Monday, July 07, 2008

Gaskell's Ruth (spoilers for those who haven’t read the book)

I promised to talk about The Lie, so here goes. Many Victorian novels turn on the notion that either “the truth will out” or “the truth will set you free.” In other words, telling the truth isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law (i.e., one of the Ten Commandments) and anyone who tries to fight the law will find out that living a lie is worse not better in the long run. Ruth takes a different tack in that there is a great deal of ambivalence around The Lie on the part of the characters, the narrator, and hence the reader. The Lie begins when Faith Benson convinces her brother Thurston as well as Ruth and the Benson’s servant, Sally, to pass off Ruth as a widowed relative, Mrs. Denbigh, rather than the unmarried, pregnant girl that she is when they take her in.

Later in the story, when the truth about Ruth does surface, Thurston Benson declares that he should never have gone along with the lie, that he should never have let himself be persuaded that “wrong could be right.” Faith counters that they were right to shield Ruth and Leonard via the lie: “Ruth has had some years of peace, in which to grow stronger and wiser, so that she can bear her shame now in a way she never could have done at first…at any rate our telling a lie has been the saving of her. There is no fear of her going wrong now.”

Thurston can only answer that “God’s omnipotence did not need our sin.”

What I love about Gaskell and Ruth in particular is that Gaskell doesn’t abuse her role as omniscient narrator and lay down her opinions as gospel. She lets her characters, especially Faith and Thurston, argue their points of view for themselves, allowing her readers to draw whatever moral or lesson that bubbles up for them.

While the story of Ruth does hold fast to the precept that the truth will out, its corollary—that the truth will set you free—is not as clear cut. After the lie is discovered, Ruth moves on to her final role, that of the martyred nurse, and the heavenly reward that her martyrdom leads her to might cause some to say that the truth did set her free from her earthly prison, but Gaskell does not explicitly say that. She allows the reader the freedom to conclude that, or not.

While reading Ruth, I kept on thinking how it seemed to read like a parable. It was definitely a story that “had to be told” rather than a study in characters and how they might act or react. Now that I am thinking about the narrator’s ambivalence around The Lie, I can see more clearly that the story truly is a parable in the best sense of the word. I was initially thinking about it as a parable in the didactic sense rather than the Socratic sense. But parables, at their best, are stories that catalyze one into thinking rationally about a situation and owning the lesson that comes from that rational thought.

Perhaps as Thurston says, “God’s omnipotence did not need our sin”—i.e., Ruth’s salvation did not depend upon her being passed off as Mrs. Denbigh—but perhaps the salvation of Mr. Bradshaw, Jemima, and the others who were quick to condemn Ruth but then came to understand her and accept and love her did require that lie, that sin. Had they never known Mrs. Denbigh, they could never have known Ruth. Faith was right—the lie enabled Ruth to grow stronger and wiser before she was sacrificed so that others could come to know and practice compassion by her example.


  1. Good review, good points. Indeed Jane. And thanks for commenting on my blog!

  2. Ah! I forgot, as Charlotte Bronte wrote in one of her letters to Mrs Gaskell,why did she decide to make Ruth die in the end? I was so sorry! But I love this novel, Elizabeth Gaskell is one of the best Victorian writers to me.

  3. Maria - I think Ruth was doomed from the start, but I like to think of her son having a better chance that she did.

  4. I like your review and the thoughts on the lie. My guess on the death of Ruth is that EG had to give her Victorian readers the chance to say:"Well, at last she got the reward for her sin." I think it was very bold of EG to raise her voice for seduced girls!
    MarianneR from

  5. Hi Marianne - thanks for stopping by!

    >I think it was very bold of EG to raise her voice for seduced girls!

    Agreed--I really think that Ruth is a precursor to Tess, whom Hardy described as an "innocent." Ruth was definitely in that category.