The Ruined Maid

by Thomas Hardy

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

"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.

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