Fanny Fern’s 1855 novel Ruth Hall surprised me a little bit, partly in terms of its plot, but even more so in terms of how it is written. The plot has a fairly traditional structure to it — a heroine happy but precarious, a heroine in trouble, a heroine in more trouble, a heroine in new kinds of trouble, a heroine saved — although within the traditional structure are some innovations. The novel begins with a marriage rather than ending with one, which is a twist on the coming-of-age novel so popular at the time. Fanny Fern actively resists ending the novel with a marriage, in fact, as she could easily have had Ruth accept Mr. Walter’s hand, but instead Ruth insists on staying single and supporting herself. Also innovative, of course, is the way that Ruth engineers her own salvation, instead of relying on a suitor or a family member to save her. The very point of the novel is her claim of independence and the success she has at insisting on it.
To me, the novel’s style is most striking, though, particularly the short chapters and the juxtapositions of varied scenes and character sketches. The style is disjointed, with abrupt transitions from one character to another. Fern’s newspaper writing must have influenced the development of this style, as the chapters are similar in length to the essays Fern published (my book has a sampling of these essays, although I haven’t yet read them), the type of essay her character Ruth Hall became famous for.
This disjointedness works for me because of the way it offers a kaleidoscope view of the story, all the little pieces fitting together to create a sense of the society Ruth moved in. The style also fits with Fern’s relative lack of interest in extensive detail or psychological depths; instead of long sections of text that delve into the details of a scene or the depths of a character’s mind, we get a quick sketch of a conversation or a dramatic moment, and then we are on to the next one. Fern is very good with the telling detail and the revealing conversation that informs you of everything you need to know without belaboring the point. This is not to say that the characters have no depth or that the narrative isn’t fleshed out, but what depth and complexity there is (and really Ruth is the only character that is coming to mind right now that has some psychological substance to her — or am I missing something?) is created through quick flashes of insight.
The book has some odd moments. I couldn’t quite figure out the point of the phrenology chapter, one of the longest chapters, in fact, except that Fern wanted to make a joke about phrenology, which seems like an odd thing to in the middle of a novel. And I didn’t understand the characters’ obsession with puns either. The fact that Hall’s daughter Nettie likes puns makes sense, since this is possibly a way of indicating that she has inherited her mother’s facility with language, but Mrs. Skiddy likes puns as well, and she’s not exactly one of the sympathetic characters.
But I like the book’s oddness; it seems to fit with its comic tone, and it does have some wonderful comic scenes, especially those describing just how horrid Ruth’s family and her in-laws are. You could not possibly have a worse extended family than Ruth has — they are people you can rely on to behave in as selfish and mercenary a manner possible. Even though these people cause much of Ruth’s suffering, their ridiculousness is so unbelievable that they provide a kind of comic relief to all the gloom of Ruth’s life.
In a way, Ruth’s story is at odds with the rest of the book — her story is about suffering, hard work, sacrifice, and triumph; it’s very serious and sentimental stuff. The rest of the book, though, is about the humor and the folly of humanity, with Hyacinth and his narcissistic preening, Mr. and Mrs. Skiddy and their marital battles, and those letter writers who foolishly hope Ruth will write their school compositions for them. For me, all these disparate parts work together to create a lot of energy; in formal terms, the book is a bit of a mess, I suppose, but it’s a fun mess.