Senior Honors Theses

Publication Date

Spring 4-24-2017

School

College of Arts and Sciences

Major

English

Keywords

"fallen woman, " Victorian England, Victorian Era Literature, Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell, Women's Emancipation, Women's Rights, Josephine Butler, Contagious Diseases Acts

Abstract

This thesis analyzes how the protagonist in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Ruth (1853) challenged the stereotypes projected onto the fallen woman in nineteenth century England. The prime moral figure, Mr. Benson, a clergyman in the story, cares for Ruth and provides for her with the help of his sister. Their kindness to a woman who would have been considered an outcast argues for a different response to sin than what society suggested.

After reading the novel, Josephine Butler acted upon the novel’s ethos and became an activist for women who were viewed as social outcasts because they were prostitutes or unwed mothers. This eventually led not only to social reform, but also legal, as her work helped repeal the Contagious Diseases Act in 1886 (Watt 1). This had long lasting implications for women’s emancipation movement (Hamilton 27). The novel’s influence on Butler shows how literature can challenge, on moral grounds, people’s reactions to those less fortunate, as well as motivate practical change in the forms of social and legal activism and reform.

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