At one point, Hardy describes Sophy’s story as a ‘little tragi-comedy’. As it progresses through its three sections, all of them gentle and leisurely, it would be fair to argue that the content and tone of the story moves from comedy inexorably towards tragedy. The tragedy, though, is small, domestic and individual.
A Slow Character Reveal
The idea of gradual revelation guides the opening to the story. The central character, who is not named until the third page, and then in flashback, is initially approached from behind – even her face is not seen until the fifth paragraph. The first is a comic hyperbolic description of a hairstyle, one of ‘wonder’ and ‘mystery’. The complexity of this style is accentuated by the verbs ‘braided and twisted and coiled’, then the odd juxtaposition of the adjectives ‘barbaric’ and ‘ingenious’. The verb ‘wrought’ implies both artistry and great effort and there are further tongue-in-cheek suggestions about the complexity of the hair – it looks strong enough to last ‘for a year’, though every night the work is ‘demolished’, a word normally used for the destruction of buildings. The narrator has a pitying tone for the woman who spends ‘unstinted pains’ on the ‘fabrication’ of the edifice of her hair, calling her ‘poor thing’. From the outset, this woman seems to be the focus of gentle mockery, but her portrayal invites the reader’s sympathy more and more as the tale develops.
The tone continues, working to make this ‘young invalid lady’ insignificant, attending an insignificant charity concert at one of the ‘minor parks’ of London, suggesting the glimpsed ‘curve of a cheek’ might indicate beauty, yet revealing that while ‘attractive’, the face ‘was not so handsome as the people behind her had supposed’. In this way, the narrative gives the reader the perception of the bystanders, who overhear the boy calling the woman ‘Mother’ and recognise his clothes as the uniform of ‘a well-known pubic school’. In the first real detail, these bystanders also finally notice ‘the soft, brown and affectionate orbs’ of her eyes. When the reader finally comes face to face with the character, vicariously through the eyes of the other concert attendees, she is presented with great sympathy as a gentle, compassionate woman. The first note of foreshadowing comes with her son’s correction of her grammar, in a manner which is ‘almost harsh’, but which she accepts without resentment.
The word ‘reverie’ is used to direct the reader into the flashback, now entering the woman’s own thoughts. In this flashback, Hardy not only fills in the back-story for readers, but introduces the ideas of class and social position which underpin the tale. Sam is introduced in the flashback too, with no indication of his importance to the second half of the story. He seems to drop out of significance once he and Sophy have ‘quarrelled’. But it is he who first reveals Sophy’s name as he courts her in the twilight. Sam is a young man with whom she is completely at ease, as their relaxed dialogue indicates. That relationship is very different from that between the ‘parlour-maid’ and her employer the vicar, whom she addresses as ‘sir’.
Hardy presents the marriage of the widowed vicar and Sophy tenderly, but also includes hints at other factors. He appreciates her ‘kitten-like, flexuous, tender’ presence, with just a suggestion that he is missing the feminine physical presence of his wife. But he also asks himself ‘What should he do if Sophy were gone?’ which suggests at least a degree of self-interest. Sophy’s accident on the stairs, while tending to Mr Twycott’s illness, seals it, raising the question of whether the vicar also marries her out of a feeling of guilt for her lameness. Hardy has already made it clear by their positions in the household that this is a socially unequal marriage, but he is also explicit that Sophy has ‘respect’, even ‘veneration’ for Mr Twycott, but ‘did not exactly love him’. On the other hand, the vicar knows ‘he had committed social suicide’ by marrying his servant, even marrying in secret, with the pair entering the church at separate doors and having a service ‘which hardly a soul knew of’. They then move to London to avoid ‘every one who had known her former position’. There is already a sense of shame which foreshadows the son’s behaviour later in the story.
A Widow and Sam’s Return
Hardy uses the second section of the story to return the reader to a time shortly after the concert where it began. Mr Twycott was twice Sophy’s age at the point they married, and she is now left a widow. Her late husband’s financial arrangements have left their son’s education and her accommodation secure and Sophy is able to live in ample comfort. Hardy carefully chooses detail and diction, however, which undercut this comfort. A woman from the countryside now looks out on a ‘fragment of lawn’; the ‘railings’ through which he watches ‘the ever-flowing traffic’ sound like the bars of a cage as all she can see beyond is ‘the vista of sooty trees, hazy air, and drab house-facades’. The lexis is consistently colourless and unappealing, creating a reflection of her life, which has become ‘insupportably dreary’.
The surprise re-entry of Sam, therefore, immediately changes the tone. It is even there in the description of the produce on the market wagons he accompanies, their ‘loads of vegetables’, ‘the green bastions of cabbages’, ‘the masses of beans and peas, pyramids of snow-white turnips’, ‘fresh green stuff’. It is the language of life, of vitality and colour. Associated with this optimism and vibrancy is Sam. Hardy presents him as a more mature man than the one whose arm ‘stole round’ Sophy’s ‘waist’ at the beginning of the flashback, but with that maturity is respectful fidelity. He reveals he has directed his wagon along that street on his way to Covent Garden because he knows that she ‘lived along here somewhere’, but notably he addresses her consistently as ‘Mrs Twycott’ during their first meeting. As Sophy travels with him one morning, Sam pulls ‘himself up now and then, when he thought himself too familiar’. By indicating such gentlemanly restraint and courtesy, Hardy portrays Sam in a very attractive light, winning the reader’s sympathy. The hesitancy of his proposal, to someone who he is conscious has been ‘a lady… so long’, is marked by the frequent use of dashes and ellipses, even though he has come up in the world and has prospects of a good solid business. Hardy presents him, in a modern sense, a complete gentleman. But Hardy is also acutely aware that in a nineteenth century sense, Sam can never be a gentleman, and that is the tension of the story.
While Mr Twycott was aware of the ‘social suicide’ of his marriage, he was tender towards his wife. Their son, educated at a prestigious private school, has entered a different world, which is identified by Hardy in the impedimenta of the cricket match picnics: ‘pie-crusts, champagne-bottles, glasses, plates, napkins, and the family silver’. This casual ostentatious display of wealth is a very different world from the one in which Sophy grew up. Randolph is learning to be a gentleman, not in behaviour, but in class and social consciousness. The exchange when Sophy breaks the news to Randolph that she would like to remarry is a key moment, where Hardy juxtaposes the two connotations:
He hoped his stepfather would be a gentleman, he said.
‘Not what you call a gentleman,’ she answered timidly.
Hardy confirms that the boy who corrected his mother’s grammar at the concert is developing into a social snob; ‘with his aristocratic school-knowledge, his grammars, and his aversions’, he is limiting his interests to ‘a population of a few thousand wealthy and titled people’. Even so, the forthright language in his dismissal of his mother’s wishes is shocking: ‘I am ashamed of you! It will ruin me! A miserable boor!’ His rejection of his mother and Sam is explicitly based on his concern with his own social position.
His mother, speaking to Sam, refuses to accept her own elevated social position while being conscious of her son’s, arguing that she is ‘not a lady… I shall never be. But he’s a gentleman, and that – makes it – O how difficult for me!’ That difficulty is apparent in the language Hardy uses to denote Randolph’s feelings for his mother’s affection for Sam: ‘repugnance’, ‘indignation’, ‘contempt’. If the reader thought his earlier exclamation could be excused by his youth and immaturity, in much more sober language Hardy depicts him taking his mother to his ‘little cross and altar’ and ‘there bade her kneel, and swear’ to refuse Sam. This is when Randolph is training for the priesthood, a striking contrast with ‘the faithful Sam’.
Hardy makes the contrast very directly at the conclusion to the story, where Sam, in ‘a neat suit of black’ and ‘whose eyes were wet’ to see the passing of Sophy’s coffin, is contrasted with Randolph, now a ‘young smooth-shaven priest in a high waistcoat’, who ‘looked black as a cloud at the shopkeeper standing there.’
One of the key words of that final sentence is ‘priest’. Randolph is now a minister of the Christian church. There is, though, in Hardy’s narrative, no reference to hypocrisy or irony. He leaves it to the readers to infer, to recognise that Randolph’s treatment of his own mother lacks love, that his social rectitude is deeply selfish and that his concern with maintaining social position runs directly contrary to the teaching of the church in which he serves. Hardy also deals with class in a similarly subtle manner – again there is no explicit criticism, but the use of the word ‘gentleman’ is key, and the final contrast between the ‘faithful fruiterer and greengrocer’ and the ‘smooth-shaven priest’ strongly suggests which of the two Hardy feels is the real gentleman. There is one telling line towards the end of the story about Randolph’s schooling: ‘His education had by this time sufficiently ousted his humanity’. That is perhaps Hardy’s most explicit statement about the inhumanity of class divisions which are so strong that they pervert the values of Christianity.
Narrative methods to consider:
- Third person narration