Mrs. Bond, my twelfth-grade English teacher, launched our class discussion of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by asking whether we thought that the play had been misnamed. I’m sure that Mrs. Bond was one of many teachers who have used that same question to get student readers to think about the structure of that play. It’s a question that highlights the difference between a story’s pivotal figure—the one around whom the action revolves—and the protagonist—the whom the story is about.
The Book of Ruth, read in Ashkenazi Jewish synagogues on Shavu’ot morning, is often characterized as a biblical novel. Unlike the more convoluted and ostensibly historical narratives of the books of Joshua through Kings, Ruth is carefully structured and gives the impression of being an integral work written with authorial intent, rather than a patchwork of early sources reworked and reworked again by series of editors, each with his own agenda. But what sort of novel is it, and is it properly named?
Scholars disagree as to the time of the composition of the Book of Ruth, arguing variously for the period of the First Temple, the early Persian period when the Jews returned to Zion from exile, and even later, when Hellenistic influences became more prominent. Whatever the date of its composition, the decision to include it in the canon was made by the Jewish Sages in the Roman period and the Sages presumably read the book not only in light of other canonical Jewish works, but also against the literary standards of the larger non-Jewish society in which they lived.
By that standard, this was inarguably the Book of Ruth. The standard popular prose narrative of that time, the Hellenistic novel, related the vicissitudes of a hero, or often a pair of lovers, whose hopes for a simple and happy life are interrupted by abduction, enslavement, evil enchanters, monsters, and the like. Despite their suffering, the hero holds firm, never despairs, and in the end receives his or her reward—marriage, wealth, and social approbation. A similar kind of narrative was the medieval chivalric romance, in which a knight errant heroically prevails over a host of evils and defeats innumerable enemies, all by virtue of his own unwavering virtue, faith, and loyalty to his lady love.
Ruth is just such a heroine. She is widowed, loses her home, and finds herself virtually alone in a strange land. She must scrounge for food and cast herself on the mercy of a society that views her as a foreigner. Yet she perseveres and, using a bit of subterfuge and bending the law in her favor, she finds a wealthy husband and produces healthy children.
But Ruth, as a character, could never be the protagonist of a modern novel.
Cervantes’ Don Quixote is generally considered the first modern novel. In satirizing the medieval romance of the knight errant, Cervantes created a protagonist quite unlike any in that genre. For Don Quixote is deluded—he misunderstands the world around him. Furthermore, he changes. He can hardly remain resolutely himself through his adventures because he really is not himself. In the end, rather than overcome, he is overcome—by the knowledge that the world he lives in is not the world he fantasized he was living in. Shakespeare, Cervantes’ contemporary, was presenting similar heroes in his plays. As Mrs. Bond pointed out in twelfth grade, the tragic hero in Julius Caesar is Brutus, the man who seeks to change the flow of history but is in the end defeated by forces beyond his control.
The Book of Ruth has a modern heroine, and it’s not Ruth. Ruth is indeed the pivot of the story—events revolve around her. But the character who changes, who achieves, through her experience, a greater understanding of herself and her world, is Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi.
At the beginning of the story, Naomi is defeated. She has lost her husband and both of her sons, as well as her property and her wealth. As a woman in a tribal society, she cannot support herself, so she must leave the plains of Moab, where she has lived for many years, and head back to her extended family in Bethlehem, in Judea. Like many defeated people, she prefers to suffer alone and tells her two daughters-in-law, Moabite natives, to return to their own families and leave her alone.
When Naomi returns to Bethlehem, her friends and relatives barely recognize her. And she tells them not to call her Naomi but “Mara,” “Bitter.” The world has conspired against her and God has turned his face away from her. She has no hope. She seems to expect that she will live the rest of her life off the meager gleanings that Ruth, who has stuck with her, brings in from the fields.
But Naomi is surprised to find that neither humanity nor God is really against her. Ruth does not abandon her, and her relative Boaz takes the two women under his wing. Naomi regains hope, and with it the will to act. She tells Ruth to take advantage of Boaz’s generosity and make apparent to him her availability as a bride. She finds that the law protects her as well. It assures that the property that once belonged to her, long since sold (presumably to pay for her family’s move to Moab) has not left her hands forever. By law, a relative must redeem it for her and restore it to her family.
In the final scene, Naomi holds Ruth’s baby and serves as its foster mother. No, she has not received her husband and sons back, but she has gained security, love, and continuity, a life that will continue into the generations to come.
Naomi is not, then, a tragic hero like Brutus or, ultimately, Don Quixote. She is a comic hero—not in the sense of being funny, but in the sense of a protagonist whose life trajectory has risen from the lowest depths of despair to happiness and fulfillment.
The Book of Ruth’s narrative is more complex than it seems on the surface. One part of that complexity is that it can be read as a romance—a book about the perseverance of a virtuous heroine, as its name would imply. But it can also be read as the Book of Naomi, a modern narrative about a heroine who gains knowledge of herself and the world.