The main characters in both ‘The Fly Paper’ by Elizabeth Taylor and ‘The Withered Arm’ by Thomas Hardy are women. These women come from everyday life and are set in the social settings of the writers’ own times. Thus, the characters in ‘The Withered Arm’ come from Victorian rural England. Rhoda Brook is a poor milkmaid living with her son whose father is the farmer on whose farm she works. Whereas, the characters in ‘The Fly Paper’ come from Post War England, living a small town or village life. Sylvia is a dowdy, eleven year old on her way, by bus, to the suburbs of a nearby town for her piano lesson.
In both of these stories, women are represented as having limited choices in life. Compared to men they have little power and depend on the actions of men and the opinions of others. In ‘The Withered Arm’ Rhoda is described as “a lorn milkmaid”. Rhoda has been forsaken and made wretched by Farmer Lodge, who has ruined her by not marrying her. In the same story, Gertrude is a lady because her marriage to Farmer Lodge has allowed her not to work and to be a lady. She “shows marks of a lady on her”. In “The Fly Paper”, Sylvia has no choices in life. Her grandmother makes her take piano lessons and her piano teacher bullies her.
Her grandmother has total control over her life. Sylvia was: “feeling hot in her winter coat, which her grandmother insisted on her wearing, just as she insisted on the music lessons. ” She can not stick up for herself. This is shown when the man on the bus terrorises her. Although this is probably more to do with her age than being a female. Sylvia is desribed as “looking hunted” in the text because nobody leaves her alone. Women in these stories are described in detail. This is because in ‘The Fly Paper’, but even more in ‘The Withered Arm’, women are very dependent on the way that they look.
How they look affects their whole life because,especially in ‘The Withered Arm’, being beautiful means they can attract men, who earn the money so they can lead a happy life. Sylvia in ‘The Fly Paper’ unfortunately, is plain and defeated: “she was a dull girl whom nobody liked very much, and she knew it. ” In comparison, the woman that Silvia meets on the bus is very different to her: “She was homely looking, Sylvia decided, in spite of fair hair going very dark at the roots. She had a comfortable, protective manner, as if she were keeping an eye on the situation for Sylvia’s sake. ”
This makes Sylvia place trust in the woman without knowing or even talking to her. It turns out that this is to Sylvia’s peril. It shows that with a certain look much is possible. This fact is also displayed in ‘The Withered Arm’. Farmer Lodge is drawn to Gertrude in the beginning because of her good looks. In the end, he is repelled by her withered arm. When Gertrude is first viewed by the milkmaids she is described as a “rosy-cheeked, tisty-tosty little body” who has drawn Farmer Lodge away from Rhoda who has born his son. Rhoda, on the other hand, is described as a “thin fading woman” and at only thirty years old it seems a little unfair!
This shows how much looks matter. When Gertrude starts getting a withered arm Farmer Lodge rejects her, to her great dismay. She longs for her husband back, but instead of discussing with her husband the problems that she is facing with her arm,all she can think of to get him back is to regain her looks: “If I could only again be as I was when he first saw me. ” This idea is lodged in her head, to such an extreme, that she is led to rub her arm on the neck of a hanged man’s corpse in a desperate attempt to cure her arm. In both stories, women are portrayed as swayed by fate – a force that they are both powerless to prevent.
In ‘The Fly Paper’, Sylvia just seems to have a terrible fate. Her mother died and she is now leading an unhappy life with her bossy grandmother. This makes her a “glum and sullen” child. Even when she takes the bus somewhere there is some misfortune awaiting her. This is in the form of a weird man who starts to pester her as she is sitting on the bus. Sylvia’s life seems to be out of her control: “… her life had taken a sharp turn for the worse, and she could not see how it would ever be any better. She had no faith in freeing herself from it, even when she was grown-up. ”
It is obvious from this quote that Sylvia holds very little hope for her future. Then, for the first time, Sylvia seems to get some luck. A nice woman helps her and shoos off the strange man and offers to be her escort to her music lesson. But again fate catches up with Sylvia and when she goes to the woman’s house for tea and biscuits, the strange man walks in and it turns out that the woman and he were accomplices. Fate had doomed Sylvia all along! In ‘The Withered Arm’ , Rhoda is a woman of her time and a big part of living in that time is superstition. This superstitious way of looking at life leads Rhoda to believe that she is a witch!
She has a dream where Gertrude sits on her chest, peers cruelly into her face, and waves her left hand with the wedding ring on her finger “mockingly” in Rhoda’s face. With this Rhoda: “seized the confronting spectre by its obtrusive left arm, and whirled it backward to the floor,” Rhoda is obsessed by this dream. She thinks that it really happened. She believes that, through no intention of her own, she is bewitching Gertrude: ” ‘O, can it be,’ she said to herself ….. ‘that I exercise a malignant power over people against my own will? ‘ ” Rhoda feels that fate is in control and not she.
The language used to decribe the dream is full of supernatural terms, such as “incubus”, “spectre” and “phantom”. Rhoda is up against the enormous powers of the unknown. In conclusion, women are shown in these strories as real, complicated people, whose feelings the reader can recognise and share. Sylvia’s vividly described discomfort when she is “so hot and anguished” changes, in the course of the story, to actual terror. The reader is shocked by this and the terrifying fate that awaits such an ordinary, harmless girl. In ‘TheWithered Arm’, women gossip together, worry about their looks and are drawn together in the troubles of their lives.
Rhoda forgives Gertrude and learns to appreciate her kindnesses, but she still has mixed feelings about her: ” In her secret heart Rhoda did not altogether object to a slight diminution of her successor’s beauty, by whatever means it had come about; but she did not wish to inflict upon her physical pain. ” This quote reveals Rhoda as a real person. As in ‘The Fly Paper’ both Rhoda and Gertrude suffer an appalling fate which they can do little to alter. By the end of the story, they have changed visibly. Their situation in life has become intolerable. The reader is left without hope, caught up in a totally pessimistic view of a woman’s life.