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This example is from an access course which offers students an introduction to literary studies. It allows them to explore their own potential for the subject before either passing on to ‘A’ level or undergraduate study. The student in this case has a much higher than usual ability in analytic and conceptual skills, and a very firm sense of structure in essay construction. However, because the conventions of academic writing take some time to acquire, there is still plenty of comment to be made about the details of this essay.
Present an analysis of the main characters in Thomas Hardy’s story, ‘The Withered Arm’. In other words, say what we know about them in terms of their physical appearance, their psychological motivation, and their relationship to each other.
Thomas Hardy tells the story of ‘The Withered Arm’ using three main characters: Rhoda Brook, Farmer Lodge, and Gertrude Lodge; and three subsidiary characters: the son of Farmer Lodge and Rhoda Brook, ‘Conjurer’ Trendle and the executioner Davies. The drama is played out in and around Hardy’s imaginary village of Holmstoke and town of Casterbridge, and the action takes place between the years 1819 and 1825. Rhoda Brook is introduced in the opening paragraphs of the story as a forlorn character – the eternal fallen and abandoned woman.
When the story opens Hardy describes her as thirty-years-old, thin and faded (p.25). But, as the story is developed, he gives many clues to her previous appearance, and a clear picture emerges of a tall, large-framed woman of enduring strength, with well defined features (p.34) dark, handsome eyes (p.27) and an abundance of dark hair. We can appreciate that, at the age of seventeen, it would have been a girl of considerable attraction to whom Farmer Lodge was drawn.
Rhoda’s affair with Lodge gave them a son – who is twelve years old when the story begins. But the relationship does not appear to have endured. Lodge has not spoken to Rhoda for years, (p.26) and always ignores his son whenever he sees him.
Although the relationship is long over for Lodge, it is plain that Rhoda has continued to hold on to the idea that there might be, in time, some sort of compensation for what she must have seen as a ruined life. All chances of such an event happening vanished with the arrival of Gertrude as Lodge’s wife (p.36) but the kind of reparation that lay in Rhoda’s mind is revealed by the importance of the wedding ring with which the spectre in her nightmare torments her (p.31). Rhoda had, it seems, dreamed of marriage and respectability.
Although she has had a hard life, Rhoda is not a hard woman. She is, for example, inclined to be indulgent with her son by allowing him to stay at home instead of sending him to work in the fields (p.36). When she meets Gertrude in the flesh she responds readily to her ‘sweet voice and winning glance’ and quickly forms a good relationship with her which borders on affection.
When Gertrude first reveals to her the blight on her arm, Rhoda feels some elation that the beauty of the young girl has been tarnished (p.36) but she also feels the beginnings of a guilt which is to become obsessive. She is a simple countrywoman strongly inclined towards superstitious beliefs and, during her years of rejection and relative isolation, she knows that she has been called a witch (p.35). Her troubled mind refuses to accept the blight on Gertrude’s arm for the coincidence that it really is (p.34) and she allows herself to believe that she might indeed have some malignant powers and, in fact, be responsible for Gertrude’s suffering.
Gertrude Lodge enters the story as the nineteen year old bride of Farmer Lodge. Hardy gives a clear picture of her appearance at that time through the eyes of Rhoda Brook’s son, who reports back to his mother that Gertrude is a small, pretty young woman, doll-like, with fair hair, blue eyes, and a soft complexion. She is almost the perfect opposite to the tall and darkly handsome Rhoda.
Although little more than a girl, Gertrude is mature and ‘a lady complete’ (p.29) and immediately on her arrival in the village sets about the duties of the yeoman’s wife by bringing gifts to the poorer people in the parish. She is however, timid by nature, and has a natural shyness, as is shown by the ordeal of her first public appearance in church (p.30).
When the blight first appears on her arm Gertrude’s enlightened and educated mind accepts it as a natural misfortune. Although blessed with good looks she is not vain, for she confides to Rhoda that she herself ‘does not much mind it’ (p.36). But she does mind the effect that she thinks it has on Farmer Lodge. She is astute enough to realise that personal appearance is very important to him, and she begins to fear losing his love.
When the suggestion to visit conjurer Trendle is first made, Gertrude rejects the idea out of hand as superstitious nonsense (p.37). But as the condition becomes worse, she abandons reason and is willing to try Trendle’s powers. During the following five years Gertrude’s interest in her arm declines into an obsession, and she becomes ‘irritable and superstitious’ (p.42), seeking a cure in the wildest of remedies from herbs to black magic. The pursuit of a cure demonstrating considerable single-mindedness and strength of purpose.
Although she loves her husband, Gertrude is distanced from him by age and her irrational fears, and is unable to discuss the misery of her affliction calmly with him. She is tortured by the belief that the disappearance of the blight from the arm will re-generate her husband’s lost interest in her, and she summons up all of her dwindling strength to face the awful contact with the freshly-hanged corpse. An encounter which proves altogether too much for her ‘delicate vitality’ (p.54).
In contrast to the liberal and detailed description of the two women, Hardy gives very little information about the physical appearance of Farmer Lodge. He is, at the time of his marriage to Gertrude, about forty years old (p.25) and in the prime of his life. We are told that his face is clean-shaven, and has a ‘bluish vermilion hue’, which suggests a very dark-haired man, otherwise there are no clues on which to build a picture.
Lodge is a man of considerable means, the inheritor of land which has been owned by his family for over two hundred years (p.42). He is a proud man, and given to ostentation. He brings his new wife home in a bright, handsome new gig (p.27) wears ‘great seals’ in his waistcoat, and swells with pride when he makes his first public appearance with his bride (p.30). Appearances do seem to be important to him.
Lodge’s behaviour during the telling of the story shows him to be an enigma. He is able, publicly, to ignore his son completely (p.29) and yet harbour notions of adopting him. He is unable to give Gertrude the comfort and reassurance that she needs when the blight first appears and flies into a fury at the mention of superstitious village beliefs (p.45). He is however gentle enough to her when he suggests ‘for her own good’ (p.42) that she rids herself of her hoard of quack cures.
He becomes ‘gloomy and silent’ (p.41) as time passes, but in spite of Gertrude’s distress gives her no real cause to think that he has ceased to love her. He does not appear to have contributed any of his considerable wealth towards the upkeep of Rhoda and his son, for they live in a dilapidated cottage, relying for their living on Rhoda’s hard work as a milkmaid and the boy’s occasional poaching (p.30). And yet in Rhoda’s hour of desperate need he takes time away from his business to attend the trial of his son, and appears with Rhoda to claim his corpse for burial (p.53); although he has no tears to shed for the boy. His subsequent softening of character is as puzzling as the rest of his behaviour.
Of the minor characters in the story much less detail is given. The ill-fated boy – we are provided with no name or physical description – is bright-minded, perceptive and impressionable when judged by his reports about Gertrude Lodge (p.30). But there are suggestions of the lack of discipline – his carving of the chair (p.27) reluctance to work in the fields (p.32) and his poaching – which led him into the trouble which bring his life to a tragically early end. There is an interesting comparison between the grey-bearded, red-faced Trendle, who affects not to believe in his powers, and the hangman Davies, an old man who earns his living as a jobbing gardener, but who insists that his ‘real calling ‘ is that of an Officer of Justice (p.50).
Hardy takes quite unrelated happenings and links them through bitterness and superstition to produce this gloomy drama. The affair between Rhoda and Lodge, and her subsequent rejection with the burden of an illegitimate child, sets the seeds of bitterness which Lodge’s eventual marriage to enter Rhoda’s frustrated mind. Gertrude’s unfortunate but natural affliction becomes, for Rhoda, a source of guilt fed by superstition and her own unhappiness. Gertrude’s fear of losing Lodge’s love displaces her natural reason and deteriorates into an obsession. Lodge’s inability to give comfort and reassurance to his young wife allows her mental anguish to fester for years and leads her to seek the most outrageous of cures. The boy’s lack of discipline leads to the grisly scene which brings them all together again for the last time.
This is a first rate piece of work Ken. You have obviously read the story very attentively, and the remarks you make about it indicate a mature perception. You also give plenty of evidence of ‘close reading’ – that is, paying scrupulously close attention to the text in its detail. I was also struck by the very firm control you have over your material: the sense of a solid and well-planned structure was very striking.
The only thing I felt was missing was that there might have been a little more explication of the change in Gertrude’s nature as she becomes more distressed. Her moral deterioration might then have been linked to Hardy’s sense of ‘tragic fatalism’ which is very strong in this story.
You have made very good progress on the course, and you are now operating at a level which is the equivalent of university undergraduate studies. This gets an A- grade on this course.
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