The Tearful Gaze in Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth: Crying, Watching and Nursing

Article excerpt

Abstract

Using the complex figure of Mary Magdalene, in her various guises as sexualised sinner, repentant weeper and observant watcher, this essay addresses the complexities and contradictions found in Elizabeth Gaskell's 1853 novel Ruth. Although presenting a largely sympathetic view of the 'fallen woman', the eventual catastrophic and puzzling demise of the protagonist casts a bleak picture of the likelihood of redemption for such women in nineteenth century British society. As several feminist critics have pointed out, the narrative is frequently disrupted by the unspoken presence female sexuality suggesting Gaskell's uncertainty about the nature of her heroine's fall; was Ruth's sexual encounter borne out of naive ignorance, exploitation, sin, or--dare we say it--curiosity and pleasure. I argue that this uncertainty and ambiguity becomes apparent through careful interrogation of scenes of crying in the novel. These scenes also reveal the layers of significance tears hold, over and above their simplistic, and perhaps misleading, relation to the penitential tears of the Magdalene. Tears are also shown as affecting the gaze, bound up as it is in power and gender relations. Gaskell reveals a glimpse of the active and potentially subversive female gaze in her observant protagonist, but soon finds ways of occupying it with jobs that require careful 'watching'. I argue that this relates closely to the author's own project of observation of social injustice. The female author is empowered by her work effectively 'nursing' social ills, but the call to empathy that becomes the overriding feature of the novel, draws attention away from some of the more challenging questions raised by the tearful gaze.

Keywords: Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Magdalene, the fallen woman, the gaze, empathy

Introduction

Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth is an exploration of the figure of the 'fallen woman' (1) and her attempts to reintegrate into mid nineteenth-century British society. The novel is a key contribution to an issue that had reached national prominence at the time of its publication, telling as it does the familiar tale of the vulnerable orphaned seamstress who falls into the hands of an unscrupulous seducer and is left abandoned with an illegitimate child. However, Gaskell's novel is neither a condemnation, nor a wholly progressive account, occupying instead a difficult, and at times contradictory, middle ground. By examining the archetypal fallen woman, Mary Magdalene, and her significance in Victorian society, I attempt to unpick some of the difficulties the narrative presents, starting with an exploration of the varying functions of tears in the novel. Tears are presented in a number of ways, often with paradoxical twists: they are suggestive of suppressed female sexuality; obscure the vision yet allow the crier to 'see' deeper emotional truths; disrupt conversation yet provide an alternative means of articulation and are shown to be fundamental communicants of empathy. Indeed, the novel can be read as a female bildungsroman (2) as Gaskell's heroine learns the 'right' times to cry, part of a wider aim of Victorian writers to 'emotionally educate' readers.

In addition to this, I explore the various gazes at work in Ruth, bearing in mind the Magdalene's role as a key witness at Christ's resurrection. I argue that Gaskell presents an idealized vision of repentance through work as her protagonist finds productive and moral employment to occupy a gaze implicitly mobilised by her sexual encounter. Indeed, Ruth finds a kind of salvation in her vocations as mother, governess and nurse, roles requiring both her knowledge of tears and her mastery of them. However, Gaskell's decision to kill off her protagonist at the end of the novel complicates this paean to the nurturing professions, a decision that infuriated many readers, including Charlotte Bronte who, on finishing the novel, complained: 'Why should she die? …