“The Melancholy Hussar” is set 90 years earlier, and the narrator is retelling a version of it that Phyllis told him 20 years ago, when he was 15 years old. Phyllis also tells the narrator that she wishes for her story to be kept a secret until she is “dead, buried, and forgotten.” Furthermore, throughout the story, secrecy and rumor affect many of the decisions Phyllis makes. It is a rumor about Humphrey that causes her to cultivate her feelings for Matthäus Tina, and it is only because she overhears fragments of conversation between Humphrey and his friend and interprets them in a certain way that she decides not to escape with the man she truly loves. The narrator suggests that the rumors shared about Phyllis during her life were fragments, too, and only the ones “most unfavorable to her character.” The length of time between the events and the narrator’s recounting of them, along with Phyllis’s desire for discretion, implies that this story could have powerful and damaging consequences for anyone involved in it.
By suggesting that the story can only be told now that its characters have died and been mostly forgotten, Hardy emphasizes the danger and power of stories, and the effect they can have on a person’s dignity and pride. Yet, because the narrator is recounting the version of the story told to him by Phyllis, and because he is attempting to fill in the parts of the story left out from the unflattering rumors, Hardy also suggests that sharing a complete story is less damaging to the reputations of those involved—after all, it allows one’s decisions to be clearly understood, rather than allowing fragmentary, possibly misleading rumors to spread unchecked.
Secrecy, Rumor, and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Secrecy, Rumor, and Storytelling Quotes in The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion
The oblivion which in her modesty and humility she courted for herself has only partially fallen on her, with the unfortunate result of inflicting an injustice upon her memory; since such fragments of her story as got abroad at the time, and have been kept alive ever since, are precisely those which are most unfavourable to her character.
This account—though only a piece of hearsay, and as such entitled to no absolute credit—tallied so well with the infrequency of his letters and their lack of warmth, that Phyllis did not doubt its truth for one moment; and from that hour she felt herself free to bestow her heart as she should choose. Not so her father; he declared the whole story to be a fabrication.
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.
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.