The Portrayal of Women in the Victorian Age. Gender in Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

24 Pages, Grade: 3.0


Table of Contents

Philipps-Universität Marburg

1. Abstract

2. Gender in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge
2.1. The Mayor of Casterbridge within the Historical Context of the Victorian Age
2.2. The Victorian Ideal of Women in Society and Fiction
2.3. Hardy’s Portrayal of Women in The Mayor of Casterbridge

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Abstract

Criticism of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge[1] includes secondary literature on a broad variety of topics, such as character and fate, past and present, Social Darwinism, as well as feminist approaches to Hardy’s work, in which “[…] class, gender, and their interrelationship […]” are central.[2] Moreover, critics assign Hardy’s fiction both to the Victorian and the modern period because Hardy can be considered a “[…] ‘transitional’ novelist, serving as a link between George Eliot and D. H. Lawrence.”[3] Though, critics demoted Hardy’s art because of his tendency to sensationalism, melodrama, and pessimism (cf. Widdowson 11). This term paper focuses on the topic of gender and the investigation of Hardy’s portrayal of women as it emerges from the novel.

In order to prove my thesis, I will reflect to what extent Hardy follows major trends of Victorian fiction in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Next, I will depict the Victorian ideal of women with regard to fiction and society. Finally, I will prove my claim that Hardy’s ambivalent view of women, which embraces both conventional and modern ideals, is valid for The Mayor of Casterbridge, because it portrays women both as inferior and superior. Accordingly, I will show that Hardy’s heroines deviate from the prevalent Victorian ideal of women. Therefore, I will analyse crucial aspects like Hardy’s authorial point of view as well as Henchard’s relationship to Susan, Lucetta, and Elizabeth-Jane, in the novel.

My thesis matters because “[…] the appeal of Hardy as a novelist […] has long been vital, increasingly so in recent years […]”.[4] Besides, “[t]he tension […] of Hardy’s representation of women […] makes his work one of the richest and most complex sources of feminist commentary in the realist novel”.[5] Recent criticism of Hardy focused on Marxist and feminist theories by reassessing Hardy’s novels as revolutionary (cf. Widdowson 97). This issue remains important because women have been oppressed for centuries, while Hardy’s fiction contributed to the women’s struggle for emancipation.

As for Hardy’s life and career, he was born in Dorset, in 1840, grew up in rural Wessex, and worked as an architect in London, but settled down at Max Gate, in 1885, where he spent the rest of his life until 1928. He was wedded to Emma Gifford until her death, in 1912, and married Florence Dugdale after that.[6] Hardy wrote fourteen novels that centre on femininity, of which The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure count to his ultimate testimonies (cf. Widdowson 8). He subdivided his novels into categories, such as “Novels of Character and Environment”, namely the Wessex novels like The Mayor of Casterbridge.[7] In 1896, Hardy abandoned prose fiction to compose “poetry and other forms of pure literature”, whereupon it was assumed that his novels merely served financial purposes.[8] He considered himself primarily a poet because “verse remained throughout his favorite means of literary expression”.[9]

2. Gender in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge

First, I will place The Mayor of Casterbridge within the historical context of the Victorian period and illustrate the Victorian ideal of women. Then, I will discuss Hardy’s view of women in The Mayor of Casterbridge.

2.1.The Mayor of Casterbridge within the Historical Context of the Victorian Age

Victorianism is the “era of Queen Victoria’s reign” from 1837 to 1901, which was a period of intensive activity in literature that highlighted contemporary concerns like the industrial revolution and moral values.[10] Accordingly, Newsome marks the early Victorian period by socio-political crises and assigns the mid-Victorian period to the “Age of Equipoise” (cf. 8), which Gilmour explains as a widely accepted moral code based on appropriate sexual behaviourism, obligation, and domesticity, in which the belief in the family represents the major life force. Finally, late Victorianism is characterized by the manifestation of the “Great Depression” (cf. 4, 8, 262).

In the first place, the Victorian age is defined by constant change and the Victorians’ awareness of it, which they perceived as “[…] the inescapable condition of life in the modern world”.[11] There was the general “[…] sense of a society in transition to less hopeful destinations […]”.[12] New views of the world occurred, such as Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) which found application to Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (cf. Gilmour 3; Newsome 8, 260). Because of technological and industrial progresses, materialism, urbanization, and the population increased (cf. Gilmour 2-3; Newsome 3, 263). Railway networks stimulated regional changes, whereas Hardy is considered England’s most eminent regional novelist (cf. Cuddon 568; Gilmour 3, 5).

The Victorian period is also called “the golden age of the English novel” because “the supreme literary achievement of the Victorian age is in its prose fiction”.[13] Many Victorian novels can be read as a reaction to the commotion of the time, such as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and The Mayor of Casterbridge (cf. Gilmour 1-2, 4). Hence, many Victorian novelists preferred hybrid forms which “[…] can be seen as […] the Victorian compromise”, because of the reflection of the “[…] hesitant state the Victorians talked about as ‘doubt’”,[14] which underlies the Victorian sense of alienation.

Then, the Victorian belief that “[…] art should take its material from ordinary life and deal with it in an appropriate manner” is fundamental to the “[…] debate between ‘realism’ and ‘idealism’” in Victorian fiction.[15] Accordingly, Elizabeth-Jane’s life ideals like charity oppose Henchard’s materialistic view of life.[16] Actually, “[… the Victorians] believed that fiction was an art of the real, that novels could tell the truth about reality [… to] change their readers” (sic).[17] However, realist stimuli resulted in the writers’ stress of anti-heroic character traits and were subject to determinism and probability of failure, as in Thackeray and Hardy, and contradicted the Victorian preference of the happy end (cf. Gilmour 9-12). Hardy, like many contemporaries, acknowledged the real in his fiction but was not fixed by it because alternating styles were predominant (cf. 10).

During the mid-Victorian period many domestic fictions illustrated everyday middle-class life such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, for which the Victorian era is also called “[…] the great age of domestic realism” (cf. 5). Eagleton explains the novel’s emphasis of the middle-class as their vision of independence from restriction.[18] The principal concern of the novel with the middle-class is further indicated by the readership that was mainly middle-class because “[…] most Victorian novelists were conscious of writing for a middle-class and predominantly family audience […]”.[19] Nevertheless, illiteracy was decreasing throughout the nineteenth century and literature became increasingly accessible to the lower classes because of the 1870 Education Act.[20] In this way, “didacticism […] was the norm” that explains the stress of educational purposes in Victorian literature like Elizabeth-Jane’s approaches to autodidacticism (cf. Hardy 152; ch. 20; Newsome 9). In fact, publishing conditions contained strict censorship to maintain the family readership and the novel’s focus on moral and educative intentions (cf. Gilmour 8-9). On the contrary, the novel of sensation marks “the […] antitype of the domestic novel, dealing melodramatically with a hidden world of middle-class nightmare”.[21] Features like “[…] improbable, melodramatic, and lurid” as well as “the guilty secret [… as] a favourite theme” suit The Mayor of Casterbridge (cf. Cuddon 602), for the story is as melodramatic as the secrets of the characters are incriminating.

Moreover, the tendency to modern literary forms and the issue of women that are entrapped in dissatisfying marriages mainly constitute the nucleus of late Victorian fiction, such as Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (cf. Gilmour 5, 6). The Mayor of Casterbridge can be read as a tragic novel both with regard to Henchard’s downfall and Hardy’s depressing vision of marriage, and thus suits the trend of Victorian novels to become more tragic (cf. 12), and matches Eagleton’s claim that “[…] the novel shifts from being a primarily comic to a predominantly tragic form” (19). However, many late Victorian writers attempted to break away from the moods of anxiety “[…] which Hardy in Tess […] called ‘the ache of modernism’”, that is rooted “[…] both in Christianity and Victorian social institutions”.[22] Thus, late Victorian novels are “[…] caught between two worlds, feeling the unavailability of comic resolution as an ‘ache’, […] unable to break through into new fictional forms” (Gilmour 180). This alludes to “the air of defeat” which is prevalent in many late Victorian novels (cf. 180), like in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Because of the tension between traditional norms and modern views of the world, the connection of inverses like present and past (cf. 11-12), which is particularly eminent in The Mayor of Casterbridge, was central to Victorian writers.

Then, Emile Zola’s pessimism, as a consequence of the Victorians’ mood of stagnation and weariness, and his advance of Naturalism mark a new phase in literature (cf. 10, 180-81). The Mayor of Casterbridge can be read as a novel of soil because of its naturalistic and deterministic influences like heredity and environment.[23] Many Victorian novels are marked by “[…] the spaciousness of narrative description […]”[24] like Hardy’s naturalistic descriptions of the countryside in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Furthermore, the novel of courtship changed into the family saga, “[…] in which the paternal figure is either sidelined or […] absent”.[25] The Mayor of Casterbridge investigates Elizabeth-Jane’s origin because both her stepfather and father are alternately absent for a long period.

In conclusion, The Mayor of Casterbridge belongs to the late Victorian era and matches dominant trends of Victorian fiction. Nonetheless, it violates traditional norms and notions of realism because of the conflict between conventional and modern values, whereupon Hardy’s fiction can be placed both in the Victorian and the modern period.

2.2. The Victorian Ideal of Women in Society and Fiction

While Victorian women held an inferior position because they were regarded as the weaker sex, Hardy affirmed equality between the sexes.[26] Because they lived in a male-dominated, patriarchal society that was defined by men, they suffered from sexual inequality, repression, and exploitation.[27] Likewise, the Victorian age can be characterized by moral strictness, particularly in terms of female sexuality. Hence, many admonitions were written on virtues like industry and temperance (cf. Newsome 10). While Victorian morality coined passion and sexuality as a taboo, and the social reputation was measured by marriage, Hardy supported the women’s struggle to obtain sexual recognition.[28] In fact, ideal Victorian women had to be pure because their reputation depended on their sexual status that was indicated by virginity and chastity, whereas the term “prudery” most likely describes the desired state.[29] Actually, Victorian women grew up in ignorance of sexuality because of the belief that sensuality would cause moral degeneration (cf. Morgan, introduction). Thus, they were meant to be selfless, maternal, submissive, obedient, moral, and domestic (cf. Ingham 130). Conversely, Hardy increasingly disagreed with the traditional image of Victorian women as the “angel-in-the-house” and realized the necessity of liberalising women from the doll image.[30]

Moreover, Victorian sexuality can be characterized by restraint because sexual moderation became the dominant ideal and restricted sexual activity to marriage for reproductive interests rather than passion, whereby women were subject to sexual control. Accordingly, Crow ascribes the following characteristics to the Victorian woman: “[…] a doll-like, bread-and-butter miss swooning on a sofa, or a sickly mother dying under the strain of a dozen births […]” (13). Consequently, the symbol of women as guardians of sexual constraint dominated Victorian culture.[31] Therefore, the claim that female sexuality presents a threat to Victorian culture, which refuses to grant women the opportunities granted to men, became an increasingly important theme for Hardy (cf. Morgan, introduction). However, sexual repression was decreasing toward the beginning of the twentieth century because of the achievement of greater sexual permissiveness and more freedom for women. Reasons for this were the manifestation of the new morality and the break with Victorian conventions, which promoted sexual recognition of women and the liberation from a repressive past.[32] Although Victorian women were not allowed to vote and their access to education was restricted, the enfranchisement of women as well as the development of women from non-persons to half-persons, by the 1880s, and the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870 contributed to the emancipation of women.[33]

Similarly, Victorian fiction stresses the inferiority of women and reflects feminine stereotypes that are prevalent in Victorian society and, therefore, matches their traditional ideal (cf. Ingham 129; Jekel 219). Hence, Victorian fiction defines women by male desire like Bathsheba, in Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and depicts “[…] the unfeminine fallen woman who has sinned sexually, […] as full of guilt, self-hatred, and remorse” like Hardy’s Fanny Robin, in Far from the Madding Crowd, whereupon the fallen woman had a terrifying effect on contemporaries in order to deter readers (cf. Ingham 134, 136, 151). Conversely, the “New Woman”, that appears in Hardy’s fiction, is described as middle class and makes use both of her improved status and the new opportunities for education and thus accepts social change. Because this sort of woman expressed new attitudes toward marriage and sexuality in fiction, she was in favour of rejecting marriage and pursuing non-sexual love as well as non-marital sexuality in order to obtain entire independence and, therefore, indicated emancipation (cf. Ingham 139, 150). Similarly, the “New Man” of the twentieth century shares traditionally female values like domestic ambition (cf. 139).


[1] Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994)

[2] Peter Widdowson, Thomas Hardy, Writers and their Work, eds. Isobel Armstrong and Bryan Loughrey, (Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers, 1996) 17.

[3] Mamou Othman, Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, A Comparison between Hardy’s and Lawrence’s Approaches to the Man – Woman Relationship: Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure in Contrast to The Rainbow and Women in Love, Inaugural-Dissertation (Berlin, Philosoph. Diss., 1992) 1-2. cf. Dale Kramer, ed., et al., Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Thomas Hardy (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan P, 1979) 1.

[4] Dale Kramer, ed., et al., Approaches 3.

[5] Judith Mitchell, The Stone and the Scorpion, The Female Subject of Desire in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy (Westport, Connecticut; London: Greenwood P, 1994) 162.

[6] cf. Thomas Hardy, Biography. Widdowson 5.

[7] cf. Robin Gilmour, The Novel in the Victorian Age, A Modern Introduction (London, Victoria, Baltimore: Edward Arnold, 1986) 186. Dale Kramer et al., Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy, The Novels, eds. Dale Kramer and Nancy Marck, (Boston, Massachusetts: G. K. Hall & Co, 1990) 1-2. Widdowson 11.

[8] cf. Ernest Brennecke, The Life of Thomas Hardy (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1973) 158. Widdowson 1, 9.

[9] Brennecke 158. cf. Widdowson 2.

[10] “Victorian period.” J. A. Cuddon, Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (London: Penguin Books, 1999) 970. cf. David Newsome, The Victorian World Picture, Perceptions and Introspections in an Age of Change (London: John Murray, 1997) 261-62.

[11] cf. Gilmour 2, 4.

[12] Gilmour 4.

[13] Gilmour, Cover; 1.

[14] Gilmour 11.

[15] Gilmour 9, 180.

[16] cf. Hardy 91-91; ch. 12.

[17] Gilmour 10.

[18] cf. Terry Eagleton, The English Novel. An Introduction (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005) 2, 8.

[19] Gilmour 6.

[20] cf. Beat Riesen, Thomas Hardy’s Minor Novels (Bern, Frankfurt [Main], New York, Paris: Peter Lang, 1990) 39.

[21] Gilmour 5.

[22] Gilmour 180. Othman 74.

[23] cf. “Novel of the soil.” Cuddon 602.

[24] Gilmour 9.

[25] cf. Patrick Parrinder, Nation and Novel, The English Novel from its Origins to the Present Day, (Oxford: Oxford U P, 2006) 32-33.

[26] cf. Patricia Ingham, Authors in Context, Thomas Hardy, (New York: Oxford U P, 2003) 129. Pamela L. Jekel, Thomas Hardy’s Heroines, A Chorus of Priorities (Troy, New York: The Whitston Company, 1986) 222-23.

[27] cf. Rosemarie Morgan, Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy (London, New York: Routledge, 1988) introduction; 158.

[28] cf. Ingham 143; Othman 12, 73.

[29] cf. Duncan Crow, The Victorian Woman, (London: Cox & Wyman, 1971) 13. Ingham 129.

[30] A. E. Dyson et al. Thomas Hardy, The Tragic Novels, A Selection of Critical Essays, eds. A. E. Dyson and R. P. Draper, Revised Edition, (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, London: Mac Millan, 1991) 22. cf. Morgan 157.

[31] cf. “modern sexuality + Victorianism.” Christina Simmons, Modern Sexuality and the Myth of Victorian Repression, Excerpts: pages 17-20. 13. 03. 2007., 1-2.

[32] cf. Simmons 1-2.

[33] cf. Ingham 129, 138. Newson 281.

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The Portrayal of Women in the Victorian Age. Gender in Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge"
University of Marburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
10 090 00016 HS: “The English Novel: From the Beginnings to the 21st Century”
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Hardy, Mayor, Victorianism, Gender
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M. A. Oliver Baum (Author), 2007, The Portrayal of Women in the Victorian Age. Gender in Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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