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    Fallen Women in Victorian Society

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    To be a fallen woman in Victorian society, was to be ordained sinful and would be outcast from the social world. Both authors choose to use this theme as a pivotal point in their novels. However, even though both are set in the 1800’s, Fowles was writing a hundred years after Hardy. Some may say that this allows him the perspective needed to judge and make decisions. He could also draw parallels from the 1800s to his own time. In fact, one of the great ironies in Fowles’ novel is that while Sarah is such an innately free spirit, she is born and trapped into this intolerant, hypocritical society.

    He leads the reader to believe that if only Sarah were born into the liberal age of the 1960s, her spirit would be fulfilled. On the other hand, this gap of time could take away from the illusion of being written at the time that comes naturally to Hardy. As just mentioned, Fowles was writing in the 60’s, a time of freedom of mind, body and soul, which is apparent in the character of Sarah, who personifies this wonderfully. Sarah prefers to be a visible social pariah rather than one who attempts to reform and assimilate into society.

    It is evident to the reader that Fowles had obviously studies a lot of Victorian text to get an understanding of writing techniques of the time. For instance he packs as much detail of the landscape into the opening chapter as possible, with use of references to historical findings in the places; which is not his usual writing style, “redolent of seven hundred years of English history”. Fowles uses incredibly long, tumbling sentences with as much detail to the setting as possible, “being that largest bite from the underside of England’s outstretched south-western leg”.

    A major difference between the two is that Hardy took a great risk in publishing this novel, as the subjects he covered such as rape were considered taboo in his time. However in doing so, he was able to draw attention to the very controversial subject of women’s rights, which he felt strongly about. Fowles, on the other hand, took no such risk. Writing in the post-feminist 1960s, he was able to look in retrospect to women’s liberation. Although his views are similar to Hardy’s, and possibly were influenced by them, there is nothing ground breaking about Fowles’ writing.

    The way in which the heroine is introduced to the reader by the author, tells us a lot about the character. Fowles does this more directly than Hardy, almost portraying Sarah as the witch on the cove. Dressed all in black, unwavering against the ocean spray, she stands like a statue “Its clothes were black”, this quote alone shows how Fowles wants us to view Sarah; without identity, thus foreshadowing the mystery that shrouds Sarah throughout the novel. Hardy however takes a far more subtle approach, introducing her father as a rather foolish drunkard learning of his past.

    Hardy purposely does this, to show us what could possibly be reason for all Tess’ trouble, rather than introducing the actual character first. In both of the novels, intellect is clearly a key factor to the structure. ‘Born to be a farmer’s wife but educated to be something… better’ shows that although both Tess and Sarah have been born into very poor families, they have still been educated quite well. This is then contrasted by Fowles, as Ernestina, the rich businessman’s daughter is evidently a lot less deep and mature in her thoughts than either Tess or Sarah.

    This hints that, while Ernestina may well have had a more expensive education, she has had a lot less experience of life, and is not as intelligent; described by Charles as “a pretty little thing, yet a shallow little thing”. This is a sign of Fowles continuing the work that Hardy started 100 years previously, as he too was a strong supporter of women’s rights, and rebelled against the class system. Fowles deliberately contrasts the character of Ernestina to Sarah to emphasise the abnormal nature of Sarah. Ernestina is described to be “the height of fashion”, however Sarah is not even given the privilege of being called a woman.

    Both Tess and Sarah are the definitive independent woman, who are happy to live alone. Spending most of her adulthood away from home, Tess worked with strangers and made friends along the way. Sarah also seems to love being along, spending many hours sitting and indeed sleeping on the cliff tops; although this is seen to be a lure for Charles, “Charles was about to climb back to the path… black figure appeared out of the trees”. What at first appears to be a similarity between the two characters later turns out to be their biggest difference. Tess and Sarah both appear to be victims; of men, society and the universe in general.

    However this is not true Sarah is a strange character; at first we see her to be in the same position as Tess; having had her virginity taken from her by a man that she didn’t love. However, as the novel progresses, we discover that, while Tess’ tragedy is forced upon her, Sarah actively “marries shame”. Fowles leaves the readers with the question, ‘why? ‘ even at the end of the novel concerning Sarah’s actions. Tess is genuinely a victim of so many things throughout her life; starting with her Father because of his selfish behaviour, then Alec for taking advantage of her, then Angel for making her fall in love with her and then leaving her.

    Whereas Sarah has brought the shame of the society upon herself as she is not a fallen woman; which Charles does not find out until much later when they slept together. Through the turmoil of Tess’ life, great sympathy is created for her. If Hardy did not help us to build up a fondness for Tess, the sympathy and, furthermore, tragedy would not be created. Throughout the novel, what sometimes appear to be extremely direct and determined developments actually hinge on improbable coincidences; Hardy uses this technique to convey the sense that the universe itself, in the guise of Fate, is against Tess, that her tragedy is predestined.

    Whilst Sarah tries to culminate the same feelings for herself, the reader is unsure about the character and as we learn more about her we dislike her as a character, thus not created any sympathy for her. Hardy makes his opinion of Tess clear to the reader from very early on, showing what an honourable “maiden” she is. Tess feels that, as the oldest child, she has a great responsibility for her family. When the horse dies in an accident, Tess feels duty-bound to go to Mrs D’Urberville’s home to claim kin as she believes that she is to blame. When her father is taken ill, Tess returns home to care for him and work the field.

    Her devotion to her family and sense of responsibility for them are admirable qualities. Tess is guided by her morality and desire to do what is right. Tess is presented consistently as an innocent victim. Tess didn’t understand Alec’s intentions, as she was sexually unaware as her mother selfishly didn’t warn her about men so that Tess would still go and get money. Tess never tried to manipulate anyone, even telling Angel to divorce her simply for what she has done in the past; also she even tries to persuade Angel to look at the other milk maids as she deems herself unworthy for him, “I am not good enough – not worthy enough”.

    She seems to accept everything that is happening to her, Angel’s decision to leave her and her own fate of being executed submissively. Tess does not fight back against the policemen, but simply says ‘I am ready’ before being taken away. This act alone tells us that Tess is not the one that should be punished and in punishing her we create her as victim of an immoral society. In contrast, Sarah is dominant throughout, and is in total control of the relationship between her and Charles. She manipulates Charles in various different ways; by contriving meeting on the cliff tops, pretending to have sprained her ankle, gives her address to him.

    We discover that Sarah did not give away her chastity to the ‘French Lieutenant’, and that her exile has been of her own choosing. Although publicly her reputation has been tarnished, she is safe in the knowledge that she had acted honourably, something that Charles tragically failed to understand. Although she favours her social disapproval because she is able to live a ‘free’ life, she also acts as a martyr, by acting as if her life has just been one great downfall. Fowles’ Sarah also sees marriage as a reason for rebellion, as in one of his two endings we see Fowles’ character deciding to live as part of a mixed gender commune.

    This way of life, which is seen as completely unacceptable by society, is the one way that she will be safe from the prying opinions of others, and she is once again able to live her life as she wishes. She displays a ruthlessness to maintain independent and free spirited. However, the reader, like Charles, does not begin to understand Sarah until late in the novel, and it is not until the reader discovers what she has voluntarily sacrificed that we realise how much her freedom means to her.

    It is not just Charles that shares his opinion of Sarah, Dr. Grogan summarises the readers’ thoughts on Sarah clearly when he comments that she has a “warped mind”. Many characters in the “French Lieutenants’ Woman” believe Sarah to not be of sound mind. In contrast we gather most of the opinions of Tess through Hardy, “her bouncing handsome womanliness”. A great majority of the descriptions of Tess are referring to her physical attributes, which of course is her downfall. Being physically mature beyond her years, men are attracted to her, which he see in the cases of Alec and Angel.

    Alec says, “How loveable her face was to him”. Although Hardy and Fowles do have differing styles, their messages are almost exactly the same. They have both written moralistic stories which communicate their views by showing how the pressures of society, have caused the degradation of key characters. It is the hope of success that is the main driving force of each novel, and the reader is compelled to have faith in the naive dreams of the characters as even though the character’s failure is inevitable, you can’t help but want them to succeed.

    This is more so in the case of Tess, where Hardy has created a more likeable character, thus in turn creating more sympathy and love for the character. Some critics have remarked that because of the limited perspective that Hardy gained on Victorian society, it happens so that the reader is left with a first hand view; and as Hardy is writing through Tess, the reader has the same perspective as Tess, which also helps to promote emotion and compassion for her. Hardy’s representation of Tess is highly sympathetic.

    He utilizes authorial comment in the novel to explain, justify or comment on Tess’ actions. He asks the responder, “Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive. ” Through the use of accumulation of positive attributes, such as ‘beautiful’, ‘feminine’ and ‘sensitive’, it shows that Hardy values women. He sees that women are victims of men and challenges the values of Victorian society.

    Even from the titles of the chapters uses derogatory terms, such as ‘Maiden no more’ and ‘The Woman Pays’, shows that after Tess was raped by Alec, she is no longer classified as a maiden. The title ‘The Woman Pays’ also emphasises that even if Angel and Tess carry out the same acts, it is the woman who ends up in paying for the wrong doing. Hardy was able to pose his opinions in a far subtler way by adding them into a story rather than announcing them publicly. He was probably able to reach a far greater audience using this method.

    Fowles uses his novel in much the same way, but instead of hiding his views behind a story, he actively removes the narrator and poses arguments straight. This method allows the reader to actually consider the opinions of the author, rather than just accepting the subliminal suggestions of Hardy. John Fowles and Thomas Hardy both write on very similar subjects; their stories circulate around very strong, rebellious women who are fighting the social conformities set down by their male oppressors.

    Fowles tells the story from the point of view of Charles, and hence we do not gain full insight into Sarah’s thoughts, making it difficult to connect and understand her as a character. This is Fowles’ downfall as you can’t feel emotion for a character if you do not understand what they are thinking; which strikes the question, is Sarah actually realistic as a 19th century heroine as Fowles’ himself does not display sympathy for his own character.

    Hardy presents Tess as a very moral person from the very beginning of the novel, and in displaying her as a genuinely good person which generate the feeling of tragedy around her. Fowles presents Sarah as a miss guided, trouble individual, not even sure of her self, with a questionable mental state; a strange character that does not possess the power to evoke much emotion from the reader. These two heroines both depict a stance in Victorian society, however in very different ways; Sarah through illustrating the division between class, and Tess through her portrayal of the unfairness of Victorian morality.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    Fallen Women in Victorian Society. (2017, Oct 09). Retrieved from

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