A Moabite Among the Israelities: Ruth, Religion, and the Victorian Social Novel
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This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Literature and Theology following peer review. The version of record Dolin, T. 2016. A Moabite Among the Israelities: Ruth, Religion, and the Victorian Social Novel. Literature and Theology. 30 (1): pp. 67-81 is available online at: http://doi.org/10.1093/litthe/fru062
When Elizabeth Gaskell’s reputation was revived in the 1980s and 1990s, Ruth was reread along with the factory novels, and uneasily assimilated to the secular socio-economistic, feminist Gaskell that emerged at that time. Ruth’s overt religiosity was necessarily downplayed, however, and it was reconstructed as a social novel about the sexual double standard. What happened to religion? This article argues that it is effaced by historicism: Gaskell’s and ours. Ruth was Gaskell’s attempt to reimagine social fiction; but it was only a first stage, a transitional work that looks towards a different kind of ethical fiction-reading subject who will be a different kind of agent in social change. Rather than proposing a naively transcendental solution to the conditions of history and ideology, whether in the Romantic form of feeling or the Christian form of faith in God, Gaskell offers an explanatory fable of social renewal through the energy of the outsider. Ruth is like her Moabite namesake: she foregoes her own religious identity as a devout Protestant Christian to take up a greater genealogical imperative, to instate the lineage of a new secular religion. In this respect, the fate of Ruth itself has been somewhat akin to the fate of the biblical heroine. For it too stands as a kind of lone Moabite among the Israelites, an outsider fiction seeking religion’s readmission to the vital debates about feminism, social realism, and the role of fiction in social change, and promising that it can go whither they go.
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