In this essay I am going to discuss the notion of
the fallen woman which appears in both Hawthorne’s and Faulkner’s works. I
chose these two particular novels because their interpretation of this notion
somewhat diverge from the traditional 19th Victorian understanding
of the fallen woman. A fallen woman is a
woman who has lost her good reputation by having sex with someone before she is
married (Cambridge dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fallen-woman).
“The fallen woman was a pervasive figure in the literature and visual arts of
the Victorian period…” (https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/The-Fallen-Woman-exhibition-guide.pdf, pg: 3). The term originated from the Bible. Eve
tempted Adam in the Garden of Eden which resulted in their fall and exile from
the Garden. In this event Eve is portrayed as the temptress and the fact that
she had fallen is connected to the loss of sexual purity. Victorian women were
inseparably chained to their sexual status. They could either be maidens,
meaning wives and mothers, or spinsters and whores (http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/fallen2.html).
Different situations could lead to a woman being labelled as “fallen”. It does
not matter whether she was seduced, willingly committed adultery, raped because
in the end she is one left with the stigma and she will be to blame. Sexual relations
out of wedlock were strictly forbidden for women but tolerated for men. A “fallen man” concept does not exist (https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/The-Fallen-Woman-exhibition-guide.pdf, pg: 9).
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter was
published in 1850. The plot is set in 1642, in the Puritan settlements of Massachusetts
Bay Colony. The Puritan society is extremely religious and pious. For the
Puritans the Holy Bible is the law, the guidance for life, social behaviour and
punishment. At the beginning of the novel Hester is seen leaving the prison
wearing an embroidered scarlet letter “A” on her chest for adultery, in her
arms she is holding a baby, a child born out of marriage to a man whose
identity Hester refuses to reveal. People have gathered to see Hester and most
of them are not satisfied with the punitive measure she was given. It is
primarily the women that are not satisfied. They expected hanging or at least
having them brand her the letter “A” on the forehead which they perceived as
the mildest form of punishment.
was only after Hester experienced and endured the aftereffect of wearing the
scarlet letter that she started gaining sympathies from the society. She admits
that the very letter is the main reason her wanting to become a better version
of herself. People started to see her as a person you can trust, with genuine
intentions. She regained the people’s trust by being honest about who she is.
This is shown when she speaks to the magistrates after she hears they labelled
her unfit of being a mother to Pearl in chapter eight ”The Elf Child and the
Minister”. By Puritan law, a child born out of wedlock is not a child of God
and therefore is not under a divine order.
Hester fends for herself by stating that wearing the scarlet letter made her a
better person. Through the letter she learned a lot about the true nature of
humankind and the evil that is deeply rooted in humanity. She says that that
badge has taught her lessons that although can do no good to her but will make
her child wiser and better one day.
condemns Hester for her actions but she refuses to be marginalized by them. She
becomes a helping member of the community and “repents” by sewing and tending
those who are in need. These actions result in her being perceived not as
“Hester the Adulteress” but as “Hester the Able” or “Hester the Angel”. Even
though her outer appearance has changed, her beauty faded, the most important
change is the one in her mind, that she became strong and independent. She felt
the law of society could do no harm to her anymore and she found freedom in
In William Faulkner’s novel we get
to see the downfall of a once prosperous family from the American South, the
Compsons. Candice “Caddy” Compson, the daughter of the family lost her
virginity with Dalton Ames, who is also most likely the father of her daughter
Miss Quentin, before marriage and with this act damaged the family name. The
loss of her virtue is the central reason of the ruination of the family’s
honour, because her virginity represents the family’s honour in a way. Her
actions result in her being abandoned from her family. Most members of the
family have harsh and upset reactions towards Caddy. Her brother Quentin
possesses obsessive feeling towards her chastity that he tries to lie about him
and Caddy committing incest. His obsession leads him into suicide eventually.
negative changes that are introduced into the family home are felt by her other
brother Benjy as well. He is mentally challenged and cares deeply for Caddy. He
understands something is wrong even though he does not understand the concept
of virginity and what Caddy’s losing of it meant. The third brother Jason is
mad at Caddy because he lost a job opportunity because of her. His sister’s
promiscuity does not bother him. He never really cared about anyone in the
family but himself.
mother, Caroline Compson, is a hypochondriac who cares only for the family’s
honour and name. Her reaction towards Caddy’s act is perhaps the most radical
one. She perceives Caddy’s sexual maturing as if she had died. After Miss
Quentin was born, the mother forbids anyone to mention Caddy’s name in front of
Miss Quentin. The family had to practically abandoned Caddy because of
Caroline’s opinion and behaviour.
her father, Jason Compson, reacted differently. He thinks of the concept of
virginity to be invented by men to control women. It is a social construct and
therefore is unimportant to one’s life and of little to no value. He also
mentions how men lie about being a virgin because they feel ashamed and women
are scrutinized if they lose their chastity out of wedlock and how these double
standards lead to estrangement between men and women. Unfortunately, Jason’s
progressive thoughts about this issue made no difference to Caddy’s treatment
in the family.
admits to never having loved the men she had sex with. She was just looking for
an escape from the reality she was born into. After her failed marriage to
Herbert Head, which lasted one year, she went to California where she married
another man for five years. During WWII she disappeared in Paris and was last
seen in a magazine in a sports car with a German general.
The traditional fate of the
Victorian fallen woman is almost without exception tragic. She would either
commit suicide, died in an accident, was killed or was executed by the
authorities by hanging. These two female characters differ from the norm
because they did not let society or their own family dictate their lives and
opportunities. Instead they took charge of their lives and overcame their
troubles each in their own way. Candice Compson in 20th century
American South and Hester Prynne in 17th century Puritan
Massachusetts had both showed that with enough willpower and the right mind-set
an individual can survive castigation and alienation from society and find his
own spot under the sun.