The Second Fall: Fallen Women

A key feature of the novel is character development. The typical development is a positive change. The character learns something from his struggle in the plot and improves. The following novels use a downward character progression to examine the character of the fallen woman. In this application, society perceives that a previously innocent woman loses her purity. After this shift, society rejects her. Mill on the Floss, Mary Barton, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles explore the character of the fallen woman. Mill on the Floss depicts Maggie as a fallen woman. When her brother rejects her, she searches for affection in the wrong people. Her brother condemns her, and society upholds his decision. She can only find redemption in the form of forgiveness and affection through death. In Mary Barton, the fallen woman is a side character of the novel. Esther sees herself as a lady. When she falls in love with a soldier, she thinks she will attain that vision, but he does not marry her. Instead, he leaves her behind with an ill child. She turns to prostitution to support herself and her child. Her child dies, and she escapes through alcohol. As a side character, she serves as warning for Mary. Although she saves Mary, she still has to die in order to be reunited with her family. Tess of the D’Urbervilles explores the lack of a woman’s choice in her fate as a fallen woman. Tess’s family puts their future in her hands by expecting her to provide for them through marriage. They send her to live with a woman, whom they believe to be a long-lost relative. The woman’s son, Alec, fails to seduce Tess, so he rapes her. She later has a child who dies. Alec ensures her fate as a fallen woman without any fault of her own.

In Mill on the Floss, Maggie faces the plight of the fallen woman without committing any true sexual misconduct. As a child, “Maggie was always wishing she had done something different” (Eliot 95). Maggie struggles to find the balance between her identity and societal pressures. Throughout the novel, Maggie chooses one over the other, and Tom reprimands her. Either way, she can never live up to his expectations in order to receive his affection. While attaining Tom’s affection remains her goal, she looks for other forms of affection, such as friendship with Philip or romance with Stephen. Both lead Tom to view her as a fallen woman and turn against her. After Tom learns of Maggie’s walks in the woods with Philip, he says, “If your feelings are so much better than mine, let me see you show them in some other way than by conduct that’s likely to disgrace us all – than by ridiculous flights first into one extreme and then into another. Pray, how have you shown your love, that you talk of, either to me or my father? By disobeying and deceiving us” (361). Maggie’s father made his children promise not to be a friend to Philip, and Tom enforced that promise. Maggie’s actions therefore slight Tom on two accounts. She first proves to be disloyal and dishonest by breaking the promise and keeping her actions secret. She furthermore puts the family’s reputation, which Philip’s father puts at risk, in greater danger by being alone with a man in the woods. Tom has worked to redeem that reputation, and he reacts accordingly when he learns she has disregarded it. Together, her deeds ensure that Tom cannot forgive her. Maggie therefore finds unsolicited affection from Stephen, who offers her another form of forbidden love. She unwittingly runs away with Stephen, but she turns away from him without marrying him, which is her greatest sin. When Tom finds out about the affair, he responds, “I loathe your character and your conduct” and goes on to insist that “the world shall know that I feel the difference between right and wrong” (484). Tom believes that Maggie has again done irreparable harm to him and his family through dishonor and deceit. He turns against her for the final time. Society mimics his rejection on a larger scale and ensures Maggie’s demise. She seeks redemption by saving her brother’s life in a flood, but he only forgives her in their death. The last line of the novel is the epitaph on their shared grave, which reads, “In their death they were not divided” (517). As a fallen woman, Maggie had no chance for redemption in the world of the living. It is only through death that she finds forgiveness and affection.

Mary’s Aunt Esther in Mary Barton represents the traditional fallen woman. At the beginning of the novel, Esther thinks of herself as a lady. Her brother-in-law, John Barton, says, “Esther, I see what you’ll end at with your artificial, and your fly-away veils, and stopping out when honest women are in their beds; you’ll be a street-walker, Esther, and then, don’t you go to think I’ll have you darken my door, though my wife is your sister” (38). Esther focuses on material and physical desire rather than social propriety. Her goal is to become a lady, not for its status, but for its financial and emotional security. John aptly predicts her fate when he suggests she will become a prostitute for her behavior in achieving those ends. When John later discovers she becomes a prostitute, he physically rejects her and throws her into the street (173). As in Mill on the Floss, it is the rejection by a male family figure that seals Esther’s fate as a fallen woman. She later shares her story with Jem in order to serve as a cautionary tale for Mary. She follows her lover, a military officer who wanted to marry her but had to leave her, and has a child out of wedlock (215). When the child grows ill, she becomes a prostitute to save her daughter, who ultimately dies. When Jem tries to rescue her, she answers, “God bless you, Jem, for the words you have just spoken. Some years ago you might have saved me, as I hope and trust you will yet save Mary. But it is too late now; – too late” (218). She uses her last days to save Mary from sharing her fate. Though she succeeds, she knew that she could not be saved in life. She returns to her home to find her death bed. When she wakes just before her death, “‘Has it been a dream, then?’ asked she, wildly. Then with a habit, which came like instinct even in that awful dying hour, her hand sought for a locket which hung concealed on her bosom, and, finding that, she knew all was true which had befallen her since last she lay an innocent girl on that bed” (481). Edith finds herself significantly changed though in the same place. She cannot imagine that what she has endured was a reality, but her locket confirms her fate as a fallen woman. She lost her innocence, her lover, her child, and ultimately, herself. Like Maggie, she can only rejoin her family in death. After she dies, “[her family] laid her in one grave with John Barton. And there they lie without name, or initial, or date” (481). Their only identification is a Bible verse from Psalm 53:9, “For He will not always chide, neither will He keep His anger forever.” Edith finds family and forgiveness in death. Her unity in the grave with John Barton nonetheless suggests that her crimes equate that of a murderer. She loses her identity in her death, and the only way she can find redemption is when God’s anger subsides. Even her family succumbs to the judgement of the fallen woman.

Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles descends from pure heroine to fallen woman. At the beginning of the book, the narrator states, “Tess Durbeyfield at this time of her life was a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience” (Hardy 48). Tess is an innocent girl without knowledge of the world. She exists in nature rather than in society. It is only when society infringes upon her that she loses her innocence. When Alec rapes her, the narrator explains, “Why is it that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a course a patter as it was doomed to receive” (104). Unlike the other fallen women, Tess has no choice in her fall. She was asleep when Alec raped her. In addition, Tess’s moment of lost innocence is vague. This vagueness leads even her to question her role in her defilement. Throughout the novel, Tess is a scapegoat for horrific acts, such as the death of the family horse or her rape. Her family relies on her and uses her as a method of support. Her mother sends her to Alec in he hopes that he will marry her, but she does not teach her daughter about the intentions of men. Tess is left on her own to learn “that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing” (105). She loses her innocence through experience because of her lack of knowledge. When she returns home, her mother laments not the loss of her daughter’s innocence, but her loss of income (112). The village is relatively ambivalent toward Tess until the death of her child, which symbolizes a larger judgement of her. Tess leaves the village to seek a new life for herself after tragedy, but she instead finds love. She tries to reject this love from the belief that she is not worthy. When Angel proposes, she tries to tell him her past, but he silences her. After they marry, he tells her of a previous affair, and she reveals her story. Once Angel learns the truth, “he looked upon her as a species of imposter; a guilty woman in the guise of an innocent one” (243). In their relationship, Angel sees Tess in the context of nature, where she is innocent, rather than in society, where she is guilty. He considers her the ideal woman without consideration for her past struggles. When he learns of her suffering, he condemns her. He does not consider his own sexual impropriety because he only upholds the need for female innocence. In addition, he ignores that her transgressions were inflicted upon her. He shows no mercy and leaves her behind with a suggestion that he might return for her. She is again left to endure her own struggles in an effort to provide for herself and her family. She must ultimately turn back to Alec because she does not know that Angel will come back for her. He finds her too late as she has married Alec, whom society views as her true husband. After she sees Angel, she kills Alec and runs away with Angel. They are safe in nature, but society catches up to them, and Tess must pay for her crimes. The novel ends when the narrator states, “’Justice,’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschlyean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess” (396) Her death is only justice in that it rids society of the fallen woman. Tess’s death is the one death that is not natural; instead, it comes from society. The quotations around justice suggests that the narrator does not view her death as just, which reinforces Tess as a pure woman according to Hardy’s subtitle. Like the other fallen woman, Tess finds redemption in death alone. Through the character of the fallen woman, Hardy explores the contrast between nature and society. It is society that condemns Tess. As a passive character, Tess is a victim to her surroundings. When she leaves nature to endure society, she falls.

4 thoughts on “The Second Fall: Fallen Women

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