Varying Interpretations of Hope in Wordsworth’s Ruined Cottage
In The Ruined Cottage, hope is a negative force in Margaret’s life. Her hope debilitates her and prevents her from moving on from the loss of her husband, Robert. Though she needs to maintain her house once he is unable to provide for her, she remains in one place pining for him to return. As the scope of her world narrows, she seems to gain more hope, yet she takes less care of herself, her children, and her home. However, Armytage seems to think hope is a redeeming virtue of Margaret’s, though to Margaret, hope appears to be a lifestyle rather than a belief.
Armytage and the speaker see Margaret’s hope as a virtue, though her hope causes her to live in a state of delusion as she neglects herself, her home, and her children. This disconnect could be explained by the characters’ different definitions of hope—Armytage is only described as having hope in the context of everyday social contracts (246-257). He praises Margaret’s “goodness” (369) and cheerfulness in the face of devastation, and he offers her hopeful thoughts as a platitude. To Armytage, hope appears to be most important as a noun, a virtue one can have or a token one can exchange.
Conversely, for Margaret, hope is a lifestyle of expectations and dependence on others to fulfill those expectations. She is unable to abandon this way of life, however, when others do not fulfill her expectations. Rather, she slowly and pitifully wastes away. The hope evidenced in Margaret’s life is not a healthy virtue, as Armytage and the speaker seem to believe, but a destructive and obsessive force: it drives her to fruitlessly wander for days through damp and desolate fields in search of a husband who will not return, it causes her to forget the children who rely on her for provision, even to the point of her baby’s death (348-51, 436).
Throughout the poem, Margaret always has hope. However, the destructiveness of her expectations depends on the object of those expectations. At the start of the poem, her hope is rooted in very present realities that are unlikely to disappoint her wishes for the future; her two children are her “best hope next to the God in Heaven” (132). Once she begins to place expectations on something that has already left her, she becomes unstable. In this instance, her hope is an expectation for the future grounded in reality. After her husband leaves, her hope is transferred to the unreality of him and his return. Her hope in something solid and present devolves into hope in something absent, while she ignores her still-present children.
During the harsh winter season, “Margaret / [Goes] struggling on through those calamitous years / With chearful hope” (146-148). She joyfully and steadfastly believes that life will get better, and those expectations motivate her. The possibility of her life improving is likely. However, after her husband leaves, Margaret’s hope is no longer based in reality. When Armytage arrives at Margaret’s home, “with the hope / Of usual greeting” (246-247), Armytage’s hope is a casual wish or expectation, not an encompassing idea around which he molds his life. After telling Armytage of her husband’s abandonment and her bleak situation, he finds he “ha[s] little power / To give her comfort, and [is] glad to take / Such words of hope from her own mouth as serv’d / To chear us both” (275-278). Margaret takes charge of the situation, and her words are comforts, beliefs, and positive expectations for the future, though they may never be fulfilled. Hope now becomes Margaret’s escape from reality: she attributes Robert’s sudden departure to a kindness on his part, believing that he wanted to keep her from following him and “and sink[ing] / Beneath the misery of a soldier’s life’” (272-273). Furthermore, Armytage notices that after talking of better things in the future, Margaret looks “As if she had been shedding tears of joy” (281). He sees these optimistic expectations for the future as positive qualities for Margaret, rather than delusions or potentially harmful beliefs.
After mourning and seeking her husband with no relief, Margaret hopes “‘that heaven / Will give [her] patience to endure the things / Which [she] behold[s] at home” (359-361). Interestingly, this is the only time in the poem that hope is used as a verb. She is expecting patience, deliverance. She never hopes in herself; rather, she always places her belief outside her self, whether in her children, heaven, or her husband. Because of this, she never learns self-sufficiency. This hope within her, however, is a virtue to Armytage, who often is haunted by her “goodness” (369). Sadly, her propensity to place her expectations in the hands of others destroys her. Margaret even refuses Armytage’s well-meaning remarks of hope, for her definition of hope appears to be different. He states that he “left her then / With the best hope and comfort I could give; / She thanked me for my will, but for my hope / It seemed she did not thank me” (388-392). Armytage offers Margaret hope, here defined as cheer and reassurance, but she refuses it. His idea of hope is as a kind remark, a piece of comfort to be given to those who mourn, not the deeply personal ideal that Margaret holds.
When Armytage comes to visit again, Margaret’s house is in further disarray as she descends further into unreality. While walking with Armytage, she remarks about a lackluster tree in her garden: “‘I fear it will be dead and gone / Ere Robert come again.’ Towards the house / Together we returned, and she inquired / If I had any hope” (425-428). Here she could be asking two different questions: first, whether Armytage believes that her husband will return, and second, whether he believes that the tree will live until Robert comes back. She does not say “if Robert come again” but “Ere Robert come again,” exposing her belief that he will return at some point in time. She seems to be using the tree as a metaphor for herself, it is weak, uncared for, and battered by the forces of nature. She wonders whether, like the tree, she will be “dead and gone” before Robert returns, for she believes “she must die, / Of sorrow” (431).
However, she does not die in sorrow, but with the delusion that Robert is still coming back to her. Despite her ragged clothes and the cold, Armytage notes that she still faithfully kept watch for her husband, that
She loved this wretched spot, nor would for worlds
Have parted hence; and still that length of road
And this rude bench one torturing hope endeared,
Fast rooted at her heart, and here, my friend,
In sickness she remained, and here she died,
Last human tenant of these ruined walls. (487-492)
As her hope that her husband will return becomes more obsessive, Margaret’s world shrinks. After wandering the wilderness, seeking what she won’t find, she is confined to her house with the hope that her husband will return there, then to the bench where she watches passers-by and imagines her expectations being fulfilled. Margaret’s hope is torturing—she cannot escape her unwavering belief that Robert will return, that heaven will give her patience to wait for him. She does not directly hope for a better life, but she expects that her husband will return to give her a better life. This expectation paralyzes her and reduces her to constant pining and inaction. This hope is “torturing” and “fast rooted” (489-90). It never leaves Margaret; rather, it becomes Margaret.
Upon hearing Margaret’s story, the speaker “with a brother’s love / blesse[s] her.” His compassionate response indicates that he believers her hope is a tragic yet redeemable quality. Rather than an unhealthy fixation in Margaret’s life, he sees the hope as a positive virtue. Though Robert is to blame for leaving Margaret, neither Armytage nor the speaker blame her for neglecting to take care of her responsibilities. To Margaret, however, hope is not simply a virtue but her lifeblood, though its obsessive nature eventually leads to her downfall.
Armytage and Margaret could have reached different operational definitions of hope based on their experiences. Armytage reaches conclusions through deep thought and removal from passion, and optimistically attributes that depth of thought to those who act out of Margaret, who is acting out of passion. Margaret is not stepping outside her circumstances to evaluate the goodness of her actions; she is simply reacting. Her hope is not a conscious purgation of extraneous emotion in an attempt to clarify her thought, but a blind act of clinging to unreality as a desperate attempt to cope with her grief.
Despite his apparent stoicism, Armytage still sees hope as a virtue, possibly because he defines hope differently than Margaret does. He attributes her hopeful response to a thoughtful choice to be virtuous, not to her need for a coping mechanism. Furthermore, this coping mechanism is harmful because it draws her further and further away from reality, the very thing Armytage wants the narrator to embrace by accepting the inevitability of change and the peace that springs from that acceptance (508-12).
In fact, Armytage sees Margaret’s intense emotion and grief, but warns only the narrator (not Margaret) not to be drawn into despair. He does not make a negative comment about Margaret’s grief, nor does he tell the narrator to hope in spite of his circumstances. To Armytage, Margaret’s circumstances seem to set her apart; it is reasonable, even noble, for her to respond as she does. Her response is pure, though her circumstances are terrible. The depression and dysfunction in her life are a result of a good, hope, which renders the entire tale good and justifies Margaret’s actions. However, Margaret’s neglectful ways and passionate embrace of unrealistic expectations evidence that she is not thinking through her actions in the gracious way that Armytage believes she doesorks.