“The Withered Arm” by Thomas Hardy depicts the author’s fatalistic view of the world. The story, published in Blackwood Magazine in 1888 and in the collection Wessex Tales the same year, presents the characters as victims of a malevolent power that propels them toward their doom.
The events take place in Wessex, the southwestern area of England where Hardy grew up. The setting establishes the gloomy, brooding tone of the work. Rhoda Brook, a “thin worn milkmaid” (737), and her 12-year-old son inhabit a cottage located on “a lonely spot high above the water-meads . . . not far from the border of Egdon Heath, whose dark countenance was visible in the distance” (738). The wind howls “dismally over the slopes of the heath” (746) as Rhoda and Gertrude Lodge make their way through thick clouds to the house of Conjuror Trendle.
The plot of the story centers on the disfigurement of Gertrude’s arm: its cause, cure, and disastrous consequences. Soon after Farmer Lodge brings Gertrude, his young bride, to the community, Rhoda, the mother of Farmer Lodge’s son, has a dream in which a ghostly vision of Gertrude pays her a visit, sits on her chest, and flaunts her wedding ring. Rhoda grabs the arm of the specter and throws her to the floor. After the two women meet in person, an affection develops between them, and Gertrude tells Rhoda of the difficulty she is having with her left arm. The problem, Rhoda learns, began at the same time as Rhoda’s dream. When the condition of the arm grows worse, Gertrude requests Rhoda’s help in locating Conjuror Trendle, who tells Gertrude that the disfigurement is “the work of an enemy” (746). Rhoda, believing that Gertrude now knows that she is the culprit, disappears with her son from the village.
Six years later Gertrude seeks the conjuror again and learns from him that her only hope of a cure is to place the disfigured arm on the neck of a newly hanged victim. Hearing of an execution, she travels to the site of the hanging and arranges with the executioner to touch the dead body before the blood turns cold. Gertrude, feeling her blood turn—as “predicted by the conjuror” (754)—lets out a cry. When a second cry rings out, she turns and sees the parents of the executed young man: her husband and Rhoda Brook.
Fate appears to govern the lives of the characters, whom Hardy treats with sympathy but without emotion. When Rhoda learns that Gertrude’s ailment began at the time she wrestled with the specter, she wonders, “O, can it be . . . that I exercise a malignant power over people against my own will?” (743). Conjuror Trendle practices his art against his wishes, and Gertrude carries out his steps for a cure in a desperate attempt to regain the love of her husband. The condemned lad is the victim of chance; the executioner says of him, “If ever a young fellow deserved to be let off, this one does” (753). When the callous and indifferent Lodge changes into “a chastened and thoughtful man” (755), leaving his estate to a reformatory for boys and a small annuity to Rhoda, the reader wonders if his earlier cruelty had been the work of an evil force beyond his control.
Typical of Hardy’s writing, the story ends on a dark note. Gertrude dies from physical and mental stress three days after the execution, Lodge lives “in solitary lodgings till his death” (755), and Rhoda’s form becomes “bent” (755) and her “once abundant dark hair” becomes “white and worn away at the forehead” (755). “The Withered Arm” depicts the characters moving unwittingly toward an inevitable defeat and reflects the author’s belief in the tragic nature of the human condition.
Hardy, Thomas. The Thomas Hardy Omnibus. New York: St. Martin’s, 1979.