Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

From the first sentence, the novel is imbued with references to literature. Ruth’s belief that literature has ruined her life gives the novel its context and its meaning. Literature, Ruth thinks, is responsible for the flaws in her moral education, raising hopes and dreams, even as early as the days when her nurse told her the story of Cinderella. Later, from her reading, she comes to believe that virtue will be rewarded, as in the novels of Charles Dickens, but in college, when she chooses Balzac’s treatment of virtue and vice as the subject of her dissertation, she begins to see that it is those who behave badly who are rewarded.

The title of the novel, a literal translation, in the British edition, of Balzac’s Un Debut dans la vie (1842), is directly related to Ruth’s opinion that literature gave her the wrong start in life by convincing her that strength of character and virtuous action lead to love and happiness. In Paris, her changed appearance and attitudes are an analogue to what she has learned about the advantages of opportunism, but she is sad that the books were wrong. Ironically, she believes that the patient effort to attain goodness through a long period of trial, crowned finally by the rewards of love, will never be hers. The interlude in Paris has been just that, and the remainder of the book shows how, little by little, she renounces her dreams and unconsciously develops the fortitude and patience she had once so much admired.

Although Ruth seems not to realize how admirably she has accepted the sad circumstances of her life, she does not regard herself as pitiable. Indeed, the theme of starting life is suggested again as Ruth seems to hope that the gravity and solemnity of her life will end. There is only a hint that Ruth, though accepting her life as it is, still believes that it can change. On the other hand, the author may be suggesting that it is too late but that, as always, Ruth does not know this. The ambiguity of the conclusion leaves the reader free to imagine a new start in Ruth’s life, or, on the contrary, to pity her for the hopelessness of her unchangeable situation.