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The Distracted Preachers and Other Tales

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‘The Distracted Preachers and Other Tales’ are set in the 19th century, written by Thomas Hardy. He is one of England’s most widely known novelists and poets from the Victorian era, who is at least as popular today among ordinary readers as during his own lifetime. He received a great deal of academic attention and acclaim, where the life and personality of Hardy have aroused fascinated interest.

The Withered Arm’ and ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’ from ‘The Distracted Preachers and Other Tales’ are both principally tales of love affairs of normal everyday country lives in the Victorian society, showing the interaction of love and suffering, and the consequences of suffering of the three women where Hardy writes through their eyes. Fate and destiny are often shown in his stories, where lives are altered in their courses. Fates are determined and plots resolved by chance, bad luck or, a malevolent fate.

Rhoda Brook, Gertrude Lodge and Phyllis Grove are all women of this time where women had no freedom or liberty, showing a big contrast of beliefs, manners, habits and values between the past and present. Victorian women’s lives were powerless and mundane. They were expected to be totally subservient and dependant firstly to their fathers, and then to their husbands, where men are shown to be dominant and superior. Their marriage and social activities were greatly restricted and influenced by the rigid class system, and were expected to follow family wishes to whom they were to marry.

They are contrasting characters having different personalities and different lives. Rhoda is a strong woman with a harsh life, contrasting to Gertrude’s modesty and wealthy lifestyle, and Phyllis’ extreme shyness and the life with her lugubrious father. They are similar though, in another way, where they are all isolated and lonely because of the obedience to society rules, and the fact that they are all united in their failure to find happiness in love. The first part of ‘The Withered Arm’ begins with ‘A Lorn Milkmaid’, the very first chapter of the story.

The ‘Lorn Milkmaid’ refers to Rhoda Brook, who is a country character who is featured to be unlettered, unskilled, and belongs to the working class with a low social status. ‘Lorn’ suggests that Rhoda is a miserable and lonely character. The beginning of the story sets scene at the dairy, where the milkmaids discuss about Farmer Lodge and his recent marriage with a woman who is much younger than him. At this point, we do not know anything of the relationship between Rhoda Brook and Farmer Lodge, the only thing that we can be aware of is the occasional glances that the other workers give Rhoda.

The readers’ first impression of Rhoda is ‘a thin, fading woman of thirty milked somewhat apart from the rest. ‘ ‘Thin’ suggests that Rhoda’s harsh life as a milkmaid and ‘fading’ suggests that she is seen as a stranger in the background and is ignored as she is ‘fading’ into the surroundings, suggesting that she is hardly noticeable. She is also described to be isolated and appears as an outcast even in her own class by the use of ‘fading’ and ‘milk somewhat apart from the rest’.

The thin woman who had not spoken’ seems to shows that she wants to stay away from social attention. This is significant as we can instantly recognise how isolated she is, as all the other milkmaids chat together about the incidents of the past week in their neighbourhood of Holmstoke but Rhoda does not seem to join in at all, or neither is she interested. Rhoda Brook and her son live in a poor condition, as the cottage they live in is dilapidated and is ‘built of mud-walls, the surface of which had been washed by many rains’, showing their poverty.

The condition of the house is shown to be similar to its owner, Rhoda, who ‘had once been handsome’, by the use of metaphors, where ‘none of the original flat face visible’, and as if there is ‘a bone protruding through the skin’, again highlights their poor state and hints how both of them had worn out over time and daily work. This indicates that they have problems keeping themselves and gives a sense of uneasiness, which Hardy frequently does in his tales of tragedy.

However, even though Rhoda and her son lives in poverty, they remain strong throughout the story, trying to convince the villagers that they are doing fine. They do not complain about their lack of wealth, but suffer in silence. From the conversation between Gertrude Lodge and Rhoda’s son, we can see his maturity, as he said to Gertrude, ‘I lived with my mother, and we had enough to do to keep ourselves, and that’s how it was’. This also suggests that Rhoda’s life is worked hard for as a milkmaid. Yet ‘we had enough’ again emphasises that they only have their necessities.

The relationship between Rhoda Brook and Farmer Lodge is being constantly reminded throughout the story. It is first suggested in the beginning of the story when the milkmaids are gossiping about Farmer Lodge’s recent marriage. We can see from here that they once shared a relationship, but have now separated, as ‘He ha’n’t spoke to Rhoda Brook for years. ‘ This is also where Rhoda is first introduced into the story. Hardy tends to elicit sympathy to Rhoda here, as other milkmaids are pitiful towards her, thinking that ‘Tis hard for she’.

However, the conversations between Rhoda and her son suggest that she still have feelings towards Farmer Lodge and is very concern about the appearance of his new wife. ‘You can give her a look, and tell me what she’s like’, showing her anxiety to know about her. When her son told her that ‘She is not tall. She is rather short’, Rhoda is immediately filled ‘with satisfaction’, again highlighting her concern for this Gertrude Lodge, comparing her to herself, as she gets the things that Rhoda is supposed to get, married to the man whom Rhoda is supposed to marry.

Yet, this further elicit sympathy towards Rhoda, as this is the only thing that she can think of for being better than Gertrude, whereas Gertrude has better qualities than she does in many different ways, as ‘she’s very pretty-very. In fact, she’s lovely. ‘ ‘These descriptions of the newly-married couple were continued from time to time by the boy at his mother’s request, after any chance encounter he had had with them. ‘ The repetitiveness here helps to emphasise Rhoda’s concern.

Furthermore, there would be discrepancies of social classes if Farmer Lodge and Rhoda were in love, so this is also a possibility causing their separation. Another thing that the readers are being constantly reminded of is the illegitimacy of Rhoda’s son. In the Victorian era, having an illegitimate son brings shame to the mother’s family, where she would be ostracised, isolated and humiliated. Men were not held responsible, and did not have to provide any support to the bringing up of the child. In ‘The Withered Arm’, we can see an example of this, where Rhoda is always lonely and isolated, living in social disgrace.

This is what causes her to appear as an outcast in her class and having to face being the gossip topic of everyone around her in the village. This makes the readers empathise towards her because of her distance and isolation from the general stream of life with no fault of her own. The lack of wealth of Rhoda is also caused by the illegitimacy, as Farmer Lodge is refusing to acknowledge her son, and therefore does not provide them with any financial support even though he is wealthy and can afford to live in ‘a white house of ample dimensions’.

Further sympathy is elicited here by the way Farmer Lodge treats her. Rhoda lives a harsh live not only because of the shame, but also because of the poverty, as she can barely earn much money from her work, which is mostly spent on the bringing up of his son. Rhoda and her son are not being taken any notice by him either, as he told her new wife, ‘I think he lives with his mother a mile or two off’, and ‘Took no notice of’ her son ‘Just the same as usual. ‘ Witchcraft, superstitious and folklore were part of everyday life in the Victorian society.

This has caused the villagers to conclude that Rhoda Brook is a ‘witch’ and to believe that she ‘exercises a malignant power over people’, where ‘they noticed how pale and haggard she looked’ on the morning after Gertrude’s arm’s injury and believe that the shrivelling arm of Gertrude Lodge is the actual evidence. Yet, the growing relationship between Rhoda and Gertrude, whom she hates yet, comes to like proves them wrong, as she thinks ‘this innocent young thing should have her blessing and not her curse’ with ‘her heart reproached her bitterly.

Rhoda also recognises her youthful goodness and innocent, that she too, is a victim for falling for Farmer Lodge, who caused all her unhappiness, prophesying that Gertrude too, will get unhappiness because of him. Her concern for Gertrude as a friend is again shown as ‘her face grew sadder and thinner’ after the breaking down of friendship, and eventually ‘disappeared from the neighbourhood of Holmstoke. ‘ Rhoda is a remarkable portrait of a woman, who is driven by jealousy and righteous indignation at her treatment by Farmer Lodge which has brought her to poverty, social disgrace and isolation.

She is ill-fated, where she loves a man who does not love her back, and carries shame on her shoulder by having her illegitimate son, being ostracised by society. She is a strong character throughout the story with her life going against her without any fault of her own. Gertrude Lodge, an ideal Victorian woman, who is healthy looking, modest, attractive, middle class, well educated and ‘a lady complete’. She is also presented as a typical Victorian, good wife with all the qualities above, having a role very much of a home-maker, which is to look after husband, father and child.

Her middle class is often made in contrast with Rhoda Brook’s poverty. She wears ‘a white bonnet and a silver-coloured gownd’ and lives in wealthy conditions where Rhoda barely earns any from her everyday work and lives in a dilapidated house. Another of her qualities which is being frequently reminded is her beauty. ‘She’s a rosy-cheeked, tisty-tosty little body enough’, with her face ‘fresh in colour… soft and evanescent, like the light under a heap of rose-petals’, showing her beauty. However, ‘evanescent’ suggests short-live beauty, which also prophesises an unhappy future as she would soon lose her attractiveness.

Gertrude is being called ‘my pretty Gertrude’ by her husband, Farmer Lodge, where Hardy again emphasises on her beauty, and suggests the happiness her beauty has brought her. Her attractiveness is again highlighted as Rhoda’s son tells his mother about her. ‘Her hair is lightish, and her face as comely as a live doll’s’, with her eyes ‘of a bluish turn, and her mouth is very nice and red; and when she smiles, her teeth show white. ‘ Her husband’s satisfaction for his wife is again shown, as ‘he seemed pleased, and his waistcoat stuck out, and his great golden seals hung like a lord’s’.

This again reminds of us that her beauty brings her happiness, and suggests that Farmer Lodge loves her beauty but not her. The way Gertrude acts seems to make her even more attractive, with her voice ‘so indescribably sweet, her glance so winning, her smile so tender’. This creates a great contrast to Rhoda’s unattractiveness and coldness. Rhoda is worn out by her daily work and seems unfriendly to the other villages as she never speaks to them, contrasting to Gertrude’s friendly visit.

This creates a positive character of an angelic image for Gertrude where Rhoda is presented as a negative character. Gertrude is a stranger from without, coming to this part of the country for the first time as Farmer Lodge’s bride, who is presented as an outsider. She is a young woman full of unawareness and innocence who plans a happy future with her new husband, but is ignorant of the situation that formerly existed between her husband and Rhoda Brook and of the present, as well as the local superstitious and customs.

This form great contrast to Rhoda, who seems to know about everything. However, they are similar as the share the same lover, past and present, and that she too, fail to find happiness because of the obedience to society rules. Farmer Lodge and Gertrude share a mundane marriage, where she is inferior, and he is dominant. Unkindness is suggested to have shown to her as she suggests that ‘it looks just as if he had flown into a rage and struck me there.

Short-lived love is again shown here after the use of ‘evanescent’, where there is ‘six years of marriage, and only a few months of love’, showing an unhappy matrimony because of her afflicted arm, again highlighting that beauty brings her love from Farmer Lodge, and is now lost because ‘her grace and beauty was contorted and disfigured in the left limb’. There is a dramatic change of Gertrude’s character, where the girl full of generosity, timid and modesty have now changed into ‘an irritable, superstitious woman’.

The infliction of her ‘withered arm’ is not of her own doing, but has made a great change in her character, making her obsess ‘to experimenting upon her ailment with every quack remedy she came across. ‘ On the other hand, this change shows her genuine love to Farmer Lodge, where ‘she was honestly attached to her husband, and was ever secretly hoping against hope to win back his heart by regaining some at least of her personal beauty’, causing her to try out all sorts of remedies that she can find. However, this desperation had led her to the lost of friends, happiness and love, driving Farmer Lodge away from her.

The readers’ empathy to Gertrude would have now disappears as her obsession has become too extreme. She puts her ailment before a life of an innocent, young boy’s life, as ‘her unconscious prayer was, ‘O Lord, hang some guilty or innocent person soon! ” There is also a huge contrast between the way Farmer Lodge treats Gertrude when they were newly married and when she gets her afflicted arm which reminds us of Rhoda as he did the same to her when she becomes pregnant. He used to treat Gertrude with gentleness and kindness, calling her ‘my pretty Gertrude’, but then becomes cold and uncaring, where he is ‘usually gloomy and silent’.

Gertrude faces a lost of happiness in love without any fault of her own despite her change of character. This again reminds us of Rhoda, because of her unhappiness caused by the same man, and that they are united by their misfortune in love. Towards the end of the story, where Gertrude met Farmer Lodge with Rhoda in the jail, we can instantly see the complex love triangle, which is finally revealed in the end after six years of marriage. When the changing of blood takes place, the tension of the scene reaches a climax, where fascination and horror are mount within Gertrude and the readers.

This again emphasises on her eagerness to cure her arm to regain her happiness in love because of the danger she faces as an ordinary Victorian woman, highlighting her genuine love towards Farmer Lodge, showing that she can risk anything, even her life to regain his love. The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion is a deeply felt tale, showing a doomed love relationship of the honorable behavior of a young woman and the soldier with whom she is in love is confronted by the hypocritical respectability of the English society.

However, it has a tragic outcome where the story ends with betrayal and execution. In this story, Hardy writes about the sense of freshness, optimism and the fatal recklessness of youth, and the contrast between the impulsive innocence and the sourness and suspicion of those who have lived longer without gaining more than years where Phyllis Grove is telling her story when she is old. The beautiful simplicity with which it is told helps greatly towards engaging our emotion, as we hold sympathy towards the hopeless attitude of Phyllis towards her life and the love relationship.

The whole story is being framed in the past, then recollected and retold to the narrator before her death as a very old woman; here we can see her regret which further elicits sympathy from the readers towards her helpless life. Phyllis Grove, a lonely character similar to both Rhoda and Gertrude, is an ordinary country lady with ‘modesty and humility’. She thinks of herself to be insignificant as she thinks she would soon be ‘dead, buried, and forgotten’.

This is shown as ‘… carcely a soul had been seen near her father’s house for weeks’, showing a living place located away from the rest with loneliness and isolation, which reminds us of Rhoda Brook. ‘The daughter’s seclusion was great’, but ‘if her social condition was twilight,… her twilight oppressed her’, causing a great change in her character, that she becomes ‘… so shy that if she met a stranger anywhere in her short rambles she felt ashamed at his gaze, walked awkwardly, and blushed to her shoulders.

From this point though, we can tell the difference between Rhoda and Phyllis even though they live in a way, similar lives, as Rhoda remains strong however ostracised by the society, where Phyllis shows extreme shyness. Alternatively, her character reminds us of Gertrude who is also timid. Phyllis’ living condition is similar to Rhoda’s, contrasting to Gertrude’s, where it is ‘small, dilapidated’. This reminds us that Phyllis has a low social status as represented by her low quality of life; we therefore elicit sympathy towards her as we do towards Rhoda. Phyllis is presented as a typical Victorian woman who is subservient to her father.

She is dependent on her father and is not self-sufficient. She also has little control over situations showing a lack of freedom and no real hope to find happiness in life. Her restricted rights and the powerless and mundane life show a great contrast to women nowadays. Dr Grove, Phyllis’ father shows a very controlling attitude towards her life; he makes assumptions, conclusions and decisions without considering her feelings, where Phyllis obeys to whatever he says. Dr Grove does not care about Phyllis’ happiness as he wants her to marry Humphrey Gould even he thinks of him as a man who ‘Love me little, love me long.

He also treats Phyllis in ‘a very unkind’ manner, as he jumps to conclusion that her asking about news saying that Humphrey thinks ‘it best that there should be no definite promise as yet on either side’ as a relief towards ‘her engagement had come to nothing’ because she wants ‘an excuse for encouraging one or other of those foreign fellows to flatter… ‘ her. Dr Grove quickly makes a decision that Phyllis is not allowed to ‘ever set foot outside that garden-fence’ without his permission. This highlights his overpowering attitude towards her and the sense of imprisoning shows the harsh discipline of Phyllis’ life.

This helps to build up empathy because she never gets any happiness throughout her life and the sense that she probably never can. However, ‘Phyllis had not the smallest intention of disobeying him in her actions’, emphasising her obedience to society rules. Readers here show frustration as her lack of courage to fight for a better life, and her persistence in continuing the obedience even though she thinks ‘the young foreign soldier was almost an ideal being with her’. Dr Grove’s dominance is again highlighted where Matthi?? us Tina asks about her father’s opinion in the beginning of his proposal.

As a result, Phyllis rejected immediately because of the thought of her father. We can see Dr Grove shows total disapproval towards their relationship because of the difference in their nationality, where Phyllis would bring shame to her and her family like Rhoda with an illegitimate child. Phyllis, the daughter of a depressive doctor who seeks an almost hermit-like seclusion in a village is ‘discovered even here by an admirer, and her hand most unexpectedly asked in marriage’ by a typical Victorian man, Humphrey Gould, ‘an approximately fashionable man of a mild type’.


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