The Fallen Woman

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The 'Fallen Woman' A Familiar Feature of Victorian Writing

Victorian social conventions placed the female inside the male domain, a domestically cultivated flower rather than a wild one, uncontrollable and free to roam. Woman was idealised: the angel in the house, the wife complementing her husband, the helpmate of man. Social conditions offered the Victorian woman little in occupation so her aim in life was to secure a husband, succumbing to the political propaganda. As Foster states:

Because so much importance was attached to the roles of wifehood and motherhood, marriage was deemed the apotheosis of womanly fulfilment, alternatives to which were regarded as pitiable or unnatural.( Foster 1985: 6)

In this role of wife, woman's great function is to praise her husband and, in return, she shall be praised for ruling inside the home where she can be 'incapable of error' (Ruskin 1865: 149) In Ruskin's lecture his view is that a husband is a chivalric knight guarding his wife from the 'peril and trial' he encounters. For the 'noble' woman, her true place is in the home, an 'incorruptibly good household nun', praised for choosing 'self-renunciation' over 'self-development'(D'Amico 1992: 69). This could also be viewed as oppression. Rather than the female 'complementing' the male, she is oppressed by him, and the praise offered by Ruskin could be viewed as a weapon, lulling the female into a false consciousness, trapping her inside the home. For the Victorian woman, serving man's desire appears more important to serving her own. In these social conventions an unmarried woman, virginal, innocent and ignorant of sexual matters, is defined as pure, well situated for marriage. The woman not wishing this 'glorified' role of wifehood, while still wishing to express her sexuality and satisfy her desires, however, is deemed to have 'fallen' and is equated with a prostitute, 'a horrible spectre'(Dijkstra 1986: 13)

Tess, Hetty and Ruth are 'fallen women'. To ascertain how they are represented in Victorian literature I will question the authorial intention of their creators. At one end of the spectrum they appear to liberate female sexuality, providing a voice for the silent scream within. At the other end, however, the heroines perish under the pen of their creators so, it could be argued, they reinforce the patriarchal ideology of the day by preventing the women's attempts to completely break free from man's dominance. This 'penning in' is also suggested by Hunt's painting The Awakening Conscience.

For Hardy and Gaskell, their eponymous heroines are Wordsworthian daughters of nature: Tess a 'picturesque country girl' (Tess 11), Ruth a lover of nature, finding relief in the open air and pleasure in the rain (Ruth 58) Their childlike innocence invokes fairytale themes: Tess naively taking in the strawberry as Snow White biting into the poisoned apple; Ruth meeting her Prince Charming at a ball. Hetty desires social advancement, her sexual desire expressed through her vanity and narcissism as she relishes the idea of being observed by Luke, Mr Craig and Adam Bede, who 'not much given to run after the lasses, could be made to turn red or pale any day by a word or a look from her.'(Adam Bede 97) Eliot appears to scorn and mock Hetty, the coquettish puss tempting Arthur with her 'long dewy lashes' and her vanity must not be fed by having 'her little noddle filled with the notion that she's a great beauty. Hetty's portrayal places her in a materialistic position with a desire for finery and adornment, Arthur, not Adam the required supplier. The free indirect discourse draws the reader in to the scene and Hetty's thoughts, for she delights in Arthur's presents. For Eliot, then, Hetty is the sinner Eve, ready to tempt Arthur and cause his downfall. Rather than showing assertiveness Eliot presents a deluded child-woman as the role of a woman is to be guided by intellectual man. Arthur, rather than 'misguiding' Hetty, is drawn into...
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