Throughout the story, Phyllis’s own feelings of attraction and desire are constantly at odds with what is expected of her by society. When she becomes engaged to Humphrey, who is from a respectable family and a higher social class, it’s “as if she were going to be taken to heaven” in others’ eyes—despite Humphrey’s inherent, almost indescribable dullness. The lack of romance in this match is clear, and dramatically contrasts with Phyllis’s feelings towards Matthäus Tina, whom she meets later on. While Humphrey is “neither young nor old; neither good-looking nor positively plain,” Tina’s face is “striking” and “handsome,” and Phyllis can’t get it out of her mind. Though Humphrey leaves for Bath and does not return for a year, and though the letters he has sent her lack affection—and even despite the rumors Phyllis hears of Humphrey neglecting their engagement—she feels hesitant to express any affection to Matthäus Tina despite feeling that affection deeply. Hardy describes “the stone wall of necessity” standing between Phyllis and Matthäus Tina, emphasizing that their differing social statuses and Phyllis’s engagement form an insurmountable barrier between the two.
Phyllis’s father is the main proponent in Phyllis’s life of the social pressure to marry well. He quotes the Elizabethan lyric, “Love me little, love me long,” to imply that Phyllis should be satisfied with her formal and unromantic match, and that her dignity within society is more important than her happiness. Phyllis decides to honor her engagement with Humphrey not because of her own feelings of loyalty, but because she’s afraid of the “vague” and “venturesome” life she would have with Matthäus Tina, and of losing the respect of others. The societal expectation that she should be happy with a respectable marriage means she forfeits a life with her lover for the “dreary prospect” of life with Humphrey—an outcome that shows the unhappiness that results from conforming to social rules instead of marrying for love.
Love vs. Societal Expectations ThemeTracker
Love vs. Societal Expectations Quotes in The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion
Phyllis used to say that his English, though not good, was quite intelligible to her, so that their acquaintance was never hindered by difficulties of speech. Whenever the subject became too delicate, subtle, or tender, for such words of English as were at his command, the eyes no doubt helped out the tongue, and—though this was later on—the lips helped out the eyes. In short this acquaintance, unguardedly made, and rash enough on her part, developed and ripened.
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.
“My dear friend, please do forget me: I fear I am ruining you and your prospects!”
“Not at all!” said he. “You are giving this country of yours just sufficient interest to me to make me care to keep alive in it. If my dear land were here also, and my old parent, with you, I could be happy as I am, and would do my best as a soldier. But it is not so.”
Without him her life seemed a dreary prospect, yet the more she looked at his proposal the more she feared to accept it—so wild as it was, so vague, so venturesome. She had promised Humphrey Gould, and it was only his assumed faithlessness which had led her to treat that promise as nought. His solicitude in bringing her these gifts touched her; her promise must be kept, and esteem must take the place of love. She would preserve her self-respect. She would stay at home, and marry him, and suffer.
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.
The spot at the bottom of the garden where she had been accustomed to climb the wall to meet Matthäus, was the only inch of English ground in which she took any interest; and in spite of the disagreeable haze prevailing she walked out there till she reached the well-known corner. […] She observed that her frequent visits to this corner had quite trodden down the grass in the angle of the wall, and left marks of garden soil on the stepping-stones by which she had mounted to look over the top. Seldom having gone there till dusk, she had not considered that her traces might be visible by day.
Their graves were dug at the back of the little church, near the wall. There is no memorial to mark the spot, but Phyllis pointed it out to me. While she lived she used to keep their mounds neat; but now they are overgrown with nettles, and sunk nearly flat. The older villagers, however, who know of the episode from their parents, still recollect the place where the soldiers lie. Phyllis lies near.