The next day the weather was brave and glorious; a perfect “bridal of the earth and sky;” and every one turned out of the inn to enjoy the fresh beauty of nature. Ruth was quite unconscious of being the object of remark, and, in her light, rapid passings to and fro, had never looked at the doors and windows, where many watchers stood observing her, and commenting upon her situation or her appearance. “She’s a very lovely creature,” said one gentleman, rising from the breakfast-table to catch a glimpse of her as she entered from her morning’s ramble. “Not above sixteen, I should think. Very modest and innocent-looking in her white gown!” (Gaskell Chapter VI)*
In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), the reader observes the main character through the window together with the middle-class guests at the inn Ruth is staying at. First, the “gentleman” simply observes – “She’s a lovely creature” – and describes what he sees: “Not above sixteen,” “Very modest and innocent-looking in her white gown!” (my emphasis). If there is any judgement on his side, it’s in Ruth’s favour. She looks the part of the ideal (and idolised) “innocent” and “modest” Victorian girl. The husband likes what he sees.
But soon the conversation changes and the “glimpse” becomes something quite different:
His wife, busy administering to the wants of a fine little boy, could only say (without seeing the young girl’s modest ways, and gentle, downcast countenance): “Well! I do think it’s a shame such people should be allowed to come here. To think of such wickedness under the same roof! Do come away, my dear, and don’t flatter her by such notice.” (Gaskell Chapter VI)
The wife does not look: “without seeing” any of Ruth’s demeanour (“modest,” “gentle”) and “busy” with “her fine little boy,” she has come to a conclusion concerning the girl outside the window – “such people” are not to be accepted in polite society. It seems that she has heard rumours; she doesn’t see Ruth at all. She doesn’t need to. (Or so she thinks.) And Ruth – outside the window and outside of hearing and seeing – cannot take part in the conversation, cannot speak, does not even look: with her “downcast countenance” she “had never looked at the doors and windows.”
The husband doesn’t argue with his wife:
[He] returned to the breakfast-table; he smelt the broiled ham and eggs, and he heard his wife’s commands. Whether smelling or hearing had most to do in causing his obedience, I cannot tell; perhaps you can. (Gaskell Chapter VI)
He immediately averts his gaze, “smelling” and “hearing” take over. What his own eyes tell him as being at least potentially true about Ruth – he sees and knows** –, is easily discarded: he “hear[s] his wife’s commands” (my emphasis). The window closes, the silence going both ways now, the seeing stops.
But another kind of window is opened: “perhaps you can” (my emphasis).
It is the window between the story world, the narrator (“I cannot tell”; my emphasis) – who serves as a kind of ‘paper windowpane,’ allowing us to ‘see’ the story and ‘look into’ the characters’ minds via the ‘telling’ – and the reader. The reader who observes the paper window that is the story observing the husband observing Ruth. (I said that. I know. The point is that the text itself makes us aware of this process here.) As the husband and the wife, we do not merely watch, though, we judge. And we – the ones who might “tell” what motivates the husband’s retreat – are as easily distracted by the immediate pleasures of life (i.e. breakfast) and as readily avoid the prospect of conflict (i.e. by not listening). And just “perhaps” we too are often too hasty in this, easily ready to close our eyes in favour of what ‘everybody says.’
And suddenly it is us who are the observed.
(Paper) windows work both ways.
* One of my students recently introduced me to this text – and everybody else seems to be thinking about windows as well these days... maybe it’s becoming a trend?
** “To become aware of” (OED, “see, v.” 5.a.).
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Ruth. 1853. iBooks, https://books.apple.com/de/book/ruth/id499508571. Accessed 5 February 2022.
“see, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/174749. Accessed 5 February 2022.