Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth: Chapter Eight – Analysis

Gaskell Blog ©
Guest Contributor: Kim Egolf

Brief Summary

Henry is convalescing, but he is a very bad invalid. Mrs Bellingham confronts Henry about his situation with Ruth, even though it is her “wish to be as blind to the whole affair as possible”. As they both desire to be out of the situation as soon as possible, they determine to leave. Henry asks his mother to dismiss Ruth, if she must, as handsomely as possible, as Ruth has not been entirely to blame in the situation.

So Mrs Bellingham leaves Ruth with a note about Henry’s departure and a fifty pound bank-note. Ruth goes wild on reading the note and runs after the carriage, exhausting herself with emotional and physical exertion until she realizes that the carriage is gone. She wants to die and so she throws herself down by the side of the road. However, nature begins some of its healing and reviving work on her.

More healing is provided by the appearance of the deformed gentleman whom she has seen twice before. He shoos away the village children tormenting her and gives her a comforting shoulder to cry on. But in her despair, Ruth seems to resolve on a serious course of action: suicide. Sensing her planned course, the gentleman follows her. But in his pursuit, he falls and utters a cry. Ruth is startled out of herself. In her compassion and solicitude for him, she abandons her immediate thoughts of suicide and helps him back to the house.

Analysis

The relationship that started badly has now ended badly. In many ways, we knew that Ruth and Henry were not suited to each other, their hearts and desires were not in tune. Ruth’s complete innocence made her expect things that Henry was never willing to give her. Yet, in Chapter 8, we see that Henry is not malicious about giving up Ruth. Indeed, he begs his mother to treat her handsomely. He even tries to take some of the blame for his current situation. Mrs Bellingham barrels over his good intentions, though, and places the blame squarely on Ruth’s shoulders. Henry is not willing to stand up for her against this onslaught, not out of hatred or revenge, but simply because Ruth has become an inconvenience to him.

But this difficulty in which he was placed by his connexion with Ruth, associated the idea of her in his mind with annoyance and angry regret. He wished, in the languid way in which he wished and felt everything not immediately relating to his daily comfort, that he had never seen her. It was a most awkward, most unfortunate affair.

So he leaves Ruth friendless and alone in the world, despised by the community as a woman of low morals. Ruth runs herself into the ground literally with chasing after his carriage. But, once again, we see that Ruth is closely connected with nature; it reaches out to help and comfort her in her deepest despair. Too exhausted to stand, she throws herself on the ground, willing herself to die.

Yet afterwards, long afterwards, she remembered the exact motion of a bright green beetle busily meandering among the wild thyme near her, and she recalled the musical, balanced, wavering drop of a skylark into her nest near the heather-bed where she lay. 

Nature seems to cradle her and, in a subtle and almost imperceptible way, comfort her. She observes the living elements around her and reconsiders her wish to die. Yet again, Ruth shows herself connected to the deepest rhythms of natural life, as if she herself is a creature closely connected to that natural state of innocence.

Characters

The Deformed Gentleman — He shows up for the third time, just in time to save Ruth from her possible suicide. In this encounter, we discover that he has a deep compassion for her in her lonely and abandoned state. When he cries out “Oh, my God! for Christ’s sake, pity her!” Ruth is stirred from her despair. His words remind her of her own happy childish days. He stirs her desire for something good. Ruth’s ability to be vulnerable and trusting with the gentleman and his ability to draw her out of herself seem to be a good indication that they can work well together, if they are able to remain in the same place.

Gaskellian Phrases

Mother and Son

Seeing the relationship between Henry and his mother, Mrs Bellingham, made me think of another mother and son relationship in North and South. While much of Victorian literature features strong fathers, Gaskell shows us some strong mothers in her stories.

In Ruth, we see the relationship between Henry and his mother played out in a few short scenes over Henry’s sick-bed. As Chapter 8 begins, Henry is being a whiny and peevish invalid. When Mrs Bellingham attempts to confront him about his situation with Ruth, Henry winces with “nervous annoyance” and weakly tries to defend Ruth’s innocence in the matter. But his mother will have nothing of it, instead choosing to believe what she will and not listening to her son. She treats him like a child who doesn’t know what he is doing and is not capable of answering for the consequences of his actions. The scene ends with the following exchange, which shows their relationship perfectly:

‘Mother,’ he said, ‘this affair worries me to death. I can not shake off the thoughts of it.’
‘Leave it to me, I’ll arrange it satisfactorily.’

I thought this was an interesting contrast to the mother and son relationship between John Thornton and Mrs Thornton in North and South. Here we also have a strong mother who is a major influence in her son’s life. We find out from John that his mother has been the driving force behind his success. His love for her is one of fierce loyalty and unwavering devotion. (This is also how he devotes himself to Margaret once he determines to love her.)

Mrs Thornton wants to protect her son from himself, just like Mrs Bellingham. However, Mrs Thornton trusts her son to take the consequences of his actions. Though she desires to step in for him, she doesn’t. This is as much down to John’s character as anything. Where Henry is weak and vacillating, John is strong-willed and steadfast. The scene after John proposes to (and is rejected by) Margaret speaks volumes about the relationship between John and Mrs Thornton:

‘Well, John?’

He knew what that little speech meant… He longed to reply with a jest… but his mother deserved better of him. He came round behind her, so that she could not see his looks, and, bending back her gray, stony face, he kissed it, murmuring:

‘No one loves me, — no one cares for me, but you, mother.’

He turned away and stood leaning his head against the mantelpiece, tears forcing themselves into his manly eyes. She stood up, — she tottered. For the first time in her life, the strong woman tottered. She put her hands on his shoulders; she was a tall woman. She looked into his face; she made him look at her.

‘Mother’s love is given by God, John. It holds fast for ever and ever. A girl’s love is like a puff of smoke, — it changes with every wind…’

… ‘Mother!’ said he, hurridly, ‘I cannot hear a word against her. Spare me, — spare me! I am very weak in my sore heart; — I love her yet; I love her more than ever.’

‘And I hate her,’ said Mrs Thornton, in a low fierce voice.

… ‘She does not care for me, and that is enough, — too much. Let us never name the subject again. It is the only thing you can do for me in the matter. Let us never name her.’

… And Margaret’s name was no more mentioned between Mrs Thornton and her son.

Even through his inconvenience, John defends his love for Margaret against his mother. And his mother accepts his ruling, showing the interesting differences between the Bellinghams and the Thorntons.

Discussion Questions

  • How does Henry’s behavior strike you? Can you forgive him for abandoning Ruth?
  • What do you think of Mrs Bellingham’s attitude toward Ruth? Is she justified in her bad opinion?
  • Would you have chased the carriage of one you loved?
  • What do you think will be the future for Ruth and the deformed gentleman?
  • Will the village still condemn Ruth?
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