Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell
‘We have dreaded men too much, and God too little, in the course we have taken.’
I started writing this post immediately after I finished reading the book, and the tears have yet to dry from my eyes. It was a very strange, and seemingly unnatural, experience for me, for I was crying—at some parts uncontrollably—as I was reading the last few chapters of this book. I did not think that fiction could have this much of an effect on me. But by the last few chapters, it all seemed very real, and my emotions were deeply felt and real, and difficult to explain to myself. This was, indeed, strange and new to me. I am tempted to leave this post at that, but I thought that I should say more about the novel, in return for what it has given me.
This is the story of Ruth Hilton. Ruth had the advantage of being raised by good, loving, and simple country parents, but by the time she is sixteen years old, her parents have died, and she is alone in the world, has no one she can turn to for companionship and the continuing guidance and education that she yet needed. Into this emotional vacuum enters Henry Bellingham, a licentious heir to a fortune who is bewitched by Ruth’s loveliness and grace, combined with the ‘naivete, simplicity, and innocence of an intelligent child.’ Bellingham schemes to seduce the very young and very innocent Ruth, is successful in making Ruth fall deeply in love with him, and then abandons her. Ruth consequently wears the stigma of a sinful relationship and, to make matters worse, is pregnant with an illegitimate child. In the eyes of men, she and her yet-to-be-born child are doomed to a wretched life. But fate throws Thurstan and Faith Benson in Ruth’s path. They are brother and sister, both God-fearing and compassionate, Dissenters from the Church of England, he a beloved minister in the town of Eccleston. They welcome Ruth into their home as their own, and in this humble but loving home Leonard is born. At about seventeen years of age, Ruth is a mother.
Most of the novel is devoted to exploring the means to Ruth’s redemption, and the struggles and sacrifices that Ruth goes through to procure it. It is heavy on religion and biblical allusions, and even prayerful pleas to God. And throughout, Gaskell challenges her readers with questions. What is required, or, what matters—redemption in the eyes of men, or in the eyes of God? Is evil to be done that good may come? Should an innocent child be made to suffer for his mother’s sin, or can this child be an instrument for his mother’s atonement and purification? How is it that, at least in this case, men will not be as tender a judge as Christ (‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’)?
It is interesting that Gaskell’s Thurstan Benson, the most morally upright character in the novel, is physically deformed—a hunchback. Perhaps it is but part of the novel’s recurring theme: That it is not the external, physical manifestation of being that matters most, but the internal, spiritual one. In giving counsel to Ruth on how to help Leonard cope with the harsh treatment that will come his way for being an illegitimate child, Benson says:
‘The world is not everything, Ruth; nor is the want of men’s good opinion and esteem the highest need which man has. Teach Leonard this. You would not wish his life to be one summer’s day.’
This novel recalled from my more self-examining past, precepts learned long ago which today seem like ghosts to me, and I am grateful for the reminder. Admittedly, this was not an easy post to write, and is incomplete, because of the depth of the themes that Gaskell bravely chose. Themes of repentance, quiet suffering, sacrifice, faith, unselfish love, forgiveness, redemption. That is a lot for one novel, and I thought that Gaskell’s Ruth was a powerful one.
And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.
For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.