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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360

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"The Ruined Maid" is a poem by English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy. The poem examines the social norms of the Victorian Era in Great Britain. In particular, the poem studies the challenges women faced in the Victorian society, including how they are expected to behave according to social norms. The Victorian period in England was obsessed with morality. Many literary works during the era played with the philosophy of morality, its complexities, and the hypocrisy of Victorian society in trying to apply their morals on others. Social ranking and public image were emphasized in the socially suffocating communities of the Victorian period, whether they be lower class, middle class, or the wealthy elite. Everyone was subject to judgment, which could become vicious gossip. One slight "error" or exhibition of rebellion could undermine one's image and reputation.

The title of the poem contains a hint regarding this cutthroat social system. The titular maid is "ruined" because she has lost her virginity. In the eyes of society, she no longer has her purity. However, the maid herself made the choice to lose her virginity. She did so to escape the life of a country girl. She comes from a poor family and "ruining" herself by becoming the mistress of a wealthy man is a way to escape poverty. Society judges her—personified by her friend, who is still a country girl—for selling her body to gain capital, but society does not understand why she chose to "ruin" herself. It shows the difference between perception and the truth.

The satirical poem also implies that the friend of the maid is jealous of her, because despite judging her promiscuity, the friend envies the maid's nice clothing, which the maid received from her wealthy lover. The poem was intended to be humorous and tongue-in-cheek, but it unintentionally displays the complexities and challenges of womanhood during the Victorian period. The maid—in Hardy's own opinion—could only rise up the socioeconomic ladder by selling her body, but doing so would also ruin her reputation. The reality is that during the period, women were given limited options and freedoms in making a life for themselves.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

Thomas Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid” is a dialogue between two farm girls in late Victorian England, one of whom has left the farm for city life, and the other of whom has remained in the country. The poem consists of six quatrains, each of which is organized in the same fashion. The first girl—unidentified by name and yet living on a farm—addresses the other girl, named Melia, who answers. In all but one stanza, the last one, the first girl has three lines of the quatrain, and Melia is given a one-line response in which she uses the word “ruin” or some variation of it. Through this conversation, Hardy provides social commentary about his real subject: prostitution and its effects.

The poem is set in “Town,” presumably a small rural town to which Melia has returned and near which she previously lived. The two girls have not seen each other for some time, and the chance meeting on the street affords them an opportunity to catch up. It is not clear that, previously, they have been close friends; however, they have been close acquaintances, and hence there is something of an intimate, yet casual, conversation.

In the introductory stanza the first speaker addresses Melia by inquiring, at once, about her “fair garments” and “such prosperi-ty.” Melia replies, “‘O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?’” This establishes the pattern of the poem as well as indicates the characters and personalities of the two young girls. Melia assumes something of a haughty manner and a superior air to her friend, who has not been off to the city to be “ruined.” Similarly, the other girl is somewhat naïve about Melia and in awe of her.

In the second stanza, the matter of appearance continues to receive the emphasis. The first girl recalls that Melia used to wear “tatters, without shoes or socks” and points out that she presently is wearing “gay bracelets and bright feathers three.” Unknown to the girl who has remained in the country, the bracelets and feathers are signs of Melia’s profession, not new wealth or realized culture. Similarly, in the third stanza, the poet draws attention to language: Melia has learned how to talk in a way that fits her “for high compa-ny!”—so the first girl thinks. However, she does not realize that the diction—an absence now of phrases such as “thik onn” and “theäs oon”—does not reveal what could truly be called “polish.”

In the fourth and fifth stanzas, Hardy turns to the physical condition of Melia’s body and her health. The first girl notices that Melia’s hands are no longer “like paws” (from manual labor); nor does she presently have “megrims or melancho-ly” (migraine headaches and depression). The poem concludes with “Melia’s assertion that “You ain’t ruined,” emphasizing the differences between the two girls and the choices they have made.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

The twenty-four lines of the poem are deliberately written in an uncommon meter of three dactyl feet followed by an iamb. Hence, each line has an unusual count of an odd number of syllables: eleven. All of the verses have an aabb rhyme scheme. It is curious that Hardy did not choose iambic pentameter for this poem, since iambs more accurately reflect actual speech in English; however, this peculiar form gives the poem a certain racy, conversational tone which keeps the interchanges moving.

The most important poetic mechanism, however, is not revealed by mere scansion of lines. Rather, the central literary device at play here is that of the pun. While most great poets hold puns in disdain and use them seldom, if ever, in serious poetry, Hardy chooses to organize the entire discourse around the one word “ruin,” which appears in the last line of each stanza in Melia’s responses to the other girl. Specifically, “ruin” means being destitute of any financial resources or worldly goods; at the same time, it means being void of chastity and purity—that is, Melia, now working as a prostitute, is morally ruined.

The irony of Hardy’s punning needs further explanation. Melia is morally ruined, although she now has money and therefore is not financially ruined like her acquaintance. On the other hand, the girl who has no money has her chastity and is not ruined. Both girls are “ruined,” but each in a different way. In the last line of each of the first five stanzas, Melia acknowledges her ruin but does so in something of a coy fashion. It is not clear that the other girl realizes what Melia is admitting.

The poet has also painstakingly included assonance, consonance, and alliteration in almost every line. Consider the lines “‘Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak/ But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek.’” Notice the repetition of the initial b-sounds in “blue,” “bleak,” “but,” and “bewitched.” Vowel sounds are repeated in “paws” and “face,” “bewitched” and “delicate.” Also, the word “your” is used three times without creating any poetic offense.

The poem also reveals a special attention to language in other ways. In the third stanza, the first speaker realizes that Melia’s speech has changed during her absence from the country. A few of the words have lost their Victorian connotation in the century since the poem was written. “Tatters” are torn clothes; “megrims” is a rustic corruption of the later word “migraine”; and “melancho-ly” is word that fell into disfavor for “depression.”