Discussion Questions for Hardy's "A Trampwoman's Tragedy"

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University (Canada)]

[Text of the poem]

1. What is the nature of the relationship between the narrator, the fancy-man, and Jeering John?

2. Why do you think the author chose to narrate the story from the perspective of the trampwoman rather than from that of another character or an objective commentator?

3. According to M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1988), the term "tragedy":

is broadly applied to literary, and especially to dramatic, representations of serious and important actions which turn out disastrously for the protagonist, or chief character. [p. 189]

To what extent does Hardy's poem both conform to and violate this definition?

4. The catastrophe in the poem is brought about by the actions and the very character of the protagonist, as is consistent with Aristotle's conception of hamartia ("an error in judgment" or a "tragic flaw" in character): what precisely is the nature of the Trampwoman's Hamartia?

5. The crucial action that precipitates the murder of Jeering Johwnny is the Trampwoman's physical and verbal "teasing" of her fancy-man: what motivates these actions and utterances?

6. Although the fancy-man is the murderer, the Trampwoman takes upon herself the guilt for the crime: why?

7. Why, at the very opening, do the narrator and her fancy-man love "lone inns"? What is the relationship of the foursome to the larger society of Thomas Hardy's "Wessex"?

8. With the exception of the narrator/protagonist, Hardy does not develop the characters in the poem. How much does he permit us to know about Jeering Johnny, Mother Lee, and the fancy-man? Why does he deliberately avoid developing these characters?

9. After the murder, Hardy passes quickly to the scene outside the walls of the jail: why does he not dramatise the investigation of the crime, the arrest, and the trial?

10. What effect do the place-names and descriptions of the Wessex landscape have on the atmosphere and tone of the poem?

11. Thomas Hardy's wife and assistant-biographer in Thomas Hardy, The Later Years, 1892-1928 (Macmillan, 1930) specifically refers to this poem as "a ballad."

a. M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1988) mentions the two types, the orally transmitted song ("folk ballad") that economically tells a strong in a "dramatic, condensed, and impersonal" (p. 12) manner using a series of four-line stanzas "in alternate four- and three-stress iambic lines; usually only the second and fourth lines rhyme" (p. 12). To what extent does "The Trampwoman's Tragedy" meet these criteria?

b. Abrams also mentions the "broadside ballad," an innovation of the sixteenth century which was printed on a single sheet of paper for sale on street corners and at country fairs throughout the British Isles. Such poems consciously imitated the form of the folk ballad, but took as their subjects a contemporary issue or event, and were sung to well-known tunes. To what extent is "The Trampwoman's Tragedy" a broadside ballad?

12. The poem "The Trampwoman's Tragedy" may also be classified as a "cautionary tale." What is its moral, and how is it communicated?

13. One might also regard "The Trampwoman's Tragedy" from a class and gender perspective. To what extent does the poem privilege the female and working-class experience of life over the masculine and middle-class perspective that has tended to dominate literature since the end of the eighteenth century?

14. Why has Hardy chosen this particular verse form to tell the story? In particular, why does the poem have thirteen parts?

15. The second line of each stanza constitutes a refrain: what effect is thereby created?

16. What contradictory attitudes does the narrator express?

18. Generally speaking, a tragic hero is usually a member of the aristocracy; how has Hardy been able to transform a social outcast, a vagrant, a prostitute, and an alcoholic into a tragic figure?

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Last modified 11 May 2003