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Marital Relations in “The Workbox”, Reaction Paper Example

Pages: 2

Words: 416

Reaction Paper

Thomas Hardy’s “The Workbox” uses symbolism to address issues of death and marital fidelity.  Working on multiple levels, it ostensibly tells the story of a husband who presents his wife with a gift that unintentionally causes her discomfort.  The revelation that the wood used to make the workbox was also used to build a coffin draws a distinct parallel between love and death.  Thus, the symbolic nature of the workbox and the mysterious figure of John Wayward speaks to the secrets that are hidden in all relationships and the subtle ways in which men and women deal with issues of trust and power.

The character of the wife demonstrates the multiple levels of meaning in “The Workbox.” She is a very feminine figure, engaging in domestic tasks like sewing, and reacts in a stereotypically female manner when her husband tells her about John Wayward’s coffin.  Although the wife reacts strongly, causing her husband to ask “But why do you look so white, my dear/And turn aside your face?” (Hardy 21-22), her mysterious response suggests, perhaps, that she knew Wayward back in her “native place” (24).  While Hardy does not state overtly that the wife was unfaithful, her strong reaction to Wayward’s name implies that the wife is far from the doting and domestically-inclined helpmate that she first appears.

The husband is also a complex figure whose intentions in building his wife a workbox may not be entirely positive.  The connection that is made between the coffin and the workbox exists, on one level, as a subtle threat from husband to wife.  When his wife states that the gift will “last all my sewing years!” (8), the husband not only agrees with her but suggests that it might outlast her, musing that creating the box made him think of the brevity of life “where people eat and drink” and can soon enough be “in a tomb” (19-20).

John Wayward is the mystery which binds this couple together while he also drives them apart.  His name alone is suggestive of infidelity, and the unknown cause of his death speaks to the unspoken secrets behind husband and wife.  This connection is strongly emphasized by the suggestion, in the poem’s conclusion, that the wife “had known not only John/But known of what he died” (39-40).  The lack of clear resolution surrounding this mystery demonstrates the unknowable aspects of marriage, and the subtle ways in which secrets can undermine the marital bond.

Works Cited

Hardy, Thomas. “The Workbox.” Poemhunter. 10 Apr 2010. Web. 14 Sept 2011.

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