Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth: Chapter Six – Analysis

Gaskell Blog ©
Guest Contributor: Kim Egolf

Brief Summary

Chapter 6 opens with a glimpse of how the townsfolk see Ruth: they think she is a knowingly sinful creature of low morals. Ruth is oblivious to this judgment until she encounters a young boy named Harry. As Ruth stoops to kiss Harry’s baby sister, he hits her “a great blow on the face” and pronounces that Ruth is a “bad, naughty girl,” according to his mamma.

Ruth is humbled and saddened by this unexpected treatment, but she endeavors to hide it from Henry, always trying desperately to please him. A walk in the woods almost restores her spirits, that is, until Henry tells her she really must be more cheerful for his sake. They return to the inn, where Henry complains of a headache. After he passes out, a doctor — Mr. Jones — is sent for and declares that Henry has a brain fever. Ruth is determined to do the best she can to care for him. The chapter ends with Mr. Jones posting a letter to Henry’s mother.

Analysis

Once again, we see Ruth closely associated with nature. After the trauma of being literally hit in the face with the town’s attitude toward her, as well as Henry’s continued annoyance that she is not entertaining him, Ruth seeks solace in the woods.

They sauntered out for a walk. The path they chose led to a wood on the side of a hill, and they entered, glad of the shade of the trees. At first it appeared like any common grove, but they soon came to a deep descent, on the summit of which they stood, looking down on the tree-tops, which were softly waving far beneath their feet.

In this woods is a pool, described quite menacingly as follows:

The pond was hardly below the surface of the ground, and there was nothing like a bank on any side… In the very middle of the pond the sky was mirrored clear and dark, a blue which looked as if a black void lay behind.

Ruth spots some water-lilies and Henry goes to get them for her. He returns and begins to place them in her hair, decking her out with a kind of coronet. But we begin to see just how Henry thinks of Ruth:

She knew that he was pleased from his manner, which had the joyousness of a child playing with a new toy…

As Ruth looks at herself in the mirror of the pond (that pond that is “a blue which looked as if a black void lay behind”), Gaskell lets us see the scene from Ruth’s point of view:

She knew that she was beautiful; but that seemed abstract, and removed from herself. Her existence was in feeling, and thinking, and loving.

Then we see what Henry sees in this same scene:

Her beauty was all that Mr Bellingham cared for, and it was supreme. It was all he recognised of her, and he was proud of it… She pleased him more by looking so lovely than by all her tender endeavours to fall in with his varying humour.

Just as Ruth’s conscience has woken up from the slap at the beginning of the chapter, so has our consciousness of the incompatible nature of Ruth and Henry. They see two fundamentally different things in the world. Ruth sees the natural beauty of the world around her and associates herself with living and breathing, while Henry stays indoors and only appreciates nature as it relates to Ruth’s beauty in the natural setting.

Characters

Harry – The Young Boy

Harry deals a literal and moral blow to Ruth at the beginning of this chapter. In mimicking what his mother has said about Ruth, he stirs Ruth’s moral conscience to the point where she can no longer remain in ignorance. His blow to her face wakes her up from the idyll she has been in with Henry. And yet, f0r the rest of the chapter, Ruth tries desperately to return to her previous relationship with him.

Mr. Jones – The Doctor

He seems a competent fellow, able to diagnose Henry’s brain fever quickly. But it is his attitude toward Ruth that makes him stand out in this chapter. Even after he learns of her morally dubious position, he is still able to respect her strength and competence in the face of Henry’s illness. He declares that “she is no common person,” and we are apt to believe him. It is nice, after all of the rejection Ruth has been through in this chapter, to come across a sympathetic character.

Discussion Questions

  • How do you feel about Henry’s attitude toward Ruth as a “new toy”?
  • What about Ruth’s devotion to Henry? Is it warranted? Do we get upset at her for her naivete?
  • Does Henry deserve a brain fever?
  • What do you think will happen if Henry’s mother shows up?
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