A First Look
Not unusually for a Victorian novel, the heroine of this story, Ruth, must die for her sin of falling into seduction. Ruth’s story cannot meet a happy end, which, typically for a Victorian heroine, involves marriage to an exemplary gentleman. The plot does not even permit her noble spinsterhood; that compensation is awarded to chaste (and sometimes annoying – see Miss Bates in Jane Austen’s Emma) ladies only. Conversely, Ruth must not only die but also toil in atonement (as a sickbed nurse) for her error, however innocently or ignorantly she committed it.
Such notions are hardly Scriptural, and if you hadn’t noticed the above chain of circumstances in the story until now you may be tempted to throw this book out the window now and every other Victorian author with it. Romans 6:23 assures that God offers eternal life to believers in Christ, regardless of their past. Ruth’s life and death seem contrary to a basic understanding of Christian salvation. Stories of believers physically and mortally punished for their sins are not spiritually truthful, never mind inspiring narratives to read.
Gaskell’s portrayal of Christianity appears to become more muddled by considering the antagonist of the novel, who commits the same sin as Ruth and yet does not meet the same end as her. The narrator clearly paints Bellingham as evil, yet he survives the same sickness that kills Ruth, and certainly does not spend his life toiling; he lives a life of privilege and exudes a degree of laziness. He is even allowed an engagement and there is no indication he will be barred from a happy, married ending because of his past.
Again, the disparate treatment of Ruth and Bellingham oppose scripture about salvation, in this case that it is offered equally to men and women. Why does the woman pay for her sins but not the man in this story?
A More Redeeming Look
“I take my stand with Christ against the world.” – Ruth
A closer look at the novel shows that Ruth’s “great Victorian sin” is not all it may seem to outsiders. The narrator states several times that Ruth is only fifteen years of age at the time of her seduction. Ruth is described as innocent and ignorant of what she is doing; she gets a “feeling” sometimes that all is not quite right about her relationship with Bellingham, but mostly she does not seem to understand the significance of what she is doing. Mr. and Miss Benson defend her past because of her youth as well.
Ruth’s age raises a theological question. Did Ruth really sin, if she didn’t know what she was doing? Legally, today, courts would determine Ruth the victim of rape and Mr. Bellingham (that dashing gentleman) would be locked away. Christians today would hardly hold her at fault either. Consider, though, that in Victorian times a girl could legally marry as young as 12 (more commonly, though, women married around the age of 20).
Marriage then was not always the romantic product of choice it is now, however. It was often an exchange of properties and sometimes arranged for the participants. Gaskell’s downplaying of Ruth’s responsibility in the affair is noteworthy, not only because of its radicalness for the Victorian era, but because it helps establish Ruth as blameless, and therefore, perhaps, sinless. [Much could also be said here about the tradition of woman as seductress in literary love affairs that Gaskells upends. In this narrative, woman is victim and man is seducer.]
The Bensons’ decision to take in and care for Ruth and her illegitimate child are also unconventional, as evinced by the community’s reaction, who whisper about them, and particularly Mr. Bradshaw, who shuns them altogether, when Ruth’s true history is revealed. But Mr. Benson stands firm in his Christian beliefs:
“I declare before God, that if I believe in any one human truth, it is this – that to every woman, who, like Ruth, has sinned, should be given a chance of self-redemption – and that such a chance should be given in no supercilious or contemptuous manner, but in the spirit of the holy Christ….
I state my firm belief, that it is God’s will that we should not dare to trample any of His creatures down to the hopeless dust; that it is God’s will that the women who have fallen should be numbered among those who have broken hearts to be bound up, not cast aside as lost beyond recall.”
I’m sure Gaskell did not choose a minister for such a role lightly. Mr. Benson, with his internal struggle about the moral rightness of hiding Ruth’s history, as well as his physical deformity, is a developed character, with a conscience and a past. Conversely, we might view Mr Benson’s deformity as representative of his capacity for falsehood, similar to the literary character Pinocchio. Either way/nonetheless, a minister is the mouthpiece of God, and through him Gaskell proclaims her Christian beliefs. Ruth is vindicated and loved by a minister of the church.
Gaskell also vindicates Ruth’s character by imbuing her with the attributes of the Biblical Mary Magdalen. Mr. Benson wonders, hopes even, that “the tenderness which led the Magdalen aright” will lead Ruth in the right path in the end and cover over her past, as Jesus says of Mary Magdalen in Luke 7:47: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much.” Indeed, Ruth spends much of her life caring for and loving others, especially in her sick-nurse days. Her tender and blameless actions and the way she cares for and heals those around her exemplify her as a Christ-like figure – or, as Christians would say, show Christ shines through her.
But the novel’s most radical move sees Ruth epitomize Christ himself when she sacrifices her life for the one who persecuted her. Ruth attends Mr. Bellingham on his sickbed at the price of her own life, re-enacting the final sacrifice of Christ on the cross at the hands of his persecutors. This dramatic ending proclaims the message of the gospel through Ruth, a disreputable woman, not a minister, a gentleman or even a man.
In the universities, such a reading of the text would be considered a point for feminism. For academia, any promotion or affirmation of the marginalized is always a victory in and of itself. For Christians, however, the affirmation of the marginalized is glory for God:
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Ruth’s dramatization of the gospel message through a fallen woman upends Victorian middle class values about sexuality and gender, but not merely for progress’ sake. Gaskell’s novel illustrates the gospel message, how Christ demonstrated his love even for his persecutors, by sacrificing his life for them. This is the only true idea of love, and Ruth’s authentic exemplification of this love cuts through the social norms and legalistic religious beliefs of the people around her to show a true picture of Christ to a society that has become disconnected from him.