decorated initial 'T'n the novel, the term "infection" and the idea of infectiousness are frequently used to refer to feeling: Ruth is "infected" by Bellingham 's amusement (15); Mr. Davis suggests that his wife has "infected" him with a desire for children (437). Leonard, Ruth's son, at one point develops a tendency to lie, the implication being that he has caught duplicity from his mother; he also "catches" her bravery later on (427). Gaskell's use of the infection metaphor suggests the way fallenness in the novel is everyone's problem. Literalizing the metaphor, later, as disease, Gaskell paradoxically isolates the infection: since only Ruth has been infected by Bellingham, only for her is fallenness the cause of death.

Sally's anxiety about the infectiousness of Ruth's feeling evokes the fear of contamination conventionally associated with fallen women; it also amplifies an anxiety about the power of the sympathetic object that suggests, again, the potential fluidity of class identity in the novel. These scenes dramatize not Adam Smith's general idea of sympathy — the imagining of the self if the other's place — but rather a fear of sympathy's reversibility, as if the other's identity might too easily become one's own. When, in an effort to assist in her disguise, Sally abruptly cuts Ruth's hair, what is ostensibly done to make her resemble a widow is in effect a test of submissiveness and an insistence on difference: a dramatization of the giving up of identity in exchange for sympathy. And the novel as a whole, like this scene, dramatizes sympathy's transformation — and, ultimately, complete appropriation — of its object.

Ruth's disguise — the covering of one identity by another-functions as an attempt to transform one kind of feeling into another, and as the novel progresses, Ruth becomes an instrument for allaying the disruptive feelings her "fallen" self represents. After Sally's warning, Ruth's potential to "infect" others is transformed into an "unconscious power of enchantment" (179), an unwilled communication of serene and harmonious feeling. (Significantly, the warning is delivered by a female servant who has undergone a similar transformation, learning to discipline resentful feelings and accept her "station" [176].) With this transformation, Gaskell implicitly defines as the novel's task not so much the alteration of characters' and readers' feelings about Ruth but rather Ruth's ability to alter their feelings about themselves and each other, an ability reminiscent of the kind of reparation for past transgressions one of Gaskell's early critics described as necessary for the fallen woman. . . . . . .Ruth radiates feelings of serenity and cheerfulness without intention, "with no thought of self tainting it" (366), she disseminates familial harmony. [pp. 83-84]

Related Materials

References

Jaffe, Audrey. Scenes of Sympathy: Identity and Representation in Victorian Fiction. London and Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.


Victorian Web Overview Genre and Technique Elizabeth Gaskell

Last modified December 4, 2004