Fallen Woman or Fallen Man? Representations of moral responsibility, punishment and reward in George Frederic Watts’s painting Found Drowned (1848-50) and Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) by Susan Knights
This article will examine gendered representations of moral responsibility by comparing its treatment of fallen women in the above artefacts. George Frederic Watts evinces sympathy and condemnation for the plight of a drowned woman, alone bearing the punishment for her fall from prevalent societal expectations of female behaviour. Charles Dickens appears to go further in challenging the distribution of moral responsibility, inverting the stereotypic trope of the fallen woman by instead punishing a fallen man for his moral failure. Both artefacts, however, remain trapped in the dominant cultural model of the time, with its privileging of the patriarchal home as the best protector of female propriety. They thus re-enforce stereotypic inscriptions of gender. Read together as social documents, they reflect a society in transition, in which attitudes towards morality, class and gender, far from being universal and absolute, were fraught with paradox, uncertainty and ambivalence.