“The Withered Arm”

I’m a bit late looking at this week’s subject of weird fiction discussion over at LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition, but here it is.

Review: “The Withered Arm”, Thomas Hardy, 1888.

The story opens with a bunch of milkmaids at work on land rented from one Farmer Lodge. 

The news gets out that Lodge is bringing home his new wife. Two of the milkmaids are wondering how old she is and what she looks like – at least according to rumor. One murmurs to another, regarding the third milkmaid who isn’t participating in the conversation, “’Tis hard for she.” The other one says Lodge hasn’t spoke to that milkmaid, Rhoda, for years. 

Rhoda returns to her very modest home and 12-year-old son is. She tells him his father is bringing his wife home from Anglebury. She instructs him to go to the road they will take and report on what the woman looks like. How tall is she? Is she dark or fair? Does it look like she’s a lady or has she worked for a living?

The boy does so with the pretense of carrying a heavy load up the road’s one hill, waiting for the Lodges to pass. Mrs. Lodge notices he seems to look at her closely, and so does Mr. Lodge though, understandably, he doesn’t acknowledge the boy as his illegitimate son – if he even recognizes him as such. 

Arriving at home, the boy gives a report on what Mrs. Lodge looks like: she’s pretty, a lady with blonde hair and blue eyes. Since she was seated in a wagon, he couldn’t see how tall she was. 

The next day she instructs him to stand outside the local church after Sunday services so he can get more details on the woman. He brings home a report on her dress and looks. (Rhoda doesn’t go to the church though it’s only two miles away.) 

Back at her job, Rhoda does not bring up Mrs. Lodge.

The dairyman, who rented the cows of Lodge, and knew perfectly the tall milkmaid’s history, with manly kindness always kept the gossip in the cow-barton from annoying Rhoda. But the atmosphere thereabout was full of the subject the first days of Mrs Lodge’s arrival; and fom her boy’s description and the casual words of the other milkers, Rhoda Brook could raise a mental image of’ the unconscious Mrs Lodge that was realistic as a photograph. 

About two or three weeks after Mrs. Lodge arrives in town, Rhoda, “the supplanted woman”, has a dream in which Gertrude Lodge appears. But it is not the Gertrude that Rhoda has had in her mind but “features shockingly distorted, and wrinkled as by age” sitting on the chest in Rhoda’s room. Gertrude extends her left hand, the one with her wedding ring, “mockingly” towards Rhoda.

Maddened mentally, and nearly suffocated by pressure, the sleeper struggled; the incubus, still regarding her, withdrew to the foot of the bed, only, however, to come forward by degrees, resume her seat, and flash her left hand as before. 

Desperate, Rhoda finally grabs Gertrude’s left hand. When she wakes up, Rhoda thinks it was no dream. Gertrude really did visit her. 

The next morning, Rhoda’s son ask her about the noise he heard around two o’clock last night. She has no explanation.

About two weeks later, about noon, Gertrude shows up at their home. It seems Rhoda’s son has talked to her on several occasions. Gertrude is a generous sort who gives things to some of the poorer people in the neighborhood and, seeing the state of the boy’s boots on their first meeting, she has brought him a new pair. 

Gertrude is so pretty and sweet Rhoda is glad she didn’t pretend to not be at home. Rhoda reproaches herself for being bitter towards Gertrude and not thankful. 

Gertrude mentions she is in good health since she does a lot of walking. Well, she does have one minor ailment. She shows Rhoda her left arm. There is a bruise on it just where Rhoda grabbed it in her dream. Rhoda asks how it happened. Gertrude doesn’t know, but she does know it showed up about two weeks ago when she woke up at two in the morning. Rhoda feels guilty. 

‘O, can it be,’ she said to herself, when her visitor had departed, ‘that I exercise a malignant power over people against my own will?’ She knew that she had been slyly called a witch since hey fall; but never having understood why that particular stigma had been attached to her, it had passed disregarded. Could this be the explanation, and had such things as this ever happened before? 

As the summer wears on, Rhoda dreads meeting Gertrude and avoids her though she likes her. The next time they meet outside, Rhoda asks after the arm. It’s worse now. The marks are still there and even more noticeable as if, says her husband, a witch or devil grabbed her. That’s just a “fancy” says Rhoda. It is, replies Gertrude, and she wouldn’t mind it so much except she gets the sense that her husband loves her less because it mars her appearance. “Some do – he for one.”, replies Rhoda, and she goes on to suggest Gertrude keep the arm covered. That won’t matter, says Gertrude tearfully. Farmer Lodge knows it’s there. And so Rhoda, after they part, becomes obsessed with Gertrude’s arm. 

The sense of having been guilty of an act of malignity increased, affect as she might to ridicule her superstition. In her secret heart Rhoda did not altogether object to a slight diminution of her successor’s beauty, by whatever means it had come about; but she did not wish to inflict upon her physical pain. For though this pretty young woman had rendered impossible any reparation which Lodge might have made Rhoda for his past conduct, everything like resentment at the unconscious usurpation had quite passed away from the elder’s mind. 

The next morning Rhoda goes to look at the Lodge home from afar and sees Gertrude ride off alone. They meet and converse. Gertrude has been told only one cure exists for her arm. She needs to visit a “clever man over in Edgon Heath” though she can’t remember his name. “Not Conjuror Trendle?” asks Rhoda, turning pale. That’s the man, says Gertrude, but why call him a conjuror? Because they used to say, says Rhoda, that he had powers other people didn’t. Gertrude thought he was a medical man. Rhoda suspects that the folk about think she put a curse on Gertrude and that was why they suggested Trendle as an exorcist. But now she worries that Trendle will name her as a “malignant influence” and Gertrude will hate her. 

A few days Gertrude asks Rhoda to accompany her the five miles to Edgon. Reluctantly, Rhoda agrees. 

Trendle is a dealer in turf and doesn’t at all claim he has special powers. When his cures are mentioned, he just claims it was chance. But, when Gertrude shows him her arm, he says right away it’s the work of an “enemy”. Using the old folk magic of an egg’s yolk in a glass of water, Trendle tells her that, if she looks at it, she will see the guilty party. Gertrude does this while Rhoda fearfully waits outside. 

When Gertrude comes out, she says she didn’t see anything she can talk about. 

“Was it you who first proposed coming here? . . . How very odd, if you did!”. 

No, replies, Rhoda, but she’s not sorry they came all things considered. 

For the first time a sense of triumph possessed her, and she did not altogether deplore that the young thing at her side should learn that their lives had been antagonized by other influences than their own.

The subject was no more alluded to during the long and dreary walk home. But in some way or other a story was whispered about the many-dairied lowland that winter that Mrs Lodge’s gradual loss of the use of her left arm was owing to her being ‘overlooked’ by Rhoda Brook. The latter kept her own counsel about the incubus, but her face grew sadder and thinner; and in the spring she and her boy disappeared from the neighbourhood of Holmstoke.

Six year later, the Lodges’ marriage has become a gloomy affair. Mr. Lodge thinks the whole thing might be divine judgement for his treatment of Rhoda and their son. Gertrude has collected a variety of nostrums and ointments, none of which have worked on her arm. Her husband urges her to throw them all away lest she poison herself. Her sad look at this suggestion causes him to apologize and say he was only thinking of her own good. Then, out of nowhere, he says he once thought of adopting a boy, but he’s gone now, and he doesn’t know where. By now, the gossip of the country has given Gertrude knowledge of her husband’s premarital affair though she’s never told him that, or, for that matter, of her visit to Trendle and the revelation that Rhoda cursed her.

(Spoilers ahead)

She does throw away all her medicine, but she also visits Trendle again. He tells her there’s only one cure available: touch her withered arm to the neck of a man who has been hanged – “Before he’s cold – just after he’s cut down.” It’s a cure that’s worked before though he least heard of it being done 13 years ago. 

She keeps a eye out in the newspaper for hangings at Casterbridge, the county seat 15 miles away. She scopes it out with a visit in March. When she arrives, she learns the body has already been taken away but a couple of epileptic children seemed to have been cured by Trendle’s remedy. 

She bides her time – and thinks about the mechanics of getting access to the dead man’s body. 

In July, she learns there’s to be a hanging of a man convicted of arson. Fortunately, Mr. Lodge will be out of town that Saturday so she can go in secret. 

She has a blackly humorous conversation with the town’s hangman. If she’s here to worry that the guilty man will suffer, well, “one knot is as merciful as another”. Is she a relative or former employer of the man to be hanged? No. She asks what time the execution is. Noon as usual, just after the mail coach shows up in case it has any last minute pardons. Gertrude hopes there won’t be a reprieve for the convicted man. So does the hangman. 

Still, if anybody deserved a reprieve, it would be this man. He’s just 18 and and just happened to be around a wagon that was set on fire. 

Howsomever, there’s not much risk of that, as they are obliged to make an example of him, there having been so much destruction of property that way lately. 

The hangman presently advises Gertrude how to keep her visit a secret and touch the hanged man: show up punctually after the hanging and wear a veil. He gives her the location the body will be taken to when removed from the gallows. 

The next day, at the appointed time, Gertrude is waiting in a room with trestles in it to support the dead man’s coffin. She hears people coming up the stairs to the room. The coffin with the body is put on the trestles, and a gray mist seems to be cover Gertrude’s eyes, obscuring her vision even more than a veil would account for. She’s told to touch the body now. She bares her left arm, ignoring the sound of people behind her, and touches the dead man. Gertrude shrieks with what Trendle told her would be ‘the turn of the blood”. 

And then another shriek is heard behind her. It’s Rhoda Brook and Mr. Lodge. The dead man is their son. What is she doing here Lodge asks his wife?

‘Hussy – to come between us and our child now!’ cried Rhoda. ‘This is the meaning of what Satan showed me in the vision! You are like her at last!’

Rhoda grabs Gertrude and pulls her towards the wall, and Gertrude collapses at the feet of her husband. Before she collapses, Gertrude realizes who the dead man was and the reason for her husband’s convenient absence. 

A surgeon is called, and she is taken away from the jail.

“Her blood had been ‘turned’ indeed – too far. Her death took place in the town three days after.”

As for Rhoda and Lodge, things don’t get better. Eventually, his “moodiness and remorse” are replaced by a “chastened and thoughtful man”. He sells his farm and moves to another village where he dies two years later, alone, and after a “painless decline”. He gives his not insignificant estate to a reformatory school for boys and arranges a small annuity for Rhoda. 

For some time she could not be found; but eventually she reappeared in her old parish – absolutely refusing, however, to have anything to do with the provision made for her. Her monotonous milking at the dairy was resumed, and followed for many long years, till her form became bent, and her once abundant dark hair white and worn away at the forehead – perhaps by long pressure against the cows. Here, sometimes, those who knew her experiences would stand and observe her, and wonder what sombre thoughts were beating inside that impassive, wrinkled brow, to the rhythm of the alternating milk-streams. 

And that’s how the story ends.

Despite the rather predictable climax of Rhoda’s son being the hanged man, I liked this story. I appreciated Rhoda’s outward stoicism which conceals passions. The idea of a woman who may not know she is a witch was unusual. We never see her practice any witchcraft. Is that precognitive dream merely the manifestation of fate or is this a monsters-from-the-id story with Rhoda unconsciously and malevolently cursing Gertrude. The latter interpretation is strengthened by Gertrude being referred to as an “incubus” as if Rhoda feels that only a supernatural creature could supplant her in the affections of Farmer Lodge.

And there’s the nature of the dream. It turns out to be one of those precognitive visions that sets in motion a fateful series of events that shows how it came to be.  

5 thoughts on ““The Withered Arm”

  1. EG May 2, 2023 / 6:18 pm

    I too enjoyed this story and happened to read it only a day or two before this review came out.

    I didn’t see the climax coming in which the hanged man turns out to have been the son of Rhoda and Lodge, which was quite tragic as was what happened to Gertrude, who was a truly good person who deserved a better fate and a happier life.

    I like how Hardy’s characters tend not to be predictable or one-dimensional.

    • marzaat May 2, 2023 / 7:10 pm

      I suppose I was thinking in terms of story structure.

      You’re right in that the most tragic fate was Gertrude’s. She’s blameless and generous. We are told Rhoda’s son may be innocent, but we don’t know that for sure.

  2. EG May 4, 2023 / 8:36 am

    It also occurs to me — and I meant to mention this in my original post but forgot — that you would think Lodge, being wealthy and influential (if I remember right), would probably have been able to find a way to help his son avoid the noose.

    • marzaat May 4, 2023 / 5:14 pm

      Good point. The executioner himself says the son’s guilt is doubtful.

      Incidentally, during the LibraryThing discussion, someone said the book they read the story out of claims it’s set in 1830 based on the reference to the burning rick. If I remember my British history, that would be the time of the Charterist riots.

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