After reading Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Withered Arm’ and ‘The Melancholy Hussar,’ I really pity the women who had to take second place to others depending on their class and social status. Women then, had no privileges like education and had no financial power whatsoever. They had to obey the main men in their lives; Fathers and husbands dominated women and, no matter how wealthy their backgrounds was, the women had no say in decision-making or relationships. The role of women in society is vividly described in both of Hardy’s stories through three characters; Rhoda Brook, a dairy maid, Gertrude Lodge, the wife of a wealthy farmer and Phyllis Grove, the daughter of a retired doctor.
Rhoda Brook in ‘The Withered Arm’ was branded ‘a fallen woman’ and soiled goods because of her illegitimate son. She was poor and struggling alone to raise her son with hard earned money and was prohibited from getting married because of her downfall yet the father of her son, Farmer Lodge kept his dignified position in society. However, Rhoda’s strong will and independence gave her the freedom to make decisions despite her poverty. Rhoda’s poverty is indicated through the description of her dwelling where ‘here and there in the thatch above a rafter showed like a bone protruding through the skin.’ This simile
signifies how thin Rhoda was, how dilapidated her cottage was and what her lifestyle was like. She displayed evidence of inner-strength at the end of the story by returning to Holmstoke, after suffering terrible loss and ‘absolutely refusing ………the provision made to her.’ This provision was a ‘small annuity to Rhoda Brook,’ from Farmer Lodge after the death of their son and the death of his wife.
Gertrude Lodge was from a higher class of society than Rhoda, she was married to Farmer Lodge and she had to constantly obey her husband, stealing her independence. Rules of social convention had to be followed, this meant that the ladylike Gertrude was considered as an appropriate partner for wealthy Farmer Lodge, whereas, Rhoda, being a common milkmaid, would never have an acceptable spouse. The relationship between Farmer Lodge and Rhoda should never have been, considering the fact that she was lower class, thus proving the double standards of society.
Gertrude being ‘a lady complete,’ pretty and polite, was proudly paraded around the parish by her husband. He was not rejected in society even though he had fathered a son to a poor milkmaid and disowned both of them. Society’s double standards had taken their toll on poor Rhoda instead of wealthy Lodge. Gertrude was like a possession to him and she had to uphold an attractive appearance for him ‘men think so much of personal appearance’ she said but Rhoda had no such worries being ‘somewhat apart from the others,’ which gave her more freedom to make some of her own decisions in life. Gertrude was dominated by Lodge in every aspect, even where her beliefs were concerned, he would not hear of her visiting a conjurer, so she had to do so in secret.
Phyllis Grove in ‘The Melancholy Hussar,’ was also dominated, mainly by her father. He controlled her every movement and kept her secluded from others in an attempt to protect her from the nearby Hussars. He was a determined man, determined to achieve his wish to lead Phyllis down the right path. He demanded that she marry accordingly – namely Humphrey Gould.
‘Phyllis became so shy,’ inward and had no stamina because of her willingness to satisfy her father whether it be respect or fear or a bit of both. She was powerless to marry the man she really loved because of her obedience and loyalty to her father. All this resulted in Phyllis having to follow the unwritten rules of society by forsaking her true love; marriage to a hussar would have been totally unacceptable and against social convention which was of great importance two hundred years ago. People had a manner of behaving which was regarded as customary. Phyllis and Rhoda had to conduct themselves appropriately in accordance with etiquette.
Hardy’s portrayal of those times relays the impression of how women were belittled and governed in society by men. Men had to display evidence of a high standing and what better way to do so, than by showing authority by domineering any women associated with their lives. Only a very courageous man or woman would have dared to break the social code.