"A Trampwoman's Tragedy": Hardy's Criticism of Traditional Gender Roles

Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy | Source

According to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Thomas Hardy’s poems often “illustrate the perversity of fate,” “the disastrous or ironic coincidence,” or “some aspect of human sorrow or loss…” (Greenblatt). In “A Trampwoman’s Tragedy,” a narrative poem about people who make terrible decisions that yield terrible consequences, Hardy utilizes irony and fate to explore traditional gender roles and their effects on the human condition. The poem contains the sorrow, regret, and anger that are characteristic undertones in much of Hardy’s poetry. In “A Trampwoman’s Tragedy,” Hardy uses characters that embody negative gender stereotypes to emphasize the themes of destined justice and loss.

There are two female characters in the poem, the speaker and Mother Lee, and they both portray, through their actions and inactions, negative female stereotypes. For example, the speaker of the poem is presented as a manipulative tease. She also seems rather stupid and careless because she lacks the foresight to predict the negative consequences of her unnecessarily cruel joke. Hardy writes in section five, “I teased my fancy-man in play/And wanton idleness." It appears the speaker is presenting her actions as a harmless joke, yet she uses the adjective “wanton” to describe how she teased her lover. This adjective was originally used only to describe women, and a few of the most common definitions for “wanton” include “unchaste,” “ill-mannered,” and “undisciplined” (Oxford English Dictionary). Hardy’s use of “wanton” suggests that the speaker is incapable of controlling her actions, so she uses her time to create manipulative games that have serious consequences. For example, her game utilizes of a classic female method of manipulating men: pregnancy. Women who force men into further commitment through false pregnancy are the ultimate immoral manipulators. Also, the title of the poem, and the speaker’s actions throughout most of the story, give the impression that the female speaker may not be faithful to one man, so manipulation through pregnancy would be a convenient way for her to find a lasting mate without being stifled by concepts like faithfulness and fidelity.

Hardy creates, with the speaker of his poem, a female character that commits deeds that amount to a classic woman-causes-the-fall-of-man situation on an individual scale. The only time in the poem when the speaker demonstrates intelligence is when she is manipulating men and causing destruction. She effortlessly causes two men to fall into her trap, yet she is incapable of using that same intelligence to think about possible outcomes for her actions. If Hardy intended for readers to believe that the speaker has genuine feelings for her lover, the best possible interpretation of her character is that she is stupid and misguided. If Hardy intended for readers to believe that the speaker does not feel real love toward her lover, then she is cruel and morally bankrupt. No matter what Hardy’s intentions, however, both interpretations lend themselves to negative female stereotypes.

The only other female character in the poem, Mother Lee, represents gender negativity, as well. “Mother” was often a term used to address women who lacked education or money, and was also a title occasionally used to convey “mock respect” (Oxford English Dictionary). If this is the case in the poem, it is emphasized by the lack of insight that Mother Lee lends to the situation. She is a character that seems to serve little purpose in the story, except to be the silent companion of the speaker. Mother Lee, as she is represented, is an older and quieter version of the speaker. She says nothing when the speaker is playing her games, and she fails to react in a significant way to any occurrence in the poem, violent or otherwise. Furthermore, “Mother” implies that she should be a mentor or maternal figure. She fails at either role because she offers no input to help or guide any of the characters. Where the speaker is stupid and reckless, Mother Lee is complacent and uncaring. Mother Lee is useless as a character, except to emphasize her uselessness, so Hardy may have included her for the purpose of depicting another negative female image—that of an indifferent spectator, contributing nothing to a dangerous situation.

The male characters are also representative of negative gender stereotypes. John is motivated to participate in the speaker’s manipulation by either sex with the speaker or competition with her lover. Although the speaker initiates the interaction with John by placing his hand on her waist, he finishes it by pulling her into his lap. He is an active participant, and because the game becomes physical, he seems at least partially motivated by sex. Also, the speaker refers to John as “jeering John,” both when she introduces him and when she begins her game. The act of “jeering” means that John has a condescending, and perhaps mocking, attitude. When the speaker’s lover murders John, Hardy writes that “He let out jeering Johnny’s life." By referring to him as “jeering Johnny” on the occasion of his death, Hardy accomplishes two things: 1) He establishes that John’s “jeering” or attitude is part of the reason for his death, and 2) He conveys that dominance has been established between the two men. The only time John is referred to as “Johnny” is after he is stabbed. By using the diminutive of John’s name, Hardy establishes that the men fight for nothing more than dominance and sex, making the two men seem animalistic and unreasonable. The presentation of a violent male existence that is ruled by competition and sex plays on the common archetype of the aggressive man fighting for a woman.

The speaker’s “fancy-man” symbolizes negativity in a more subtle way; he evolves from a seemingly calm and courteous gentleman to an aggressive and impulsive animal in a few poetic lines, suggesting that his professed feelings are fabricated. When “fancy-man” first asks the speaker about the child she carries, he does so it in a very respectful fashion. He says, “My only Love to me: ‘One word,/ My lady, if you please!/ Whose is the child you are like to bear?" When she implies that the child is John’s, the speaker’s lover, in response, reacts in a very typically male, aggressive way toward competition and heartbreak. Instead of being overcome by sadness or openly conveying his feeling of betrayal, he fails to think through his actions, and a useless, unseeing anger clouds his more benign thoughts or emotions. His inability and unwillingness to think through his extreme actions provide evidence of his lack of genuine respect for his lover, implying that his feelings for her may have been forced as a result of pregnancy. Although, at first, it seems the speaker and her lover share genuine feelings of love and affection, neither party considers the other when they make decisions.

Because the characters fit the mold of extremely negative gender stereotypes, they act in ways that are immature and unreasonable. The stupidity of their actions is matched by the tragedy of their fates. The end of the story, then, serves as a kind of destined justice during which John and the speaker’s lover are punished with the loss of their lives, and the speaker is punished with the loss of her lover, her companions, and her baby. In an ironic twist of fate, we discover that the speaker is truly faithful to her lover and her lover genuinely concerned with her well-being, yet their stereotypical roles and the decisions they make within them sufficiently conceal their true benevolent feelings in a veil of seeming maliciousness, jealousy and stupidity. Because the characters are confined to these roles, their actions yield punishment far exceeding that of a typical prank, which is how the chain reaction ending in death and destruction begins.

The speaker and her accomplice, although their crimes were nothing more than a fabrication meant to tease, suffer the greatest punishment. Though all the characters experience loss as a result of their actions, it is the two characters involved in the initial joke who suffer the most. Mother Lee dies quietly in a way that seems the least like punishment, which is fitting because she played a role in the action only through her silence. Furthermore, the ghost of the speaker’s lover “smiled, and thinned away” when the speaker tells the truth. Despite the fact that his actions cause his own death, Hardy allows the readers to believe that “fancy-man” finds happiness after death because the truth pleases him at last. In contrast, John dies a painful, bloody death as a result of his apparent betrayal, and the speaker loses everyone and is forever cursed to wander alone. Hardy concludes the poem with the lines, “’Tis past! And here alone I stray/Haunting the Western Moor." Because the speaker’s actions set into motion every terrible occurrence in the poem, directly or indirectly, her loss is the greatest. Her character is reduced to little more than a ghostly apparition, caught between life and death, wandering alone forever. The punishment and loss that are evident at the end of the poem affect the people involved most deeply in the conflict. Hardy allows the punishment to fit the crime creating a sense justice and fairness are key threads in the fabric of fate.

Thomas Hardy’s “A Trampwoman’s Tragedy” fits the characteristic mold of his poetry. He presents his usual themes in a very interesting way, however, by drawing attention to negative gender stereotypes and their consequences. Although it seems as if Hardy is presenting an anti-feminist viewpoint, he follows it with an equally disdainful criticism of his own gender. Hardy, therefore, is making a rather ambiguous statement about strict gender roles and is, instead, focusing his attention on the consequences of the behavior that the negative gender roles warrant. He maintains his characteristic ironic view of loss and its distinct role in the course of life. In this poem, however, the amount of loss one experiences is directly related to one’s misdeeds, creating an impression of inescapable justice.

**Based on Hardy's "A Trampwoman's Tragedy," found in the 8th Edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

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