Comparison ‘The Wessex Tales’ Essay, Research Paper
Hardy s native Dorset, especially his birthplace in Higher Bockhampton of Dorchester, the county town of Dorset, was the inspiration for his ancient Kingdom of Wessex, the setting for The Withered Arm and The Three Strangers . Hardy drew on scenes familiar to him in his childhood and incidents recounted to him by his mother to create a realistic picture of country life, its dialect and the inhabitants of those who lived in this place.
The Kingdom of the West Saxons (Wessex) and Dorset has a very strong sense of history, which Hardy illustrates in The Withered Arm and The Three Strangers , due to a history extending back to the pagan times. Parts of The Withered Arm draw on the ancient superstitions of the country people of these times Rhoda and Gertrude go to visit a Conjuror to find a cure for Gertrude s diseased arm. This also highlights the beliefs that are prevalent beneath an ostensibly modern society. Hardy constantly reminds us of the ancient history of Wessex in The Withered Arm , Gertrude and Rhoda go to visit Conjour Trendle and pass over a heath not improbably the same heath which had witnessed the agony of the Wessex King Ina, presented to after-ages as Lear. This has the effect of the characters being trapped by the landscape, and constantly reminds us that Wessex is a place of tragedy, and will continue to be so. The superstition of the characters is shown in both short stories. In The Withered Arm we are told of smouldering village beliefs . These beliefs smoulder beneath the social faces that people assume. The cure for Gertrude s arm is said to be touching a man who has just been hanged. In The Three Strangers the reaction of the party goers towards the second stranger as he slowly reveals through the ancient medium of a ballad, his real trade: a hangman. All the hidden superstition bubbles to the surface. Instinctively they withdrew further and further from the grim gentleman in their midst, who some of them seemed to take for the Prince of Darkness himself, till they formed a remote circle, an empty space of floor being left between them and him… circulus, cujus centrum deabolu .
Hardy also mentions an ancient instrument that was used long ago – the lute – in The Three Strangers , again giving us an example of the ancientness of the landscape and the instruments that are used.
The Three Strangers introduces us to the ancientness of the landscape among the few features of agricultural England which retain an appearance but little modified by the lapse of centuries. Hardy gives us other examples of the ancient landscape some old earthen camp or barrow…some starved fragment of ancient hedge .
Hardy uses footpaths to symbolise the many generations that have been trapped in the same landscape. The crossing of two footpaths at right angles hard by, which may have crossed there and thus for a good five hundred years. Hardy describes in The Three Strangers that the level rainstorm smote walls, slopes, and hedges like the clothyard shafts of Senlac and Crecy . These were ancient battles in the 100 years war. An effective comparison to the embattled generations, a tribe of people always at the mercy of the landscape. Hardy shows us the tragedy of life – we are born, we die and there is nothing that we can do about it.
Although Hardy describes a tragic landscape, he does realise that there is beauty in it, such as the animals of the shepherd.
Hardy personifies the landscape, which makes it seem like another character. In The Withered Arm , Rhoda s house is described as being built of mud-walls, the surface of which had been washed by many rains into channels and depressions that left none of the original flat face visible;while here and there in the thatch above a rafter showed like a bone protruding through the skin.
The ancient dialect also gives the reader an idea of the history of the place. Hardy uses idiosyncrams and archaisms to define characters and gives us a realistic example of the type of speech that characters would have used. In The Withered Arm , Conjuror Trendle is said to be a dealer in furze (turf) . In The Three Strangers different words are used to describe the vegetation of the landscape the long, grassy and furzy downs, coombs, or ewe-leases, as they are called according to their kind. Couths and colds are described as wuzzes and flames . Hardy gives us this dialect that the inhabitants use to directly link the characters to the land in which they were born. Hardy also uses old saxon words to give us a sense of history the erection of these forlorn dwellings.
The Landscape shapes characters, as we are told in The Three Strangers . People are pitted against the harsh landscape, which causes the community to become close knit to overcome the landscape. The landscape forces us to find out who we are as people.
A theme that involves the landscape that is shown in both short stories is the idea of community versus wilderness. In Wessex, all the characters exist as part of a community. Gossip is shared e.g. in The Withered Arm the milkmaids gossip about Rhoda – an enigma, living on the outskirts of the small town. Tis hard for she, signifying the thin worn milkmaid aforesaid. O no, said the second. He ha n t spoke to Rhoda Brook for years. Gossip in the milksheds about Rhoda could get pretty intense The dairyman…knew perfectly the tall milkmaid s history…always kept the gossip in the cowbarton from annoying Rhoda . Rhoda is gossiped about because of her reputation – she had an child out of wedlock with Mr. Lodge who now refuses to acknowledge Rhoda s son as his own.
Conjuror Trendle is also feared in the community, as he does not fit the social mould, the norm, which is considered acceptable. The community does not even acknowledge what he does as a job. He did not profess his remedial practices openly, or care anything about their continuance. People strive to fit in and those who don t are feared. The community also show great interest in the arrival of Gertrude in church – she is judged on her outside appearance only, as clothes were meant to signify a person s situation in life. All eyes were fixed upon her…the atmosphere was full of the subject (Rhoda s troubled affair with Mr. Lodge) during the first days of Mrs. Lodge s arrival.
The community defines its character externally. In The Three Strangers , people are named according to their jobs. All the 19 guests at the Christening have a clearly defined social status. Charley Jake the hedge-carptener, Elijah New the Parish Clerk and John Pitcher, a neighboring dairyman, the shepherd s father in law . People are reliant on each other s good opinion absolute confidence each other s good opinion beget perfect ease .
The characters in both short stories have a fear of people who don t fit into the community or are strangers. The arrival of strangers in The Three Strangers causes tremendous curiosity, the fact that the strangers are coy about revealing how they fit into the social context only makes them seem odder. The first stranger accidentally uses a form of dialect which nearly reveals where he comes from: I m rather cracked in the vamp . Mrs. Fennel s eyes then move to his boots, which can give a clue about a character s occupation.
Of hereabouts? She inquired.
Not quite that – further up the country.
I thought so. And so be I; and by your tongue you come from my neighbourhood.
But you would hardy have heard of me, he said quickly. My time would be long before yours. This shows us how the dialect places a character and defines his social status.
The way the second stranger is dressed makes us feel that he is more important than the first character. He wore a suit of cinder gray shade, large heavy seals. He also had a face that was not without power.
You don t live in Casterbridge? said the Shepherd.
Not as yet; though I shortly mean to move there.
Going to set up in trade, perhaps?
The Shepherd is trying to pry information out of the second stranger to see where he fits in socially. In The Three Strangers our opinions of the men are formed by the clothes that they wear.
Hardy deliberately contrasts the three strangers with each other – he does not use stereotypes to describe the convict and our opinions are formed by his descriptions of them.
The wilderness of the landscape is shown in both short stories to contrast with the community. In The Three Strangers we are told that if any mark of human occupation is met with hereson,m it usually takes the form of the solitary cottage of some shepherd. This gives us an atmosphere of isolation and is very dramatic.
The Three Strangers has a comparison between the isolation outside the cottage where the christening was held, to the inside of the lonely cottage. For that cheerful rustic was entertaining a large party in glorification of the christening of his second girl.
The isolation of Rhoda in The Withered Arm (as she is a fallen woman) is symbolised where she lives. A lonely spot high above the water meads, and not far from the boarder of Egdon Heath. In The Three Strangers the remoteness of the setting is dictated by the Shepherd s profession and is contrasted with the closeness of the community within.
The themes are the same in both novels, although one ends tragically and one ends happily.
We get a sense that all characters are dictated by fate. It is not Gertrude s fault that she has a diseased arm. Rhoda s son is fated to be a crininal, as he was born into unstable circumstances, a criminal from a young age – he has to poach food to survive. He is destined to have a tragic life. He was convicted to be hanged for being caught for arson, although he was not the criminal. It is fate that Gertrude s arm shoudl be cured by touching a hanged man, who happens to be her husband s illigitimate child. In The Three Strangers it is fate that both the criminal and the hangman are friendly together at the party, and that the criminal s brother should also happen to stop by at the house and save his brother s life.
The beliefs and ideals of the inhabitants of rural Dorset are perfectly captured in these short stories, so that many years on, we can still enjoy the genius of Hardy s storytelling.