Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

The major theme of this poem is that society often places women in untenable positions, especially when it comes to money. Amelia, the ruined girl of the poem, evidently comes from a background of abject poverty where she had inadequate clothing and shoes and had to work and dig in the dirt to find too little food for her own sustenance. Her life was miserable and bleak, and she appeared to have only a similar future to which she could look forward. She was virtuous then, but she was uneducated and destitute and hungry. Now that she has been "ruined" (either taking up as someone's mistress or becoming a prostitute), she is no longer considered virtuous by society, and, thus, her social value and worth have been diminished; however, she is clearly quite valued by someone (as she has earned money), and her moral ruin has provided her with pretty clothes and accessories, like feathers and bracelets and gloves. Not only is she now provided for, but she appears a great deal happier and more lively; she has evidently received something of an education (it has given her some "polish"), and so she looks and sounds more like a lady. Of course, her value in society's eyes has decreased because she is no longer virtuous, but being virtuous only seemed to result in hunger and pain because she was so poor. Amelia has traded financial ruin for moral ruin, and she seems a great deal happier as a result of her choice. While society may emphasize the importance of virtue, it did not serve Amelia well, and while society may discourage immorality, Amelia's life seems better for it. What's a woman to do? Amelia has made her choice, and it seems that the "raw country girl" to whom she speaks may ultimately make the same choice.

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

While Victorian England is stereotypically recalled for its extreme antiprurience, the facts often bear out a different matter. Such was the case with prostitution in London in the late 1800’s when, according to some estimates, as many as 20 percent of teenage females may have been forced into supporting themselves in this manner. Hardy’s purpose in this poem is to focus on and dramatize the plights of young women entering such lives. In so doing, he displays both extreme sympathy and a lack of compassion for both young women. The poet’s attitude toward both of them evidences a rather dual attitude.

The first girl is obviously enamoured with Melia’s appearance, language, and relative wealth. An air about her indicates admiration, even envy or jealousy, for the new circumstances of her acquaintance from “Town.” Melia has returned with what appear to be better possessions, clothes, and speech. However, the first girl does not realize the source of these items; nor does she truly understand, for example, that “gay bracelets and bright feathers” hardly constitute the dress of high society. She does not see these for what they truly are: trade markers and prostitute flags.

Melia herself also has something of an ambiguous regard for her new circumstances. She seems pleased with her dress and diction; she now claims proudly to have “Some polish”; she boasts that she doesn’t have to work and also of having a “lively” existence. However, her last utterance is not clearly a boast. The first girl says, “‘I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,/ And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!’” To this Melia replies, “‘My dear—a raw country girl, such as you be,/ Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined.’” But how does one read Melia’s final three words? Perhaps they indicate a wistful confession that she wishes she herself were not morally ruined and had remained financially ruined. Or, perhaps, a certain haughtiness is continued as Melia puts on airs for her companion.

Hardy’s own attitude toward his subject seems to be remarkably restrained. The poem does not forthrightly condemn prostitution; yet it does clearly evoke sympathy for both young women. The overriding comment, here, is that both are “ruined,” and, perhaps, it doesn’t much matter if one is ruined monetarily and the other morally. Hence, the poem is not really so much an attack on the evils of prostitution or the hypocrisy of Victorian society as it is a lament for the plights of both girls. One girl is morally pure but condemned to living in “tatters, without shoes or socks.” The other is immoral and living in “gay bracelets and bright feathers”; yet this is hardly an improvement. The real problem is that while morality can be bought and sold, it is not rewarded. Both girls are doomed to miserable existences.

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