Date Thesis Awarded


Access Type

Honors Thesis -- Open Access

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)




Deborah Morse

Committee Members

Suzanne Raitt

Simon Joyce

Kathrin Levitan


A famous poem by Coventry Patmore articulated Victorian expectations for women: to be “the angel in the house.” The woman was the arbiter of morality, spiritual guide and helpmeet, and was worshiped almost as a goddess of purity— and goddesses need no legal protections. Chastity and submission were not only expected, but demanded of Victorian women. After all, these qualities were scientifically inherent in women (to the Victorian mind); the biological imperative of reproduction and maternity rendered women’s bodies a sacred space and prevented their minds from developing as a man’s could.The twin forces of Victorian patriarchal science and religion both elevated and subjugated women, confining them in an altar-cage.

The higher the pedestal, the harder the fall. The definition of a “fallen woman” is broad— it was applied to behaviors ranging from alcoholism to prostitution, and even to women who were sexually assaulted, groomed, or otherwise manipulated into extramarital sex. The fallen woman embodied the obverse of Victorian ideals of womanhood— in her engagement with sex outside of Christian marriage, she defied the assumption that female sexuality consisted merely of the desire to fulfill the needs of her husband. Consequently, she was the object of intense cultural fascination and the subject of an outpouring of art and literature.

In this thesis, I examine four novels of fallenness: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and George Moore’s Esther Waters. I selected these novels due to the symmetry they offer— two published in the 1850s and two in the 1890s, two written by women and two by men. Their historical and authorial contexts determine the characterization of each novel’s fallen woman, the presentation of her feelings, and readerly responses.

The questions I approach in this study are ones of feelings, art, and social constructions. How does cultural context shape our emotional responses to art? What is radical in these feelings, and what is conventional? How do feelings in the work itself influence our own? Where do these works situate cause, effect, and blame? Each of these four novels approach the fallen woman question with unique intentions and ideologies— but all challenge the cultural imperative to cast out the fallen woman and close her (and thus ourselves) off from human feeling.