According to the literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov, the literature of the fantastic involves an uncertainty of hesitation between a rational, realistic explanation of the story events and a supernatural explanation. This essay will discuss this claim in relation to Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Withered Arm’.
If you’re unfamiliar with this short story you can read it by clicking here.
Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Withered Arm’ can be argued as being part of various genres: horror, gothic, even a moral tale. However, this essay will focus specifically upon the short story in relation to the genre of the fantastic. In Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, his first, and perhaps most significant premise for defining the fantastic is the following:
… the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and supernatural explanation of the events described.
Suzannne R. Johnson argues that ‘The Withered Arm’ “clearly fulfils”this definition and qualifies as a short story of the fantastic. However, this essay will argue that a significant enough ‘hesitation’ between the real world and the supernatural world is absent in the story. There is only a fleeting sense of doubt present regarding the supernatural events, which are prompted occasionally by the protagonist Rhoda. No other alternatives to explain the surreal happenings are put forth. By the end of the story the reader has little to no choice in believing that the occurring events are of a supernatural nature.
A hint of this hesitation between the real world and the supernatural is portrayed in ‘The Withered Arm’ through the doubts of Rhoda. It is important to consider how the nature of the first supernatural event, the dream, contributes to Rhoda’s doubts about the incident. Todorov claimed that the alternative explanation to the supernatural should be an “illusion or imaginary” incident if it is to be of the fantastic genre. A dream seems to fill this role since it is a psychological event which doesn’t take place in the real world; anything that happens is in the dream world only. Therefore, the reader may come to a hesitation regarding the credibility of Rhoda’s intense actions and feelings, and consequently Gertrude’s withered arm, as being of supernatural origin. This is supported by the repeated use of “fancied” when Rhoda is comparing Gertrude’s ‘wound’ to her grip in the dream. The language used suggests that Rhoda is not entirely sure about the comparison of the dream and the wound; she may even be imagining it. This creates doubt about whether the two events, the dream and Gertrude’s affliction, are in any way linked. This doubt regarding the authenticity of the supernatural is furthered by the contrast of Gertrude’s appearance in the dream and in the natural world. Rhoda remarks that Gertrude is “not in her silk… but in a morning hat, and gown of common light material”. This description reasserts the mundane rural lifestyle which the story is set in, defying the occurrence of any unnatural event. Gertrude does not appear as an incubus dressed in white silk, but rather dressed as any other woman. Rhoda’s expectation to “see the wrinkles” again brings about the idea of her imagination and how reliable she is in providing an authentic account of the goings-on. It also perhaps suggests that Rhoda is biased in her view since she is hoping to see Gertrude as a hideous monster due to her jealousy, and not the ordinary lady that she is. Furthermore, an interesting aspect of Rhoda’s personality is revealed when the narrator describes “a horrid fascination… in throwing such possible light on her own character as would reveal her to be something greater… than she had ever herself suspected”. This sentence implies that Rhoda has an innate desire to be of more significance in the world, more than a milkmaid. She cannot help herself but ask Gertrude about her arm, and this perhaps implies her want of something more, something supernatural and much unlike anything in her quotidian life. As a result, this also reinforces the doubts regarding Rhoda’s experience with the supernatural since she may be imagining things because she wants to, not because they are really there. Johnson also focuses upon Rhoda’s “bewilderment” in arguing that the story is a fantastic one. However this is merely a glimmer of hesitation amongst the heavy allusions of the supernatural elsewhere in the story.
The supernatural incidences in ‘The Withered Arm’ possess a powerful authenticity which diminishes the possibility that they may be occurrences of the natural world. This is initially built up at the beginning of the short story subtly through the language. When describing the labour of the milkmaids the imagery of a “peeled limb of an oak” is used. It is a very striking description comparing Rhoda’s occupation to the grotesque. Furthermore, Rhoda’s home is described with the simile: “like a bone protruding through the skin”. Both of these descriptions work to connect Rhoda in all aspects of her life to an unnatural disfigured body part, a foreshadowing of Gertrude’s withered arm. Rhoda’s dream is no longer an isolated incident in the story, but hinted at multiple times beforehand, heightening its compelling nature. Rhoda’s remark that she could feel the “very flesh and bone” of the arm in her dream creates a physical dimension which makes the supernatural experience more realistic. It is no longer just a vision or an idea, but something Rhoda claims she has touched. It is much more difficult to doubt the physical existence of object, compared to the mere concept of one. This tangible quality is enhanced by the experiences of both Rhoda’s son and Gertrude. Rhoda’s son tells his mother that he heard a noise “just when the clock struck two”, this detail is repeated by Gertrude on page 22. The specificity of time regarding the supernatural experience is shared amongst the three characters which strengthens the authenticity of the supernatural occurrence. Another aspect of the story which resonates this idea is the detailed description of the bruise on the arm: “precisely the relative position of her clutch upon the arm… the first finger towards Gertrude’s wrist and the fourth towards her elbow”. The particularity in this description convinces the reader into believing that it was indeed inflicted in the dream. The precision can only be explained if the supernatural incident is accepted. Another acute detail which adds realism to Rhoda’s dream is her reputation as a witch and her knowledge of magic. Gertrude is told by others concerning the conjuror that Rhoda knew “more of his movements than anybody hereabout”. This is suggestive of a past encounter Rhoda has had, and a possible supernatural nature of her dealings. However, this is passed off as mere common knowledge until Rhoda is asked where to find the conjuror and she responds with “Five miles”, “In the heart of Egdon”. Her knowledge of his exact location seems peculiar and strange; however it is not expanded on in the story. In the last half of the story, the burden of the supernatural is passed onto Gertrude. It is strongly suggested that it was Rhoda whom she saw when they went to visit the conjuror, this is adopted by the entire community and Gertrude is described as being “over-looked by Rhoda Brook”. The half-rhyme in this sentence seems to carry the contagious sing-song rhythm of gossip, but this is also a feature which makes it very eerie and dark since it has resulted in Rhoda moving away with her son. The strongest supernatural occurrence in the second half of the story is certainly Gertrude’s “turn o’ the blood” when her arm comes into contact with the neck of Rhoda’s dead son. Gertrude “shrieked” when this happened suggesting that something powerful and overwhelming had taken place. Physically, there was a change happening to her body and although this change is not made explicit, it can be inferred that it was of supernatural origin. From the beginning of ‘The Withered Arm’ to the end, there is an undeniable presence of the supernatural with no other compelling alternatives offered.
The supernatural elements of Hardy’s short story are further intensified through the themes of immorality and hatred. There is a strong sense of evil and sin amongst the characters which corresponds with the supernatural elements of this story, such as the grotesque withered arm, the hideous incubus, and the disturbing cure from a dead body. This sentiment of hatred and wickedness intensifies the effects of the supernatural, thus validating the occurrence of them even more. An irresponsible and immoral character within the story is Farmer Lodge due to his neglect of Rhoda, Gertrude, and his own son. Rhoda is repeatedly described as “thin” at the beginning of the short story, implying her impoverished state and the lack of care Lodge has extended to her, despite being the reason she is shunned from society. He also lacks parental care towards his son, an action he comes to regret. Farmer Lodge “thought of Rhoda Brook and her son; and feared this might be a judgement from heaven upon him”. This explicitly links Gertrude’s arm, a supernatural occurrence, with the concepts of sin, punishment and evil. His neglect of Gertrude is also expressed as she recalls “his promise before marriage always to keep a mare for her”, a promise which he has broken. Rhoda’s only sin is her jealousy of Gertrude which acts as a catalyst for all the events in the story. She uses her son as a tool and sends him to spy on Gertrude. It is perhaps these actions which tie the fates of Gertrude and the son so tightly together. However, the most sinful and wicked character in the story seems to be Gertrude. By the end of the story she has become a desperate, wretched and obsessed woman. Although she knows the person to be hanged is innocent, since she is told he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, she still expresses her wish: “Oh – a reprieve – I hope not!”. This is extremely cruel and selfish, and the greatest sin in the story, desiring the death of an innocent life for your own ends. She also refers to the man-to-be-hanged (Rhoda’s young son) as “it” suggesting that she does not even view him as human, merely a tool for her cure, a means to an end. When Rhoda walks in to see Gertrude looming over he son’s body she remarks “This Is the meaning of what Satan showed me in the vision!”. The concept of evil and the supernatural are so strongly intertwined in this story, both mutually empowering the other.
The significant ‘hesitation’ which makes up a fantastic story, based on Todorov’s definition, has a faint and ghostly presence in ‘The Withered Arm’. The story is not ambiguous enough to allow the reader to choose between a natural explanation and a supernatural one, as there is no natural alternative offered. Instead, the reader is met with an overwhelming sense of the supernatural combined with sin and evil to create a shocking and horrifying story. ‘The Withered Arm’ possesses irrational and unrealistic traits which develops a sensational storyline; it is unashamedly supernatural.