While Phyllis has very little power over her circumstances, the story demonstrates that the men around her wield more power over theirs. On the rare occasions when Phyllis is able to make a decision about the path of her life, she is still restricted by her overbearing father, her lack of connection, her lack of money, and her status as a woman. When she hears the rumors about Humphrey’s lack of loyalty to her, she makes the decision to become more affectionate with her new friend Matthäus Tina—but still does so secretly, never going further than the garden wall. Phyllis’s father, finding out about her relationship with Tina, makes plans to send her to her aunt’s home, emphasizing that Phyllis’s life is not under her control but can be changed at the whim of a patriarchal figure.
Matthäus Tina, on the other hand, is restricted not by gender but by rank, kept against his will in a country he loathes. However, he is able to carry out his fatal escape plan with seemingly less concern for “esteem” than Phyllis has. Where he is thwarted by a death sentence due to his military status, Phyllis is hamstrung by the restrictions placed on her because of her gendered place in society. Ultimately, it turns out that Humphrey is the most powerful character in the story, due to both his gender and rank. He is able to make the decision Phyllis cannot: to find and marry a person he loves, despite his engagement to someone else. Phyllis is even asked for her help in convincing Humphrey’s father of his marriage, which means that Phyllis wields the only power she has—her expression of interest, or lack of interest—to serve the happiness of a man. Through these characters’ decisions and outcomes, Hardy quietly critiques the hierarchy of power operating in his day, with women at the bottom and well-connected men at the top.
Gender, Rank, and Power ThemeTracker
Gender, Rank, and Power Quotes in The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion
The stone wall of necessity made anything like intimacy difficult; and he had never ventured to come, or to ask to come, inside the garden, so that all their conversation had been overtly conducted across this boundary.
Phyllis had not the smallest intention of disobeying him in her actions, but she assumed herself to be independent with respect to her feelings. She no longer checked her fancy for the Hussar, though she was far from regarding him as her lover in the serious sense in which an Englishman might have been regarded as such. The young foreign soldier was almost an ideal being to her, with none of the appurtenances of an ordinary house-dweller; one who had descended she knew not whither; the subject of a fascinating dream—no more.
She looked into it, saw how heavy her eyes were, and endeavoured to brighten them. She was in that wretched state of mind which leads a woman to move mechanically onward in what she conceives to be her allotted path. Mr Humphrey had, in his undemonstrative way, been adhering all along to the old understanding; it was for her to do the same, and to say not a word of her own lapse.