Exploring the presentation of witchcraft and the supernatural in the work of Thomas Hardy – Georgia Tindale

Image: Jacket image of The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, Penguin Paperback (1999)

Georgia Tindale works as an Assistant Editor in Amsterdam and is the co-editor of Porridge. She enjoys writing on a wide range of subjects including science, health and society, history, religion and postcolonial studies. Her poetry will be published in Laurel Magazine later this year, she tweets @tindale_georgia. 

Exploring the presentation of witchcraft and the supernatural in the work of Thomas Hardy.


‘Good girls don’t get treated as witches even on Egdon.’
(Mrs Yeobright, The Return of the Native)

On first appearances, witchcraft and the supernatural may seem strange subjects through which to approach the works of Thomas Hardy. Hardy is best known for his Wessex Novels, novels which are firmly rooted in the Dorset countryside. However, Hardy himself describes this fictionalised Wessex as ‘a partly real, partly dream-country’ in his preface to Far from the Madding Crowd. It is this combination of the ‘partly real’ and the ‘partly dream’ which connects Hardy’s supernatural to his Victorian society. I will be comparing one novel, The Return of the Native, with short stories from three collections: ‘The Withered Arm’ from Wessex Tales (1888), ‘What the Shepherd Saw’ from A Changed Man and Other Tales (1889), and ‘The Fiddler of the Reels’ from Life’s Little Ironies (1894).

I will be examining Hardy’s representation of the supernatural from two angles. Firstly, Hardy’s presentation of his female characters using discourse traditionally used to condemn witches in The Return of the Native and ‘The Withered Arm’ acts as a vehicle revealing the mechanisms through which socially unorthodox women were ostracised in his society. Secondly, Hardy’s self-conscious use of supernatural motifs and folk narratives in ‘What the Shepherd Saw’, ‘The Withered Arm’ and ‘The Fiddler of the Reels’ draws attention to, and challenges, the cultural position of the ghost story in Victorian society. Although critics like Neelanjana Basu, Jacqueline Dillon and Phillip Mallett focus on specific aspects of Hardy’s supernatural, they discuss either his short stories, or novels separately. My discussion, in contrast, spans both his ‘minor’ stories and his ‘major’ novels.

Firstly, both Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native and Rhoda Brook from ‘The Withered Arm’ are presented by Hardy as women who ‘misbehave’ sexually and are therefore condemned as witches by their rural societies. Although there is debate amongst feminist critics over the extent to which Hardy’s presentation of women can transcend the misogyny of his patriarchal society, examining contemporary critics’ responses to his female characters provides valuable insights into Hardy’s comparatively sympathetic – or at least, his socially aware – presentation of ostracised women. Kirstin Brady highlights the strand within Victorian criticism which referred to Hardy’s women in pagan or ‘demonic’ terms and refused to view them as complex, feeling characters. Indeed, an influential Victorian reviewer of Hardy, Havelock Ellis, describes Hardy’s women as having ‘something demonic about them’ (emphasis in original).  This ‘demonic’ element seems to be brought out in The Return of the Native and ‘The Withered Arm’ through Hardy’s association of his female characters with traditionally witch-like appearances. In the first detailed description of Eustacia, she is described as follows:

To see her hair was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow: it closed over her forehead like nightfall extinguishing the western glow […] She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries.  (55, my emphasis)

Here, Eustacia’s witch-like dark hair is exoticised by Hardy’s narrator using the simile with ‘nightfall,’ and viewed as ‘pagan’. These exoticising descriptions of Eustacia’s appearance recur throughout the novel, and her appearance is the source of her supposed ‘power’ over men to compel them into acting as she desires, as evident when the narrator describes how the rustic character, Charley, ‘like many, had felt the power of this girl’s face and form’ (104). However, although Hardy’s ‘pagan’ description may seem comparable with Ellis here, Hardy’s self-reflexive use of ‘to fancy’ indicates that this is a male narrator’s projection of Eustacia’s appearance only, and not an objective reading. Furthermore, Eustacia’s social power is shown to be limited by Hardy; she is not only attacked with a needle by Susan Nunsuch for her ‘witchcraft’ but also described as a ‘stranger to all […] social gatherings’ (103). Whatever the exotic fantasies of Hardy’s narrator or reviewers, Eustacia is shown to be ultimately powerless in the novel by her eventual suicide. This fits Virginia Woolf’s much cited reading of Hardy when she argues that in many of the novels, whatever the positive qualities given by Hardy to his women, out of the sexes: ‘The woman is the weaker [sex].’

Similarly, although Rhoda Brook’s appearance in ‘The Withered Arm’ is not exoticised or fixated upon by the narrator to such an extent, Hardy also presents her as socially ostracised through these physical descriptions. The most significant instance of this is found at the end of the story:

Her monotonous milking at the dairy was resumed, and followed for many long years, till her form became bent, and her once abundant dark hair white and worn away at the forehead […] Here, sometimes, those who knew her experiences would stand and observe her, and wonder what sombre thoughts were beating inside that impassive, wrinkled brow, to the rhythm of the alternating milk­streams. (77-8)

Rhoda’s witch-like dark hair has disappeared with age, and her ‘bent’ appearance indicates her ‘natural’, not supernatural, aging. Both the bystanders who know about her supernatural experiences – who have ‘slily’ [sic] called Rhoda ‘a witch since hay fall’ (60) – and the narrator are external to Rhoda and can only observe, wondering at her ‘impassive’ appearance. Furthermore, Hardy not only makes Rhoda’s social ostracisation explicit, but he also shows her to be a character who is not legible from the outside. William Morgan’s argument for ‘gendered silences’ between Hardy and his female characters is relevant; whatever his aims, Hardy’s ‘participation in a male-centered discourse’ precludes his narrators from accessing the subjective thoughts of his women. This illegibility forms the crux of Hardy’s presentation of ‘witches’; by presenting accusations of witchcraft as a societal reaction to complex women, Hardy encourages the reader to sympathise with these women, since neither their rural societies, nor Hardy’s narrator can understand them.

In addition, Hardy’s ostracised women were also unreadable to his contemporary critics. An early reviewer of Hardy in the New Quarterly Magazine (1879) demonstrates this through his questions about the reasons for Eustacia’s death:

Was she conventionally timid, though naturally the reverse? There are no traces of conventionality in her. Was she influenced by religious fears? We do not gather that she had any.

Although the reviewer attempts to answer his own questions, he is left bewildered at her motivations. He is also confused earlier in the review as to why Hardy did not allow Eustacia’s ‘heart and mind’ to be ‘enlarged’ by placing her in a domestic situation, but allowed her ‘self-tormenting’ nature to kill herself instead. This confusion exists despite Hardy’s outlining of Eustacia’s depression, isolation and marital unhappiness prior to her death; thus demonstrating his status as a male nineteenth-century reviewer unable to ‘read’ Eustacia.  

With this in mind, although I agree with Woolf’s claim that Hardy’s focus on female weakness is ‘a fundamental part of Hardy’s vision’, I challenge the negative implications of this statement and follow a line of argument similar to poststructualist feminist critics like Penny Boumhelda. For Boumhelda, Hardy’s attitudes towards women in his life are not important, but his position as a Victorian writer aware of nineteenth-century attitudes to gender is key. Although Hardy cannot escape these entirely, his presentation of Rhoda and Eustacia as misunderstood social outcasts suggests sympathy for women he cannot understand, and an acknowledgement of their ‘weaker’ positions in Victorian society.

Secondly, Hardy also represents his ‘supernatural’ women as either sexually shamed for envying others’ relationships, or as sexually powerless. This is evident in The Return of the Native, ‘The Withered Arm’, and a later story, ‘The Fiddler of the Reels.’ In their study on ‘overlooking’ in The Return of the Native, Jacqueline Dillon and Phillip Mallett connect the Dorset concept of ‘overlooking’ – cursing someone by looking at them with evil intent – to such feelings of sexual envy. For Dillon and Mallett, the overlooker experiences feelings of ‘envy’ which cause them to pine and project this pining ‘onto the person envied […] who then wastes […] away.’ As they point out, this wasting away is physically manifested in ‘The Withered Arm’ through the object of Rhoda’s sexual jealousy, Gertrude Lodge, whose arm withers following contact with Rhoda. Rhoda’s status as an abandoned woman – who is left a poor, single mother by Farmer Lodge – causes her social shame, resulting in her envy towards Gertrude. Hardy says of Rhoda’s powers:

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. (61-2)

It is Rhoda’s ‘supernatural’ power of sight which appears to cause Gertrude’s withered arm. This is suggested by her ability early on to ‘raise a mental image of the unconscious Mrs Lodge that was realistic as a photograph’ (57), and her dream in which she visualises Gertrude and touches her arm in the place where it will later wither. However, as with Eustacia’s power, Hardy emphasises Rhoda’s limited power by making explicit that it is not something Rhoda is in control of; ‘it operates in her secret heart’ – or her unconscious – and she does not ‘wish’ pain on Gertrude. Furthermore, as Ruth Firor argues, through Rhoda’s social ostracisation, ‘Hardy shows clearly what sort of persons… [fell] naturally under neighborhood suspicion in the Victorian era and earlier’, thus linking Hardy’s supernatural tale to a real framework of female social marginalization.

Although Dillon and Mallett argue that overlooking due to envy such as Rhoda’s is not applicable to The Return of the Native, this is an oversimplification. There is an important source of envy in the novel between Eustacia and Thomasin Yeobright. Eustacia’s envy towards Thomasin connects to their sexual rivalries with Wildeve and Clym Yeobright. After seeing Clym and Thomasin interact for the first time, Eustacia feels ‘a wild jealousy of Thomasin on the instant’ (119). However, Dillon and Mallett’s concept of ‘overlooking’ is reversed in Eustacia; instead of these envious feelings causing Thomasin to ‘waste away’ as the object of Eustacia’s ‘pining’, Thomasin is healthy and married by the novel’s end, and Eustacia is dead. Eustacia’s decline is preempted in her loss of sexual power after seeing Clym and Thomasin interact, due to her beauty being hidden by a mummer’s costume:

The power of her face all lost, the charm of her emotions all disguised, the fascinations of her coquetry denied existence, nothing but a voice left to her: she had a sense of the doom of Echo. (119)

Hardy uses vocabulary associated with the supernatural – ‘power’, ‘charm’, and ‘fascinations’ – to assert, instead of Eustacia’s ‘power’, her loss of sexual power. Furthermore, the repetitive structure of the clauses evident in ‘all lost,’ and ‘all disguised’ emphasises Eustacia’s total loss of agency, and her reduction to a disembodied voice – evident from Hardy’s allusion to Echo in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Eustacia ‘overlooks’ herself self-destructively, not only due to her envy of Thomasin, but also due to her loss of the false power projected onto her by male observers.

Furthermore, Eustacia and Rhoda’s sexual shaming can also be compared to the treatment of Car’line in ‘The Fiddler of the Reels.’ In contrast to the other women, it is not Car’line who is perceived to have supernatural powers, but her lover, ‘Mop’. These powers are exercised through Mop’s violin playing and the intoxicating folk dance he leads Car’line into. Hardy’s narrator describes Mop’s music as seeming ‘sometimes to have a touch of the weird and wizardly in it’ (494). However, despite this ‘wizardly’ power, Car’line’s inability to stop dancing and her sexual relations with Mop result in her being blamed, and described by her former betrothed, Ned, as follows: ‘She had made herself […] cheap to him’ (503). Ned also compares her to ‘another domestic article, a cheap tea-pot’ (503-4). Evidently then, Car’line is a ‘cheap’ domestic and sexual commodity to Ned, thus demonstrating her lack of agency in the narrative. She is left, like Rhoda, as a single mother reliant on male charity. Car’line’s sexual powerlessness is emphasised by Hardy’s narrator:

The fiddler introducing into his notes the wild and agonizing sweetness […] its pathos running high and running low in endless variation, projecting through her nerves excruciating spasms, a sort of blissful torture. […]  Car’line would have given anything to leave off; but she had, or fancied she had, no power. (506)

Here, the hypersexualised and masochistic language of painful ‘spasms’, and ‘blissful torture’ emphasises Car’line’s conflicted and powerless state. Although Hardy qualifies this powerlessness by adding his, ‘or fancied she had’, Virginia Woolf’s argument for the woman as the ‘weaker’ sex in Hardy is evident here. Importantly too, the convulsions and involuntary movement experienced by Car’line match other women’s accounts of their bewitchment contemporary to Hardy; accounts which Hardy may have been aware of due to his interest in collecting folklore. Evidently then, it is Rhoda, Eustacia, and Car’line’s statuses as ‘bad girls’ who will not conform sexually which results in their social ostracisation, and condemnation as witches.

However, this sexual shaming is not just experienced by women from men, but between women too. Mrs Yeobright calls Eustacia a ‘hussy’ for her relationship with Clym, and Rhoda calls Gertrude the same when Gertrude appears at the funeral of Rhoda’s child with Farmer Lodge. Although ‘hussy’ had multiple meanings by the 1880s-90s, the word had moved from its original positive connotations of a ‘thrifty woman’ to a ‘woman of low social status’, and ‘a disreputable woman of improper behaviour.’

In this manner, Eustacia and Gertrude are brought down socially by this class-linked insult for their sexual impropriety. Even Rhoda, who is ostracised for the entirety of the story, uses this tactic against Gertrude, thus demonstrating her being ‘hoodwinked’ by patriarchal ‘ideology’ – to borrow a phrase from Neelanjana Basu. Ultimately, therefore, Eustacia, Rhoda and Car’line function as vehicles through which to explore the mechanics of female oppression in Hardy’s Victorian rural England. Their statuses as ‘supernatural’, or controlled by ‘supernatural’ powers demonstrates their trapped positions within Hardy’s narratives as the ‘hussy’, the bad girl, or the ‘dark lady.’ Although they are granted imaginary powers by Hardy’s narrator and by male characters, Hardy presents these women as sexually manipulated, physically attacked and ostracised for their social misdemeanors, as a result of their being ultimately ‘illegible’ to outsiders.

In addition, not only is Hardy self-reflexive in his presentation of ‘supernatural’ women, but his use of the ghost story genre itself is also self-conscious. Although Hardy’s personal writings reveal his awareness of the ghost, or ‘weird’, story as a highly marketable genre, his short stories demonstrate him challenging its generic borders by exposing them. Writing to the editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, he describes ‘The Withered Arm’ as: ‘of rather a weird nature – but as the taste of readers seems to run in that direction just now perhaps its character is no disqualification,’ thus demonstrating Hardy’s awareness of the contingent demands of his readership.

Furthermore, according to Pamela Dalziel, Hardy may have been self-conscious about the publication of The Return of the Native in Belgravia, a ‘less than prestigious’ publication renowned for its ‘sensationalism,’ following his rejections from more reputable publications.’ This self-consciousness is epitomised in ‘What the Shepherd Saw’, a tale in which Hardy draws attention to, and mocks, the formal conventions of the ghost story. Furthermore, ‘What the Shepherd Saw’ also acts as an ironic take on the ghost story by using a central female character in order to ironise generic motifs which were overly-familiar by the end of the nineteenth century.  

The opening of ‘What the Shepherd Saw’ begins:

The genial Justice of the Peace—now, alas, no more who made himself responsible for the facts of this story, used to begin in the good old-fashioned way with a bright moonlight night and a mysterious figure, an excellent stroke for an opening. (704)

Hardy’s narrator describes two familiar ghost story motifs: the ‘moonlight [sic] night’ setting, and the ‘mysterious figure.’ The narrator acts as a frame narrator for the Justice’s tale, drawing the reader’s attention to these ‘old fashioned’ methods of storytelling. Neelanjana Basu provides useful historical context for this, arguing that by the time Hardy wrote his supernatural tales, ‘the stereotypical ‘Magazine Ghost’ with its stock features had already stifled the supernatural.’ This would suggest, therefore, that Hardy was no longer able to write the supernatural without being self-conscious or ironic, as his readers would no longer have taken it seriously.

This irony is epitomised in the dialogue between the Duke and the Duchess during the third night of the tale. The pair are waiting for the Duchess’ cousin, Fred, to come and meet the Duchess but, unbeknownst to the Duchess, the Duke has killed him out of jealousy. The Duchess begins:

‘…Let us go and see; it will serve him right to surprise him.’

‘O, he’s not there.’

‘He may be lying very quiet because of you,’ she said archly.

‘O, no—not because of me!’

‘Come, then. I declare, dearest, you lag like an unwilling schoolboy to-night […] you are jealous of that poor lad, and it is quite absurd of you.’ (715-6)

Here, the Duchess unknowingly refers to Fred’s death, and does so ‘archly’, or, ‘with good humoured sauciness’, revealing the Duke’s ‘absurdity’ – which, in reality, is his guilt – thus deflating any suspense established by the ghostly, moonlit setting. Furthermore, this method of establishing and then deflating suspense is demonstrated in the bathos of a later exchange:

‘Ah, I see him at last!’ said the Duchess.

‘See him!’ said the Duke. ‘Where?’

‘By the Devil’s Door; don’t you notice a figure there? […] But what’s the matter?’ she asked, turning to her husband.

‘It is not he!’ said the Duke hoarsely. ‘It can’t be he!’

‘No, it is not he. It is too small for him. It is a boy.’

‘Ah, I thought so!’ (716)

The Duchess’ mistaken sighting of Fred unknowingly enacts a ghost story for the Duke in which the murdered cousin’s ghost returns. This is then entirely deflated by the substitution of the shepherd boy for the cousin. In this manner, the Duchess draws attention to, and ironises, the stages of a ghost story for the reader – what Basu describes as the ‘signals of the supernatural tale’ used to ‘generate suspense’ – thus drawing attention to its generic clichés. In contrast to Eustacia and Rhoda, the Duchess is not herself presented as supernatural, but, as with Hardy’s self-conscious use of supernatural motifs in his presentation of the other women, the Duchess exposes the limitations of the genre she finds herself trapped in.

Finally, the status of ‘The Withered Arm’, ‘What the Shepherd Saw’ and ‘The Fiddler of the Reels’ as folk narratives is important in relation to Hardy’s negotiation of the supernatural as a rural tradition. Hardy wrote to William Blackwood regarding ‘The Withered Arm’ claiming that the story was true, because ‘both of the women who figure in the story’ were ‘known’ to him; something which Martin Ray attributes to the oral transmission of the rural narrative to Hardy from his parents. The Return of the Native also fits into folk traditions as it contains embedded folk ballads, superstitions, and rituals. However, although Raymond Chapman aligns Hardy with the ‘withered old gossip’ of storytelling, due to Hardy’s distance from the total realism of much contemporary Victorian fiction – and thus positions him close to an older, feminised folk tradition – Hardy’s self-conscious use of both supernatural and folk narratives demonstrates an approach to both genres which was not traditional, but new, and distinctive to Hardy’s writing.

In conclusion, Hardy’s use of supernatural motifs and his presentation of female characters as ‘witches’ demonstrates his approach to the ghost story genre as being both highly self-conscious and innovative. Although it is difficult to know to what degree Hardy could empathise with Eustacia, Rhoda, Car’line and his other female characters, his use of a supernatural frame to represent women draws the reader’s attention to a history of female marginalization where socially and sexually ‘deviant’ women were ostracised. Furthermore, recent research has demonstrated that belief in witchcraft was still pervasive amongst rural populations in the Victorian era, thus indicating that Hardy’s stories addressed issues still pertinent to his contemporary society. Finally, returning to Penny Boumelha’s poststructualist feminist argument, Hardy’s use of folk tradition and the ghost story genre enables contemporary readers to confront and challenge Victorian cultural ideologies, in this case, their oppressive attitudes towards ‘bad’ women.



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