A Literary Criticism of Ruth: Allowing Second Chances          

           Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth, written in 1853, focuses on the life of a young woman who is orphaned by her parents at a young age and who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. The title character is forced to make her way in Victorian England, raising a child without the support of a husband. While Ruth suffers many hardships, her story does not remain entirely true to the lives of the women who typically represent working-class mothers of the period. In fact, Ruth manages to lead a surprisingly fulfilling life, despite the fact that the odds are set so strongly against her. In the end, while Ruth does not portray working class motherhood as it was represented in histories such as Ellen Ross’ Love and Toil, Ruth still faces many challenges and proves to be a remarkably resilient mother; moreover, Gaskell’s decision to portray her heroine in this light was a very conscious act, as she sought to desexualize her heroine present her as a martyr whose individual potential helps her to surpass her social background.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell Portrait

           Ruth Hilton is the only child of a farmer and his wife, who come from a humble background. Upon their marriage, the farm begins to fail, and in time, Mrs. Hilton becomes weak and bedridden. Mrs. Hilton soon passes away, and not long after that, Mr. Hilton dies as well, leaving the farm to “the person of most consequence amongst those whom he did know,” the master of Skelton (37). Ruth is also left in his charge, but not being in a position to raise a 15-year-old girl, he arranges for her to work as a seamstress with Mrs. Mason. The situation at Mrs. Mason’s provides a portrait of the bleak livelihood that awaited young girls who were orphaned, or girls who were sent out to earn money for their destitute families in Victorian England. Gaskell served as an early social worker, according to Josephine Johnston, who writes “Mrs. Gaskell based her fiction upon personal investigation during the period 1832-1865 and upon facts gathered at that time from her own community in Manchester, England” (224). Johnston explains that Gaskell would spend hours each day observing the working-class in sewing-rooms, perhaps similar to Mrs. Mason’s establishment (224). It was while working as a philanthropist with the poor that Gaskell would find the inspiration for her novels.

            The opening scene reveals the girls working at two in the morning in an effort to finish dresses for a ball at Shire-Hall. At this late hour the girls are allotted a thirty-minute break, where girls sleep from exhaustion while “others huddled over the scanty fireplace” (12). The girls work long hours in harsh conditions, but they are provided with a place to live, which was at least enough for them to survive. Ruth is a remarkably beautiful young woman, but she is timid and solitary. She prefers to sit in the coldest and darkest spot in the room, and she is always willing to run errands, despite the bitter winter cold. It is in these early scenes that Gaskell begins to introduce her theme that an individual’s worth in society should be measured by one’s character rather than by one’s financial standing in society. Gaskell believed in one’s potential to be a good citizen, and “she discarded all the common social criteria, such as wealth, position, and religion; she judged man from the standpoint of what he might become, not from the viewpoint of what he was…In every person, there was some potential goodness, which, if properly evoked and carefully handled, could solve many social problems” (Johnston 224). Ruth is immediately marked as being unusually beautiful, and throughout the novel, this comes to be seen as a physical representation of her inner goodness and humility. In Ruth, Gaskell attempts to promote her particular feminist stance by demonstrating that a lack of opportunity, through money alone, is the main difference between the poor and the wealthy. Moreover, it is unjust for the poor to be judged harshly as they have the same potential for good character as anyone of the bourgeoisie.

            At the beginning of Ruth, Mrs. Mason chooses four girls to accompany her the next morning to Shire-Hall, where they will help with any dress alterations that are needed throughout the evening. Ruth is one of the chosen girls, and it is at the ball that she meets Mr. Bellingham, while darning another young woman’s gown. This young woman, Miss Duncombe, is harsh and shows very little respect for Ruth, as she is merely seen as a servant. Miss Duncombe has been accompanied by Mr. Bellingham to the ball, and she has an attitude which evokes an air of superiority. “‘I dare not enter that room by myself,’” she tells Mr. Bellingham. She continues, telling Ruth “‘Make haste--don’t keep me an hour!’ And her voice became cold and authoritative’” (15). Gaskell is showing through the character of Miss Duncombe how harshly the bourgeoisie treat the working class in this period, when she makes comments like “‘No wonder Mrs. Mason charges so much for dressmaking, if her workwomen are so slow’” (16). She completely disregards the fact that Ruth is merely trying to do her work carefully. However, despite Miss Duncombe’s abrasiveness, in this scene Mr. Bellingham is struck by Ruth’s simple beauty and he shows her a bit of kindness. Upon leaving, Mr. Bellingham gives Ruth a camellia as a means of thanking Ruth for her work in repairing the dress. Ruth is immediately taken by the gesture, and this brief interaction foreshadows her impending illicit affair with Mr. Bellingham.

            When Ruth meets Mr. Bellingham again, after he rescues a young boy from drowning, she is too blinded by her admiration for him to recognize what a cad he is. While they are in the cottage where the boy lives, Mr. Bellingham behaves in a manner similar to Miss Duncombe at the ball. “‘It takes so much to knock an idea into such stupid people’s heads. They stood gaping and asking which doctor they were to go for, as if it signified whether it was Brown or Smith, so long as he had his wits about him,” Mr. Bellingham complains to Ruth, “I see no use in my staying in this stifling atmosphere’” (23). His snide comments only heighten Gaskell’s argument that having money does not necessarily make one a better person. Mr. Bellingham’s harsh bourgeois attitude makes him appear boorish, but Ruth is infatuated with him regardless.

            Indeed, Ruth does not manage to recognize Mr. Bellingham’s true nature. In fact, after the incident saving the young boy, the pair continually find excuses to meet one another. Ruth, being very pious, goes to church every Sunday; however, she also meets Mr. Bellingham on Sundays, as it is the only day that Ruth does not have to work at Mrs. Mason’s. One Sunday Mr. Bellingham persuades Ruth to miss church for one such meeting. She hastily agrees to join him, but the missed day of piety comes to symbolize the moral downfall of Ruth. While visiting the village where she used to live, Ruth comes across Old Thomas, who she knew when she was younger, who wants to help Ruth: “He longed to give her a warning of the danger that he thought she was in, and yet he did not know how. When she came up, all he could think of to say was a text…‘My dear, remember the devil goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour; remember that, Ruth’” (50). This man from her past can sense the trouble that Mr. Bellingham will bring to Ruth, but she simply is not able grasp how her life will be altered by his presence in her life.

            Ruth’s life is quickly turned on its head, though. Upon leaving Old Thomas, Ruth is spotted by Mrs. Mason, who “was careless about the circumstances of temptation into which the girls entrusted to her as apprentices were thrown, but severely intolerant if their conduct was in any degree influenced by the force of these temptations” (53). As a result, Mrs. Mason dismisses Ruth from her position; the 16-year-old girl is suddenly left jobless and homeless. Upon hearing what has happened, Mr. Bellingham whisks Ruth off to an inn in Wales. While there, the pair shares a room; Ruth will later discover that she is pregnant with Mr. Bellingham’s child. However, any direct discussion of sexual activity between the pair is strictly avoided in the text, which is a common theme in Gaskell’s work. In this sense, Ruth is identified with the moon and moonlight, according to Nina Auerbach, which becomes a symbolic replacement for Ruth’s sexuality. Auerbach explains “despite her pregnancy, her fall seems devoid of sexuality and will…that which isolates her from society assure[ing] her kinship with the moon” (41). Ruth’s pregnancy is represented more as a mystical phenomenon, rather than a biological one. While part of this could be attributed to Victorian society’s staunchly repressive view towards sexuality, Gaskell also does this in an effort to represent Ruth as innocent and independent (Auerbach 42).

Ruth with Baby

Ruth Book Cover: Penquin Books

              Mr. Bellingham swiftly abandons Ruth, while his mother leaves her with 50 pounds to buy her off, entreating her to “enter some penitentiary” (91). Although Ruth would appear to be left without a home or financial stability, she is quickly taken in by the Benson family. Mr. Benson and his sister, Faith, prove to be Ruth’s saviors. Shortly after arriving at Mr. Benson’s, Ruth falls ill. Upon the doctor’s examination, Ruth’s pregnancy is discovered. The initial reaction is what one would expect at the discovery of an illegitimate pregnancy in Victorian England. Miss Benson says, “‘I was just beginning to have a good opinion of her; but I’m afraid she is very depraved’” (117). In keeping with Gaskell’s ideology, the promotion of faith in the individual’s character, Mr. Benson will not to dismiss Ruth so easily. He recognizes that she has found herself in an unfortunate situation, but she should not be punished for her mistake for the rest of her life.

            At this point, Ruth’s life changes forever. Unlike most young women in her position, husbandless and homeless, Ruth is not totally abandoned. Instead, Mr. and Miss Benson volunteer to take Ruth in, and they will serve as her sponsors, by supporting her in Eccleston. In order for Ruth to stand any chance to restart her life, earn a living, and live respectably among Victorian society, the Bensons must lie for her. Ruth changes her name to Mrs. Denbigh, and they begin telling everyone that she has been newly widowed. There is initially some suspicion about the story Ruth and the Bensons are telling, because Ruth is so very young; however, the only person that actively pursues the subject and is told the truth is Sally, the Bensons’ servant. The first several months are difficult for Ruth, but she is still able to maintain her gentle disposition, and the Bensons quickly begin to treasure her presence in their lives.

            After her son, Leonard, is born, Ruth makes it a point to become educated. She is taught by Mr. Benson, and she excels. Eventually, she is invited to become the governess to the children of the Bensons’ wealthy neighbor, Mr. Bradshaw, Mary and Elizabeth. Not only is Ruth the mother to her own child, but Gaskell presents her as the embodiment of the nurturing woman. “Although her typical heroine is not yet a wife or mother, she practices caring for a wide social range of neighbors, friends, suitors” and her service to the Bradshaws highlights these qualities (Davis 521). For years her secret is kept hidden, and Ruth is able to thrive, which is quite unexpected, considering what has happened to her.
            It is in this section of the novel, that Gaskell deviates most dramatically from the reality that women in Ruth’s situation would have found themselves in. Most orphaned, jobless, homeless young women who become pregnant out of wedlock could not expect the good fortune of finding a welcoming home, an education, and a respectable, well-paying occupation. In Ross’s Love and Toil, working-class women are shown tirelessly at work to keep their families afloat, while Ruth is able to work outside the home for the Bradshaws, as Leonard is looked after by the Bensons. Ruth manages to turn her life completely around, with the help of the Bensons, along with her own tireless effort to better herself and those around her. Gaskell sought to promote the mother figure in a more social sense, again shown in Ruth, when the title character is able to teach and influence the Bradshaw girls as well as contribute to the Benson family.

            After several years of service as the governess to the Bradshaws, Mr. Bellingham once again crosses Ruth’s path. He is now known as Mr. Donne, and upon discovering that Ruth has borne his child, he insists that she live with him, and in return he will provide for Leonard’s future. In this scene, Ruth’s strength of character is truly shown. She refuses to take Mr. Donne’s money and demands that he leave her and Leonard alone. Mr. Donne is outraged, saying “‘You obstinate, willful creature!...You forget that one word of mine could undeceive all these good people at Eccleston; and that if I spoke out ever so little, they would throw you off in and instant…do you understand how much you are in my power?’” (298). Auerbach argues that Ruth “vehemently rejects marriage to her seducer, conventional salvation through respectability, in favor of a saint’s life and a martyr’s death” (42). Ruth is unwilling to compromise the life of service she has established for herself by allowing Mr. Donne back into her life. Despite the fact that Mr. Donne has legal rights to his son in Victorian England, Ruth stands her ground against him, and as a result, he leaves her without pursuing the matter.

            This is not to imply that Ruth manages to make it through the novel unscathed. When the truth of her identity surfaces the life that she has so diligently worked for is destroyed. Mr. Bradshaw scorns her and forbids her from continuing on in her position as governess to his two daughters, and he does this all in front of his older daughter, Jemima: “‘Look at that woman, I say--corrupt long before she was your age--hypocrite for years! If ever you, or any child of mine, cared for her, shake her off from you, as St. Paul shook off the viper--even into the fire’” (335). His reaction was essentially what would be expected of a bourgeois man in the nineteenth century. Gaskell uses Bradshaw as a means to personify “an element of Victorian society that did not allow for a distinction between a prostitute and a young woman who made one mistake” (Golden 13). In addition to his contempt for Ruth, Bradshaw also renounces his relationship with Mr. Benson, upon discovering that he has known the truth all along and has concealed Ruth’s true identity. Mr. Benson is used to personify Gaskell’s claim once again that there is a need to look at Ruth’s character over the years and disregard her one mistake. However, the town shuns Ruth, and she is publicly marked as a fallen woman for the first time by her community.

Ruth book cover

Ruth Book Cover: Everyman Books

            After a year of solitude inside the Benson’s home, Ruth is able to find work as a nurse, helping the poor, which sets her up to be viewed as a martyr at by the novel’s end. When an epidemic breaks out, Ruth is one of the few to volunteer to aid in the most violently affected quarters. As a result, she is finally recognized by society for her tireless service. Leonard is exceedingly proud, and Ruth remains continually humble. Ruth’s final task is to save one more soul. Mr. Donne has fallen ill with the fever, and Ruth insists upon nursing him back to health. He recovers, but Ruth does not survive. “Gaskell gives Ruth Hilton a second chance after her disgrace and allows her illegitimate child—proof of her fall—to live; although ultimately punished by death, Ruth dies as a good Samaritan, her illness resulting from nursing the very man who seduced her,” which allows Ruth to be heralded as a martyr (Golden 13). Gaskell’s aim is to demonstrate the true nature of motherhood through selfless service to society by Ruth.

            Throughout Ruth, Gaskell reiterates her philosophy that a woman like Ruth should be judged by her good deeds, through which she contributes to society while remaining pious and humble. Gaskell portrays society as the negative and oppressive presence in Ruth, by having people like Mr. Bradshaw shun her for her past (Pinchbeck 316). Gaskell’s goal as a novelist is not to portray a strictly accurate representation of the life that a working-class woman would lead while attempting to raise a child out of wedlock. Instead, Gaskell uses Ruth as a mirror to show many of the other sociological issues that were present in Victorian England, such as the lack of compassion for the poor and the bourgeois notion of superiority. The novel reveals on varied standpoints ranging from character to piety, as well as shows the true role of the mother as not only a nurturer of her own child but of society as a whole.

History Paper · Images · Works Cited · Literature Paper · Links · Index