Thomas Hardy’s treatment of women and how far they conform to the social norms of that time
In this essay I will be looking at 4 short stories written by Thomas Hardy. I will be commenting on Hardy’s treatment of women and how far they conform to the social norms of that time. The 4 short stories I will be referring to are “The Withered Arm”, “Old Mrs Chundle”, “The Sons Veto” and “Tony Kytes, The Arch-Deciever”. I will also be looking at a 5th story I read by Hardy, “The Melancholy Hussar”. Thomas Hardy set all his short stories around the 19th century in the fictional land of Wessex, a large area of south and south-west England. At this time England was a rural place with the majority of people living in the country side. As a child Hardy was brought up with the rural way of life, unlike the character Sophy in “The Sons Veto” who lives in the city, London, where “There are worlds within worlds in the great city”. However, she becomes very isolated like the people in rural places. Her isolation is due to marrying someone of the wrong class.
In the 19th century there were 3 main social classes. These classes consisted of the gentry (people of high social class), the middle class and the lower class. The upper class women at this time were expected to contribute to the family income with the money she brought into the marriage. The wealth of a woman and her funds were set aside for her children and entirely under her husband’s control. The middle class was generally made up of farmers, craftsmen and merchants. These people allowed their children in their trades or went to live in another household. People of this class often had servants of their own. The lower class mainly worked to survive. They were employed as farmers, laborers or hired in industries such as weaving or spinning. Their children were sent away from home at the early age of 13 to work on nearby farms for food, not wages.
Crime and punishment in the 19th century saw great changes in how people were caught, arrested and charged. Most prosecutions were not carried out by the police, but by individuals, usually the victims of the crime. Anyone who was thought to have committed a crime was taken to the constable by the person who caught them. Even in places where there was a proper police force most prosecutions were still carried out by private people. Levels of crimes continued to rise through the 19th century and the only way Victorians could attempt to stop this was to make the punishments severe. Eventually punishments got so harsh that more and more people were angry at the number of people being hung for petty crimes. Just like Boy in “The Withered Arm” who was hung for arson.
Thomas Hardy uses language of his time to give his stories a sense of realism. Realism does not require certainty, but Hardy uses his own experience and imagination from his rural childhood to create characters and environments to show his stories are firmly in Wessex. For example, in “The Withered Arm” Rhoda refers to Gertrude as “tisty tosty” meaning round as a ball, or rather fat. He also uses “what the Turk” which means what the devil. Another example of language used in “The Withered Arm” is “lineaments”- this means facial features. The technique of realism gives readers a chance to familiarize themselves with the characters and their surroundings. Also, the language that Hardy uses reflects his love of the countryside.
At this time women were treated very differently, Thomas Hardy shows this by making it apparent that men were definitely the more dominate sex. In most of his short stories he made women his main characters. In the 19th century a women’s place in society was considered to be in the home, an example of this is in “The Melancholy Hussar”. The main character Phyllis (notice, a woman as a main character) had been secluded in her room for many years due to her father, Dr Grove. “The daughter’s seclusion was great, but beyond the seclusion of the girl lay the seclusion of the father. If her social condition was twilight, his was darkness. Yet he enjoyed his darkness, while her twilight depressed her”. This symbolizes how every woman of Phyllis’s class and society felt at the time. They felt loneliness and a sense of seclusion from always being in the home. Phyllis’s seclusion also relates back to the rural society that Hardy himself once lived in.
The appearance of women in the 19th century was also very important. It was said that the career for women, was marriage, and to get ready to become a wife took a lot of grooming! In addition to being able to sing, play an instrument and speak a little of another language, the qualities that were needed in a women were to be innocent, efficient, obedient, faithful and to be able to put aside any intellectual opinions that they had. Thomas Hardy shows the importance of women’s appearance in his short stories, for example in “The Withered Arm”. Gertrude, who is married to Farmer Lodge, gets a revolting looking mark on her arm that is said to be “the bruise in the shape of a hand”.
When Farmer Lodge discovers this mark he is instantly put off Gertrude, he tries to hide his feelings but his wife knows that “he seems not to care for her so much now she is disfigured”. Gertrude is scared that her husband no longer finds her attractive with this imperfection and says to Rhoda; “I shouldn’t so much mind it, if I hadn’t a notion that it makes my husband – dislike me – no, love me less. Men think so much of personal appearance.” This quote sums up what men thought about women’s appearance at this time. Also, the appearance of Phyllis in “The Melancholy Hussar” is really essential to the story. If she wasn’t well groomed in the first place, then Humphrey would have never have been attracted over to the wall where she sat.
Again, women’s appearance played an essential role in “Tony Kytes, The Arch-Deciever”. Tony’s initial thoughts of each women he fell in love with, was what they looked like. If none had been beautiful then Tony wouldn’t have looked twice. Their appearance definitely influenced Tony’s opinions and decisions. When each woman is introduced in this story their appearance is the first thing mentioned, for example; “Milly Richards, a nice, light, small, tender little thing”,
“Unity Sallet, a handsome girl” and “Hannah Jolliver, another young beauty of the place at that time”. Through out the short story all 3 women try and compete with their looks saying things like “And – can you say I’m not pretty, Tony? Now look at me!” and “Prettier than she?” Tony Kytes can relate to each of them.
When Hardy was writing his short stories in the 19th century, women were expected to marry at all costs. If they did not, they would be considered a spinster (a woman that does not wish to marry or can’t because of her looks). At this time there was a shortage of available men which made it very hard for women to find the right man to marry, especially because of the high standards that they set. Women only wanted to marry the best looking or the wealthiest men, they would do this in order to live an easier life with no work involved.
If women did not marry they would be expected to work on the land, an example of this is in “The Sons Veto”. Sophy had worked as a maid in the house of the reverend as a young girl. After his first wife died she had stayed to look after him, but after an accident which left her in a wheeled chair the reverend ask her to marry him. Sophy’s life would have been much happier if she had married Sam instead and she would not have been caught between society’s boundaries. Sam was a very rare man to find at the time, he really did love Sophy and wanted to marry her for no other reason. However the reverend represents every woman’s place in a marriage at the time and wanted her for no other reason, but to be a maid.
The reverend can not bare the thought of loosing a perfectly good parlour-maid and exclaims ‘No, Sophy; lame or not lame, I cannot let you go. You must never leave me again!’ just before asking Sophy to marry him. This is also a good example that men bossed women around.
In the 19th century women were expected to abide by society’s convections. Thomas hardy shows this for example in “The Withered Arm”. Rhoda has a child out of wedlock and because of this she was known as a witch. This was because women were expected to marry before having children. Also in “Tony Kytes, The Arch-Deciever”, Tony asks Hannah Jolliver to marry him, but her father Mr Jolliver steps in and exclaims “my daughter is not willing, sir!” He then asks his daughter “Be willing Hannah? I ask ye to have spirit enough to refuse him, if ye virtue is left to ee and you run no risk”. Tony then replies “she’s as sound as a bell for me, that I swear!”
Even though Tony tries to win Hannah over with kind words, she abides by her father, like women were expected to, and refuses his proposal. Hannah says “I have spirit, and I do refuse him!” in spite of the fact that she still loves Tony.
The men in Thomas Hardy’s stories are represented in an extremely
traditional way as they are interpreted as powerful, very dominant and deceiving. In “The Withered Arm”, Farmer Lodge is represented as strong, powerful, unemotional and degrading towards women. In the majority of Hardy’s short stories women are deceived by men. An example of this is in “Old Mrs Chundle”. Even though the curate was trying to help Mrs. Chundle become part of the society again, it was best for him to have listened to what she was telling him instead of rushing to do a good deed and getting her to attend church.
The reason Mrs. Chundle died was because she was rushing to get to church. If the curate had really listened to her then he would have realized that there was a good reason for her staying out of society, and then come to terms with the way things were, like she did. I also think that the curate should not have lied about Mrs Chundle’s breath; he shouldn’t have deceived her and taken away her sound pipe that lead her to believe that she had become deaf. Some men are portrayed better than others, but the fact is that at the time they definitely wore the trousers!
Thomas Hardy seems to be very interested in women and he shows how they were treated unfairly in his short stories. The women in his stories all seemed petite; he described one as “a nice, light, small, tender little thing”. Most of the women in Hardy’s short stories were described in the same way. Hardy himself appears to be fascinated by female beauty. For a Victorian Thomas Hardy was quite enlightened, at least he didn’t think all women should look the same and in almost all his short stories he has a strong woman and a weak one. In my opinion Hardy’s perception of women was definitely influenced by the society and times in which he lived.
In conclusion, Thomas Hardy’s short stories definitely relate to the treatment of women in society at the time. Each of Hardy’s short stories describes the relationship between men and women in the 19th century. They show us differences in classes and you can see the fact that women’s rights in the 19th century were definitely not equal to men’s. Thomas Hardy pays a lot of attention to his women characters and seems to be quite sympathetic towards them and their lack of rights in society.
In my opinion, this is because Hardy was born in the 18th century where he was brought up in a society that looked poorly on the role of women and their rights. Nowadays a lot has changed! In the 19th century women could not go to school. If they got married they gave over most of their land to their husbands and it was considered a scandal to be caught having a baby out of wedlock. If that were to happen today a women would definitely not be in as much trouble as they would if they were living in 19th century times.
In the 21st century, I think that many people, especially men, have the perception that it is a women’s job to cook, clean and so on. These perceptions are still carried on from the 19th century where it was expected for women to do all the house work. Times have definitely changed, but I think that people and society will always classify women as the sex that is meant to do the house chores!
From Thomas Hardy’s short stories I have learnt that in the 19th a woman’s power in society was over shadowed and dominated by men’s wishes.