The Son’s Veto by Thomas Hardy is a story about a woman named Sophy who lives a life full of pain and sorrow, crippled by her lameness and her social background. This story portrays Hardy’s disapproval of the 19th-century Victorian social norms, which are nothing but hollow rules in his opinion. Sophy is burdened by her duty to behave like a lady that imprisons her for life. The themes of class difference, freedom and helplessness are explored in this story. This short story was published in Hardy’s collection of short stories “Life’s Little Ironies” in 1891.
The Son’s Veto | Summary
We are introduced to Sophy, a woman in a wheelchair. She is attending an outdoor concert with her son Randolph. All people stare at her and judge her appearance; they find her plain except for her beautiful dark locks of hair. While talking to her son Sophy makes a grammatical mistake and her son is mad about it, this upsets Sophy. The author dives into Sophy’s back-story as she reflects how she came to this point.
Sophy belongs to a small countryside village named Gaymead. When she was nineteen she was working as a parlor maid at the reverend Twycott’s household. After the death of Mrs.Twycott, Sam the gardener offers to marry Sophy she initially hesitates but agrees to marry him. She tells Mr. Twycott that she plans to leave soon however, Sam and Sophy quarrel and the marriage is broken up. Mr. Twycott is lonely and realizes that he has no companion except for Sophy. Mr. Twycott falls ill and Sophy takes care of him while doing that she falls down the stairs and injures her foot so severely that she becomes permanently lame. She decides to leave since she won’t be able to work anymore but Mr. Twycott realizes that he has affections for her and he also feels responsible for her condition. He offers to marry her and she accepts not out of love but out of gratitude. She feels powerless to deny such an honorable request.
Mr. Twycott realizes that this is “social suicide”, as Sophy belongs to a lower social class. Thus they leave their pretty countryside and move to “a narrow, dusty house in a long, straight street” in London. As Sophy is a lady now her husband educates her to improve her manners, appropriate for the upper-class. They have a son and he is sent to the best public school in town. After fourteen years of their marriage, Mr. Twycott who was much older than his wife dies of an illness. Before his death, there were proper arrangements made by Mr. Twycott for his family. There will be the best schooling for his son and a comfortable life for Sophy. Randolph is very conscious of his social status; he moves away and pays occasional visits to his mother. He scorns her less cultured way of speaking and living. Sophy is left with a humble personal income and a modest estate but she has no companions. As a result, Sophy becomes isolated and depressed. Sophy misses her home back in Gaymead and wonders if the life she chose was a mistake.
She even has trouble sleeping; she glances at the carts passing by her windows when she can’t sleep. One day, she recognizes one of the men on one cart as Sam. They talk and revive their acquaintance. Sam realizes that she’s unhappy and offers to take her on secret drives. Eventually, Sam proposes to marry her and asks to live happily in their native village. Sophy fears Randolph’s anger thus she hesitates to answer him. Somehow she musters the courage to ask her son for his permission. But he refuses as Sophy marring a shopkeeper will stain his upper-class status. He declares that “he’s ashamed of her”. For the next four-five years Sophy tries to persuade him but he never approves. He makes her swear that she’ll never marry Sam without his consent. After that, Sophy spends the next four years living in despair and wondering why she can’t marry Sam. The story ends with Sam watching Sophy’s funeral procession in Gaymead, Sam sobs in grief as Randolph glares grimly at him.
The Son’s Veto | Analysis
The story explores the themes of freedom, class difference, helplessness and duty. Narrated in the third person we get a look at Sophy’s dissatisfied and lonely life. Sophy is a typical example of most women in the Victorian era who had no right to choose the life they wanted. She is weak and helpless as the Victorian stereotypes doom her life. She can’t refuse to marry Twycott as she feels obligated. She didn’t love him but respected him greatly thus she felt powerless. She is not only crippled physically but she also has no freedom to exercise her own will. She wishes to go back to her home village and marry Sam but her son Randolph won’t allow it to happen. It’s as if her life is being controlled by her son. She is alienated and her only chance at happiness is with Sam but she never gets it. The author says that she was a perfect woman as a wife but she lacked what it needed to be a lady implying that her humble upbringing was like a shameful secret for her family. She fails to accept her status as a lady in her soul, she longs for the modest countryside where she was born.
It can be said that Randolph was acting as per the social norms of that time however his mistreatment towards his mother is still selfish and unfair. He never accepted her poor background and thus rejected her love. He failed to connect with his mother and never cared for her happiness. Despite knowing that she suffers from physical alignments, he adds mental stress on her. Sophy longed to go back to Gaymead, to walk on those fields. Her comfortable home isn’t enough as she is socially alienated. The author establishes that materialistic things don’t provide happiness. She has no taste for things people of the upper-class do and there’s no happiness in her life. Sophy wonders if her life would have been happier if she had married Sam. Wealth and social status don’t provide happiness to her, she would be far happier with Sam living in a cottage in their native village.
The hollow beliefs of the upper-class people are reflected in Randolph’s actions. He would rather maintain his social status than care for his mother’s happiness. He fails to see his mother’s love for him. The irony here is that he’s well educated, he’s supposed to have a higher intellect than his mother as Sophy believes. But he lacks compassion and becomes so cruel that he condemns his mother to a life of loneliness and unhappiness. Sophy doesn’t fight for her happiness instead begs her son. This shows just how helpless and inferior she felt. She did not exercise her authority as the mother and had to spend her life pinning away. Death is the only escape that was left. That way she could finally return to her village, which she loved so dearly. She spends all her life longing for happiness and ends up having a miserable death.
The Son’s Veto | Themes
The sole reason behind Randolph’s disproval of Sophy’s remarriage was that Sam was a lower status man. He perceived that his mother marrying a working class man will affect his social status. For him, his status as a respectful gentleman is more important than his poor mother’s happiness. Ironically Randolph is going to become a priest like his father but he lacks empathy towards others which is a quality a priest must possess. Mr. Twycott was a good man who mostly treated Sophy well however, he too feared people’s judgment about him marrying a lower status woman. He moves her away from her childhood home to prevent himself from shame. It might be possible that this only made Sophy feel more insecure about her background and thus she never felt like she belonged in that upper-class environment. She tried her best to fit in, to appear like a lady she tried to curl her hair and improve her grammar but still none of it was good enough. She was always humble towards her husband as if he was doing her a favor by keeping her as his wife. She even considered her own son more to be his father’s son. She felt obligated to listen to everything Randolph said because she felt inferior in all aspects. She internalized her son’s mistreatment as if it was her fault for being a woman of lower status. The author shows that the rules of society establish how each person from their class should act like. Sophy is expected to act like a lady that leads to a life of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Randolph sacrifices his own mother’s happiness for his social status as a gentleman. It’s emphasized how social class differences can ruin human bonds and limit someone’s happiness.
Freedom vs. Family duty
All her life, all the decisions for Sophy are made by either her husband or her son. This was true for all women during the 19th century; they hardly had any choice in dictating their own willpower. Sophy also accepts the fact that she has no power; she gives in to her son’s unjust demands because she feels inferior to him. She has no freedom to live the life she wants and she feels duty bound to listen to everything her son demands. One significant point in the story is that the first time we witness Sophy walking out of her wheelchair is when she goes to meet Sam. It symbolizes that Sam brought the freedom and happiness in her life which were missing. The possible prospect of her marriage with Sam gives her courage; she even walks around at the cricket match as she prepares to ask for her son’s approval. But when Randolph refuses to agree to the marriage she becomes disheartened and gets caged inside her house. She soon dies, only a couple of years after she was getting better it means that her despair was so great that she gave up hope for any kind of happiness and died out of pain and sorrow.
Character of Sophy
Sophy is described as “a kitten-like, flexuous, tender creature”, meaning she’s meek and docile in nature. She is often passive about taking decisions of her life and lets others dictate the course she has to walk. It’s also mentioned that as a “woman she was as charming a partner as a man could possess”, she took care of husband and son very dearly and she was highly devoted towards them. However, she often struggled to fit in the upper-class London society and act like a lady. Her son detested her ill knowledge of grammar and countryside manners. She was troubled by the strained relationship with her son that pushed her towards isolation and unhappiness. If her son had been more loving and caring she would have managed to live her life better. She longed to establish a simpler and humble lifestyle with Sam in their native village but her son’s disapproval stopped her. She did not rebel against his decision, she sacrificed her own happiness for her son’s wishes and this led to her premature death. She wanted to live an honest and happy life but she never managed to break free from the limitations which were imposed on her.
About the author:
Thomas Hardy (1840 –1928) was a celebrated English writer and poet. His humble social background often made him feel insecure around the class conscious people in London; his dislike of this class biasness is often reflected in his stories. Many of his stories are set in the semi fictional region of Wessex, where characters usually suffer due to unfortunate social circumstances. He was one of the leading Victorian authors who criticized the status conscious society of that time. He has many poems and novels to his credit and his popular works include “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and “Far from the Madding Crowd”.