1. Influences on Elizabeth Gaskell’s representation by her public and private life
2. What does the text say?
2.1. Illegitimate children
2.2. The double sexual standard
2.3 Religious hypocrisy
3. Unspoken words
3.1. The figure of the prostitute is never mentioned
3.2. Foreshadowing Ruth’s fall and pregnancy
3.3 Living for the future and facing the past
3.4. Ruth’s death
Gaskell’s work Ruth deals with the central theme of the fallen woman at Victorian times. Ruth tells the story of a young innocent and orphaned girl that is seduced by a well-off noble man, Mr. Bellingham, who deserts her in the end. Left alone and pregnant she is willing to kill herself, but eventually rescued by the Dissenter minister, Mr. Benson. He enables her to live a life in society without being an outcast by pretending her to be a widow. Then the novel shows how she manages to live a good and pure life with God in harmony; a life through which she shows her repentance. The novel also reveals how she has to sacrifice herself to be redeemed in the eyes of society since this is the only expiation to gain forgiveness.
Ruth is often referred to as a social problem novel (Pike 15) but it is more than that. Beyond it, the novel treats the problems of illegitimate children, the double sexual standard and religious hypocrisy.
My attempt is, first, to show how Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel was influenced by her private and public life, which means how these influences are reflected in her representation in Ruth. In this section I will look at her upbringing, her Unitarian belief and her public charity work.
Second, I will analyse how the three above mentioned issues (illegitimate children, the double sexual standard and religious hypocrisy) are treated in Ruth and what criticism E. Gaskell expresses in connection with these three topics; especially, through the text in her novel. Thus, I will articulate the things, the text does say.
Next, I will state what the text does not say. That means how the unspoken things, which must not be said, are revealed through other means and methods. Hence, I will examine the way E. Gaskell uses colours and natural phenomenon to foreshadow and point to certain unpleasant or agreeable events that will penetrate into her life.
1. Influences on Elizabeth Gaskell’s representation by her public and private life
First, it is important to get to know about Elizabeth Gaskell’s background to understand why she wrote the novel Ruth; and above all to understand what incidents in her life did influence her representations in the novel. Elizabeth Gaskell was born into a Unitarian family. Her father, William Stevenson, was a clergyman. Her aunt, Hannah Lumb, who was responsible for her upbringing after her mother died, was also very engaged in the Unitarian Church (Foster 6). Later on, she became the wife of William Gaskell, a Unitarian clergyman. Accordingly, she grew up and continued to live in a very religious environment; and this also becomes quite evident in her novels. She continually refers to the Bible. For instance, when Old Thomas says some warning words to Ruth because he thinks she is in danger while together with Mr Bellingham: “’My dear, remember the devil goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour; remember that Ruth.’” (Gaskell 50). These words are taken from 1. Peter 5:8.
Furthermore, it is important to know that “the Unitarians were ahead of their time as far as politics, social reform and religious tolerance were concerned, but more importantly, as far as women were concerned. They wanted proper education for all” (Camus 26), women, too. Here again, these circumstances settle an extremely important influence on Gaskell’s Ruth and her own life, as well. Concerning her personal life, she was seen as a perfect example of a nineteenth-century woman and admitted herself: “One thing is pretty clear, women must give up living an artist’s life, if home duties are to be paramount. It is different with men” (qtd in Camus 8). But she also stated: “’I am sure it is healthy for them [women] to have the refuge of the hidden world of Art to shelter themselves in when too pressed upon by the daily small Lilliputian arrows of peddling cares… assuredly a blending of the two is desirable.’” (qtd in Camus 8). Moreover, she declares that women have not to hide their artistic talent: “she must not shrink from the extra responsibility implied by the very fact of her possessing such [artistic] talents. She must not hide her gift… it was meant for the use and service of others” (qtd in Camus 33).
These statements show that she laid exceedingly much emphasis on the education in the life of a woman. And being a good wife didn’t mean to her that she has no right to educate herself. All in all, she was an incredibly independent woman, who spent, for instance, her holidays in Lancashire without her husband to accompany her. There she could write undisturbed (Foster 23, 24). They also had three different houses in Manchester which caused that the couple started to lead separate lives but at the same time they were happily married (Foster 19). And this is also what she highlighted in her novel Ruth by saying:
By degrees they spoke of education […] and the result was that Ruth determined to get up early all through the bright summer mornings, to acquire the knowledge hereafter to be given to her child. […] She read in the early morning the books that he [Mr Benson] marked out; she trained herself with strict perseverance to do all thoroughly. […] Those summer mornings were happy, for she was learning neither to look backwards nor forwards, but to live faithfully and earnestly in the present (Gaskell 175, 176).
Education, here, is represented as a means to learn how to get closer to God. It says that someone who hasn’t been educated well, cannot live earnestly and reverential. And this is the reason why Gaskell illustrates in her novel that teaching has positive results for Ruth like getting a respectable job as a governess in Mr Bradshaw’s house. Being educated “turn[s] her into another person, conscious of good and evil, [meaning able to make moral choices, and] capable of resisting temptation”, something she was incapable of, earlier (Camus 143).
A further aspect of Unitarianism that took influence on Gaskell’s novels was the fact that the Unitarians believed in “the benevolent nature of God”, who was regarded as a wise Father and not as a brutal Judge (Fryckstedt 65). They believed that “man was created good but liable to go astray” (Fryckstedt 65). Thus, they said that errors were temporally and that God would never punish mankind eternally. That is why man had not the right to cast out sinners. Exactly, this is what Elizabeth G. speaks out when she makes Mr Benson say:
… I believe to be His truth, that not every woman who has fallen is depraved; that many […] hunger after a chance of virtue – the help which no man gives to them, […] [but] help which Jesus gave once to Mary Magdalen. (Gaskell 347) […] I state my firm belief, that it is God's will that the women who have fallen should be […] bound up, not cast aside as lost beyond recall. (Gaskell 348)
This belief was the driving force, which lead to Gaskell’s activities in charity work. She followed Thomas Wright as an example. He cared about discharged prisoners and found employment for some 300 prisoners and spent his money as security to their trustworthiness (Fryckstedt 83). Gaskell, on her part, visited Miss Pasley, a sixteen-year-old prostitute who had been seduced by a physician. He was the prison doctor of the Manchester jail she was later brought to for theft (Fryckstedt 174). Elizabeth could not help this girl but she could make the public aware of the injustice by writing about this problem. She was convinced that “the issue of the fallen woman must be brought to public attention, even though […] she [knew that she] was treading perilous path […] [and] that the theme would be called ‘[a]n unfit subject for fiction’” (Foster 101). Nevertheless, she published Ruth. The effect was that many people rejected the ending of the novel, in which Ruth “re-established herself in society” and died a “saintly death” (Foster 105). Many people burnt the novel, some forbade their wives to read it and libraries refused to put it in circulation (Foster 106) but Gaskell was convinced: “I think I have put the small edge of the wedge in, if only I have made people talk & discuss the subject a little more than they did” (qtd in Fryckstedt 151).