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'THE WITHERED ARM' BY THOMAS HARDY: A SKEPTIC'S ANALYSIS

I have recently been reading some of Thomas Hardy's short stories (from his 'Wessex Tales') and was particularly interested in The Withered Arm which he wrote in 1888. It tells the story of 'a lorn milkmaid' Rhoda Brook who ekes out an impoverished existence with her 12-year-old son. The pair have been abandoned by the boy's father, wealthy Farmer Lodge who, at the start of the story, is due to arrive home with his new wife, Gertrude. Rhoda is understandably jealous of her ex-lover's bride; she sends her son to spy on the new arrival and to report back on her appearance and whether she 'shows marks of the lady on her, as I expect she do'.

As the weeks go by, Rhoda becomes obsessed with thoughts of Gertrude and one night she has a dream in which Gertrude taunts her by thrusting forward her left hand 'so as to make the wedding-ring it wore glitter in Rhoda's eyes'. In her dream Rhoda then 'seized the confronting spectre by its obtrusive left arm, and whirled it backward to the floor'.

The day after Rhoda's dream, Gertrude calls at her house. Though unaware that Rhoda's son is her new husband's child, she brings him a pair of boots as promised, and other gifts. Rhoda is stuck by her gentle appearance and kindly manner and is full of remorse and guilt about her dream. Gertrude then confides in Rhoda that she has acquired a puzzling ailment:

She uncovered her left hand and arm; and their outline confronted Rhoda's gaze as the exact original of the limb she had beheld and seized in her dream. Upon the pink round surface of the arm were faint marks of an unhealthy colour, as if produced by a rough grasp. Rhoda's eyes became riveted on the discolorations; she fancied that she discerned in them the shape of her own four fingers. 'How did it happen?' she said mechanically. 'I cannot tell,' replied Mrs Lodge, shaking her head. 'One night when I was sound asleep, dreaming I was away in some strange place, a pain suddenly shot into my arm there, and was so keen as to awaken me. I must have struck it in the daytime, I suppose, though I don't remember doing so.'

Let us pause here and examine in more detail some elements of the story so far. Let's first see how Hardy describes Rhoda's dream.

But the figure (of Gertrude Lodge) which had occupied her so much during this and the previous days was not to be banished at night. For the first time, Gertrude Lodge visited the supplanted woman (Rhoda) in her dreams. Rhoda Brook dreamed - since her assertion that she really saw, before falling asleep, was not to be believed - that the young wife, in the pale silk dress and white bonnet, but with features shockingly distorted, and wrinkled as by age, was sitting upon her chest as she lay. The pressure of Mrs Lodge's person grew heavier; the blue eyes peered cruelly into her face: and then the figure thrust forward its left hand mockingly, so as to make the wedding-ring it wore glitter in Rhoda's eyes. 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. And when the spectre had vanished, 'O, merciful heaven!' she cried, sitting on the edge of the bed in a cold sweat; 'that was not a dream - she was here!'

The reader may immediately recognise that Rhoda's 'dream' bears the hallmarks of sleep paralysis, which may be at the root of some claims of nocturnal ghostly visitations and, nowadays, the appearance of extra-terrestrial beings and abduction by the same. Particularly telling is the description of 'the incubus' pressing down on Rhoda to the extent that she felt 'nearly suffocated', then withdrawing 'to the foot of the bed', then inching forward again. Like many experiences of sleep paralysis, Rhoda's is intensely realistic and frightening. But to a significant degree it is dependent on her interpretation of the physical and mental sensations and experiences associated with this phenomenon. Gertrude and the distress of her having 'supplanted' her have been Rhoda's major preoccupation for several weeks, so it would be understandable that this provided the theme for her hallucinatory experiences her sleep paralysis.

The next day, when Gertrude calls on her and displays her kindly and gentle nature, Rhoda's emotions turn to guilt and remorse. Now, we know that when a person is in the throes of some troublesome emotion, he or she is primed be vigilant for any stimuli or events that could be threatening, and to have a tendency to interpret such stimuli and events accordingly (what psychologists term 'attentional' and 'interpretative biases'). So if, for example, we are afraid that burglars will break into our house during the night, we may lie awake, listening to any noise and interpreting it as the sound of someone forcing a window or moving around downstairs. Similarly, if we are in an angry frame of mind we may, for example, be on the lookout for any indication that someone is treating us with a lack of consideration or respect, and are more apt to interpret even innocent remarks and facial expressions as evidence of this.

Thus, when Gertrude shows Rhoda the 'faint marks of an unhealthy colour' on her arm, Rhoda is thrown into a panic; she is responsible for these injuries and she even perceives them as marks of her own fingers.

Even so, surely it is too much of a coincidence that, the very day following Rhoda's nocturnal dream of her violently seizing Gertrude by her arm, the latter turns up at her house, complaining that some marks have mysteriously appeared on that very limb!

So far I have been treating the story as though it were a true account of some actual event. Perhaps it is entirely made up, in which case a skeptical analysis is nothing more than an idle exercise. But let us assume that there is truth in the story. In that case the last point requires our serious attention.

If the story is based on events that actually happened we need to ask how accurate the details are, notably their timing and sequence. We know who the author is and we have reason to believe that, like other stories he published, this one concerns events that were part of the folklore of the locality in which he spent his childhood. The presumably fictional narrator is not identified to us but we have to assume that Rhoda herself told her side of the story to someone who then spread the word around. So the account is certain to be full of inaccuracies, confabulations, and omissions. Concerning the timing of Rhoda's dream in relation to Gertrude's revealing to her the marks on her arm, the narrator states that it occurred the night before. Can we be sure of that? In fact, following publication of the story, Hardy is reported as saying:

Since writing this story… some years ago I have been reminded by an aged friend who knew 'Rhoda Brookes' that, in relating her dream, my forgetfulness has weakened the facts out of which the tale grew. In reality it was while lying down on a hot afternoon that the incubus oppressed her and she flung it off, with the results on the body of the original described. (John Wain, Introduction to 'Thomas Hardy: Selected Stories', London: Papermac, 1966, xiii).

Note also that Gertrude does not say that the night of her dream was the same as Rhoda's, only that it occurred 'one night'. Could it even be that Rhoda dreamt of her assault on Gertrude after Gertrude had shown her the marks on her arm, but when the time came tell her part of the story (at least six years later by my calculation), she recalled the events otherwise? It is very common for memories to be adjusted, even unconsciously, so that they make a more compelling narrative. And this also goes for anyone telling this story.

There is more to the story of skeptical interest. The condition of Gertrude's arm deteriorates and acquires a 'withered' look, much to her alarm and that of Rhoda. She consults a doctor:

But the surgeon had not seemed to understand the afflicted limb at all; he had told her to bathe it in hot water, and she had bathed it, but the treatment had done no good.

Then, during one of her encounters with Rhoda, Gertrude announces:

They tell me there is possibly one way by which I might be able to find out the cause, and so perhaps the cure of it… It is by going to some clever man over in Egdon Heath… they said that you knew more of his movements than anybody else hereabout, and could tell me if he were still to be consulted.

The name of the man is Conjuror Trendle, but when Rhoda informs her that 'they used to say he was a - he had powers other folks have not' Gertrude retorts:

O, how could my people be so superstitious as to recommend a man of that sort! I thought they meant some medical man. I shall think no more of him.

Later however, with her condition no better, Gertrude has a change of heart. She informs Rhoda:

I have again been thinking of what they said about Conjuror Trendle. I don't really believe in such men, but I should not mind just visiting him, from curiosity.

Two hundred years later or thereabouts, we witness the same dilemma facing many people whose ailments have not yielded to the ministrations of mainstream medical practitioners. Though often skeptical of the treatments on offer from 'alternative' therapists, in their desperation they are 'willing to try anything'. And sometimes there is such a person in the locality who, like Conjuror Trendle, has a wonderful reputation for curing all sorts of conditions that have proved intractable to conventional medicine.

There is however something about Conjuror Trendle that one rarely, if ever, finds in his equivalent these days: he is skeptical of his own abilities!

He did not profess his remedial practices openly, or care anything about their continuance…. Indeed, he affected not to believe largely in his own powers, and when warts that had been shown him for cure miraculously disappeared - which it must be owned they infallibly did - he would say lightly, 'O, I only drink a glass of grog upon 'em at your expense - perhaps it's all chance', and immediately turn the subject….(A)nd then with words of self-disparagement he examined her arm.

What a contrast to the contemporary quack! Moreover, 'He would not take a farthing'. Perhaps Conjuror Trendle is voicing the skepticism of Thomas Hardy himself. Did he have in mind the placebo effect and confirmation bias, I wonder.

On examining Gertrude's arm, Trendle's opinion is 'Medicine can't cure it… 'Tis the work of an enemy'. Gertrude herself then has to identify this person by the following means. Trendle takes a tumbler of water and an egg ('preparing it in a private way'), breaks the egg, and pours the white of the egg on the water. Gertrude then examines the tumbler's contents in order to identify 'the enemy'. She appears shocked but withholds any disclosure of what she has seen from Rhoda, who accompanies her.

Here, in the mind of the informed skeptic the terms 'apophenia' or 'pareidolia' will appear - the processes whereby random stimuli or vague patterns appear as meaningful objects and faces, or human characteristics are perceived in inanimate objects. It is human nature to attach great import to such phenomena - cf. 'the face on Mars' and the image of Jesus on a slice of toast.

The narrative then moves on half a dozen years and Gertrude's disfigured arm remains her constant pre-occupation. She and her husband have no child and their marriage has 'sank into prosiness, and worse':

The farmer was usually gloomy and silent….. The once blithe-hearted and enlightened Gertrude was changing into an irritable, superstitious woman whose whole time was given to experimenting upon her ailment with every quack remedy she came across…. her closet was lined with bottles, packets, and ointment-pots of every description - nay, bunches of mystic herbs, charms, and books of necromancy, which in her schoolgirl time she would have ridiculed as folly.

This account of Gertrude's fate, albeit rather dramatic, will be familiar to physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists. People with intractable conditions, depending on their personalities and personal circumstances, adapt in various ways to their plight; many remain cheerful and fulfilled with their lives but at the other end of the spectrum some sink into a state of despair and, as with Gertrude, their whole existence revolves around the malady. Their spouses suffer likewise. Their lives are taken up with an endless succession of medical investigations and treatments, which not uncommonly make them feel worse, and of course they are at the mercy of quacks.

Eventually, in desperation, Gertrude decides to consult, in secret, Conjurer Trendle again. She shows him her arm, and of her affliction he says, 'If you ever do throw it off, it will be all at once.' He then says:

You must touch with the limb the neck of a man who's been hanged….. Before he's cold - just after he's cut down'.

When she asks him, 'How can that do good?' he replies, 'It will turn the blood and change the constitution'.

Note the vagueness of the rationale for the treatment prescribed; does it remind you not a little of some of the explanations provided by contemporary alternative practitioners for their remedies! Actually the difference between 'mainstream' and 'unorthodox' medicine was probably less definable in those days than it is today; perhaps the 'unorthodox' remedies tended to be characterised in particular by their shear outlandishness.

I shall not continue with the tale now, as I have covered the main points of skeptical interest and I do not wish to spoil the present reader's pleasure should he or she wish to read the story (note 1).

One final question is the possible diagnosis of Gertrude's condition. I am not competent to offer any suggestions, so perhaps our medically-qualified readers could offer their ideas to the editor. It is, I think, relevant to ask how severe was her disfigurement and how physically disabled it actually rendered her. Something physical was clearly present but (as I can testify from my own professional experience assessing compensation claims) it is possible for even minor disfigurements and scarring, hardly noticeable to the observer, to become a major obsession and a source of distress and crippling self-consciousness for the person affected. If this is relevant to the present case, then perhaps a point in favour of Conjuror Trendle's extreme final prescription is the energy and investment required from the patient and the fact that it is an ordeal. Thus the patient's success in carrying out the instructions could have a significant remedial effect on the psychological component of Gertrude's affliction.

Whatever the case, there's no doubting that Thomas Hardy couldn't half tell a good story!

Note

1. The story can be read at: http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/ghost-stories-hardy.html but there are many mistakes in the text.