Humphrey acts as a foil for Phyllis in the story, meaning that his presence highlights certain qualities of Phyllis’s character. Hardy intentionally sets the two characters up on parallel tracks—they are both engaged to someone they don’t want to be engaged to (each other) while falling in love with someone else. It is notable, also, that both of them are engaged to the other because their fathers believe this is the right choice for them, while they each go on to fall in love with people of a lower social status of whom their fathers do not approve.
How Phyllis and Humphrey respond to their parallel situations establishes key differences in their characters—Phyllis remains committed to marrying Humphrey despite his year-long absence (and her love for Matthäus), while Humphrey secretly marries the woman he loves. The following passage captures Humphrey’s lack of care for Phyllis’s feelings, as he reveals his secret marriage in a cavalier and uncaring manner:
“Phyllis – I’ll tell you my secret at once; for I have a monstrous secret to confide before I can ask your counsel. The case is, then, that I am married: yes, I have privately married a dear young belle; and if you knew her, and I hope you will, you would say everything in her praise. But she is not quite the one that my father would have chose for me […] There will be a terrible noise, no doubt; but I think that with your help I may get over it.”
Here, Humphrey does not apologize or take responsibility for the harm that he has caused Phyllis but instead carelessly shares that he married “a dear young belle” and promptly asks for Phyllis’s help in persuading his father that this other woman is the right choice for him. The juxtaposition of Humphrey’s selfish and uncaring behavior with Phyllis’s commitment to honoring her relationship with Humphrey demonstrates to readers that Phyllis is a more loyal and caring person. It also highlights how men have more ability to disregard their family’s wishes than women do in early 19th century British society.