Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth: Chapter Two – Analysis

Gaskell Blog ©
Guest Contributor: Kim Egolf

Brief Summary

The evening of the annual Hunt Ball arrives! Mrs. Mason and her troupe of girls head off to the dance where they act as ladies’ maids for this, the year’s biggest entertainment. When Miss Duncombe, a young, beautiful lady, tears her dress, she is incredibly rude to Ruth. Miss Duncombe’s escort (and supposed fiance) Mr. Henry Bellingham notices and favors Ruth with a white camelia flower, which she pins on her dress and cherishes for the rest of the evening.

As the morning after the dance dawns, the girls are back to work. But Ruth is still in the fairy world of the evening before and, as such, wants to escape the house. She volunteers to run errands on the cold winter afternoon. While she is out, she stops to watch some innocent children play. Their play quickly turns dangerous, however, when one of the children falls into the river. Ruth rushes to help, but it is a stranger on a horse who fishes the boy from the water. Ruth is surprised and pleased to find that the stranger is Mr. Henry Bellingham, who charges her with money to care for the boy and arranges to meet her the next Sunday for an update on his progress.

In the meantime, Ruth rushes to her errands and hurries back Mrs. Mason’s. Her lateness is covered, however, by the news that Jenny – Ruth’s closest friend, conscience and voice of reason – has fallen seriously ill and must depart Mrs. Mason’s house. Ruth is orphaned again.

Analysis

The second chapter of Ruth reveals much more about the character of our heroine. We see just how young and innocent she really is, which does not bode well for her future in a world we know to be, if not cruel, at least relatively uncaring.

Ruth’s view of the world seems to be as an enchanted fairy land. One of the richest descriptions is offered of the ballroom before the dance begins:

… now their voices were hushed, awed by the old magnificence of the vast apartment. It was so large, that objects showed dim at the further end, as through a mist… The lofty roof was indistinct… while through the richly-painted Gothic window at one end the moonbeams fell, many-tinted, on the floor… High above sounded the musicians… their voices sounded goblin-like in their dark recess, where candles were carried about in an uncertain wavering manner, reminding Ruth of the flickering zig-zag motion of the will-o’-the-wisp.

Throughout this chapter, Gaskell creates a fairy world around Ruth. She takes Ruth into a literal (the ball) and figurative (fairy world) world she doesn’t understand and which, we as readers can feel, holds some mystery and danger.

And this danger takes the form of Mr. Henry Bellingham, whose interest in Ruth darkens from a simple flower on their first meeting to the desire to pursue her on their second. He only cares for the rescued child as a way to get closer to Ruth. She misunderstands his actions, though, and believes in his innocent and caring motives. Her experience has not taught her any differently and, once Jenny leaves, she has no outside voice to guide her.

Characters

Mr. Henry Bellingham comes into the picture. A dashing young nobleman who shows Ruth some kind attention at the Hunt Ball. The next day, he rescues a child. Ruth clearly sees him as a gallant, chivalrous man, but Gaskell’s narrator seems to believe his motives are less pure:

His spirited and natural action of galloping into the water to save the child, was magnified by Ruth into the most heroic deed of daring; his interest about the boy was tender, thoughtful benevolence in her eyes, and his careless liberality of money was fine generosity; for she forgot that generosity implies some degree of self-denial.

Discussion Questions

  • How is it that Ruth can so dramatically misinterpret Henry’s actions and feelings?
  • What are Ruth’s and Henry’s different attitudes towards the child? What does this tell us about each character?
  • What do you think will happen now that Ruth and Henry have been introduced?
  • Has Jenny’s role been important? How will Ruth change now that Jenny is gone?
  • How does Ruth relate to the natural world around her?
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