A Son’s Veto – Thomas Hardy

The Author
Thomas Hardy was born in rural England where he spent his early life training as an architect. His family did not have much money and this made him acutely conscious of social inequalities in Victorian England. He moved to London when he was a young man and worked there for a time. He later returned to Dorset, becoming a fulltime writer. The decay of rural Britain, the status of women in society and social inequalities of his times and the Christian idea of God are some of the recurring themes we see in Thomas Hardy’s novels. Many of his stories are set in semi-fictional Wessex. Thomas Hardy’s characters struggle against adverse social circumstances, strong passions and an inexorable fate that decides the path of their life. Thomas Hardy’s works were much admired by later day writers and his position as a poet has seen enhancement in the later twentieth century.
Background/Setting
The story A Son’s Veto is set in rural England in its early parts before moving to inner city London. Sophy, the principal female character of this story belongs to Gaymead, a village set in a remote corner of North Wessex where she worked as a parlour maid in the parson’s house. The story later shifts to London suburbs. Like Thomas Hardy himself, Sophy too never felt completely at home in London. The values of Victorian England and the social mores find echoes in this story. The vicar’s marriage to Sophy is considered “social suicide” and they escape to London with its anonymity to escape scrutiny.
Characters/Characterization
Rev. Twycott
Rev. Twycott was the vicar at Gaymead, a little village in North Wessex. Following the death of his wife, he becomes aware of Sophy’s devotion in caring for him. Following the sad little accident that left Sophy incapacitated, perhaps feeling responsible, Twycott proposes marriage to her. Twycott has committed what in his eyes was “social suicide” and he moves, exchanging the charming Gaymead for dull and drab south of London. The Reverend seems to have had a poor opinion of Sophy as a manager of money and on his death allowed her only a small allowance and the use of a small house. Twycott continued to control Sophy’s life from his grave. Twycott is a typical Victorian man who decides for others what he thinks is best for them.
Sophy
Hardy’s women characters suffer at the hands of fate and an unkind society. Sophy is gentle and attractive and devoted. Her only flaw was that she was not a great judge of what was best for her. She agrees to marriage with Rev. Twycott. She respects him but there is no love in this marriage, naturally. Her influence on Randolph her son is negligible and the boy grows up thinking his mother to be inferior to him in learning and position. Sophy has no control over her life. Her husband has left her only a small sum of money; the rest is under the control of trustees. She loves her son with tenderly and does not want to hurt him in any way but the boy has only crumbs to shower on her. Too late she realizes that she would have been happy with Sam but Randolph does allow her the freedom to make her decision and follow it. Too long Sophy has allowed others to control her life. Her immobility becomes a symbol for her dependence in life on her son’s will.
Randolph
Randolph is a poor specimen of humanity. Even as a young boy he displayed a condescending attitude towards his mother that bordered on impatience. As he grows up, he becomes acutely conscious of the difference in their status. He is the son of a gentleman but his mother is of poor stock. She lacks education and “culture” and is not worthy of being considered his equal. She dotes on him but he considers her with ill concealed impatience. Her love for him is of no importance to him and he seeks the company of others of equal station in life. When he enters Church, she hopes that he would take a more humane view of her and the less fortunate world but the more he studies the more humanity he seems to lose it. Her desire to marry Sam is met with consternation and Randolph’s concern is not his mother’s happiness but his position in society which he feels will be undermined by that action. Sophy’s isolation from the company of Sam who cared for her and her remoteness from Randolph who no longer had any love for his mother led her to her premature death.
Themes (major and minor)
Social inequalities were a major concern for Thomas Hardy as was the issue of lack of choices for women in the Victorian England. Social issues remained unsolved in the larger social fabric and in A Son’s Veto, we see it is not resolved even within families. Randolph forbids her mother from marrying a man who he feels is below his own status though he is eminently suitable for his mother; this is one man who can bring joy to her life. Failed marriages are a recurring theme in Hardy’s novels. Here the marriage is not a failed one but there is no spark, no fulfillment for Sophy. She has some material comforts but no inner sustenance. Lack of educational opportunities for women was also a subject that Hardy explored. Only the girls from upper classes had the luxury of being privately tutored.
Plot / Summary
Sophy is a maid in the vicar’s house in the village of Gaymead in Wessex. Following the death of his wife, Rev. Twycott is nursed with devotion by Sophy. Sophy is injured in an accidental fall and is rendered partly invalid. The Rev. Twycott is moved by her plight and proposes to her though he feels it is an unwise action that will bring social censure.
Sophy is not in the least in love with him, but the veneration she feels and the little quarrel she has had with her friend Sam makes her accept this proposal. Following marriage they move to London to escape attention which would have been inevitable in the village. Soon a son, Randolph, is born to them. The boy is educated in a public school and thence at Oxford. Following the death of her husband Sophy has nothing much to do and is bored by the uneventful life that she leads looking forward only to the occasional arrival of Randolph. But he has grown estranged from her and is supercilious and critical in his attitude.
A chance meeting with Sam rekindles their feelings and Sam proposes to her again. Sophy wants to take this second chance though she knows that a marriage will mean the loss of the house and inheritance. When she broaches the subject with Randolph, he voices strong disapproval. Sam waits for another five years in the meantime becoming prosperous. When Sophy turns to Randolph once again for his approval, he makes her swear against marriage to Sam. Isolated from the man who loves her and starved of her son’s love, Sophy dies. While the funeral procession moves along, Randolph sees Sam waiting in his front of his shop. But even now Randolph has no grace in him.
Analysis
Thomas Hardy’s characters struggle against adverse social circumstances, strong passions and an inexorable fate that decides the path of their life. Woven along with the story are many of Hardy’s themes which find expression in many of his stories and novels.
Symbolism
The wheel chair in which Sophy spends all her time is a symbol of her lack of independence. At first she is dependent on her husband and then on her son. She is not in control of her life though she knows what she wants.
Important vocabulary and expression
The window at which Sophy sits watching the world go by becomes her only contact with the outside world. And this is how she meets Sam again. “She often saw them creeping along at this silent and dusky hour—waggon after waggon, bearing green bastions of cabbages nodding to their fall, yet never falling, walls of baskets enclosing masses of beans and peas, pyramids of snow-white turnips, swaying howdahs of mixed produce—creeping along behind aged night-horses, who seemed ever patiently wondering between their hollow coughs why they had always to work at that still hour when all other sentient creatures were privileged to rest”.
Literary devices used with examples
We come to know about Sophy’s early life through the device of a flash back. “That question of grammar bore upon her history, and she fell into reverie, of a somewhat sad kind to all appearance. It might have been assumed that she was wondering if she had done wisely in shaping her life as she had shaped it, to bring out such a result as this”. When the story picks up the strands again, fourteen years of married life have left a mark on Sophy and her son, Randolph is about twelve or thirteen.

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