Thomas Hardy’s short story, “The Withered Arm,” addresses social issues of class conflicts through the parallel he draws between the supernatural and reality. Through this parallel, Hardy suggests that the class structures are inevitably and uncontrollably interconnected. Because of this interconnectedness, each class distinction directly affects the other class distinctions, even if unintentionally. Hardy urges the reader to not only draw these connections between social classes, but also exposes the inner turmoil and stereotypical expectations in the mentality from one class division to the other.
Early in “The Withered Arm” Hardy shows the reader the mental impact class division has on individuals. In Parts 1 & 2, Rhoda Brook continuously inquires about Farmer Lodge’s new wife; inquiries which seem to perpetuate from a jealousy or insecurity based on comparison. Even after her son has told her his impression of the farmer’s new wife, and she has told the boy, “That’s all I want to hear” (Hardy), she again probes the boy about the new wife. It seems to be an unquenchable, instinctual curiosity resulting from the human need for acceptance.
If the reader considers Rhoda Brook as a general representation of a lower class of society, and Farmer Lodge’s new wife as representative of an upper class, then Hardy implies with this example of Rhoda’s inquiries that the natural response, lacking any instigation from one side on the other, is envy. Accompanying these envious feelings are feelings of self-comparison and a longing for what the “other side” has/exhibits. Though Rhoda has done nothing at this point to constitute feelings of less self-worth, and though Farmer Lodge’s new wife has done nothing to imply that she thinks herself better than Rhoda, the very essence of social class division presents these implications and burrows them deep into the minds of individuals.
Once the initial negative mental impact is rooted in the individual psyche, the stigma associated with either/any particular class presents itself. In the characters of “The Withered Arm” Hardy shows the reader this prejudice first in Rhoda’s dream in which she very realistically envisions Gertrude Lodge as an “incubus.” This is an evocative word choice which Hardy uses for Rhoda to view Mrs. Lodge as. By its very definition the terms “evil” and “oppressive” are characteristics often suggested of the higher class division. These characteristics become the expected reality, as Hardy conveys in the line, “…Rhoda Brook could raise a mental image of the unconscious Mrs. Lodge that realistic as a photograph” (Hardy).
Following Rhoda’s dream sequence the reader is made aware of the manifestation of the dream in the bruise on Mrs. Lodge’s arm. Rhoda, after having decided that Mrs. Lodge is rather personable, states that she has “exercise(d) a malignant power over people against (her) own will.” This is an unfortunate reality that mirrors the unfortunate reality of the power one social class has to inflict “bruising” upon another social class.
Any “bruising” caused by a lower class is often viewed as an evil infliction by a higher class. As Hardy has Mrs. Lodge claiming that her “husband says it is as if some witch, or the devil himself, had taken hold of me there, and blasted the flesh,” this sentiment, though it is supernatural in its implications, coexists with the more realistic animosity that the lower class is a parasite, or something of evil/sinful influence.
Despite any fault Rhoda may have in the eventual affliction of Gertrude’s arm, Hardy proposes that “she could not conscientiously stand in the way of a possible remedy” (Hardy). This is an interesting statement in which Hardy appears to be suggesting that it is not the lower class that restricts progress, as may often be suggested by those of greater means. In his narrative note that, “She had a strange dislike to walking on the side of her companion where hung the afflicted arm” (Hardy), Hardy insinuates, again, that the lower class (as represented by Rhoda) does not enjoy being the heel of the body which makes up society, and rather attempts to move around and outside of this assumption.
In spite of any attempts to maneuver around one another, Hardy plainly tells the reader that, “a curious creeping feeling that the condemned wretch’s destiny was becoming interwoven with her own” (Hardy), again providing a concept that mirrors the true realities of the relationship between varying class structures. By the end of the story, Hardy has shown multiple ways in which the social classes are undeniably interwoven, with neither side able to be independent of the other. Besides the unacknowledged relationship of the boy (lower class) and Farmer Lodge (higher class), in the end, the cure and/or demise for one is only at the sacrificial price of the other. This, obviously then, creates a scenario in which neither side wins.
Ultimately, the story repeatedly circles itself back around to very blatantly urge the reader to notice the similarities in the relationship between all social classes, as well the mental anguish the impact of class division has on the individual. In the beginning of “The Withered Arm” the reader sees Rhoda’s (lower class) internal struggle; in the last half of the story, the reader sees Gertrude’s (higher class) inner struggles, as well as the continuous effects these interior capacities have overall. More importantly, however, Hardy urges the reader to connect the interconnectedness of class distinctions for his/her self through his use of superstitious symbolism and supernatural events which are really too close to reality for comfort.
Hardy, Thomas. “The Withered Arm.” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Vol.
28. Ed. David Damrosch. New York:Longman, 2003. 1429-1447. Print handout.