Kristina A's Reviews > Ruth

Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell
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Jun 12, 2008

liked it
bookshelves: victorian
Recommended to Kristina by: Emily from the Victorians Institute conference
Recommended for: people who like Victorian novels or Gaskell
Read in June, 2008

It's funny; Gaskell's novels seems to me to be what everyone thinks of as a "Victorian novel," and yet she is not really read or taught widely. Just a thought.

Unlike some of the other readers, I did not love the character of Ruth. A lot of people say that Victorian heroines are always too good to be true, and I can see that point, but Ruth seriously is too good... in my opinion, too good to be very attached to as a reader. The narrator and Mr. Benson keep saying she has faults, but her faults seem to be that she is too proud to accept gifts or handouts and that she is overprotective of her son. These are the kinds of faults that you give when you're asked on your job interview what your shortcomings are -- they are, in a sense, strengths disguised as faults.

(Or maybe one reason I don't like Ruth as a character, though, is because of her masochistic insistence on beating herself up over one mistake, a trait that is uncomfortably familiar to me.)

Of course, her real fault is that she is a "fallen woman," which is exactly why Gaskell made her so unrealistically good and pure -- she had to make Ruth perfect in order to show that she was unfairly punished for one mistake she made in her youth. I understand this, but it makes it hard for me, as a modern reader, to be interested in her as a character. My favorite characters are Jemima, Ruth's younger, more rebellious, more flawed friend, and Sally, the housekeeper who seems a bit like a Dickens character.

One thing that was really interesting about this particular fallen woman story, though, is that Ruth is not raped (like Tess), nor is she flirtatious (like Hetty Sorrel). She seems to really love Bellingham at the beginning, and though Gaskell does hint that Ruth's romantic fantasies are part of her mistake, she is not a silly girl, only innocent. Ruth really doesn't seem to see anything wrong with living with Bellingham as a "kept" woman until other people make her feel it's wrong, and she never suggests or seems to think they will marry. In addition, unlike Hetty, Ruth is able to be taken back into society in a way -- though certainly she can never have another sexual or romantic relationship. In her own way, Gaskell makes a stronger case for the "fallen woman" than Eliot or Hardy, despite the fact that the latter two are (arguably, I suppose) superior stylists. (Well, and Hetty is, to me, a more interesting character because of her flaws -- and especially her crime.)

Another interesting thing is to see the various jobs Ruth has in her life; she is a seamstress, a governess, and a nurse. At one point, she loses her job and Jemima wonders how Ruth will support her son. I've said it before and I'll say it again: anyone who thinks the working woman or single mother is a modern phenomenon has never read 19th century novels or nonfiction.

This isn't my favorite Gaskell, but I enjoyed it.
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