Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth: Chapter One – Analysis

Gaskell Blog © Katherine C.

Brief Summary

Introduced to our main character, Ruth Hilton, an orphaned young lady who works as a seamstress. She is romantic, emotional, and described as a beauty. The Hunt ball is coming up and four seamstresses are chosen to be on hand– she is one of them


Gaskell opens Ruth with some background of the town where her heroine lives, weaving in social commentary and foreshadowing. It’s described with great physical disparity; height, with chimney’s cutting against the blue sky and low streets, suffering in the shadows of the tall buildings. The contrast brings to mind:

  • Poor vs. Rich
  • Danger vs. Safety

But the disparity could also be applied to the way people and society thought during the later centuries she’s describing, of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ orders. When the town lost it’s appeal to fashionable society, professional men and shop-keepers resided. They brought down some of the tall buildings, so there would be more light, which means they could be more prosperous, people would see their shops and they wouldn’t have to burn so many candles (more convenience). Perhaps this represents the changes of the later century ( ie. Industrial Revolution).

But some of the buildings were “too solidly ground to submit to alteration.” Are they the ideas too fixed within society? Those that cast darkness on others (ie. female repression, lack of compassion against an unmarried mother)? Progress has changed some of the town but not enough to reform all of it; The ‘new world’ is haunted by the old.

The daily life into which people are born, and into which they are absorbed before they are well aware, forms chains which only one in a hundred has moral strength enough to despise, and to break when the right time comes–when an inward necessity for independent individual action arises, which is superior to all outward conventionalities.


Ruth is a romantic soul; while the other girls stretch their limbs, relieve their hunger, sleep, or admire the beautiful dress they’re sewing during their break she goes to the window to gaze at the beauty of the snow. This connection with nature is also seamed in Gaskell’s way of using nature to reflect Ruth as she does with the larch:

A little distance off, the feathery branches of a larch waved softly to and fro in the scarcely perceptible night-breeze. Poor old larch! the time had been when it had stood in a pleasant lawn, with the tender grass creeping caressingly up its very trunk; but now the lawn was divided into yards and squalid back premises, and the larch was pent up and girded about with flagstones. The snow lay thick on its boughs, and now and then fell noiselessly down.

Jenny Wood is another young lady who works for Mrs. Mason, she comes from a large family.  She is motherly towards Ruth and tempers her nature with practical advice. But Jenny is ill and Ruth’s nightmare may be a warning that Jenny will leave.

She could not sleep or rest. The tightness at her side was worse than usual… What was the matter with Ruth? She was crying in her sleep as if her heart would break. Such agitated slumber could be no rest; so Jenny wakened her…

“Oh, Jenny!” said Ruth, sitting up in bed, and pushing back the masses of hair that were heating her forehead, “I thought I saw mamma by the side of the bed, coming as she used to do, to see if I were asleep and comfortable; and when I tried to take hold of her, she went away and left me alone–I don’t know where; so strange!”

Mrs. Mason is a strict woman and hard-worker. She places a deal of importance on appearances, especially related to her establishment, this will be a key fact later on.

Gaskellian Phrases

The passage Gaskell writes when describing the young seamstresses eating reminds me very much of one from chapter seven of Cranford. (Gaskell was working on Cranford for Dickens’ Household Words and Ruth at the same time)

From Ruth

Some employed the time in eating their bread and cheese, with as measured and incessant a motion of the jaws (and almost as stupidly placid an expression of countenance), as you may see in cows ruminating in the first meadow you happen to pass.

From Cranford

…However, Mrs. Jamieson was kindly indulgent to Miss Barker’s want of knowledge of the customs of high life; and, to spare her feelings, ate three large pieces of seed-cake, with a placid, ruminating expression of countenance, not unlike a cow’s.

And another similar phrase sister-flowers and sister roses.

From Ruth

They conjured up visions of other sister-flowers that grew, and blossomed, and withered away in her early home.

From North and South

No! Vanity; you did not. You may have worn sister roses very probably.’

Discussion Questions

  • What images and thoughts did the description of the town invoke for you?
  • What was your favorite passage?
  • Did you notice any other distinctly Gaskellian words or phrases?
  • What’s your first impression of Ruth Hilton? the other characters?

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kj says:

    I just started Ruth! Glad I get to read along.

    The hardest thing for me to picture so far is the descriptions in chapters one & two about how the large manor houses have been split into multi-dwellings and workplaces. Images I can’t conjure are: 1) Once the buildings were refaced, some still had large grand staircases connected- couldn’t tell if this was describing indoors or outdoors. 2) The painted panel with the flowers from chapter 2. I can’t seem to reconcile the image of the little sewing room I picture, with it having once been part of a grand drawing room or parlor. How were the rooms divided and how faded are the remnants of the past? 3) The tree in the yard Ruth gazes at is described as having once been set in a large manor garden (or lawn?) but now is cropped in by buildings. I want to picture the transformation of what happened to these houses and how they became “urban”- but I don’t have enough reference points to picture it. Have you found any info about the types of environment Gaskell is describing?

    1. Glad to have you joining, KJ! 🙂

      1) I’m going to go back and re-read the first part of chapter one, but from what I remember, I understood the staircases to be outside. I think Mrs. Gaskell mentions moonlight shinning through it and Ruth walking by one on her way back to Mrs. Mason’s– I’ll get back to you on this one.

      2) It wouldn’t have been a small sewing room, but a large one, for all the seamstresses, with many tables and chairs where the girls could work. Think of it more like a factory room that was once a grand parlor. Gaskell describes the town being in it’s glory during the days of the Tudors and mentions Monnoyer, so I imagine the grandeur was mainly in the style of the late 1500s to mid 1600s. –I’ll see about going back and creating a visual annotation. 😉

      3) The first that comes to mind is Mrs. Gaskell’s own home, 84 Plymouth Grove, it was once in the outer-skirts of Manchester, now it’s in a very urban setting as the town has closed in around it. I did an interview with author Monica Fairview who once lived in the house, she shares a little of its history (including it’s closing in) that she researched. There’s also a photo of the residence, which has a tree next to it and there’s pavement perhaps very near it’s trunk; it looks hemmed in– that’s how I imagine the larch tree.

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