RUTH CRITICAL READINGS. Critical notes by Angus Easson.
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In placing such a woman not at the margins (where many such women appear in Victorian Literature) but rather at the centre of her story, Gaskell issued a challenge and then further compounded it by her treatment of Ruth’s fall and of Ruth’s redemption. Such issues provoked attention and Gaskell feared might provoke hostility.
Ruth is not about immorality, sexuality or harsh physical suffering in a wretched environment.
George Eliot found Gaskell ‘constantly misled by a love of sharp contrasts’ but praised Ruth’s style which he said was a ‘great refreshment’.
‘Ruth challenged certain received ideas’ – such sexual and moral beliefs were generally un-discussed, they could provoke reactions for being unspoken about.
Ruth confronts head on the claims that a woman once seduced could only be retrieved by marriage with her seducer or, if abandoned, could not return to respectable society. – these ideas were held within the middle class society.
Reviewers and readers also rejected that double sexual standards represented in Ruth, which exonerated the man and condemned the woman.
Critics at the time were not divided on whether a fallen woman could be retrieved. Rather they weigh whether Ruth, being guilty, should have Christian forgiveness, or whether , being innocent morally and therefore sexually – not forgiveness but understanding that was requred.
Although presenting a largely sympathetic view of the ‘fallen woman’, the eventual disastrous and puzzling demise of the protagonist casts a bleak picture of the likelihood of redemption for such women in nineteenth century British society. As several feminist critics have pointed out, the narrative is frequently disrupted by the unspoken presence female sexuality suggesting Gaskell’s uncertainty about the nature of her heroine’s fall; was Ruth’s sexual encounter borne out of naïve ignorance, exploitation, sin, or - dare we say it - curiosity and pleasure.
However, Gaskell’s novel is neither a condemnation, nor a wholly progressive account, occupying instead a difficult, and at times contradictory, middle ground
I argue that Gaskell presents an idealized vision of regret through work as her protagonist finds productive and moral employment to occupy a gaze indirectly mobilised by her sexual encounter. Indeed, Ruth finds a kind of salvation in her abilities as mother, governess and nurse, roles requiring both her knowledge of tears and her mastery of them.
However, Gaskell’s decision to kill off her protagonist at the end of the novel complicates this paean to the nurturing professions, a decision that infuriated many readers, including Charlotte Bronte who, on finishing the novel, complained: ‘Why should she die? Why are we to shut up the book weeping?’ (qtd. in Easson 125). Ruth’s death paves the way for Gaskell’s concluding statement about the power of empathy to change minds, and tears are at the very heart of this message.
Contemporary reviewers were critical of Ruth’s faultlessness and unwavering self-flagellation. The Gentleman’s Magazine thought she should have been portrayed as “more alive and less simple”. Gaskell’s catchphrase of “Remember how young and innocent, and motherless she was” is unconvincing beyond the early chapters, and her argument that Ruth was both faultless and necessarily remorseful is contradictory. In the author’s defence one could argue that if society is minded to reject an unfortunate victim like Ruth, then how would it behave towards a less angelic figure? Although the critical reception was more understanding of Ruth’s predicament than Gaskell had perhaps predicted, the novel did cause trouble in her own household, and two men of her acquaintance burned their copies in disgust.
Ruthis clearly a novel with an agenda. Gaskell bravely tackled single motherhood and illegitimacy in 1853, when Victorian sensibilities were at full swing. It took guts, the kind of guts that it’s hard for a modern reader to really appreciate.
Gaskell made it a "prohibited book" in her own house and some of her friends burnt their copies and expressed "deep regret" for her decision to publish it. There are, of course, no explicit scenes of any kind in Ruth, and we only realize the scale of the sin by the reaction of other people. Ruth herself only grasps how wrong she really was years later - she’s innocent, you see?I was very young; I did not know how such a life was against God's pure and holy will - at least not as I know it now.
Because Gaskell had a social goal, she needed to control her plot so that Victorians would never think of Ruth as a “fallen woman”. Ruth, seen from every possible angle, had to be squeaky-clean, or readers might turn against her, and undermine the purpose of the novel. Gaskell made sure that we could never wonder “could she have done it differently?”, so Ruth’s story is piled with as many extenuating circumstances as possible.
The depth of Ruth’s identity is secondary to Gaskell’s agenda, but considering Victorians' stigma against single mothers and children born out of wedlock, you realize that Ruth needed that type of heroine to have the desired effect. Only with the perfect woman would Gaskell be able to pass on the Dissenter message of reform (Mr. Benson is a Dissenter minister) she so strongly believed in.>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
Would Victorian readers been able to feel for Ruth if she had been less beautiful, poor, alone, young, innocent, honest, motherly, hard-working or kind? Could they have forgiven Ruth's decision to trust Bellingham, if her own mistress hadn't "caught" her with him and told her never to come back? What if Ruth had shown an inkling of sexual desire, flirtatiousness or simple silliness? Wouldn't they have frowned at her new home, if Mr. Benson hadn't been quite that old and a hunchback, living with his sister and a strict maid, hence removing every possibility of romance between them?
By tightly controlling her story, Gaskell got her readers to question: was Ruth guilty and thereof redeemable or was she innocent and therefore not to be blamed?What surprised me about Ruth were the secondary characters, who felt much more fleshed out than the heroine. The maid Sally (who might easily find a second job in a Dickens novel) takes the role of comic relief, but is also the voice of the stricter Church of England followers. Ruth’s friend Jemima also felt real and much more approachable, with her rebellion, tantrums and pride.The male characters were also interesting, especially Bellingham, who stays true to himself to the very end. He doesn’t come out as evil, but as a thoughtless brat, spoiled by his mother, whom Gaskell mostly blames. Actually, throughout the book I couldn’t help but think she’s much harder on women than men.
At first I felt a bit cheated by Ruth being killed off. It seemed Gaskell just didn’t have the guts to let Ruth break the tradition of fallen literary women who must, in the end, pay for it. But upon reflection: what else could Gaskell have done? Ruth’s secret was out and the entire village knew about her past. Even though they proclaimed her as a saint after she risked her life for them during the cholera epidemic, would they be as forgiving once her good deeds were forgotten?
The book focuses on Ruth's dark path to redemption, but at no point is Bellingham made accountable, questioned or suffers any type of consequence. That frustrated me as well, even more than Ruth's death. But I must also acknowledge that, while Ruth's story-line falls within the Victorian norm, a Rake who doesn't repent it actually fresh. As Elizabeth Lee says in her "Victorian Theories of Sex and Sexuality",Women had to be held accountable, while the men, slaves to their catabolic purposes and sexual appetites, could not really be blamed. (...) Once led astray, she was the fallen woman, and nothing could reconcile that till she died.
This is a social commentary on the issue of" fallen woman" in the 19th century England, also a gentle religious novel on God's love, justice, sin and redemption. The subject matter seems like nothing in modern age. But in fact, sexual indiscretion, unwed mothers, these are still social problems nowadays. And the painful and unjust fact that MEN ENJOY, WOMEN PAY has changed very little.
The story of Ruth's life is a kind of extended story; she is a humble and religious victim to her own lost innocence and socially dictated moral strictures, and her religion both condemns and saves her. Gaskell writes the character of Ruth deliberately as symbol for the reader and supporting characters to provoke an examination of both their own and society's misogynistic prejudices, which spring from cultural convention and religious teaching. Gaskell brings the Madonna/Whore to a head by creating a character that represents both, and crafting a plot which invites the reader to notice the casual cruelty of their own assumptions, the hypocrisy in religious practice, and the ways that an accumulation of small injustices can have drastic results.
By building Ruth's character into an symbolic victim, Gaskell presents her argument against this common injustice entirely on principle. Ruth condemns herself more than a reader would and lives as a continuous repentant, despite the fact that she is largely blameless. Gaskell forces the reader to face the reality of how Ruth is victimised and, by extension, how this was true for thousands of women at the time.
Gaskell's argument is, interestingly, presented in largely religious terms - there are several biblical quotes in the text. One character spends much of the book arguing, with scriptural support, for Ruth's innocence and right to a peaceful life without social ostracism. By making Ruth inarguably Good, and suffusing the text with religious meditations, Gaskell makes the injustice of Ruth's situation obvious and irrefutable, while still technically within the confines of the conventional 'fallen woman' narrative of suffering and death.
Gaskell also brings to attention the double standard for men and women regarding their sexual experiences. Additionally, she surrounds Ruth with lively, strong and opinionated women, some happily and deliberately single. These other female characters give Gaskell a means both to show a more active and forthright character than Ruth can be, and to explore how women specifically condemn other women, fearful of being tainted by association.
.You can see Mrs Gaskell tightrope-walking the moral line, pleading with the reader to love and sympathise with Ruth, a sad victim of circumstance. Even the briskest defenders of the times moral code, would surely have wilted at the sadness in Ruth’s beautiful eyes, just as the characters who condemn this ‘fallen’ woman can’t stay angry for long – although by the time they get down from their highhorse, it’s a bit late.
As ever with Mrs G, the big man in the sky plays a starring role.. Elizabeth Gaskell’s approach to religion was far more humane, and Mr and Miss Benson, the kind brother and sister who take in a pregnant and destitute Ruth, represent a religion that puts people above scripture.
Mrs Gaskell leaves little room for the 19th century reader to disapprove – of course to the modern reader the only thing to disapprove of is the terrible behaviour of the dastardly Mr Bellingham and his mother, and the blustering moralising of Mr Bradshaw, but at the time, a woman who’d had a baby out of wedlock was the very worst kind of ‘sinner’. A few stiff upper lips would no doubt have wobbled as Ruth’s goodness and gentleness help her rise from her sinful state only for her very purity of heart to prove her downfall.
A fascinating story that brings home the harsh reatlies of life in finger-wagging Victorian England and a sharp reminder that the ‘olden days’ weren’t all bonnets, the regiment and handsome men with large fortunes.
One point of view to Gaskell’s motive in the novel is that of showing that the double standards within the nineteenth century were damaging, and much more prevalent than that of today’s double standards. From a modern point of view, the treatment of a mother who gave birth out of marriage, as well as that of an illegitimate child is practically barbaric. However, due to the fact that in modern times, this is not really an issue, modern critics often find the story to not be compelling, and rather bland if the historical context of the novel is not something of interest. Ruth herself, as a character, has no real flaws, and therefore the reader, whether modern or contemporary, cannot relate to her, or empathize in any way. This would particularly be the case with Gaskell’s modern readers, through the way in which her situation is not easily relatable.
Mrs Gaskell …is a writer of lively invention, passion, power …But her taste is by no means refined; and the moral influence of her writing is, to say the least, very doubtful …in “Ruth,” she instructs us, that a woman who has violated the laws of purity is entitled to occupy precisely the same position in society as one who has never thus offended.
To such moral teachers we have no disposition to listen.
The reviewer thinks Mrs Gaskell’s aim was to “arouse a kinder feeling in the uncharitable and bitter world towards offenders of Ruth’s sort” (no doubt it was); “to show [sic] how thoughtless and almost unconscious such offences sometimes are” (thoughtless and passionate, we might prefer saying); “and how slightly, after all, they may affect real purity of nature and piety of spirit” (here we demur); “and how truly they may be redeemed whom treated with wisdom and with gentleness” (no doubt here).
The reviewer hints that the world’s estimate of this matter should be braved (almost the only matter of morals in which “the world” is at all rigid). We think, on the contrary, that the authoress of Ruth has been untrue to probability in representing Ruth as of so high an order of mind and morals, yet as falling almost without temptation and sinning without knowing that she was stained; and that, had she added the reviewer’s suggested conclusion, she would have deserved the opprobrium of lax morality which has been thrown upon this article in the National.
It is impossible to deny that many good people are aggrieved by” Ruth.” There is no disguising that a girl who has taken her place among the fallen is finally raised to the level of a real and most exemplary heroine. This is the fact lying at the foundation of the novel
Nevertheless, we do not think her always alike successful in the management of the story. We think that it would have been more true to paint Ruth as both more alive and less simple. She ought not to have gone astray from stupidity or from fear, but with all her poetic love of beauty should have been less passive, more enkindled —more of the woman in short; ensnared from within as well as from without, though still possessed of a young heart’s delicacy.