An Imaginative Woman: Summary, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

~'An Imaginative Woman~' by Thomas Hardy tells of the power of imagination in a young wife of poetic temperament. This lesson will summarize the plot and analyze themes in the story.

Origin of the Story

Have you ever been infatuated with someone that you have never even met? The concept may not seem so far-fetched to you if you have ever used a dating website or online dating app. But for Ella's husband in Thomas Hardy's dramatic 1888 short story ''An Imaginative Woman,'' the idea is a shocking one. In fact, he can't imagine that such an imaginary connection could have such a deep effect on his young wife. As you get to know the protagonist, Ella Marchmill, you will better understand the emotional world she creates to spice up her dreary life.

Story Summary

The story is set in the last quarter of the 19th century when respectable women were assumed to find a suitable husband, get married, and have children. Of course, there were servants and nursemaids to help, but this convenience does not ease the internal burden of dull household life for aspiring poet Ella Marchmill. In addition, her rather run-of-the-mill husband William earns a living as a firearms manufacturer, which both disturbs and embarrasses his imaginative wife. Even the children look plain and behave like typical children. Ella longs for excitement and artistic experiences.

Now place this small family in a cottage by the English seaside, two rooms of which normally belong to a well-known but reclusive poet named Robert Trewe. Here is a recipe for Ella to create an imaginary connection that feeds her soul but becomes her undoing.

Ella becomes infatuated with a poet in a cottage by the English seaside.
Secluded Seaside Cottage

While her husband is out sailing with his friends and the children are out on the shore, Ella soon discovers that she knows this poet well - at least in writing. In fact, she has been trying to learn from his successful style ever since a tentative piece of her own poetry (as John Ivy) appeared with his in a magazine.

Ella gets as much personal info from the landlady as she can, including a portrait of the poet and the location above the bed of his midnight musings written on the wallpaper. Out of these objects, Trewe's poetry, and her own imagination, Ella weaves a possible romance in her head. She almost meets the poet more than once, but each time he seems to fall prey to a bout of shyness.

Back home from the seaside, seemingly without hope of ever meeting her idol, she begins writing to him as fellow poet John Ivy. Trewe is polite and encouraging, but nothing ever comes of it. Shortly after the last failed meeting, the troubled poet commits suicide. Ella writes to the landlady at the shore to ask for the portrait and a lock of Trewe's hair.

She even goes secretly to the graveyard and mourns for her never-found love. Will finds her there, and seems to have little jealousy, though he does insist that no more nonsense will be tolerated.

''Mind, I won't have anymore of this sort of thing; do you hear?''

When Ella finds she is pregnant for a fourth time, she begins saying that this time she will not recover. As often happens in fiction, her words are prophetic. Soon after the fourth baby is born, Ella declines and quietly passes away.

When cleaning the house years later before his second wife moves in, Will finds the poet's portrait and the lock of his hair that Ella had kept tied with a ribbon. Suddenly Will begins to suspect that the two poets actually met and may have fathered the last child Ella bore.

The final line of the story is quite sad, as Will rejects his son on the strength of his suspicion:

''Get away, you poor little brat! You are nothing to me!''


In the preface of Hardy's 1912 collection Life's Little Ironies , the author says this about the idea of imagination as it is illustrated by the character of Ella Marchmill:

''...turning as it does upon a trick of Nature … a physical possibility that may attach to a wife of vivid imaginings, as is well known to medical practitioners and other observers of such manifestations.''

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