(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In aesthetic terms, Ruth succeeds or fails for readers on two broad planes. One falls along the realism/coincidence axis, and the other depends upon the plausibility and interest of the central character. Ruth is a dreamy, passive, though not lethargic girl and woman, eager to please and thoroughly self-effacing. Throughout the novel, she is frequently pictured, when indoors and pained or troubled, flinging open the windows, no matter what the weather—in fact, the worse the weather, the better for her—to lose herself, to mingle her spirit with the gusts, the downpours, the darkness, the energies of the out-of-doors. Many critics detect in the character of Ruth evidence of Gaskell’s affinity with the Romantic poet Wordsworth, for whom communion with nature yields integrity, sanity, and solace. Yet Ruth is, for the most part, without the vocabulary to articulate either her pain or her satisfactions, and although she often has very revealing dreams that obviously indicate her obsessions and anxieties, she is otherwise mute and content to serve others and obliterate herself. What Ruth’s character is can best be seen in her actions and interactions with others.

Although the novel is written in the third person, Gaskell keeps the focus for the most part on Ruth, so the crux of the novel hangs on whether such a selfless, self-denying soul, who is essentially morally good, is truly a sinner and fallen woman and whether she is entirely a victim in the grip of others’ control. If she is a victim, the edifying import at the heart of Gaskell’s novelistic project is sacrificed. The response to the heroine then would simply be pity. Yet Gaskell’s purpose of swaying public opinion to acknowledge a double standard toward the sexes can only be accomplished if informed sympathy and absolution come to a Ruth who is recognized as sole engineer of her fate. She must have willingly fallen in order to be raised up and cherished by a society that was previously swift to condemn...

(The entire section is 813 words.)