To what extent is feminist criticism helpful in opening up potential meanings in Thomas Hardy’s “The Withered Arm”?

The short story, “The Withered Arm” explores the role of women in society, their submission to men as well as their independence while at all times retaining an understanding of their struggles. The author, Thomas Hardy reflects on the view of women in the late 19th Century sympathetically, through the use of language, structure and contrast and the exploration of a patriarchal society. Most would argue that Rhoda Brook’s life can be seen as an example of patriarchal oppression, reflected further in Gertrude’s submission to her husband and acceptance of being a trophy wife and the dominant idea restated by her that “Men think so much of personal appearance”. Although completely rejected by society, it is Rhoda, the “thin, fading woman” that prevails in society and lives through the hardships, by not conforming to the rules of society. Thomas Hardy would have been able to experience the greatest political era for women which included the suffragette movement and thus his upbringing and political awareness of the issues of the time enabled him to write a short story which conveys his view that the women that were able to survive the brutality of the 19th Century, without relying on the power of men, should be those acclaimed, as seen by the sole survival of Rhoda.

To a modern feminist critical reader the emphasis on Rhoda’s status and her apparent representation as “other”, “lack” and “nature” is explicit in Hardy’s telling of the story. It is emphasized throughout the story that Rhoda is on the “other side” of society, leaving her “lonely,” and rejected even by those women who are of the same status as her, and who should be sympathetic to her cause – instead they separate themselves from the shamed women to the “other side of the barton”, emphasizing the “distance” in their separation. The “mud” cottage further represents her erosion, with none of its “original flat face visible”, Rhoda’s beauty is no longer visible there, and instead it has been worn away throughout the ages leaving only a “bone protruding through the skin”. The motif of bones, hands and arms can also be seen throughout the novel, helping to contrast Rhoda and Gertrude’s character from a Marxist, feminist point of view as Gertrude’s hands are not those that “look as though she had ever done housework or are milker’s hands” due to Rhoda taking up the men’s role in society, by both being an only parent to her son and bearing the only income for her household, this hence means that her social status is lower than that of Gertrude’s.

It may be explored that Thomas Hardy offers “The Withered Arm” as condemnation of women who conformed to the patriarchal society, instead of fighting against it. It can be seen that Rhoda is punished for her brief history with Farmer Lodge with the rejection by society, her low social class and loss of the beauty, that which made her desirable in the first place – these together caused her a multitude of suffering. Likewise, Gertrude suffers the same fate, her submission and acceptance of the patriarchal society eventually led to her death. Hence it can be seen that Thomas Hardy’s intention is to reflect his criticism of the patriarchal society and its negative effect on women.

It can be argued that there is a prevalent theme of physiognomy reflected through the attitudes towards woman. It is common feminist understanding that women were considered as objects of pleasure due to the “relationship between sex and power in which the distribution of power over the male and female partners mirrored the distribution of power over males and females in society”. Due to this, women were aware of their position in society and they often succumbed to this idea, hence explaining why the “thing, fading woman” was a “lorn milkmaid” in contrast to the “lady complete”. The author himself seems to subconsciously sink into this trap, as the character of the “withered” Rhoda is presented as “sharp”, “bitter” and anxious while Gertrude is “comely”, “lovely” and “tender”, thus, when adapting such a view on women it is no surprise that when Gertrude loses the use of her arm she becomes an “incubus”, practicing selfish “cruelty”. Gertrude’s association with conjurers is further proof how far she had “turned”, as in the 19th century, the associations with magic and witch craft were seen as a sin against God and a practice intended to usurp God’s role. Hence it can be seen that through a feminist exploration of the text, it may be argued that Thomas Hardy does not fully take an objective view when exploring women but instead a current one.

When looking for meaning, meaning can be found in the names of characters, and when explored by a feminist critic it could develop the image of a character. The meaning of the name Gertrude is “strong spear” which implies, that Gertrude is an accessory to men as spears must be wielded by men. Spears, like women in the 19th century, strengthened the station of men – through their appearance, as emphasized by Farmer Lodge’s need to exhibit the “pretty Gertrude” who should “expect to be started at”, but her character is no longer a “strong” one when she loses her beauty, and being of no value to the Farmer, Gertrude was left to “stay at home” – hidden away from sight like the “madwoman in the attic”. Instead of accepting this fate of a housewife, Gertrude repeats with remorse “Six years of marriage, and only a few month of love”, and hence she is destroyed and buried by (in) patriarchal definitions of sexuality; which she has lost. The idea that she only a few months of love, emphasizes that in a patriarchal society, men only love all that is beautiful and presented as good, in contrast to the “irritable, superstitious woman” that has become of Gertrude. Rhoda’s name creates a harsh sound, much like her character and the hardships she has lived through. Her main attribute is her independence, possibly due to her circumstances forcing her into the position, but nonetheless she shows a clear refusal to depend on males in the patriarchal society by “refusing…the provision made for her” after Farmer Lodge’s death. It could be argued that Thomas Hardy took his inspiration for her tough character from the two possible meanings associated with “Rhoda”. Rhoda could either link to a Rose – more precisely a wilted and “withered” rose, after being “seduced” by the Farmer, or with the Island or “Rhodes” which is famous for its independence. Moreover the character of Rhoda is also seen in the New Testament with a maid, servant character, also submissive to male characters. Hence it can be seen that the author, Thomas Hardy draws upon ideas for his characters to form clear view on them, and helps build up a feminist approach to women.

Consequently, Thomas Hardy seems to condemn the patriarchal society in which these women are found, and more so the submission to patriarchal society, hence criticizing women for not rising up against the males. It can be seen that to some extent, Rhoda rose up against Farmer Lorde, to a much higher extent than Gertrude – which is proven by her survival, while Gertrude’s subservient submission to the patriarchal society is fatal.

Symbolic structures of the fairy tale: A Comparison of ‘The Necklace’ and ‘The Son’s Veto’

Through the consistent allusion to fairy tales throughout both The Necklace and The Son’s Veto, de Maupassant and Hardy are able to present the vulnerability and suffering of the characters in an instantly recognisable template, portraying the brutality (and in Hardy’s view absurdity) of class and status in succinct, powerful stories. The subversion of these fairy tale plotlines also brings home both authors’ realism: the lack of a “happy ending” only serves to make more emphatic the misfortune and victimization of the characters.

The Necklace has constant parallels to the tale of Cinderella throughout, but in many ways is cleverly subverted to make the story into a tragic tale with a comic twist. The most obvious similarity is lost lost necklace, which is an allusion to the glass slipper in Cinderella. Importantly however, whilst the glass slipper is unique and destined only for Cinderella herself, the necklace is fake and therefore representative of the inherently materialistic nature of modern society. The background of the characters is another form of symmetry within the two stories – they are both poor and lead imperfect love or family lives (Madame Loisel is seen only to “go along with a proposal made by a junior clerk”, showing her less than ideal circumstances for marriage), but again this is cleverly subverted by the fact that Madame Loisel is greedy and covetous. There is, on the other hand, one major difference between The Necklace and Cinderella in that the former lacks the presence of a malicious figure. Arguably it is this greed which takes the form of evil in the story, and ultimately results in her downfall. The Son’s Veto can be compared to the relatively modern German fairy tale of Rapunzel. Hardy alludes to the fact that Sophy has been trapped (or to some extent imprisoned by her own son) in her suburban dwelling. Hardy ironically uses the word “villa” (which would normally refer to a country house) to emphasize how her current situation is far from how she would wish it to be. This is furthered by the description of the “fragment of lawn” showing her lack of space and freedom, and well as introducing connotations of the broken or shattered. Most important however is the fact that Sophy is seen to look “through the railings” at her surroundings, giving a sense of her claustrophobia and imprisonment. Hardy is presenting us with the parallel between the the princess stuck in a tall tower and an invalid woman trapped in a life she doesn’t want to be living in. In this way Samuel Hobson can be seen as a ‘knight in shining armour’ figure as he seeks her out and takes her around London on his cart early in the mornings.

Both these women are very obviously victims of class and how prevalent status is in society. Randolph, Sophy’s son, is shown to be almost obsessed by society’s view on him, and to believe that he belongs to a different class to his mother, and is even embarrassed by her. Hardy states this very plainly: he says that in Randolph’s eyes she was “a mother whose mistakes and origin it was his painful lot as a gentleman to blush for.” Thus he is shown to keep his mother out of the way and prevents her from marrying like just as the witch does in the story of Rapunzel. However, whilst the witch imprisons Rapunzel in trying to protect her from the real world, Randolph hides his mother in order to shield his version of the real world (in order words his small circle of aristocratic acquaintances) from his mother. The use of the fairy-tale narrative is particularly effective in this context, as Hardy twists the plot to show that Sophy was not able to marry Hobson as she would have liked to (in opposition to the ‘happily ever after’ style ending of Rapunzel); her son remains stubborn, and her suffering at the hands of society and status continues, eventually resulting in an extremely bleak conclusion: the description of her funeral procession. The Necklace shows a similar kind of victim – she has “no jewellery, nothing” and can hardly even afford clothes to attend the event. In the end it was her financial state of affairs which led her to great suffering. Their lifestyle is described as the “grindingly horrible life of the very poor,” she is “frequently abused” and she “scrubbed floors on her hands and knees.” The fairy-tale inversion is present again, as the parallel can be drawn between the loss of the necklace and the loss of the glass slipper. However, whilst the slipper is returned to Cinderella and she experiences the same sort of happy ending as with Rapunzel, no such thing happens to Madame Loisel and her husband. We are again given a sense of the brutal realism of de Maupassant’s writing and poignantly shown how someone can suffer at the hands of their monetary situation and their position in society.

Hardy and de Maupassant do, however, disagree on whether the suffering experienced by their characters is deserved. That is, whether the fact that they go through great loss because of social expectations and lack of status is acceptable. Hardy makes very clear his disgust for the situation in The Son’s Veto, mostly by portraying Sophy as a helpless but kind character, and striving to create pathos for her. This begins with the description of her as an “invalid,” showing that she has experienced past suffering (whilst also making her powerless to change her situation later on) and our sympathy for her is heightened at the death of her first husband, an event described in a typically Hardy-like manner. “The next time we get a glimpse of her,” he says, “is when he appears in the mournful attire of a widow.” Blunt, plain and pessimistic, Hardy’s style serves to show the unavoidable pain which life entails. However, we hold her in a high regard mainly because of the way her boy treats her, and the fact that she always loves him nevertheless. His unbearable snobbery contrasts starkly with her meekness and kindness. At the prospect of her marriage to Samuel Hobson, he does not even pause to think about the happiness it would bring his mother, but instead “bursts into passionate tears” and exclaims “ ‘It will degrade me in the eyes of all the gentlemen of England’”. Here Hardy directly shows that Sophy is being kept from happiness by a shallow-minded and selfish son on account of the ridiculous classist nature of English society. Indeed, in many ways the son himself represents the British class system in all its absurdity, leading Sophy to her eventual death. This is another context in which the fairy-tale template which Hardy employs is extremely useful – because of the fame of the tale of Rapunzel, it is easy to put in place easily recognizable forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the story. Bearing similarities to the evil witch, the son, and therefore the system of society, can be instantly seen as a force of ‘evil’, therefore showing Hardy’s disgust. Right at the end of the story, there is one more ironic twist which again shows the ridiculousness of it – Samuel Hobson is portrayed as a respectable gentleman in a “neat suit of black”, and to own “the largest fruiterer’s shop in Aldbrickham”. This image of success is Hardy’s final display of the shallowness of ‘status’.

On the other hand, Guy de Maupassant presents the reader with a much more polluted view of whether Madame Loisel is to blame for her downfall. We see a fundamental contradiction in the writing about whether a woman can rise through society – firstly, de Maupassant states that she had “no means of meeting some rich, important man”, but “a girl of no birth to speak of may easily be the equal of any society lady” directly disagrees with it. As well as this contradiction, we are unsure of whether de Maupassant thinks Madame Loisel’s downfall was down to her flaws of character. On the one hand, upon losing the necklace, she is devastated and will do anything to get it back to Madame Forestier, showing her honesty of character, and we are truly impressed when the pair manage to pay off all their debt. However, she is seen to be arrogant, and envious. As a character she shows contradictions in her thinking, for example de Maupassant describes her dreams of “two tall footmen asleep in the huge armchairs”, the fact that they are sleeping showing that they are not performing their task and are simply for show; “trinkets beyond price” also shows this muddled thinking, as trinkets by definition are worth very little, and she describes her ideal “closest friends” as being the most “famous and sought-after” men, showing that she would value being seen with important people over having genuinely close companions. There are more obvious references to her unpleasant characteristics peppering the piece – “she felt that God had made her for such things” (referring to fine dresses and jewelry) is one such example. In this way, therefore, I believe it is de Maupassant’s intention to make the reader have little sympathy for Madame Loisel, particularly as the ironic twist ending with the “imitation necklace” gives a comic effect, as if he almost wants the reader to laugh at her suffering.

It is interesting to see how two writers could have used exactly the same template for seemingly similar short stories, and come up with such a different tone. Whilst Hardy’s The Son’s Veto is inherently tragic, The Necklace has much more of a twisted comic feel. Perhaps this is due to Hardy’s background – he was not wealthy, and was home educated. However, whether deserved or not, both stories powerfully present the brutality of class and status in a 19th century society.