decorated initial 'T'he novel . . . associates unconsciousness with a desire to escape middle-class identity and its seemingly inevitable transgressions. When Ruth first meets Benson, she is about to drown herself-in the novel's words, to "seek forgetfulness." Benson saves her by enabling her to replace one form of self-forgetfulness with another; he falls, and his fall "did what no remonstrance could have done; it called her out of herself" (97). That initial meeting connects the capacity for sympathy with self-forgetfulness, and throughout the novel, the possibility of Ruth's redemption is identified with Ruth's forgetting of her former self. Indeed, she is most herself when most "out of herself;' helping the poor and the sick in an effort "to forget what had gone before this last twelve months" (191). (Benson too strives "to leave his life in the hands of God, and to forget himself" [142].) It is as if the absence of consciousness Ruth exemplifies, and for which Benson longs, expr esses a desire for relief from conscious- ness, identified in this novel with an almost unbearable sense of self- division. Indeed, it may be in her unconsciousness — identified with her unselfconsciousness — that Ruth best exemplifies middle-class identity: sympathy here resembles a state of forgetfulness that serves to assure the sympathizer of the unquestioned, secure nature of his or her identity. After all, the issue for middle-class identity, as the novel worries it (and Faith's comment implies) is "remembering" who one is, as if identity inheres in its active maintenance. But while sympathy here may seem to offer middle-class identity a welcome unselfconsciousness, it also suggests the absence of an essential self: the way in which identity built on identification with others may be imagined as no identity at all. (pp. 88-90)

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