Wednesday, 13 April 2011

THE PARANORMAL IN VICTORIAN LITERATURE: THOMAS HARDY 'THE WITHERED ARM' AND 'THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE' PART II

THE PARANORMAL, A MEANS OF ALTERING HUMAN DESTINY

In the last Post I discussed how Darwin and Folklore influenced Hardy's World-view. I suggested that both Darwinism and Folklore saw Humans in the grip of Titanic Forces. In terms of Darwinism survival would be possible by ADAPTING to such pressures. For the Folklorist Destiny could be changed by INVOKING PARANORMAL FORCES.

With this in mind we take up the study of the two novels: 'The Withered Arm' and 'The Return of the Native' We begin with 'The Withered Arm.

The story opens in a dairy, part of a country having but little contact with the wider world.



A DAIRY OF THE PERIOD DEPICTED IN 'THE WITHERED ARM'


In fact, in areas such as this there would be but one County Newspaper. People occasionally borrowed a copy from someone else. News, and of course gossip, was generally circulated by word of mouth  at the local Markets or Fairs.

In this dairy where SUPERSTITION easily dominates the minds of the workers, Rhoda Brook, is isolated from the rest: she is suspected of WITCHCRAFT. Rhoda is described as a thin, dark woman, living with her twelve year old son in 'a lonely spot ... not far from the border of Egdon Heath,' in a cottage made of 'mud walls'.



A MUD COTTAGE SIMILAR TO THE ONE RHODA BROOK LIVED IN WITH HER TWELVE YEAR OLD SON




By contrast with Rhoda, Farmer Lodge's new wife, Gertrude is described in almost angelic, innocent terms: 'almost, indeed, a girl. Her face too was fresh in colour ... soft and evanescent, like the light under a heap of rose petals.' She has 'the shyness natural to a modest woman.' She is 'a lady complete ... her hair is lightish and her face as comely as live dolls.'

Unlike Rhoda's eyes, hers are 'of a bluish turn' and her sensual mouth 'is very nice and red; and when she smiles her teeth show snow white.'  This contrast, BIOLOGICALLY DETERMINED, arouses bitter animosity in Rhoda's soul.

A BEAUTY AT THE TIME HARDY WROTE OF GERTRUDE LODGE.




So driven to jealousy, one night when Gertrude is asleep at home, Rhoda engages in a PARANORMAL RITUAL, to redress the balance, and to alter the fortunes of her rival.

Sitting over the 'turf ashes' Rhoda 'contemplated so intently the new wife' that she produces an exact mental picture of her. Rhoda then retires to bed, and as a result of this long contemplation 'Gertrude Lodge visited the supplanted woman in her dreams.' Hardy suggests that this was more than a dream because he states, 'since her assertion that she really saw, before falling asleep, was not to be believed.' As a result of the RITUAL Gertrude appeared in her 'pale silk dress ..' However, this apparition is no longer innocent, angelic, nor modest, but 'shockingly distorted, and wrinkled as by age.'

She sits upon Rhoda's chest as she lies in bed, almost suffocating her with pressure. 'Her blue eyes peered cruelly' into Rhoda's face, and 'then the figure thrust forward its left hand mockingly,' making the wedding ring 'glitter in Rhoda's eyes.' Rhoda's PARANORMAL RITUAL has called up an 'INCUBUS' which '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.'

A struggle ensues during which Rhoda 'seized the confronting SPECTRE by its obtrusive left arm, and whirled it backward to the floor.' So vivid is the whole thing that Rhoda exclaims, 'that was not a dream - she was here!' At which point the INCUBUS vanishes. The following day Rhoda 'still retained the feel of the arm.'

This passage is important for it incorporates what many people of the day believed, the idea of BODILY PROJECTION. It is similar to the Folklore idea that when horses were found reeking with sweat of a morning it was because they had been hag-ridden by witches all night. Furthermore, Gertrude's posture, combined with her physical description and the designation of her as an 'INCUBUS,' implies that Rhoda's PARANORMAL RITUAL has resulted in calling forth something which she has not anticipated: the presence of a WITCH.

This novel, therefore is profound on a number of levels. For a start it probes Gertrude's CHARACTER and shows, perhaps SUBCONSCIOUSLY, that she is egotistical, gloating, and vindictive. The colour of her eyes and her mocking gestures betray this. Yes, Gertrude is quite different from the reader's initial impression of her. It further implies that lurking within certain individuals are PARANORMAL POWERS, and aspects of the personality that one is unaware of. Such POWERS may be RELEASED by the right stimulus. The stimulus in this case is the PROJECTION of Rhoda's bitterness into the lower part of Gertrude's nature.


CALLING UP THE INCUBUS, OR WITCH

The novel seems to contain a strange paradox. At one level of interpretation Gertrude is a VICTIM of Rhoda's jealousy; at another level, she herself is the WITCH. Gertrude by unwittingly displacing Rhoda, and disinheriting Rhoda's son, arouses strong, hostile emotions. The whole thing occurs in a framework of one individual acting consciously or unconsciously upon another. Such results in setting in motion a whole chain of events with malign repercussions. In 1886 Hardy wrote in his memorandum that he firmly believed in such things.

So, once more, we need to keep in mind what I tried to show in my Posts on 'The Victorian Consciousness', that Hardy was NOT simply writing a Novel: he was DECLARING what he believed to be true, cast in the form of fiction.

I must comment on something else: both women seem to be employing the PARANORMAL in a struggle for dominance: Gertrude to maintain the status quo, Rhoda to alter it. We need to think about something else, also. The comment regarding the appearance of the wrinkles, 'as by age' on Gertrude's face. This imagery either intensifies the horror of the scene, giving Gertrude a hag-like appearance befitting a witch, or it is prophetic of Gertrude's future condition as her sufferings increase during the course of the story.

Rhoda's PARANORMAL RITUAL achieves the desired result, but it also has a number of psychological repercussions upon her. As the marks on Gertrude's arm become more prominent, and the limb begins to wither her BIOLOGICAL attractiveness to Farmer Lodge ceases. Their marriage disintegrates in direct proportion as Gertrude's arm grows worse. At first Rhoda's 'sense of having been guilty of an act of malignity increased, affect as she might to ridicule her SUPERSTITION.' We can imagine Rhoda, as she sees the horror of the situation regarding Gertrude, trying to convince herself, unsuccessfully, that she is responsible. She feels that this 'innocent young thing' whose limb bears 'the shape of her own four fingers,' should receive 'her blessing and not her curse.'

Gertrude for her part is unable to ascertain the cause. She tells Rhoda, 'One night when I was sound asleep, I was dreaming I was away in some strange place, a pain suddenly shot into my arm .. and was so keen as to awaken me. ' Strangely, Gertrude does not describe Rhoda's cottage as the scene of her out of the body journey;  nor does she mention any tussle with Rhoda. However, Gertrude 'named the night and the hour of Rhoda's spectral encounter.' These facts cause Rhoda to feel 'like a guilty thing.'

Apparently, any part that Rhoda plays in the drama is MOTIVATED SUBCONSCIOUSLY for she muses: 'O, can it be that I exercise a malignant power over people against my own will?' Perhaps this was the reason why Rhoda 'had been slily called a witch'.

Fighting for the survival of her marriage Gertrude also resorts to the PARANORMAL. She and Rhoda visit Conjurer Trendle.







A NINETEENTH CENTURY CONJURER OR MAGICIAN


Trendle is a Conjurer in the true sense of the word. He is not a person practicing tricks or sleight of hand, but a true MAGICIAN who works with PARANORMAL POWER.

This visit has a strange psychological effect on Rhoda. She experiences 'a horrid fascination at times in becoming instrumental in throwing such possible light on her own character as would reveal her to be something greater in the OCCULT WORLD than she had ever herself expected.'

Here then is the paradox. On the one hand Rhoda feels guilty about the whole episode and the disintegration of Gertrude's marriage as a result of the PARANORMAL drama. On the other hand she seems to derive an egotistical sense of her own importance.

Trendle as we shall see in the next Post begins a PARANORMAL RITUAL. But enough has been said for now. I shall pick up from here in a day or so.

Any Comments?

Picture Credits Wikimedia Commons

Quotations From The New Wessex Edition (London 1977) of 'The Withered Arm' in Wessex Tales
























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