The Ruined Maid

by Thomas Hardy

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This poem depicts a conversation between a "raw country girl" and another girl from the country, referred to as "'Melia," who claims to have been "ruined." This likely means that 'Melia has begun to have a sexual relationship with a man outside of wedlock—her virtue, then, is ruined—and this man has given her money so that she can now afford the "'fair garments'" and "'gay bracelets and bright feathers'" that are so surprising to the other girl. For much of history, women's value has been based on their virtue: a young woman who is unmarried is expected to be virginal; a woman who is married is expected to be faithful to her husband (regardless of how faithful he is or isn't). A woman who deviates from this standard might be considered "ruined" because her sexuality is the basis of her identity and social worth. The irony in this poem is that, of course, being "ruined" has actually resulted in what looks like success and happiness for 'Melia.

First, the other girl expresses her surprise at meeting 'Melia in town and looking so prosperous. 'Melia implies that being "ruined" has resulted in her improved appearance. Next, the other girl says that when 'Melia left, those she left behind had no shoes and socks and were exhausted with planting and sowing potatoes, and now she has such pretty jewelry and accessories. 'Melia explains that this is how women dress when they've been ruined.

Then, the other girl draws attention to 'Melia's speech; it does not sound homely and quaint anymore as it did when she lived at home. 'Melia explains that women gain more polish and manners when they have been ruined. Next, the other girl talks about how sad and forlorn 'Melia used to look, but now she appears like a lady. 'Melia explains that ruined women do not have to work.

Finally, the other girl points out how depressed 'Melia used to be, but now she seems not to know melancholy at all. 'Melia explains that life is lively and exciting and fun when one is ruined. And when the other girl wishes she had such a dress and accessories as 'Melia has, 'Melia explains that she cannot expect them because she is not ruined.

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