The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion by Thomas Hardy
In The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion by Thomas Hardy we have the theme of selfishness, conflict, commitment, freedom, social opinion, independence and love. Narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that Hardy may be exploring the theme of selfishness. Humphrey throughout the story thinks of nobody but himself. He has become engaged to Phyllis yet the engagement is not one that should be considered serious in light of Humphrey’s actions or rather his lack of action. While in Bath Humphrey decides upon ending his engagement to Phyllis (without her knowing it) and marrying another woman. To make matters worse Humphrey because he has wed in secret wishes for it to be Phyllis who calls off their engagement. If anything Humphrey is thinking only of himself and his honour. Without giving a thought to how Phyllis may feel. Though it is a case that Phyllis was prepared to marry Humphrey even though she didn’t love him. She still nonetheless was entitled to some degree of honesty from Humphrey. The fact that Phyllis doesn’t love Humphrey yet is still prepared to marry him is interesting as social opinion appears to be playing a role in Phyllis’ decision making.
Humphrey is considered to be a gentleman and as such would also be deemed to be a good prospect for Phyllis. It is as though she is marrying someone considered to be of a better class than her and as such she should be grateful. However Humphrey is far from a gentleman. As mentioned he is selfish and self-centred. The setting of the story may also be important as in many ways the conflict of the Napoleonic Wars that are occurring at the time mirrors the conflict that Phyllis’s father feels with regard to her engagement with Matthäus. He does not believe that Matthäus or any German soldier is a suitable suitor to Phyllis. This may be significant as Dr Grove may be basing his opinions on Matthäus solely on the beliefs of others and how he himself might be considered by others should any engagement occur between Phyllis and Matthäus. Again social opinion appears to be important not only to others but to Dr Grove as well. However despite her father’s opinion with regard to Matthäus or any other German soldier Phyllis does show a degree of independence and continues to see Matthäus. Though it is noticeable that when it comes to Humphrey Phyllis is actually lacking in any type of independent thinking.
As to why this might be is difficult to say. Perhaps because marriage is seen as such an important affair. Phyllis felt obliged to follow Humphrey’s lead rather than lead for herself. Something that is noticeable by Phyllis’ change of mind when she discovers that Humphrey has arrived back from Bath. No longer does she feel able to leave England with Matthäus. If anything Hardy may be suggesting that despite Humphrey’s obvious faults Phyllis remains committed to him. Again possibly because she is engaged to him and is adhering to accepted societal norms of the time. Humphrey is not the only person that Phyllis commits or dedicates herself to. Through the narrator the reader learns that right up till the time of her death Phyllis cared for Matthäus and Christoph’s grave. It is as though she is fully aware of the price that both men paid for their freedom. A freedom she herself could not embrace due to her commitment to Humphrey.
What is also interesting about the story is that Phyllis does not appear to have loved another man apart from Matthäus. There is no mention by the narrator of Phyllis getting married after she called off her engagement with Humphrey. Which may leave some readers suggesting that Matthäus had a deep and lasting impact on Phyllis’ life. So strong in fact was Matthäus’ impact on Phyllis that she told her story to the narrator. Despite the passing of time (over fifty years) she still appears to have held a torch for Matthäus. It might also be deliberate that there is no mention of how Humphrey got on in life. This may suggest that Phyllis might have never seen him again. Something which may please some readers considering how selfish Humphrey actually was. Yet social opinion remained on Humphrey’s side. He was not shamed by Phyllis nor did she cause him embarrassment. She treated Humphrey as she would have liked to have been treated, respectfully. In many ways how Phyllis treated Humphrey is how Matthäus treated Phyllis. He too was respectful and did not force Phyllis into travelling to Germany with him. At the end of the story the reader realises that two people have lost out on love. Phyllis was under an obligation to Humphrey while Matthäus wanted his freedom back.