Rhetoric of argument in Elizabeth Gaskell's "Mary Barton" and "Ruth"
Gaskell's two social novels, Mary Barton and Ruth, were significant contributors to the nineteenth-century argumentative discourse, and as such, the novels' rhetorical attributes, which include logos, pathos, and ethos, define them as arguments for political and social reform. Since scholarship has not examined Gaskell's social novels as argumentation, it has neglected to see Gaskell's novels as persuasive instruments in social discourse.
In Mary Barton Gaskell constructs her narrative argument as an a priori argument, cause and effect, basing her argument on three causal conditions: (1) poverty leads to epidemics, (2) isolation leads to animosity, and (3) exploitation leads to revolt. Chapters Two, Three, and Four examine each causal condition as it affects the factory workers, the factory owners, and middle-class society.
In Ruth Gaskell constructs her narrative as a forensic argument to challenge the established Victorian moral code and the practice of a double standard of morality. To structure her argument, Gaskell uses two rhetorical strategies: the Biblical paradigm--fall, redemption, and restoration, and the Biblical triad--woman-Pharisee-Christ, which relates to Ruth-Bradshaw-Benson. Gaskell argues that society's moral laws, particularly the double standard, are based on false assumptions about women, and she argues that society's treatment of the fallen woman and her "bastard" child reflects a pharisaic attitude and thus contravenes Christian principles.
In both novels, Gaskell strengthens her narrative argument with pathos. In Mary Barton and Ruth, Gaskell adds human faces and emotions to the statistics of investigative reports on working-class conditions and prostitution. Gaskell's effective use of pathos and logos in her argument rests upon the narrator's ethos, or narrative voice. The voice is especially effective as it is Gaskell's voice. Gaskell had often visited with the workers in their homes during the most desperate times of England's economic depression, and she had experiential knowledge and acquaintance with young, working-class dressmakers, female prisoners, and outcasts of society.
From an examination of Mary Barton and Ruth, one gains not only an understanding of Gaskell's works as social and historical commentaries but also as artistic constructs in argumentation.