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As a Fatalist Thomas Hardy saw people as unable to escape their destiny; it was chance and circumstance that dictated their future according to his ideas. Very little could be gained by an individual’s desire and effort and what had a way of turning against them.
In this story, Fate brings Matthäus (a German Hussar) and Phyllis together – he by way of the army’s movements and she through her father’s reclusiveness. Equally, fate makes them love-starved – Matthäus homesick and Phyllis deprived of friendship. Their chance meeting is only the final stage in fate’s hidden preparations.
The one-act they do initiate – their escape together – rebounds upon them terribly. And, it is fate that controls this part of their story too. Phyllis is fated to overhear Humphrey Gould (she is brought up to behave properly), she thinks Humphrey has come back to be with her. It is Matthäus’ fate to row to Jersey and miss France.
Finally, their hopes defeated, they are broken: Matthäus willingly faces execution, and Phyllis, aware now of her tragic mistake and of the part she has played by her absence in Mattaus’ capture. She lives her many remaining years alone and in mourning.
There is a final irony in their lying at last together in the grave as Hardy grimly tells us at the end.
This is my view of the way Hardy viewed his story. Is it yours? Whether it is or not how do you see the characters?
In the following essay, I will be explaining the way the tragedy of The Melancholy Hussar story works and how an ironic ‘twist’ contributes. Phyllis Grove, who is the female main character, is treated oppressively by her father. She needs a way out of the Wessex Downs where she lives in a secluded world in their ‘small, dilapidated, half-farm half manor house’. The story tells of her struggle for love and which man is right for her. The story, we are told is an injustice on Phyllis’ memory.
Phyllis is portrayed as a girl brought up in the country to a father who has lost his business through his own fault. The picture the reader develops is of a father frustrated with himself. Beyond the seclusion of Phyllis, lays the seclusion of her father and his darkness. He takes out his troubles on her. He does not seem to have a wife which leads the reader to think that he wants Phyllis to be at his beck and call. This corresponds with her feeling shy. Phyllis is a girl with her whole life in front of her, and her father is making her unhappy through his annoyance of life.
It is not surprising that Phyliss is unexpectedly asked to be married. Phyllis is unromantically pursued by Humphrey Gould, an unreliable-looking bachelor of 30 from Bath. It is her father’s wish for her to marry this man who is within her father’s perceived social level. The reader feels that Phyllis is looking for a reason to get away from her circumstances. Phyllis was willing to leave her father as she felt little love towards him. She disliked the way he behaved towards her. It also may be the case someone showed attention to her for once. Mr. Gould flattered this lonely woman, telling stories of himself to be a fashionable man although he is ‘poor as a crow’. Mr. Gould actually shows no regard to this person he has just asked to marry him. Making an excuse for his ‘pecuniary’ condition, he has left her in the lurch. At home, Phyllis is with her father, this man has come from nowhere asks her to marry her. This woman with nothing really happening in her life is left thinking of happiness that Mr. Gould cannot really deliver.
Though her husband, to be, sends her letters Phyllis says she does not love him in the truest sense. This leads the reader to believe that Phyllis was asking him to get her out of her poor situation. The reader can see how Phyllis’ concentration is quickly turned to the one of the York Hussars. Phyllis sits on the wall outside her house ‘listlessly surveying the pasture’. Her attention was drawn to a ‘solitary figure’. Thus, Phyllis begins an unusual but earnest courtship with Matthäus Tina who is one of the York Hussars, the King’s German Legion. They communicate. There is an effect on her consciousness as Matthäus’ face ‘haunted’ her mind. The reader almost thinks Phyllis is waiting for another man to come along and take her away. There is a contrast between this man and Mr. Gould. Phyllis again is enlightened by the stories of another man; his stories of Germany. Matthäus is her romantic hero. There is no feeling that Phyllis ever thinks of the unpleasant side of leaving her home, and of what might await her. The only thought is for her present relationship with her father that is ‘irksome and painful’.
The tragedy for Phyllis is that she does not know which way to turn. Phyllis does not realise every option she chooses will let her down. Phyllis still believes in her marriage to Gould rather than her love for Matthäus. However, Mr. Gould has a dastardly secret he had married someone else. There is an insensitivity from Mr. Gould towards her feelings. This poor girl has seen a way out of her situation has to hear her husband, to be, telling her he is with another woman. Phyllis goes to her garden for solace just like she was when she saw Matthäus. Phyllis looks over the wall and sees two coffins and a band playing “march of the dead”. A procession of soldiers goes by accompanied by two priests. Matthäus and his friends Christoph were to be executed for desertion. Matthäus and another reached the shores of Jersey, not France. The irony is that Phyllis believed that she could get away from her father. Her dreams of getting away are dashed. Maybe, if Matthäus had been less honorable and Phyllis more daring, their future would have taken a better turn.
Though Phyllis did not leave her house, there could be thought that she might have not got on well being away from her father if she had left and stuck to a country ways. However, she was willing to try. Ironically, Phyllis found out too late. Humphrey Gould planned to set Phyllis free but he had fallen in love with another woman. Matthäus Tina was executed for desertion. Phyllis was destined to be alone and lonely. She was to lead a lonely life of spinsterhood. Phyllis Grove was in a social condition that she had to follow, through lack of choice.
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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.
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