Thomas Hardy was living at a time of social change when the sense of the old rural order was beginning to break down as people moved away from the land and the economy began to modernise. For Hardy, this was a danger and in his stories, the characters are seen to be fighting against their fate when they attempt to change the established order of their lives. For Hardy fate is a very strong and harsh power and characters who defy this pay the price.
In the story, Phyllis Grove is a girl living alone with her father. In meeting Humphrey Gould, she was pleased with his offer of marriage. In keeping with the local order, her fate might be marrying this local man, living locally, and continuing the pattern of life established by their respective parents. This is not a love match but it is accepted and welcomed by all involved.
When Humphrey is driven to Bath – in itself a break with normal rural life – the arrangement is put under strain. Humphrey becomes involved with the social life of Bath and begins to feel that his link with Phyllis is not as strong as he thought. Phyllis becomes lonely and looks to the German Mattthäus Tina for friendship and comfort.
Phyllis is very attracted by Mattthäus’ description of his life in Germany and the possibilities of escaping her life in England. Mattthäus himself is looking to escape from the army which he finds intolerable. In planning to escape their fate, the characters take on a powerful force and eventually pay a high price.
Mattthäus in his attempts to escape is caught and shot, Phyllis’s punishment is more subtle. When her resolve is finally tested by the appearance of Humphrey just as she is to leave with Mattthäus, she weakens and so betrays him. Believing that she is choosing between Mattthäus and Humphrey. Cruelly this is not the case. Humphrey is in fact only there to give his apologies to her and Phyllis is left alone faced with a lonely future. Further punishment is added when she realises that she might have gained happiness with Mattthäus and also saved his life but has been tricked by the fates.
In this story, I feel that Hardy is warning of the dangers to society of breaking with what he sees as the natural order. He sees this as a balance between man and nature that the forces of nature will fight to preserve. In a similar way to the religious stories, Hardy does not accept. Hardy may be trying to offer a warning in a time of intense change.