English Literature
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The Ruined Maid

The Ruined Maid

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A Satirical Take on Victorian Morality and Gender Roles: Thomas Hardy's 'The Ruined Maid'

'The Ruined Maid' is a satirical poem by renowned Victorian writer, Thomas Hardy. Through irony and humor, the poem addresses the restrictive nature of Victorian morality and the limited options for young women in 19th century England.

Thomas Hardy, the Man Behind the Words

Born in 1840 in a small village in Dorset, Hardy's literary works were greatly influenced by his upbringing in the county. He was not just a writer, but a social commentator, exploring themes of class structures, gender inequality, and the impact of religion on societal norms. Hardy passed away in 1928 in Dorset, close to where he was born.

As a Victorian Realist, Hardy's writing was inspired by the Romantic movement and philosopher Jon Stuart Mill. This period was a response to the Age of Enlightenment and industrialization, focusing on individualism, emotions, and nature. In 1886, Hardy wrote 'The Ruined Maid', which was later published in Poems of the Past and Present (1901). This poem was just the beginning of his criticism of the hypocritical sexual morality of the Victorian era, a theme that he continued to explore in his famous novel, Tess of the d’Urbevilles, A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (1891).

In the Victorian era, any woman who engaged in premarital sex was deemed 'ruined' and faced social ostracism. In both 'The Ruined Maid' and Tess of the d’Urbevilles, Hardy challenged the notion of female virginity, causing controversy and leading him to stop writing novels altogether after the backlash. His final novel, Jude the Obscure (1895), delves into the effects of morality and class on both men and women. Through the characters of Amelia and Tess, Hardy invites readers to question whether a woman's morality should be defined solely by her virginity or if other factors should be considered.

Hardy's views on gender equality were also shaped by Jon Stuart Mill, an economist, philosopher, and civil servant. Mill's book, The Subjection of Women (1861-1869), was one of the earliest works on the subject written by a man, challenging traditional gender roles.

Unpacking 'The Ruined Maid'

'The Ruined Maid' sheds light on the limited choices available to women in Victorian England, particularly those without financial independence. The poem follows a chance encounter between two women in London who come from the countryside and know each other. Through their conversation, the reader learns that Amelia has transformed into a prosperous and cultured woman, highlighting the stark contrast between her previous life of poverty and her current one.

Amelia's acquaintance admires her appearance and happiness, to which Amelia casually responds that it is all thanks to her 'ruin'. With sarcasm, Amelia implies that one can only attain such things by being 'ruined'. This exchange raises the question of who is truly better off, Amelia or her acquaintance, and emphasizes the use of different tones and vocabulary in their dialogue.

A Critical Analysis of 'The Ruined Maid'

Though on the surface, 'The Ruined Maid' may seem like a humorous poke at Victorian morality and societal norms, it is, in fact, a sharp satire on the expectations and limited options for women at the time. Through irony and dramatic dialogue, Hardy effectively exposes the flaws of the Victorian era and challenges traditional gender roles.

In addition to the humor, Hardy uses satire to unveil the dismal reality of women's options in the 19th century. His commentary is critical and thought-provoking, a characteristic of satirical works during this time. Hardy sheds light on the two main paths available to young, rural, working-class women - a respectable life of poverty, marriage, and children, or a more financially stable but socially shunned life as a mistress or prostitute. Let's take a closer look at how Hardy accomplishes this through his writing.

The Structure of 'The Ruined Maid'

'The Ruined Maid' is made up of six quatrains, each following the same rhyme scheme. This consistent structure allows for a smooth flow and emphasizes the repetition and societal expectations that the poem critiques.

Thomas Hardy effectively conveys the dialogue between two women in "The Ruined Maid" through the use of two sets of rhyming couplets. The first and last quatrains have the same rhyme scheme, mirroring the conversation between the two characters.

Meter of "The Ruined Maid":

Hardy utilizes a varied meter in his poem to emphasize the contrast between Amelia's past and present life. While most lines begin with an iamb, there is also an anapestic trimeter that highlights the difference in tempo and emphasis between Amelia and her acquaintance. The iamb, consisting of two beats of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (daDUM), is the most commonly used meter in English poetry. In contrast, the anapestic trimeter has a more gentle and singsong rhythm, with three anapests (dadaDUM) or nine syllables per line.

Themes of "The Ruined Maid":

"The Ruined Maid" delves into various themes, including gender inequalities, social mobility, and the harsh realities of working-class life during the Victorian era.

Victorian Morality and Gender Roles:

Hardy's portrayal of Amelia, the ruined maid, goes against societal norms as he does not condemn her choices, situation, or attitude despite her profession as a prostitute. This was a rare viewpoint during a time when women were harshly judged for deviating from traditional gender roles. In the Victorian era, the term "prostitute" had a broad definition, encompassing mistresses, women who engaged in pre- or extramarital sex, and sex workers. Society viewed women's "virtue" as fragile, and there was even a satirical article from the Saturday Review of 1865 that advised women to dress unattractively to avoid being labeled as a prostitute. Through this sarcastic advice, we gain insight into the societal norms of the time. While most portrayals of Victorian prostitutes in literature focused on their need for moral redemption, Hardy presents Amelia as content and better off than before, despite the consequences of her choices. Beneath the irony and lack of judgement lies a crucial depiction of the limited options available to women like Amelia.

Victorian Morality and Social Mobility:

For young women living in impoverished rural areas during the Victorian era, marriage was often the only means of attaining financial stability and social respect. Amelia's contrasting lives in the countryside and London highlight the stark difference in opportunities for rural working-class women.

By utilizing irony and satire, Hardy effectively portrays the limited choices faced by women like Amelia. Whether it be impoverished "virtue" or temporary emancipation as a "ruined" woman, neither situation is ideal. The contrast between Amelia's yearning for a glamorous life and her harsh reality as a prostitute emphasizes the societal expectations and restrictions placed upon Victorian women.

Satire and Irony in Victorian Society: A Closer Look at Thomas Hardy's "The Ruined Maid"

As a Victorian Realist, Thomas Hardy skillfully employs the literary devices of satire and irony to expose the hypocrisies and double standards of Victorian society. In particular, his poem "The Ruined Maid" offers a powerful critique of the societal expectations and pressures placed on women during that time.

The poem is structured as a dramatic dialogue between two characters, Amelia (also known as "'Melia") and an unnamed acquaintance from her past. One represents a poor, hard-working farm worker, while the other has chosen a life of financial stability through "ruination." This contrast serves as a commentary on the limited options available for women striving to escape poverty in Victorian society.

What is particularly striking about "The Ruined Maid" is its use of the rhyme scheme AABB CCBB DDBB EEBB FFBB AABB in six quatrains. This alternating pattern of rhyme adds a sense of playfulness and lightheartedness to what is ultimately a serious and thought-provoking poem. Furthermore, Hardy's use of iambic and anapestic meter further emphasizes the stark contrast between appearances and reality in Victorian society.

While some may argue that the poem centers around the theme of love, it is worth noting that love is never explicitly mentioned. Instead, Amelia's feelings towards the men who financially support her are left open to interpretation. This ambiguity allows for a deeper exploration of the societal expectations placed on women and the consequences of defying them.

In Victorian times, the term "ruined" referred to a woman who had lost her virtue through premarital sex or involvement in prostitution. However, in "The Ruined Maid," Amelia uses the term ironically to describe herself. This reveals her defiance towards the rigid societal expectations and double standards placed on women during that time.

The legacy of "The Ruined Maid" continues to be relevant even in modern times. It serves as a timeless critique of Victorian society, exposing its flaws and limitations. Additionally, it highlights the enduring societal pressures and expectations placed on women, making it a thought-provoking and impactful piece of literature.

References:

  • Hardy, Thomas. The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy. Clarendon, 1982.
  • Flanders, Judith. The Victorian City. Everyday Life of Dickens' London. St. Martin's, 2014.

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