I am a student of 19th century English literature and frankly don’t understand the rigid unforgiving attitude that is displayed toward the sinner, especially a woman who has been presumed immoral. And if she happened to have a child, in the course of this sin, it will become a “bastard,” outcast to society. It seems that repentance was not possible. These people are church going Christians and clergy. I sometimes wonder if the community attitude was really that severe. I wonder, did they never read Christ’s story of the woman taken in adultery as they cast their stones? Did they never preach the Prodigal Son from the pulpit? Did they not understand Christ’s teachings of “judge not that ye be not judged? These were my thoughts while Reading Ruth, a beautiful metaphor for how the atonement works in the life of the repentant sinner.
This is my third Gaskell. I liked "Mary Barton" a lot and it’s thesis was forgiveness. “Cousin Phillips” was my least favorite but I enjoyed the first person narrative with it’s sweet descriptions of simple rural life and honorable loving people. But “Ruth” wrenched my heart and sent me to my favorite religious book “The Infinite Atonement” by Tad Callister. I remembered reading how in a sense repentance can make us better than we would have been had we never sinned. This was the thesis of "Ruth"
“The law of justice brings about order and stability in the universe. That is good. But the law of repentance does much more; it brings about godhood. Repentance is more than a passive process to “get us even” it is the affirmative process to improve us, refine us, and ultimately perfect us. It’s purpose goes far beyond the satisfaction of justice. It opens the door to the cleansing and perfecting power of the Atonement.” (Callister p. 225)
”The Savior’s victory can compensate not only for our sins but also for our inadequacies; not only for our deliberate mistakes but also for our sins committed in ignorance, our errors of judgment, and our unavoidable imperfections. Our ultimate aspiration is more than being forgiven of sin—we seek to become holy, endowed affirmatively with Christlike attributes, at one with him, like him. Divine grace is the only source that can finally fulfill that aspiration, after all we can do.” (Bruce Hafen, Broken Heart, p. 20)
For me, this was Ruth’s story of redemption. She was an orphan of 16 working as a seamstress in a sweatshop environment. An assignment to repair damaged dresses, at an elegant ball, introduced her to the handsome, 23 year old, Mr. Bellingham. He was smitten with her beauty and sought her out, in her realm, on numerous occasions. He promised to take her back to her country home for a nostalgic visit on her Sunday off. He didn’t want to be seen with her in a carriage so they walked. The day was longer than anticipated. Ruth’s employer happened to see her on the road and fired her on the spot for being in an inappropriate situation with this man. She was distraught and desperate with no place to turn. Ultimately the story unfolds to a seduction (which we see nothing of) and abandonment in the hills of a resort in Whales. She is pregnant and despondently ill. A deformed minister from a nearby town sends for his spinster sister and they decide to take her home with them, passing her off as a widow. This is part of the conversation that takes place between Mr. Benson and his sister Faith:
“Faith, you know I rejoice in this child’s advent?
“May God forgive, Thurstan!—if you know what you are saying. But, surely, it is a temptation, dear Thurstan.”
“I do not think it is a delusion. The sin appears to me to be quite distinct from it consequences.”
“Sophistry—and a temptation,” said Miss Benson, decidedly.
“No, it is not.” said her brother, with equal decision. “In the eye of God, she is exactly the same as if the life she has led had left no trace behind. We knew her errors before, Faith.”
“Yes, but not this disgrace—this badge of her shame!”
“Faith, Faith! let me beg of you not to speak so of the little innocent babe, who may be God’s messenger to lead her back to Him. Think again of her first words—the burst of nature from her heart! Did she not turn to God, and enter into a covenant with Him—‘I will be so good?’ Why, it draws her out of herself! If her life has hitherto been self-seeking, and wickedly thoughtless, here is the very instrument to make her forget herself, and be thoughtful for another. Teach her (and God will teach her, if man does not come between) to reverence her child; and this reverence will shut out sin,--will be purification.”
And as the story unfolds we see Ruth’s purification as she turns her life to God through all the difficulties that come before her. We see God give her strength and direction in heart wrenching situations. We see what good people, like the Bensons, can do for such a lost one as Ruth, even as they are not sure they have done right. Ruth and her child bring sweetness and love to their unfulfilled lives.
We see others in this story that throw stones at Ruth, but feel no remorse for their indiscretions until they are forced to face them on the home front. Ruth was ever the willing repentant soul and it shined in her character.
As someone, who believes in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, this gave me a lot to think about in how the process works. It is a beautiful story of faith.