When one comes across the name Elizabeth Gaskell, one may readily associate the name with Dickens as one of the Victorian social issue writers of that age. Gaskell’s novel, Ruth, can easily be placed into that category, considering its main theme of the fallen woman and her attempts to survive in a society that scorns her position and that of her illegitimate child. However, rather than using the fallen woman theme to its full advantage, i.e. through a realistic depiction of her heroine’s survival, Gaskell seemingly compromises realism for idealism to perhaps assuage the sensibilities of the novel’s Victorian audience. The resultant overtly religious tone of a “just” penance for such a sin is detrimental to the novel’s underlying message of survival.
As well, one can argue that Gaskell’s portrayal of Ruth lacks depth. Even though Ruth is the titular heroine, for the most part she remains a background figure, self-conscious and penitent for past wrongs; and yet she is strangely secretive about certain subjects that she should have outwardly confronted from the start. Ruth’s failure to recognize the need to divulge the full truth—namely those secret meetings—to her benefactors, which in turn could have helped her situation, hurts the pious reformer image Gaskell tries to depict, and thus could in part account for the strange turn of events at the novel’s close. As written—though I don’t think this was intentional—, the reader is open to question Bellingham’s role as Ruth’s seducer and antagonist—are these really “just” categorizations for him? Through these possible readings, Ruth does not fit the “pure woman” image Thomas Hardy later faithfully portrays in Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
For a novel of its time, Gaskell’s subject can be considered daring, but it lacks the vision and depth one typically associates with Gaskell’s later works. Overall, Ruth is a novel that doesn’t show Gaskell in her best form.