Stranger one, in the chimney corner, with the pipe!

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"'The Three Strangers' is just one example of how a structural variation maximizes the impact of a work" (100).
                        Roberts, Writing About Literature

In the case of Thomas Hardy's "The Three Strangers," I actually thought his structural variation was too obvious and minimized rather than maximized the impact of the story.  Roberts writes that Hardy "produces a double take because of unique structuring" (100) by making the reader think the third stranger is the escaped prisoner instead of the first stranger.  I, however, suspected this was Hardy's plan throughout the entire narrative.  

When he introduces the first stranger, Hardy describes him as a man who walks cautiously, which automatically suggests he has something to hide.  The stranger dresses like a peasant, though he does not show the "mud-accustomed bearing of hobnailed and fustianed peasantry" (329), a suspicious implication that the stranger has not done any work of the typical peasant for a while.  Next, the stranger thinks about "all the possibilities that a house of this sort might include" (330) as he approaches the hosts' house, a perspective common of a possible thief.  The stranger has eyes that "[move] with a flash rather than a glance around the room," making him sound jumpy as one burdened with guilt would be.  The final evidence lies in his request for tobacco and a tobacco pipe, a request even the host finds odd.  A smoker would typically have both, unless he was somewhere that wouldn't allow it, such as a prison.

The third stranger arrives at a point in the story in which Hardy has little time to characterize him.  Whereas the first stranger receives a lot of focus in description, the third stranger is only in the doorway of the house long enough to stare and run away afraid.  Personally, I would be equally afraid of a man singing about hanging a person the next day, regardless if I recognized him as my brother's executioner.  The song was creepy.  Maybe this "structural variation" would be more dramatic to a person living in the time and place in which it was written, someone familiar with the culture, but it failed to surprise me or affect me on a level Roberts claims it does.

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5 Comments

Melissa Schwenk said:

I agree. When I was reading this story, I knew there was something about the first stranger that seemed off. The whole time he was too hard to figure out. I didn't understand why the first stranger seemed so happy to go along with the second stranger when everyone else didn't seem into his creepy song. When the story started to unfold and the third stranger appeared, Hardy made it way too obvious that the third stranger was probably the person supposed to be in jail. Therefore, I just couldn't believe the third stranger was supposed to be the real prisoner because it was so obvious. However, maybe beecause this story was written in 1888 people were unable to see all the twists, the foreshadowing, and were surprised by the ending.

Josie Rush said:

I dunno how fooled Hardy's audience was then either. It'd be nice to assume that we all gained so much intelligence since 1888, but...well, when reading this, I had my doubts. I bet his original audience didn't have to read the first sentence three times to understand what he was saying. I definitely did.
Definitely agree that Hardy failed in the execution, though. If he was trying to have a surprising ending, that fell through. If he was trying to create some sort of questionable morality, I believe he failed there as well, by making the hangman so unlikeable.

Kayla Lesko said:

I felt like this story insulted my intelligence. I'm not saying that I'm a genius or anything, but I knew where the story was going to go.

Melissa- Exactly. The only allowance I could make for the obviousness of this story was that the people of the time might have been much less suspicious of wrongdoings. This is kind of related in a way, but my dad told me that the movie Alien was terrifying to everyone when it first came out. I saw it for the first time when I was 9, and I laughed throughout the entire film, not scared at all. The reactions in the people just a generation before ours was completely different from mine, because I think we've been exposed to more in our lives. Therefore, the things that seem obvious and boring to us might have been subtle and exciting to the people who read this story shortly after its publication.

Josie- See my above example :) It's not that we necessarily gained intelligence, we've just seen more of the darker sides of humanity and have been exposed to so many crime shows that nothing seems surprising any more.

Josie Rush said:

Karyssa, I mostly agree with that. It's true we're exposed to a more constant stream of violence than previous generations (even if it's just the portrayl of violence on tv and in video games, and whatnot), but I don't think that really would have much to do with the reading of this particular story for the audience in Hardy's time. I really can't imagine that it was bcuz of the media's onslaught of "r" rated images and the rising crime rate that we all knew what was going on in this story. I think Hardy just didn't come through with making it suspicious. Now, whether that was intentional or not, I can't say. Maybe creating "mystery" wasn't his top priority, maybe there was some deeper lesson he wanted to convey, and having that lesson buried in suspence wouldn't have worked for him. I dunno. But I don't think the reason for the lack of ambiguity is the reader so much as the author.

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