Student Sample Essay
Beauty or Mother; Angel or Incubus: A View of Women in Hardy’s The Withered Arm
Thomas Hardy’s “The Withered Arm" offers a sympathetic view of womanhood in the 19th century. His predominant female characters, Rhoda Brook and Gertrude Lodge, are very different, yet still represent two of the fundamental powers afforded to women in a world dominated by men – beauty and motherhood. They also demonstrate the popular idea that women could be either angelic or evil.
The story centers on Rhoda Brook, a woman whose beauty has left her, but who remains functional as a mother and a worker. In the opening scene, she is in the milking barn, where the voices of the milking women seem to emanate from the cows. Like the cows, these women are prized for their ability to produce a commodity and have value as long as they are functional. They are barely visible against the large-bodied animals, a symbolic representation of their relationship to that of their male counterparts.
Rhoda stays apart from the others because she has a son, conceived out of wedlock, and is therefore rendered “fallen." Her fallen state has made it necessary for her to work for a living in order to support herself and her son. The two live alone in a “lonely spot" near the dark Egdon Heath, in “leaner pastures" on the edge of society and outskirts of humanity. This is in keeping with the popular Victorian view that fallen women were subject to “the most abject poverty and wretchedness; their fate could only be premature old age and early Death" (Walkowitz 39).
Life has not been easy for Rhoda; one can imagine that she in some ways resembles the house she lives in—“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 a rafter showed like a bone protruding through the skin" (Hardy 1431). She may not be beautiful, but she has successfully fulfilled the role of motherhood and provides a nurturing place of safety for her young boy.
The tension in the story comes from the fact that the father of Rhoda’s son, Farmer Lodge, has recently married—effectively supplanting Rhoda’s “proper" place. As long as he remained unmarried, there was the chance that he might recognize his son and marry Rhoda, allowing her to attain the height of womanhood. Now, another woman has assumed her role. Rhoda is curious about this new woman" and wants to see her through a male’s eyes; sending her young son out to gather information that she could easily obtain herself.
Here, Hardy accentuates the things that matter to a woman – beauty, dress, softness, manners, youth. Rhoda wants to know how she might measure up to the woman who supplanted her. It seems that they are opposites in almost every way. Rhoda is tall, with dark hair and eyes. Once beautiful, she is now “faded." She is strong and hard-working, with work-roughened hands. As a fallen woman, she can never be considered a proper lady, or angelic. Although she could easily meet her new opponent, Rhoda is proud and vows that she “wouldn’t look up at her if she were to pass my window this instant" (Hardy 1432).
Gertrude is short, blonde, young, and very beautiful. Unlike Rhoda, she is timid, ashamed of her expensive clothing and embarrassed at the attention of the townspeople. She has the appearance of a proper lady, and the satisfaction and propriety of being a married woman. Merciful and generous to those around her, she displays many traits of a true lady. However, she is naively unaware of Rhoda’s history with her husband or of the existence of a son.
When taken together, the two women—Rhoda and Gertrude—paint a nearly complete picture of a woman in 19th century society. Hardy juxtapositions the women to illustrate the old and the new, the proper and the fallen, the beauty with the mother. Both have been the objects of Farmer Lodge, a man who has power over them, and both are at the mercy of a society governed by males. As the story progresses, Hardy will reveal the binary of womanhood—women as saints and devils.
In Farmer Lodge, Hardy paints an unsympathetic portrait of the male gender in relation to the women, and illustrates the power he holds over these two women. At his first appearance, Lodge is returning home after “successful dealings in the town" (1431). He has just procured a beautiful, young wife, and proudly displays her for the townspeople. Lodge refers to his wife as an object" “my pretty Gertrude" (1431); and when she is stared at in church he “seemed pleased, and his waistcoat stuck out, and his great golden seals hung like a lord’s" (1433).
Lodge is not only “cleanly shaven like an actor" (1431), he actively plays a part. When Lodge and Gertrude pass Rhoda’s son in the roadway, he pretends not to know the boy, grouping him instead with all the other “country lads." He never directly mentions his involvement with Rhoda to his wife. When Rhoda questions the boy about his father’s attentions, he replies that Lodge took no notice of him, “just the same as usual" (1432). Lodge treats Rhoda and her son as undesirable objects, and has withheld from them the legitimacy that could validate them both.
Neither Rhoda nor Gertrude has much power without Farmer Lodge. It is their tie to this man that brings them together and ultimately tears them apart. Of all the many things Rhoda could be jealous of, it is the fact that Gertrude is married that rankles worst. In a dream, she imagines Gertrude enters her bedchamber to sit upon her chest" flaunting her left hand and the wedding band on her finger. Here, Gertrude takes on the role of an incubus in a scene with many sexual overtones. She attacks Rhoda in her bed, subdues her with a physical act, and taunts her with the ring --an object of her desire. Rhoda is “maddened mentally, and nearly suffocated by pressure" (1433). Still dreaming, she grabs the wrist of the new Mrs. Lodge and throws her to the floor, thus waking to her empty room.
Rhoda is shocked when Gertrude shows up on her doorstep the next day. She is prepared to hate the beautiful young girl, but is charmed by her generosity, beauty, and manners. The real version of Gertrude is so different and angelic from the one seen in her dream that Rhoda feels guilty, acknowledging to herself that “this innocent young thing should have her blessing and not her curse" (1435).
The curse appears to be already in place, however. Gertrude shows Rhoda a curious mark upon her arm" a mark that appears to have been made by the grip of a hand. Although Gertrude wasn’t aware of it, Rhoda was already a mark upon her life, having borne the son of Farmer Lodge. She has attained the state of motherhood, effectively supplanting a role that should have belonged to Gertrude. The “other woman" is always a plague.
Upon seeing the withered arm, Rhoda immediately feels guilty for her thoughts toward the unsuspecting and angelic Gertrude. She also wonders at her sudden power over others: “Oh, can it be... that I exercise a malignant power over people against my own will?" (1435). She knows that since her fall she has been called a witch; now she must face the reality that she can never be the angel, and might therefore be the agent of evil. Like a criminal to the scene of a crime, she is drawn to Gertrude, and the gossip of the townspeople assists her in her superstitions. When Gertrude seeks her out with questions about Conjurer Trendle, Rhoda knows that she is a suspect" “there must exist a sarcastic feeling among the work-folk that a sorceress would know the whereabouts of the exorcist" (1437).
Gertrude’s withered arm is a threat to her beauty, and she has not been able to conceive a child in order to fulfill the role of motherhood. Her power as a woman is tenuous, and her once-adoring husband is now cold and indifferent. She remarks 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" (1436). She can only hope that the blemish is not permanent.
The doctor her husband recommended has been unable to find a cure, and Gertrude turns to the only thing left to her—the superstitious beliefs of the country people. Conjurer Trendle reveals the source of her ailment by placing an egg" a symbol of fertility and procreation – in a glass of water. It is questionable whether or not he is actually able to show Gertrude the face of her oppressor; it is not hard to imagine Rhoda as an enemy, a threat to both beauty and motherhood. Conjurer Trendle himself, upon seeing the two women together “looked singularly at Rhoda the first moment he beheld her" (1438). Rhoda and her boy leave the neighborhood in the face of rumors that she is the source of Gertrude’s affliction.
As the years pass, Gertrude’s arm only becomes worse. She longs to be as she was when Farmer Lodge first married her for her grace and beauty. Now, she is “contorted and disfigured" and “changing into an irritable, superstitious woman" (1439). But, “her woman’s nature, craving for renewed love, through the medium of renewed beauty" (1441) drives her to try Conjurer Trendle one more time. Without her beauty, she is nothing.
She is desperate enough to try Trendle’s recommendation—to press her withered arm against the neck of a man recently hanged. Her desire to be rid of the curse helps to change her entire personality. The woman who had once been angelic and helpful now “wellnigh longed for the death of a fellow-creature" (1442) in order to save herself. She makes plans to attend the next hanging in Casterbridge—without the support of her husband, who “was so uncommunicative, so more than usually cold, that she did not proceed, and decided that whatever she did she would do alone" (1442). She feels he has abandoned her in the wake of her failure as a wife and a woman.
She has no way of knowing that the boy that will be hanged is her own stepson, the son of Rhoda Brook and Farmer Lodge. She has only a “curious creeping feeling that the condemned wretch’s destiny was becoming interwoven with her own" (1443). In her desire to save her beauty, and thus her position as a wife, she has secretly longed for the downfall of someone else—much like Rhoda Brook in the beginning of the story. Now, her evil longing attacks Rhoda’s position as a mother, just as Rhoda attacked her position as a wife.
Gertrude makes her way to Casterbridge, where the ostler hints that she “should use her beauty, impaired though it was, as a pass-key" (1443) to get to the corpse. As a woman, she has little power with men other than her face. The executioner doesn’t mind helping “such a one" as Gertrude. He explains that there may be a reprieve because the boy is not guilty of the crime, but is being hung as an example. Rather than feeling pity or horror as a proper lady would, Gertrude instead hopes for his death. She agrees to meet the executioner the next afternoon after the hanging.
In the final scene of the book, Hardy brings the two women together again, each with her own “withered arm" — Gertrude with her distorted physicality, and Rhoda with her lost posterity. Farmer Lodge and Rhoda have come to claim the body of their son, only to find Gertrude at his side.
This time, it is Gertrude who is the “evil" one, as she once appeared in Rhoda’s dream—“you are like her at last!" (1446). She has saved herself, but at the expense of Rhoda’s motherhood. However, she is too fragile for the shock of the day’s events, and dies three days later. There is more “of the strength that endures" (1435) in Rhoda, and she alone is left in the end to carry on the work of milking the cows" the only power left to her. She is still a fallen woman, a fact that cannot be reconciled until death.
“Gender Theory." The Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org April 23, 2007.
Hardy, Thomas. “The Withered Arm." Damrosch, ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 2B, The Victorian Age. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc. 2003, (1429-1447).
Walkowitz, Judith. Prostitution and Victorian Society. Cambridge University Press, 1980.