The Book of Ruth

The Book of Ruth (1988) is a coming-of-age novel by American author Jane Hamilton (1957-Present). In rural Illinois, Ruth Grey considers herself the loser in a family of losers. Caught between her emotionally abusive mother and an alcoholic husband, Ruth struggles to assert herself and build a better life. Hamilton's debut novel is a harrowing analysis of the themes of family relationships, trauma, and resilience.

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Table of contents

    The Book of Ruth: Summary

    Let's take a look at a summary of Ruth's life. In small-town Illinois, Ruth grows up under the dominating force of her mother, May. She feels inadequate compared to her brother Matt, who excels at school. Ruth’s father, Elmer, has been absent for most of her life.

    To tell her story, Ruth begins with her mother’s story through a series of letters to her Aunt Sid. The letters reveal that May grew up as the eldest of eight children. From an early age, May was forced to take on most of the household chores and care for her younger siblings. After the deaths of several of her siblings, May developed a dark sense of humor to survive and began to express suicidal thoughts.

    Does Ruth's attitude towards May change as she learns about her mother's harsh upbringing?

    When May reached adulthood, she met a handsome young man named Willard Jensen. The pair fall in love, but May is heartbroken when Willard is drafted into WWII and dies. Sometime later, she meets the unremarkable Elmer Grey and settles down with him. The pair have Ruth and Matt, and Elmer leaves the family when Ruth is ten to get a job picking fruit in Texas.

    The Book of Ruth, Books on a shelf, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - Having been written off by teachers and her mother, Ruth finally connects with classic literature while working for Miss Finch

    Ruth struggles at school and is placed in a remedial class where she spends most of her time writing to her Aunt Sid. May unfavorably compares Ruth to Matt, which destroys Ruth’s confidence. As Matt wins a place at MIT, Ruth finds a job caring for Miss Finch, a blind old woman who introduces her to classic literature through tapes she owns Ruth is deeply influenced by reading and begins to see the world around her through classic novels and characters.

    As Ruth discovers classic literature she finds herself particularly drawn to Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Why does Ruth make such a strong connection with this work?

    When Miss Finch becomes senile, Ruth starts a job at the dry cleaners with her mother. Through a friend, Ruth is introduced to Ruby Dahl, the first man to take an interest in her. They arrange to go on a date, which ends when Ruby tries to force himself on Ruth. Despite this incident, Ruth eventually falls for Ruby, and the pair are soon married. Ruby is unwilling to find a job to provide for the pair, so they are forced to move in with May.

    While Ruth works, Ruby stays home, constantly bickering with May and spending his money on alcohol and drugs. When Ruth gives birth to a son, Justy, May becomes controlling and refuses to let Ruth interact with the child. As tensions mount at home, Ruth learns she is pregnant with a second child. At the advice of her social worker, she finds a cheap apartment away from May and plans to move in after Christmas.

    How does Ruth's relationship with Ruby mirror May's relationship with Elmer?

    As the moving day approaches, the atmosphere in the house becomes increasingly tense. One day Justy asks for a cookie, which results in an argument between May and Ruby. May insults Ruby, who then gives Justy a cookie to taunt May. An angry May attacks Ruby. Ruby then grabs a fire poker and proceeds to beat both May and Ruth. Ruth can escape to the front porch but quickly turns back to retrieve Justy. Having killed May, Ruby attacks Ruth while she is carrying Justy. She makes it out of the house and to a neighbor's, where she calls the police.

    Ruth recovers from the attack in a hospital close to Aunt Sid. During her recovery, she struggles to understand the trauma she has been through and speaks to several counselors and a preacher to find meaning. Gradually, she understands that she must cut Ruby out of her life entirely and admits that she feels relief at having May’s domineering presence removed from her life. Facing an uncertain future, Ruth considers her Aunt Sid’s suggestion of returning to school.

    The Book of Ruth was adapted into a TV movie in 2004.

    The Book of Ruth: Main Characters

    Jane Hamilton uses a range of characters in The Book of Ruth to explore different types of relationships and their impact on the family unit.

    Character Description
    Ruth The novel's narrator and protagonist is a young woman described as the loser of the town's loser family. Ruth is emotionally neglected by her cold-hearted mother, May, who saves her love and affection for Ruth's brother. Initially written off by her family and the rest of the community, Ruth develops her sense of self by reading classic literature and communicating with her aunt.
    May Ruth's mother, May, is an embittered woman, damaged by a life of emotional trauma and loss. May was forced to sacrifice her childhood to raise her siblings from an early age. Although she experiences true love with Willard Jensen, she is heartbroken when he is killed in WWII. Unable to show Ruth affection or support, she often resorts to insults and manipulation as parenting techniques.
    Aunt Sid Sid is one of May's few surviving siblings and Ruth's aunt. Sid lives in a town far from May and Ruth but purposely remains distant from her relatives and only communicates with Ruth through letters. Aunt Sid is one of Ruth's few adult role models during her upbringing and provides solace and guidance. Through Aunt Sid's letters, Ruth learns about May's painful past.
    Ruby Ruby is the first man to show any interest in Ruth. Due to Ruth's low self-esteem, she ignores Ruby's alcohol abuse and lack of ambition and agrees to marry him. Their rocky relationship goes from bad to worse as the temperamental Ruby clashes with the controlling May.

    The Book of Ruth: Themes

    In The Book of Ruth, Jane Hamilton uses the distressing dynamics of the Grey family to explore themes of trauma and the lasting effects of neglect.

    Family and Trauma

    Ruth experiences the pain and legacy of generational trauma and neglect in The Book of Ruth. As a child, May received little parental care and love. On top of this, she was forced to take on most of the home's domestic responsibilities and raise seven of her younger siblings. As May lost some of her siblings, she grew hard and closed off to survive the harsh reality of her life. When she finally opens up to love with Willard Jensen, she is further traumatized when he is killed in battle. For ten years after his death, May refuses to believe he is dead and keeps the light on at night in case he returns.

    When Sid attempts to talk to May about her grieving, May becomes spiteful and vindictive as a form of defense. She eventually consents to the marriage proposal of Elmer Grey, a plain man for whom she has no love. The couple has an unhappy marriage as May complains about Elmer's lack of drive and inability to provide for the family. May's unhappiness and loss of life inform how she parents Ruth and Matt. While Matt shows intellectual promise, Ruth does not shine at school. May finds it easy to give Matt encouragement and love but treats Ruth with scorn. In turn, this abuse causes Ruth to lack self-confidence and leads her to repeat this damaging relationship with Ruby.

    The Book of Ruth: Analysis

    Readers can understand the novel's more profound meaning and message by analyzing Hamilton's style and genre. As Ruth narrates her life story from childhood to marriage, the book exemplifies the coming-of-age genre.

    Coming-of-age: also known as Bildungsroman, is a literary genre concerned with a character's transition from childhood to adulthood. These works often detail the psychological growth a character experiences through a life-changing event or era. Famous examples of the genre include Goodbye, Colombus (1959) by Philip Roth (1933-2018) and Jeanette Winterson's (1959-Present) Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985).

    Hamilton shows Ruth's journey as she grows and begins to shed the pain and limitations forced on her by life. Ruth’s growth is facilitated by her exposure to classic literature given to her by Miss Finch. Through these books on tape, Ruth learns about heroes from classic literature and draws inspiration from their resilience. The power of writing has a formative impact on Ruth as she considers writing a novel about her experiences at the end of the book.

    The Book of Ruth, Coming of Age Narrative, StudySmarterFig 2. - Coming of Age narratives often look at the internal development of the main character.

    The Book of Ruth was Jane Hamilton’s first novel and enjoyed modest success upon publication. It wasn't until years later that the story and Hamilton herself would find a wider audience thanks to the support of TV host Oprah Winfrey.

    In the early 1980s, Jane Hamilton was a struggling writer who had published a few short stories that mainly focused on autobiographical elements. In 1983 she watched a TV news story about several Wisconsin men who had murdered their mothers-in-law. This dark story intrigued Hamilton, who was curious to write about other people rather than herself.

    She started to write a long rant that spanned over twenty pages in a “hick dialect that exists nowhere on Earth, but all the main pieces of the novel were tucked into that rant.”1 From there, she slowly worked the voice into a short story and began drafting the novel. During the process, Hamilton let herself be guided by this narrative voice, stating "The Book of Ruth is fueled by Ruth's voice because I felt possessed by Ruth."2

    After many publishers rejected the book because of its bleak content, Hamilton was finally able to secure a small first-run print in 1988. Not expecting much from such a limited launch, Hamilton was surprised when she received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey, who invited her to lunch.

    During lunch, Oprah shared her enthusiasm for the book and even quoted lines of the prose to Hamilton. Years later, Oprah started her highly successful “Book of the Month” Club. The book of Ruth was the third book to be selected in November 1996. As one of the most recognized celebrities with a highly rated TV show, Oprah’s endorsement lifted Hamilton out of relative obscurity, causing Hamilton's sales to skyrocket.

    The exposure transformed Hamilton’s career, and the author was honored again when Oprah selected her 1994 novel, A Map of the World (1994) as her selection for December 1999.

    The Book of Ruth: Quotes

    The following quotes explore the book's themes of neglect and trauma.

    I learned slowly, that if you don't look at the world with perfect vision, you're bound to get yourself cooked." (Ch. 1)

    Ruth grows up in an emotionally abusive atmosphere and is dismissed as unintelligent by her mother. Yet Ruth displays immense resilience and bravery as she works hard to raise her son and provide for the household. Although she isn't as academically gifted as her brother, Ruth quickly learns her lessons and uses her knowledge to survive.

    I feel like I don't have all the ingredients a person is supposed to have." (Ch. 4)

    When Ruth talks about her mother's pregnancy, she believes May did not eat the right foods while carrying her. This lack of nutrition reflects May's lack of love and support for her daughter. Because Ruth was denied these things, she struggles to feel complete.

    The Book of Ruth - Key takeaways

    • The Book of Ruth is a novel by American author Jane Hamilton, published in 1988.
    • Set in rural Illinois, the story follows Ruth Grey, a young women caught between her emotionally abusive mother and an alcoholic husband. As she struggles to provide for her family, she begins to find a sense of self and dreams of a better life.
    • In the book, Hamilton analyzes themes of family relationships, trauma, and resilience.
    • The novel is an example of the coming-of-age genre.
    • Upon its original publication the book enjoyed critical success but did not become a commercial hit until Oprah Winfrey selected it for her "Book of the Month" club.

    1 Cherly Reed, "Jane Hamilton: Interview," TriQuarterly, July 2010.

    2 Jeff Guinn, "Family and Farm is Paramount to Novelist Jane Hamilton",

    Frequently Asked Questions about The Book of Ruth

    What is the main theme of The Book of Ruth?

    The main theme in The Book of Ruth is family trauma.

    What is the main message of The Book of Ruth?

    The main message in The Book of Ruth is importance of resilience.

    What is The Book of Ruth about?

    The Book of Ruth follows the story of Ruth Grey, a young woman trapped in abusive relationships with her husband and mother. As Ruth begins to gain a sense of self, she starts to dream of a better life.

    When wasThe Book of Ruth written?

    The Book of Ruth was published in 1988.

    Who is the antagonist in The Book of Ruth?

    The main antagonist inThe Book of Ruth is Ruth's mother, May.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The Book of Ruth is Jane Hamilton's debut novel. 

    The only positive adult figure in Ruth's life is _________. 

    How does Ruth learn about her mother's youth?


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