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 naïve 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.

Author Biography

Rosemary Langridge was an undergraduate reading English at the University of York at the time of writing this essay.