Both of the short stories revolve around the supernatural and superstitious. Dickens and Hardy use these themes to help perceive and advance our understanding of the main characters and stimulate interest in the locations. They also these techniques to bring out the social settings and the local environments, portraying them in such a way that the reader feels as though they knows the places. They are also used to add to the setting and to help personify emotions and feelings of certain characters. The characters of the story help influence the supernatural feel of each.
In “The Signalman” there are two main characters, the narrator and the signalman. We know very little about the narrator as we are told little about him or his background, just his thoughts and feelings at the time, although this does create an air of mystery and suspense around him. The signalman is very supernatural in himself. Adjectives such as “dark” are repeated and also the narrator’s thoughts project the supernatural to the reader “there was something remarkable in his manner of doing so, though I could not have said for my life what”.Order now
In “The Withered Arm” there are once again two main characters but there are many minor characters. Rhoda Brook is introduced to us as “A lorn milkmaid” and “a thin fading woman of thirty” from these you can gather her general appearance as a frail ageing woman. She is also isolated “somewhat apart from the rest” but unlike the signalman who is forcefully isolated she chooses to be. There is also Gertrude Lodge the farmer’s wife. She is much the opposite of Rhoda, in appearance at least.
The gossiping milkmaids describe her as “rosy-cheeked titsy-totsy little body” in the first paragraph, as a rumour. But when her son in law sees her she is described as having a face “as comely as a dolls”. Over the years though Gertrude changes considerably into an “irritable, superstitious woman, whose whole time was given to experimenting upon her ailment with every quack remedy she came across” Rhoda and Gertrude’s relationship changes considerably through the play. At the start Rhoda feels great jealousy towards the woman who is her ‘replacement’ for Farmer Lodge.
In her dream she sees her as a figure with “features shockingly distorted and wrinkled as by age” But then, the day after Rhoda is hampered by guilt and cannot help feeling overwhelmed by the kindness of Gertrude bringing her son new boots. She wishes she could give the “innocent young thing… her blessing and not her curse”. Slowly the two women appear to fade apart and the climax of this is that Gertrude uses Rhoda’s son to try and cure her ailment. Rhoda sees this and knocks her unconscious her feelings being shown by “This is the meaning of what Satan showed me in the vision!
You are like her at last. ” The talk of ‘Satan’ adds to the supernatural and hellish feel and conveys the emotion and deep hatred Rhoda is feeling towards Gertrude. In the two stories setting is very important in adding to the supernatural atmosphere of the stories. In “The Signalman” the setting is very dark and confining, vocabulary such as “barbarous, depressing, forbidding, crooked,” all further involve the theme of the supernatural within the piece, adding to the isolated, ill feel of the piece.
Emphasis is put on the supernatural from these adjectives being used frequently, the repetition of the word dark also helps convey the supernatural theme. In context, the railway cutting as an alien location for the Victorians at that time, as it was so new to them due to the industrial revolution having barely started so these things were not very common, it is a perfect setting for the supernatural and seems very hellish.
Yet in “The Withered Arm”, within the first chapter, it is in the countryside and the place has an idyllic feel, with the “eighty-cow dairy” “twilight”; a place that represents an old farm, with the sun setting in the background, is the picture made in the readers head. There is very little supernatural in the setting as the place is so ideal. It greatly contrasts with the dark, isolated home of the signalman. There is also a hint of realism within Hardy’s story as the place is based on his old Wessex, this gives us a sense of location and a overall feel for the place.
The only place where there is a hint of supernatural is the walk to Conjuror Trendle. The bad weather adds to the supernatural as there are “thick clouds made the atmosphere dark”, although it is only afternoon. the wind “howled dismally” these bad weather descriptions adding to the supernatural elements in around the place of Conjuror Trendle. It also resembles the feelings of Gertrude and Rhoda, they are both depressed and anxious and the howling wind and dark clouds show this, also the atmosphere is very hostile, tense and desperate to cure the woman’s impediment.
Also in Dorset culture there is a lot of superstition that already exists so this adds to the superstitious feel of the setting. The two authors, Hardy and Dickens, use different techniques and styles to help convey the supernatural within the two short stories. In “The Signalman” there is a third person narrator. Both authors open with dialogue, although in Dickens’ “The Signalman” Dickens creates suspense by not informing the reader of what has happened so far and making them want to read on and find out about the characters involved.
Whereas in “The Withered Arm” the reader is informed through the dialogue of what has happened so far. Another difference is that Dickens uses rhetorical questions and brackets. These further explain the plot and engage the reader further into the story. We are first introduced to the supernatural in “The Withered Arm” from Rhoda Brook’s dream. She already had an idea of what the woman looked like as she had sent her son out as a ‘scout’. She is full of jealousy for the woman who has taken her former lover away.
In the dream Hardy uses plenty of punctuation to speed up the piece and increase the frantic nature of Rhoda “Gasping for breath, Rhoda, In a last desperate effort, swung out her right hand… ” Hardy’s heavy use of commas increases the pace. In her dream she is being attacked by Gertrude, she grabs her arm and flings her to the floor before waking greatly disturbed. This does not appear to be supernatural until Gertrude comes over in the morning and shows Rhoda her arm, where there is discoloration that Rhoda “fancied that she discerned in them the shape of her own four fingers”.
The Signalman” is much more inclined to the supernatural, as we know very little about the narrator this adds to the mystery of the piece. Also the phrase “Halloa! Below there! ” is heavily doused in the supernatural. These being the words that introduce you to the story but also the words recited by the ghost who warned him of the accident that would happen in the near future, and also by the train driver as he alerted the signalman of the speeding train towards him. The role of coincidence also features in both pieces although it is a lot more apparent “The Withered Arm”.
For example the discoloration on Gertrude’s arm that Rhoda “fancied that she discerned in them the shape of her own four fingers”, this could be highly coincidental as Rhoda may be imagining the fact the marks and her mind may be playing tricks on her. The theme of the supernatural is very apparent in both stories and used similarly by both authors although many different techniques are used. Although in “The Withered Arm” the supernatural is a lot more apparent to the reader, whereas in “The Signalman” there is more of an underlying tone, which can be picked out and interpreted in the way the reader wishes.