Thomas Hardy's Short Stories
Thomas Hardy was a popular19th century author - Thomas Hardy's Short Stories introduction. He wrote many novels which remain popular to this day, such as ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ and ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’. He also wrote many short stories which varied in popularity. His short stories very often concerned marriage and the females’ commitment to the act. During the 19th century, the role of women in society was very different to that of today. They had far fewer rights and there was a widespread belief that they were somewhat inferior to men. A married women was more her husband’ property than an individual.
Hardy’s short stories represent the effects an unjust society inflicted upon lots of women in the 1800’s, through the use of fictional characters. In ‘The Son’s Veto’ the character of Sophy is introduced via a description of her physical features, implying that her ‘nut-brown hair’ and ‘the curve of a cheek which was neither flaccid nor sallow’ are the most important aspects of her; the reader is invited to presuppose her nature through her external appearance. This is relevant of the time as the general belief within society was that women were most suited as objects of lust for males. Sophy’s character is being exploited similarly too many other women of her era, as a recipient of men’s sexual desires.
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However, as the story progresses, it is clear that Sophy is an undeserving victim of sexism within her society. She holds high moral standards, as when Sam goes to kiss her shortly after Mr Twycott’s wife’s death, she rejects him, ‘No Sam; you sha’n’t!’ . She would not be immoral to accept Sam’s advances as she was not romantically bound to another person. However, she feels she must be respectful to the dead Mrs Twycott and her husband. She is a lady respectful of others feelings.
When the vicar propositions marriage to Sophy, she accepts because ‘she had a respect for him which almost amounted to veneration’ and ‘she hardly dared refuse a parsonage’. Sophy marries Mr Twycott as she sees him to be godly and she fears him. The reader is thus made aware of her low self-esteem and humble nature and so sympathizes with her. A similar situation is faced by Barbara ‘…Of the House Of Grebe’ in that she feels obliged to marry Lord Uplandtowers even though she ‘did not love him (but) …admitted to herself that he was a more desirable husband, socially considered’.
The marriage between Mr Twycott and Sophy is an act of ‘social suicide’ for Mr Twycott because Sophy is from a lower social class than himself. The society of the time would have shunned the vicar for wedding Sophy. The general belief was that social classes should not bleed into one another through marriage. Sophy, as she is not wealthy and is from the working class, is depicted as an inferior being to the higher social classes. Mr Twycott is ashamed to be marrying someone who is ‘lower’ than himself.
Mr Twycott forces loyalty from Sophy even when he is dead. He keeps control over her and she is confined and trapped within her dead marriage. He does this by purchasing her ‘a semi-detached villa’ to live in, and leaving her with ‘no control over anything that had been her husband’s beyond her modest personal income’. He has total control over her, although he is no longer living. Sophy is rendered a mere asset belonging to Mr Twycott, not a human being. Of course, nowadays, a woman simply would not have to obey to the cruel wishes of her dead husband, but the beliefs held during Sophy’s time period force her to lead a dismal, uneventful subsistence after the demise of the vicar. Although not widowed, Ella ‘The Imaginative Woman’
is similarly trapped through wedlock as ‘the life of Ella was monotonous enough’. . Ella’s marriage merely serves to suit the upholding of appearances expected by society at that time.
Society causes Sophy’s son to be ashamed of her, again, because she is from the working class. He sees his mother as an embarrassment and a setback as he desperately wants to be accepted by the upper class to which his father belonged. If social class did not determine one’s intrinsic worth, Randolph perhaps would not feel the need to be ashamed of his mother and he could appreciate her as a person. As a result, it seems likely that Sophy would have been happier if she had a motherly bond with Randolph, instead of him belonging ‘so little to me personally, so entirely to his dead father’.
However, Sophy harbours an unconditional love for her son; her loyalty to him is greater than her loyalty to her own happiness. She is ‘pining her heart away’ for she is not able to marry Sam, under her son’s express orders, ‘he bade her kneel, and swear that she would not marry Samuel’. It is extraordinarily selfless of Sophy to care for her son, with whom she is barely attached emotionally to, more than herself.
Sophy’s character is depicted as a considerate, humble and altruistic woman. Sadly, through the confinements of society, she is debased in her moral worth and depicted as a mere object belonging to Mr Twycott. Her kind nature is not appreciated at all by her husband or son, and her role in society is to simply become a belonging of her husband’s.
‘On The Western Circuit’ features the character of Mrs Harnham, who is in a similar situation to Sophy. It is her boredom within her marriage which causes her to commit to morally dubious acts which become key to the story.
Mrs Harnham is confined by her marriage and emotionally dissatisfied because of it. Her husband was a ‘rich wine-merchant of the town, but Mrs Harnham did not care much about him’. Already the reader is invited to glimpse upon the likely possibility that she is not a happily married woman.
Mrs Harnham’s boredom can also be noted early on in the story. The young girl Anna has ‘come to the city on the invitation of Mrs Harnham, who had taken her into her household to train her as a servant’. Although Anna is simply one of the household’s staff, Mrs Harnham takes ‘the trouble to educate her’. This level of care for a servant would not have been common, and it informs the reader that Mrs Harnham was probably living a fairly uneventful life and wanted to teach Anna so as to have a task to keep herself occupied.
When Anna meets her husband-to-be, Mrs Harnham appears to find a new hobby to busy herself with. She takes it upon herself to write to Anna’s lover, under Anna’s guise, without Anna’s permission, ‘Edith had replied on her own responsibility, from the depths of her own heart’. She enjoys having a written correspondence with Mr Raye, although he is unaware of the true recipient of some of his letters. Mr Raye roused in her a passion her husband hadn’t, for in the Harnham’s marriage there was little affection.
Mrs Harnham is depicted as a woman in a similar situation to Sophy and Barbara. She is very lonely and longs for a loving, passionate husband, such as Charles Bradford Raye. However, unlike Sophy and Barbara, she involves herself in the affairs of another woman, which can be seen as unkind, although understandable given her circumstances. Sophy, Mrs Harnham and Barbara are trapped by marriage as their society’s uphold the view that a lonely, unfulfilling marriage is better than an enjoyable life of being lawfully unattached. As they are all females, they are directed by social, sexist expectations forced upon them to become nothing more than humble wives. It is the society’s prejudiced attitudes towards woman which ultimately causes Sophy, Barbara and Mrs Harnham to lead glum, miserable lives.
Anna, in some ways, is the opposite of Mrs Harnham. She is childlike in nature and inexperienced in life. For example, she is fascinated by the carousel ride as it was ‘quite unlike – anything I have ever felt in my life before’. It is as if she is a young child at the fairground for the first time, not a young woman. She naively accepts Mr Raye’s kiss because ‘he said, if I didn’t mind – it would do me no harm, and, and him a great deal of good’. This could potentially lead her into being exploited as she believes the kiss to be merely a gesture of goodwill; she does not see the sexual implications of it.
Hardy presents Anna as almost a product of the countryside by calling her a ‘child of nature’. He is implying that she is young, fresh and beautiful. She seems attractive in her naivety and untainted by the harsh world around her – almost as if she is some form of vegetation. Hardy himself was born and raised in the countryside and was known to have a great appreciation for it, and so Anna appears to be a representation for what he found enticing.
Unlike Mrs Harnham, Anna is full of hope and excitement, especially about her possible future with her suitor. When she receives his letter, she begins ‘forcedly tittering, and blushing still more’. Anna is blissfully ignorant to the fact that her relationship with Mr Raye could lead to ‘passion, heart-ache, union, disunion, devotion, overpopulation, drudgery, content, resignation, despair’.
The women in ‘Tony Kytes, the Arch-Deceiver’ are similar to Anna in that they are young and unaware of the enormity of marriage. This is demonstrated by Tony’s indecisiveness as to whom he should wed and the way in which the women remain wilfully ignorant to the fact that Tony is a womaniser. It is of greater importance to them to be accepted by society as opposed to happily married. By contrast, however, Anna does not view her social status as a priority. She genuinely wants to marry Mr Raye for his companionship.
Anna and the women from the story of Tony Kytes are unlike Sophy and Mrs Harnham in that they are less experienced in life and see marriage as a positive notion. Anna and the women depicted in Tony Kytes are portrayed as not yet being trapped by marital confinements or, in fact, by society. However, these women obviously still see marriage as a priority.
It is evident from each of the stories that the values of society clearly made an enormous contribution to the choices the women made regarding marriage. The fictional actions of each of the women were dictated by the societies in which Hardy leads the reader to believe they exist within (although Anna and the three women from Tony Kytes were implicitly drawn into believing that marriage was a positive concept). Society, as today, heavily influenced and even overrode the woman’s desires to make their own decisions. Society concealed the true realities of marriage and paraded it as a desirable concept for which one should aim to achieve. Sexism was rife and women had far fewer rights and were less respected than men of their time.