What are the major themes in Thomas Hardy's poem "A Trampwoman's Tragedy"?

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Thomas Hardy’s poem “A Trampwoman’s Tragedy” is a ballad spoken by the figure mentioned in the titled. During the course of the poem, the trampwoman (or poor, itinerant woman) tells how she traveled once across the English countryside with another woman (Mother Lee) and two males: her “fancy-man” (or lover), named Jim; and another man whom she calls “Jeering John.” One day, to tease her lover Jim, she flirts with John. Jim becomes distressed by this apparent betrayal, and when John returns the woman’s flirtations, Jim becomes enraged. He demands to know whether the baby the woman is carrying is his or is John’s. When the woman teasingly replies that the baby is John’s (even though she knows it is not), Jim immediately stab and kills John:

Then up he sprung, and with his knife —

And with his knife

He let out jeering Johnny’s life,

Yes; there, at set of sun.  (65-68)

Jim is later hanged for having committed this murder, and the trampwoman indeed gives birth to their stillborn child on the very day the sentence is carried out.  Mother Lee abandons her, and so the trampwoman walks all alone now. One day the ghost of Jim appears to her and asks her whether the baby was his or John’s. The trampwoman assures Jim – truthfully – that she was always faithful to Jim and thus the baby was his child. Jim seems pleased to hear this news. He fades away with a smile on his face.

Various themes are suggested by this poem, including the following:

  • The dangers of teasing with a loved one’s affections.
  • The dangers of taking a joke too far.
  • The often violent results of romantic jealousy.
  • The intense fear many men have of being cuckolded.
  • The inability to undo tragic mistakes.
  • The ironies of life, especially when the baby is born dead on the very day its father dies.

Interestingly, Hardy’s poem would function as a perfect illustration of Darwinian ideas about literature. Darwinian literary theory has recently become more and more prominent and more and more widely accepted.  Darwinian theorists argue that literature, especially in its themes, often exemplifies standard Darwinian ideas about human psychology, such as the desire of women to find appealing mates (as in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) and, in the case of Hardy’s poem, the intense competition that can often exist between males for mates. In particular, Hardy’s poem illustrates the Darwinian ideas that males prefer not to raise other men’s children and that sexual jealousy is often a main cause of lethal violence.  For a very clear discussion of this approach to literature see, for instance, the recent anthology titled Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader, ed. Brian Boyd et al.






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