‘The Son’s Veto’ and ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’ by Thomas Hardy Both Hardy’s short stories, ‘The Son’s Veto’ and ‘The Melancholy Hussar’ follow the tales of Sophy and Phyllis, two young women succumbing to the social conformities of their time and their seemingly predetermined fates. Throughout the 19th Century, a rigid class structure – defined by one’s possessions, upbringing, wealth, parentage and education – totally dominated society.
With regard to Sophy and Phyllis in ‘The Son’s Veto’ and ‘The Melancholy Hussar’, it is these social constraints that ultimately impact the choices that they make, hindering their lives in one way or another and leading to their eventual unhappiness; they are prevented from following their hearts desires. Hardy often shows his sensitivity to social rank and privilege in his stories, explicitly making clear his views by critiquing the societal pressures that ensure such strict conformities. As a son of a stonemason and a servant, Hardy’s acute consciousness of his humble class origins and modest education remains apparent in his writing.
Particularly in these short stories, he uses the detrimental quality of social pressures to add to the sympathy created for Sophy and Phyllis, who both find love with those that are considered ‘socially unacceptable’ and suffer as a result of this. Hardy opens the stories effectively, setting up the theme of the pressures of conformity straight away. ‘The Son’s Veto’ begins with “To the eyes of a man viewing it from behind, the nut-brown hair was a wonder and a mystery” which already shows the scrutiny of society upon the story’s protagonist, Sophy, who, merely attending an outdoor concert, is oblivious to it.
Through the introduction of Sophy, Hardy sets up a general tone and narrative from an on-lookers point of view, which represents how society constantly monitors people. This is continued with phrases such as “by a turn of the head, at length revealed herself, she was not so handsome as the people behind her had supposed” which again shows society’s hasty and condescending judgements of her. This slow-unfolding introduction of Sophy, through the eyes of a spectator, creates instant sympathy for her – as a “young invalid lady” especially, the reader can understand how judgemental society can be.
Further sympathy is created for Sophy when “the schoolboy”, who the reader earlier discovers to be her son Randolph, corrects his own mother’s grammar, saying ‘“Has, dear mother – not have! ” “The public school boy” exclaims, with an “impatient fastidiousness that was almost harsh”. Here, the reader immediately gets a strong, negative initial picture of Randolph – critical, disrespectful, and short-tempered, with a “crumby mouth”. Hardy’s reference to Randolph being a “public school boy” also implicitly reflects his views of the class system – portraying it in a negative light.
The story then changes its time frame and moves back to Sophy’s past, in her “native village, Gaymead”. This time conversion deeply draws the reader into the story and Hardy adds further intrigue when he says “and the first event bearing upon her present situation had occurred at that place when she was a girl of only nineteen”, which suggests a sense of impending doom – her eventual plight. Similarly, ‘The Melancholy Hussar’s’ opening draws the reader in, in a way that makes the reader hugely interested in Phyllis’ story.
Written within a year of ‘The Son’s Veto’, the story is initially set at the time Hardy was writing it, but then travels back to the past. It starts with a detailed description of the landscape; “Here stretch the downs; the breezy and green, absolutely unchanged since those eventful days” instantly adds intrigue (as it makes the reader question what was so “eventful” about them) and sets the scene as if the reader is seeing it for himself.
Furthermore, Hardy draws on the reader’s senses in an evocative tone as he describes the “impossible to avoid” noises such as the “old trumpet” and “bugle calls” and mentions the “impossible to help seeing” rows of “spectral tents”. Together, these descriptions echo the past’s events and hold a ghost-like quality, up until Hardy uses a distancing technique to place the actions well in the past, telling us “It was nearly ninety years ago” which then takes the reader through an elaborate explanation as to how the narrator, then a youth, came by the elderly Phyllis Grove’s story.