In "The Ruined Maid," Thomas Hardy addresses the theme of the "fallen" or "ruined" woman, a theme which he deals with in several of his novels as well. In Victorian England, there was a double standard concerning sexual behavior. Women were expected to remain chaste before marriage and faithful within marriage. Any woman who violated these norms was regarded as "fallen" or "ruined" and condemned on moral and religious grounds. While the Church of England disapproved of adultery and fornication in both genders in theory, in practice men who frequented prostitutes or committed adultery were rarely ostracized or condemned for their behavior. Only the women bore the consequences of an activity that involved two people.
One part of the cultural narrative of the fallen woman was that women who had affairs or engaged in sex work were miserable and unhappy. This narrative was often used to deter women from straying from the path of chastity, and many novels and poems portrayed the misery of fallen women as a deterrent. Hardy challenges this portrait, suggesting that in fact for a poor woman, the notion of "respectability" was actually disempowering and that the women were not necessarily ruined by having the freedom to make their own decisions concerning their sexual behaviors.
The two women of the poem are poor farm girls who were raised in similar circumstances. The unnamed country girl who has remained "respectable" is still living in poverty and encounters Melia who has moved to town and achieved some degree of wealth as a mistress or prostitute. Rather than appearing "ruined" and forlorn, Melia is cheerful and healthy, no longer worn down by hard labor and the other girl appears somewhat jealous of her.
Although the poem is humorous, it addresses a real social problem. Especially for poor uneducated women who did not marry, there were few economic opportunities. The choices were factory work, farm work or domestic service, all of which were ill-paid and physically grueling. In Hardy's portrait, Melia has actually made a good choice, one which avoids hard physical labor, and pays well, and gives her a degree of freedom, sophistication, and self confidence she would not get as a scullery maid or factory worker. Of course, the poem does not mention that even if Melia does well as a young pretty sex worker, over the long term, as she becomes older and less attractive, she may be left destitute. She stands a good chance of acquiring an STD or becoming a victim of abuse. However, the other path she could have taken of "respectable" domestic servitude or labor poses just as many risks without the potential for equivalent rewards, however fleeting.