The Withered Arm
I'm not a fan of short stories and I think it's because I love meatier novels that have an enthralling plot or characters that you get too know so well. A much longer narrative is needed for either of these elements to be in place. Short stories usually leave me hanging and wishing they were longer. I haven't read a lot of short stories but one that does stand out is The Withered Arm by Thomas Hardy. It's the story that led me to read and love other Hardy novels including Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd. In spite of being a short story, The Withered Arm has a riveting plot and character development. In fact, it takes place over a number of years. It's a story of love, jealousy, hate, obsession, the supernatural and witchcraft. All this in just 32 pages.
Set in Hardy's fictional countryside village of Casterbridge in the 1880s, The Withered Arm opens with Farmer Lodge returning home with his new wife, Gertrude. Rhoda the milkmaid, his former lover and the mother of his illegitimate son is envious and curious and asks her son to have a look at the new wife to see what she's like. Because she has borne a bastard son, Rhoda is ostracized by her neighbors and rumors abound that she dabbles in witchcraft. Her jealousy consumes her so much so that one night she dreams of violently attacking Gertrude who apparently has a similar dream of an unknown assailant. Gertrude wakes up with a damaged arm that over time gets worse and becomes more 'withered.' She is soon shunned by her husband who is disgusted by her arm and her obsession with it. Rhoda ironically becomes Gertrude's only friend. Through the years they both try to seek out various cures and finally find one through a conjuror who tells her she has been cursed and there's only one way to dispel it. I can't say anymore because it would be giving too much away. It's an excellent short story and the good news is that you can read it online here.
I hope this will lead you to read more Thomas Hardy because he is rather brilliant. I read this short story together with Mel of The Reading Life so do check out his blog for more of The Withered Arm.