hanging she embarks on her clandestine trip and
makes arrangements, "I want to touch him for a...cure" again taking
advantage of lower classes to aide her needs. As she touches the
corpse it is an ultimate irony that she becomes like Rhoda first
depicted her for she has touched Rhoda's dead son; she dies perhaps
more evil or simply a victim.

The two women in The Withered Arm are victims of the upper class
farmer who treats women as lower, not suitable of caring and affection
if they displease him. Gertrude and Rhoda are immediately divided due
to Farmer Lodge's actions and are both the victims of fate he created.
Rhoda is immediately jealous of her lover's betrayal, "tell me what
she's like". Gertrude comes into this situation innocently yet Rhoda's
jealousy causes her to have a disfigurement that in turn makes her
become evil enough to wish someone to die, "guilty or innocent". So
Farmer Lodge is the catalyst that makes Gertrude and Rhoda react in a
way that eventually causes their demise.

The Son's Veto tells as tragic a story similar to The Withered Arm,
yet again it involves a lower class woman that predominately suffers,
"a young invalid lady" which immediately sets a divide between herself
and able people.

Her son’s clothing "implied that he belonged to a well-known public
school". In their first conversation a class difference becomes clear
as his mother uses bad grammar and the child corrects it, "with an
impatient fastidiousness that was almost harsh". This indicates he has
contempt for his mother and perhaps that the male superiority is
already coming through and he has superior education to her.

We then learn that Sophy's husband, "had taken much trouble with her
education" yet had not succeeded in making her upper class. This is
interesting as it contrasts the previous story as this indicates it is
impossible for a lower class to become upper class in their mind, yet
in the last story Gertrude became markedly more lower class as she got
superstitious about finding a cure. Perhaps, Hardy was trying to say
that everyone is equal.

Due to her child having, "aristocratic school knowledge" he was fast
loosing his, "wide infantine sympathies" for her. Their relationship
was also breaking down completely as he was always in school in an
upper class society separated from the lower class existence Sophy had
returned to, "He drifted further and further away from her". In return
for her love the son became embarrassed with her as she was, "a mother
whose mistakes and origin...was painful". His personality is similar
to Farmer Lodge that, for the most part, was quite inconsiderate about
women and disregards the damage he was doing to them.

Marriage plays an important part in this story and is portrayed in
many ways by Thomas Hardy. The many ways it is portrayed can be viewed
by the reader as something to seek by the characters in the story.
Marriage is also shown to revolve around the story entering as a
subject or a cause throughout the story.

Randolph stands in the way or is seen to be an obstacle during the end
of the story as Sophy approaches him to inform him of a marriage in
which she would marry a former lover, Sam. “Not what you call a
gentleman,’ she answered timidly. ‘He’ll be much I was before I knew
your farther;’ and by degrees she acquainted him with the whole. The
youth’s face remained fixed for a moment; then he flushed, leant on
the table, and burst into passionate tears”. Hardy shows and
acknowledges to the reader of marrying a lower class through the views
put out by Randolph as not the best of ideas.

As the story is set in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
century, I feel that Hardy may have based his story on real life
incidents or have even based his characters on real people. Writing
the story may also have been an easier aspect to relate to as Thomas
Hardy was lived his life between the dates of 1840 – 1928, which would
have been around the same time in which the story is set. This should
have given Hardy an easier understanding of marriage. He may have
related to the situation by observing the surrounding which revolved
around him, and how people were though of in early England if involved
or married to a person outside class.

Overall, Hardy has given a well-organised portrayal of marriage, and
how it was seen as a difficult situation to marry the person you
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