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Scarred and Healed Identities: falJenness, morality, and the issue of personal autonomy in ???? Bede and Ruth Nadya Chishty-Mujahid While both Elizabeth GaskelTs novel Ruth and George Eliot's Adam Bede focus (the latter in part, the former almost solely) on the plight of the Victorian fallen woman, a reader is often hard-pressed to find similarities between the portrayal of GaskelTs Madonnaesque heroine and Eliot's unfortunate coquette. Perhaps this is because Ruth Hilton and Hetty Sorrel are undoubtedly different when it comes to issues of intrinsic character, virtue, and the way their respective creators wish them to be perceived. However, what I propose to argue over the course of this article is that in their respective texts both Eliot and Gaskell point to a central (if not the central) problem concerning fallenness in Victorian society. This is that of fallenness being direcdy linked to a shaky and tenuous sense of identity, especially since seduction in the cases of both heroines is associated with an inevitable loss of moral reputation. For Eliot and Gaskell a moral fall was invariably linked to an emotional fall and a loss of self-esteem. Thus, in the case of Ruth, her eventual redemption is clearly found to be contingent upon an ultimate restoration of her self-confidence and sense of self-worth. This healing and restoration of damaged self-esteem is frequendy reinforced by characters such as the Bensons, who come to Ruth's aid when she desperately needs help and sustenance. Thus the restoration of Ruth's pride, self-esteem, and sense of self-worth, results in the preservation and protection of the moral essence of her character which eventually helps lead into the creation of a greater level of autonomy for the heroine than she would otherwise have had. Hetty Sorrel, a less virtuous, and hence morally weaker, character 58volume 30 number 2 Scarred and Healed Identities than Ruth, is not as fortunate. Hetty's sense of self-worth is so closely connected to the admiration of her suitors, that the vanity that is fuelled by diis impedes the development of moral fortitude within her character. Thus, Hetty fails at even partially recovering from her fallen state, a failure that is most poignandy represented in Eliot's portrayal of Hetty as an utterly unsuccessful mother. Hetty's act of infanticide constitutes the nadir of her moral dilemmas, whereas Ruth's success at parenthood (the zenith of the restoration of her self-esteem) contributes towards the healing of her damaged identity. The careful and deliberate manner in which Eliot and Gaskell explore fallenness and make this issue an integral part of their respective narrative plots merits close examination, for it is one which pervades almost the whole of GaskelTs novel and forms a vital part of the moral narrative framework of Adam Bede. In the earlier part of GaskelTs novel, Ruth is found positioned in Mrs. Mason's establishment; the reader is informed that she is both a hardworking as well as a physically attractive young woman. Although she is an orphan, and sadly lacking any positive role models, she is not depicted as being inordinately unhappy or dissatisfied with the tedious working conditions of the establishment. Her sorrow stems primarily from poignant memories of the loss of her beloved mother. Her adjustment to her lot is perhaps due in part to her naturally obedient and acquiescent temperament, and also to the vividness of her imagination. She derives solace from acts of the imagination; one example being whereby she associates the painted flowers on the wall of her workplace to those of the garden of her old home. When Mrs. Mason arranges for her to go to the ball in the capacity of an attendant seamstress, she views the setting of the ball as "a joyous and brilliant whole" (14), a type of dream-world that she can admire though not inhabit. What I wish to stress at this point is that the scene of the ball is one of the most significant pivotal points of the novel for a variety of reasons. This episode serves to illustrate the strong contrast between Ruth's social position and that of the upper classes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 58-80
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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