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136 THE REPENTANT MAGDALEN IN THOMAS HARDY'S "THE WOMAN I KFT" By Frank R. Giordano, Jr. (University of Delaware) In her fascinating study The Victorian Heroine, Patricia Thompson recounts the extent to which the subjects of prostitution, venereal disease, and the sowing of wild oats were brought before the English public in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.1 Painters, poets, and novelists began to examine the double standard of morality that obtained in matters of sexual behavior. Mrs. Norton, for example , in her novel Lost and Saved (1863), expressed concisely the opinion of many thoughtful and concerned artists over the unjust moral judgments of the world: "For though the faults of women are visited as sins, the sins of men are not even visited as faults."^ Though no clearly defined single standard has emerged, then or since, a number of interesting attitudes were evolving and finding expression in the arts. For one thing, after 18?0, the loss of chastity was no longer considered the unforgivable sin. Authors emphasized the wretchedness of the prostitute's life and treated the women themselves as victims of society. A serious effort was made to overcome the long-standing hatred and disgust that middle-class citizens felt towards these victims, and to supplant these prejudices with sympathetic understanding. Many writers advocated forgiveness for past offenses, though they stopped short of Wilkie Collins, who generously provided his prostitute-heroine of A New Magdalen with a liberal marriage settlement.3 It is not surprising that the legendary figure of the repentant Magdalen should engage the imaginations of artists as they questioned Victorian sexual morality.4 Nor is it surprising that Thomas Hardy, in whose fiction and poetry were exposed the hypocrisy and injustice of contemporary sexual attitudes, should employ, with one major modification, the Christ-Magdalen myth as a basis for one of his works. In the Late Lyrics and Earlier volume, Hardy examines with great insight and compassion the love relationship of the two figures in "The Woman I Met." The poem provides, I believe, an excellent example of how Hardy's mythopoeic mind transformed what may well have been a simple personal experience into an artistically and psychologically complex one.5 Characterizing his figures as types in a moral allegory, Hardy raises their personal situation to a more universal level of meaning; thus, he explores not only the failure of their love but the broader issue of the failure of Christianity in the modern world. This essay will examine the poem's allegorical meanings by demonstrating its diction of conversion and repentance, its use of symbols, and tne archetypal relationship it posits between a pure man and a prostitute. As "The Woman I Met" is virtually unknown, it seems useful here to give a brief account of the poem's events. The two characters are allegorical types who enact a drama "in the pattern of the moralizing melodrama of Victorian years."6 The speaker is "A STRANGER" in a modern lamp-lit city, walking sunken-hearted through a crowd. He is joined by the ghost of a prostitute, "a soul departed," a phantom clad in "a shroud that furs half hid." The action of the poem con- 137 sists of the brief conversation between these two as they roam the demi-monde, crossing the streets which are the "haunts" of the prostitute in her "olden sprightly/Hours of breath," where she "tempted frail youth nightly/To their death."? In responding to the speaker's question "Why do you trouble me, dead woman,/Trouble me;/You whom I knew when warm and human?" the woman describes the effects that her past acquaintance with the stranger had had upon her. Significantly, her language presents the consequences in terms and symbols associated with Christianity and suggestive of religious conversion. A "tinselled sinner," she was moved to love the "fresh bland boy of no assurance" who, in his simplicity, deemed her chaste. But her love for him was a passionate sexual love. Because of his inability to return her kind of love, he caused her great physical and emotional torture. But this suffering is transmuted into a form of redemptive asceticism when she calls her...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 136-143
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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