Ruth

 

“If a young woman have beauty, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty, and all these to an extreme, yet if she have not money, she’s nobody, she had as good want them all for nothing but money now recommends a woman; the men play the game all into their own hands.” (Moll Flanders, Chpt 4)

Can a “fallen women” be also pure, innocent? A sinless sinner? Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth is the answer to these questions. Ruth is the angel that sins without even knowing the meaning and the consequences of her action, she is a pure ray of light that brightens the entire novel and gently glides over the greyness of Victorian prudery and moralism. Ruth is an orphan of about sixteen, who works at a sweatshop and whose uncommon beauty attracts the young and rich Henry Bellingham. They form a secret friendship, which is found out by Mrs Mason, the owner of the shop, who soon dismisses her for the sake of the reputation her business. Homeless and unemployed she consents to leave with Henry Bellingham to go to London first and then to Wales. This makes her a “fallen woman” at the eyes of society, the point is that she didn’t know the meaning of it:

” She was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice” (Ruth Chpt 3)

For her it had been natural to follow the man she loved and had offered protection; it was natural for to please him or entertain him; it is natural when you love. She couldn’t see anything wrong in her doings, but  the people she occasionally interacted with, oh yes, they could. Gaskell, here, is at her best when she depicts Ruth’s joyful and spontaneous world, made of expectations, true feelings and pure emotions, which strikes with the strict code of proper behavior of the Victorian society, which couldn’t but condemn the degree of moral corruption that all that meant. Only when a young boy, whose innocence had already been dented by the talks inside the family, shouts at her “naughty woman” – very likely without comprehending the meaning of his words – she catches for a moment a glimpse of reality, but she doesn’t figure it out fully. She’ll have to wake up abruptly from her dream of love, when Mr Bellingham’s mother, called by her son on the occasion of a fever, persuades him to abandon Ruth in Wales. She will remain alone with a 50 pound note and a kid on the way.

Elizabeth Gaskell never deceives her readers on the true nature of Ruth’s lover, he is a rake. Whatever point of view she uses, however genteel his manners may look or honest his intentions may be, there is always a fraction, a word that unmasks his real temper. Even when he seems to display a sort of heroic nature, saving the life of a child, we cannot trust him, in fact when he carries the boy back to his humble abode he is disgusted by the dirt and the smell of the place, and he openly says it with contempt, hurting the feelings of the boy’s grandmother.

Distraught and alone in a hostile world Ruth attempts suicide, but she is saved by Mr Benson, a Dissenting minister, who offers her comfort and decides to take her to his home town to live with him, his sister Faith and Sally their housekeeper. Being pregnant, she will be introduced in the neighbourhood as Mrs Denbigh, a young widow of only 16, to protect her from tittle-tattle. Years of sorrow and expiation will follow,  which she will be able to bear thanks to the love and comfort the Benson’s give her and, of course, her son Leonard who will become the only reason of her life.

So this “fallen woman” is given a chance to rescue herself and this is the novelty of this character. She will be accepted, loved, praised and be offered a job as governess, and when Mr Bellingham reappears in her life, she has become strong enough to be no longer seduced by his words and offers. Yet, her reception in that society was based on a lie, her being a widow, and when the falsehood is discovered, she is shunned once again, but she will not go away and she will endure with patience, like a Madonna, all the consequences for the sake of her child.

Once again she will redeem herself, and the occasion will be a deadly fever. Ruth volunteers to be sick-nurse for the townspeople, as no one else was willing. As a real Madonna she’ll work hard to comfort the sick and dying. It would seem the ultimate penance for her sin, but it is not. Mr Bellingham has caught the fever and even if she is weak and tired, she revolves upon attending him. She will catch the fever and die, while he will recover. I have to confess that his is the part I have real trouble to understand fully. Even Charlotte Bronte herself said: ” Why should she die?” and I would add: “why should she go?”  The turning of a “fallen woman” into a saint with the final sacrifice must have tempted her, but to find peace and her reward in the other world is not an end that can satisfy my more modern taste. I do prefer rewards in this world.

 

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“Man is not Truly One but Truly Two”

Dr Jekyll had always strived to conform to the dominant values of his time. Highly respectable with a charitable disposition, he enjoys a reputation as a courteous and genial man, however, he very soon understands that the sparkling facade that he exhibits in society does not correspond to his real nature, or better, natures. “Man is not truly one , but truly two“, Dr Jekyll says , a “double being“, then, whose most secret side is more prudent to have it concealed from the eyes of the many, but at the same time it is also so dangerously attractive. Whether we call it “evil side” or “id” as Freud would define it, what’s so fascinating in the exploration of this dark, emotional world?

According to the Freudian tripartite division of the psyche, the “id” is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories. That part of our psyche prevails when we are children, as we haven’t fully developed a moral conscience yet, according to the values imparted by parents or society, what Freud calls the “superego”. This development, which occurs around the age 3-5, is called the phallic age of the psychosexual development. How does it all this work, then? Well, the “superego” controls the “id” ‘s impulses, especially those which society forbids, such as sex and aggression, for example and persuades the “ego” to turn to moralistic goals, to behave properly and to seek for perfection. Otherwise, the controlling power of the superego would take the form of conscience, thus making arouse a sense of guilt for not having being able to conform to what family and society expect from you, for not being that ideal self that you ought to become in order to be proudly integrated in the system.

So, the “id” is the instinct, whatever is forbidden and therefore evil, that is why it is so appealing, in particular to seemingly strait-laced Dr Jekyll, who would like to enjoy the drives he so painfully tries to repress. A potion will do the trick and give him the chance to tell us readers, what it feels like to fully experience that secret side of our self, to be finally the Mr Hyde each of us conceals. Well, the answer we’ll be shockingly simple: happy.

He is happy, as for the first time he we’ll be able to feel ” something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet“. Without the moral laces of the superego he feels even “younger, lighter, happier in body” like a child and in his mind “a current of disordered sensual images” runs” like a mill-race in (his) fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul”. Dr Jekyll, now Mr Hyde, is fully aware that this new self is “ more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to (his) original evil“, but there is no room for a moral condemnation here, but rather, the only thought of it is as inebriating as wine.

Having struggled all his life to improve his good side, this Mr Hyde appears to be shorter and smaller than Dr Jekyll and conforming to the canons which connote evil, he is ugly and deformed. However, when he looks upon that “ugly idol “in the mirror, he feels no repugnance but rather “a leap of welcome”. He recognizes that as his real, natural self, better than “the imperfect and divided countenance” of Dr Jekyll and even if Mr Hyde is repulsive at the eyes of other people, he doesn’t care. Why should he? After all, he finds himself now above the moral ties of the Victorian society and can enjoy freely the darkness of his soul.