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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 her. Otherwise, there is no moral issue.

Whether that determination of Ruth as an independent agent can occur depends largely on how each reader interprets the degree of manipulation or authenticity of various plot devices, on which hang crucial points of the narrative. There are three of these: first, that at the worst point of her despair, along comes apparently serendipitous physical salvation via Thurstan Benson; second, just when her life appears to be in order and she is on her feet, although under an assumed identity, comes Bellingham/Donne and then public scandal. Finally, at the end, when she has surpassed public ignominy and has redeemed herself for the last time as an angel of mercy, her seducer shows up yet again to torment and finally destroy her. That these occurrences are highly coincidental cannot be denied; however, Gaskell does attempt to set them up fairly, instead of leaving them to creaky orchestration, and to account for them within the bounds of credibility.

First, Benson and Ruth have already become acquainted by the time he is needed to step in to save her, so his appearance is not really extraordinary. Second, Bellingham’s first reappearance in the story comes to nothing because Ruth refuses his initiatives and her life is thus unchanged. In fact, his sudden manifestation serves to exhibit her power over him now, at least to the extent that she refuses him any further effect over her. Furthermore, given the small towns in which she has lived, it is perhaps not all that surprising that disclosure might be inevitable. Moreover, she can never be fully restored to society from her...

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public disgrace if her hidden identity conceals the expiation for her sin. Therefore, for better or worse, her mask must be torn away.

Last and most important, it is Ruth’s free choice to nurse Donne in his final illness; there is no particular moral reason to do this, since she has already become sainted in her community for her good works with the sick and the destitute. Thus, her good name is finally secure. She undertakes this task at great personal risk because she is ever faithful to her love, showing her absolute goodness by reaching out to one whose role in her life has previously brought only sorrow. Nevertheless, although readers such as Charlotte Brontë protested Ruth’s dying, there is a certain necessity about it. Ruth has been redeemed; her son will be provided for; and, of paramount concern, this most acquiescent and reactive of women proves that she is her own person and has been so throughout her life. Just as she chooses her death, in effect, so did she willingly and knowingly transgress with Bellingham. Her example demonstrates Gaskell’s point: Women deserve fair and equal treatment because they are just and comparable people—no more and no less.