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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Comparison of ‘The Withered Arm’ and ‘The Three Strangers’ by Thomas Hardy

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Short stories have limited characters (as protagonists) and the introduction of them into the story is swift and quite brief but very precise. Also the atmosphere is quickly established. The narrative is tight and carefully dovetailed. There is always a beginning, development then denouement. The plot is mostly compressed and has a definite time scale. Hardy distinguishes his short stories by using strong poetic language to enhance his description. As poetry was his first love, he uses figurative language naturally to present credible characters and situations. His description of landscape uses an almost cinematic technique, while his themes are often dominated by the influence of fate.


The characterisation in ‘The Withered Arm’ is quite limited. There are only two central characters, Rhoda Brooks and Gertrude Lodge, and the story is written around their past and present actions. The other characters, (the farmer, Rhoda’s son and Conjuror Trundle) are important more as devices of the plot. The characters have an early introduction, which gives a brief account of their appearance and of their important past. The characters are all interwoven, and everything they do reflects on all the other characters. In ‘The Three Strangers’ there are five main characters, Shepherd Fennel and his wife, and the ‘Three Strangers’. All have their own separate, detailed descriptions of their appearance and actions, and there are also many less significant characters, who form the community in the cottage. The minor characters are weakly linked to the plot as part of the active, rural community in the isolated heaths in, and surrounding Higher Crowstairs. The plot is focused on the main characters apart from when the other characters assist them to carry out their actions. Detailed description of the three strangers adds to the sense of surprise at the ultimate revelation of their true identity.


Short stories have to have a tight narrative with a relatively simple, uncomplicated plot so that it is always exactly to the point. Both the Hardy stories we looked at had many twists in the plot that entice the reader and keep them interested. Throughout the stories Hardy uses subtle hints to try to keep the reader on track, but in ‘The Three Strangers’ the twists are used to mislead the reader (and the characters). ‘The Withered Arm’ had a tragic plot, with a sense of ‘doom’ pervading throughout. ‘The Three Strangers’ is more of a comedy an excellent example of the comedy in ‘The Three Strangers’ is the constable saying, “Your money or your life!” When arresting the ‘vagabond’. Both stories are closely linked to fate.


At the beginning of the Three Strangers the atmosphere sets a very happy scene, all of the actions that are taking place in the cottage of Higher Crowstairs are jovial and full of celebration. There is a sense of strong bonds within the rural and farming community, and the music being played on the fiddle and the serpent along with the consumption of homemade mead shows the traditions of the time in which the story is set, the early nineteenth century. The atmosphere outside Higher Crowstairs and its surrounding heaths seem extremely forbidding and isolated, and the weather is harsh, whereas the atmosphere in The Withered Arm follows the actions of the characters, and reflects the situation. There are many places in Egdon Heath where the narrative is situated, including the “solemn heaths” and the “rolling hills”. “Fifty years ago such a lonely cottage stood on such a down…” “…It usually takes the form of the solitary cottage of some shepherd.”


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In both of these short stories Hardy uses very vivid and clear cinematic descriptions so that the reader can get a full picture of the subject he is describing. The language he uses is poetic and, therefore, very figurative. “They hardly spoke to each other, and immediately set out on their climb into the interior of this solemn country, which stood high above the rich alluvial soil…” ‘The Withered Arm’. Hardy is very prescriptive and detailed in his writing as befits his status as a poet. He also uses classical, literary and biblical references. In ‘The Withered Arm’ he refers to King Lear, ‘not improbably the same heath which had witnessed the agony of the Wessex King Ina, presented to after-ages as Lear.’ Some of the language he uses in The Three Strangers is written in the local dialect and he often uses Dorset slang that would be used when talking in the rural farming community in the early nineteenth century such as “wuzzes and flames.” (Coughs and colds) And “grogblossoms.” (Blotches/boils)


The people in the early nineteenth century were very superstitious and believed that anything bad was evil and immediately associated with the devil or ‘prince of evil.’ Witchcraft or medical men/women who weren’t qualified doctors but still charged for their strange remedies were officially frowned upon, but often used by the local community. Their traditions were just as strong as their belief in superstition. Traditions in the late nineteenth century were mostly linked to ceremonies or celebration. Music at parties or dances was still played by instrumentalists, using mostly string instruments, but a few early wind and brass instruments too. Women in the time that Hardy was writing these stories were of second-class status, often treated socially and in law as the possessions of men. At that time they still didn’t have any rights, and their main jobs remained to look pretty and do needlework etc! Marriage was very important, and fathers were to marry off their daughters young (usually before they were twenty), as marriage was very important and was almost like picking a career for young women. The influence of fate in these two stories was very strong. The fact that in ‘The Withered Arm’ the young man that was hung was Rhoda’s son, and that in ‘The Three Strangers’ the executioner was sitting in the chimney corner with the escaped condemned man, and that they chased his brother when they already had the man they wanted, are all examples of how fate works as an unstoppable force behind coincidence


Even though the stories had many similarities I thought ‘The Withered Arm’ had that little bit extra to make it a better story. The main characters and scenes were described in much more detail, and I could easily imagine being there and feeling everything as they felt it. ‘The Three Strangers’ did not seem to have much of a storyline and it was far too simple. I thought that ‘The Three Strangers’ could do with being a bit shorter but with more detailed description and maybe a few more twists in the story to make it slightly more interesting. I think that they were so successful as short stories because they were so detailed and interesting that they had the same contents as a novel but compressed into a much shorter text. I like ‘The Withered Arm’ best because it was so closely linked to fate and I enjoyed reading it much more than ‘The Three Strangers’.





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