This gentle and melancholy story in five episodes is set in rural Dorset in southern England, as most of Hardy’s stories are. The narrator places in in that location very securely in the opening paragraph, though the time is ‘nearly ninety years’ before the narration. It is therefore not the narrator’s own story. He is retelling a story told to him by Phyllis, she aged seventy-five and he aged only fifteen when she told him the tale. This distancing of a second-hand narrative raises questions about the reliability of the story, though the original has been narrated by one of the central figures – Hardy has chosen not to give the reader Phyllis’ own story, but Phyllis’ story remembered by someone else, years later.
The first section sets the place, the time and the central character, a solitary girl living in a secluded place with her father, who attracts the attention of the less than glamorous Humphrey Gould, ‘neither young nor old; neither good-looking nor positively plain’. It is clear that Hardy does not want the reader to see Gould as a great romantic catch and perhaps leads their lack of disappointment when, having promised to return, he does not reappear for nearly a year.
Beginnings of Romance
There is a sense of preamble about that first section of the story, an exposition for the main part of the tale which begins in section II. Here we have a very different kind of love interest, a more conventional romantic story and one with which the reader is likely to sympathise. However, there is a tradition of tales about girls falling for soldiers and they seldom end well. Hardy portrays the meeting and developing relationship between Phyllis and the hussar tenderly – he sees her first sitting on the fence and passes on, but the effect on her consciousness is made clear as his face ‘haunted’ her mind, suggesting a delicate, insubstantial presence, but also perhaps a foreshadowing of his eventual fate. Crucially, he is described in direct contrast to Humphrey Gould; he is ‘so striking, so handsome, and his eyes were so blue’. This is much more the romantic hero and so the relationship blossoms. The narrator is careful to create a sympathetic reader response. Firstly Matthäus Tina suffers from ‘dreadful melancholy’ and ‘home-sickness’, while Phyllis does not ‘over-step the line of mere friendship for a long while’. Such matters of female hesitancy and reputation were important in the nineteenth century – it is indicated in part I with the reference to a version of the story being ‘unfavourable’ to Phyllis’ ‘character’ and in the wry admission here that this version is ‘her own account’. It is also stated that ‘she had lost her heart to Matthäus’, as if it was involuntary, an unlooked-for accident.
A Moral Dilemma
The different sections are like mini-chapters, staging the narrative by shifting the focus in each one. The shift in part III is made apparent immediately with ‘But…’, preparing for the reintroduction of Humphrey Gould. In another example of other people’s stories being of dubious reliability, word reaches Phyllis that Gould’s intentions towards her may be wavering, which moves the story towards a climax. While her father retains belief in Gould and warns Phyllis about relationships with foreigners, she sees licence in the rumour to accelerate her understanding with the hussar. The romantic climax is a daring plan of escape, Matthäus from the army and Phyllis from her father. It is that rising action of the narrative which is checked in part IV, with the ironic encounter between Phyllis and Gould, the latter returning at the very moment Phyllis is making her escape and overhearing his conversation, a very typical Hardy coincidence, designed to fill the reader’s mind with ‘what ifs’ and highlight the poignancy of the moment. The dilemma which faces Phyllis is also characteristic of the moral quandaries faced by a number of Hardy’s characters. Though readers may have sympathised with her escape, she shows a strong moral compass in remaining true to her promise to Gould, and further in waiting for Matthäus in order to explain. The mood is initially gloomy, with Phyllis in ‘despair’ and there is foreshadowing in the simile describing the camp, ‘as dead as the camp of the Assyrians after the passage of the destroying angel.’ However, Hardy again creates an ambivalent response: although Phyllis is in a ‘wretched state of mind’ she is soon in ‘her bonnet and tippet’ waiting to be escorted by her fiancé Mr Gould, perhaps won over by the gift of ‘a handsome looking-glass’, a gift that in itself suggests vanity.
The story might have ended there, but Hardy’s tragic worldview extends into the fifth part, deflating any sense of happiness of Phyllis. Gould’s unexpected revelation that he is in fact already married and actually wants Phyllis to put in a good word for him, is the first blow. Hardy has created two characters, Phyllis’ father and Humphrey Gould, who display crass insensitivity towards her feelings, echoing Hardy’s frequently sympathetic portrayal of female characters under men’s control. The second cruel blow is that, in another Hardy coincidence, Phyllis, while composing herself after Gould’s confession, witnesses the execution of Matthäus and his friend, who have been captured. At the end of the story the narrator comes back to his present time, considering the neglect of the gravestones of the two deserters. The final short sentence, ‘Phyllis lies near’, finally associates her and Matthäus in tragic appropriateness.