Ruth, with its difficult focus on the ‘fallen woman’, has prompted most of its readers to protest in one way or another, and has never been a popular book. Knowing that she was stirring a hornets' nest, Elizabeth Gaskell was unusually anxious during its composition, and unusually sensitive to criticism. The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit, making her feel like ‘St Sebastian tied to a tree to be shot at with arrows’. Ruth is indeed a problematic novel, flawed by ‘fundamental contradictions’ that produce gaps, false leads and inconsistencies in the narrative surface. However, this chapter argues that these rifts and flaws are not simple (and uninteresting) failures of ‘artistic unity’, but significant failures of ideological coherence. The disruptive factor is female sexuality, which cannot be acknowledged in the ideological surface of the novel, but is repressed, emerging as a sub-text of imagery and dreams. Ruth is radical in Victorian terms in challenging the double standard that put all the blame for sexual transgressions onto the woman.
Keywords: Ruth; Elizabeth Gaskell; fallen woman; female sexuality; imagery; sexual transgressions; dreams
Chapter. 5463 words.
Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)
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