Character analysis: Ruth Younger
"Or crust and sugar over - / Like a syrupy sweet?"
Ruth tries to make the best of things. As effectively portrayed in the film through the use of black and white, the apartment lacks sunlight and the warmth a home needs and people crave . Amid her dreary life in the cramped apartment, she directs all her energy toward the happiness of her son and husband. She is disappointed because life has not lived up to her expectations. As a result of her stagnant position, she is "known among her people as a 'settled woman'" . She settles for satisfaction rather than seeking out fulfillment. With rent to pay and a family to care for, she has given up any thoughts of a better future for herself. Instead, she raises Travis and supports Walter in an effort to care for their dreams. She tries to mask her own discontent in hopes to strengthen the family spirit and encourage them to see the good in the ugly.
Her active dedication to take care of the family is oftentimes squandered and contradicted by Mama. In their major scene, many of Ruth's actions are questioned by Mama including her handling of Travis. Having her maternal efforts overriden by Mama bruises Ruth's psyche. As a result, she regularly feels displaced. Her actions seem to be in vain because she is not allowed to completely assume the familial role of mother. In her frustrating cycle of self-sacrificing actions to gloss over the harsh realities Ruth even considers an abortion to protect her family from another difficult issue. She resigns herself to the option because "a woman will do anything for her family" no matter how ugly it may be .
When Mama tells the family about the house, Ruth weighs the positives and negatives of the choice, determines this is an improvement for her family, and tries to reinforce the good qualities about the move. It also helps that she sees the change as a good thing for herself as she happily states "this is my time in life" . In fact it is, but she is conflicted because Walter is not happy with the decision which threatens her goal to ensure her family happiness. For her, movement and/or change of any kind is an improvement, so she embraces the decision although it is one that brings about a new set of problems as a result of negative race relations. Thankfully, she is able to take pleasure in the house and see Walter happy as Mama hands over the role of head of the family to him. The renewed confidence of Walter leads to a mending of his and Ruth's relationship and her role as caretaker, wife, and mother.
Ruth is in some ways like a typical housewife of the 1950s. She makes breakfast, cleans the house, supports her husband, and keeps her own desires to herself. Unlike the stereotypical 1950s housewives, though, she also goes out into the world and works her butt off. Not only does she struggle to maintain her own household, but she goes out to work in the households of rich white people as well. The Youngers' financial difficulties make it impossible for Ruth to just work in her own home. As a character, then, Ruth exposes the difficulties of being a working-class mother.
All this financial stress is proving to be big trouble for Ruth's marriage. Her husband Walter is incredibly dissatisfied with his life, and he constantly takes it out on her. Ruth is far from a doormat and tells her husband off when he starts acting like a jerk. However, it is clear in the play that the turmoil in her marriage is taking a real toll on Ruth. She often seems irritable, depressed, and at times sinks into despair.
This all comes to a head for Ruth, when she finds out she is pregnant and considers an abortion. In the '50s, an abortion would have been a) illegal and b) dangerous. But according to Mama: "When the world gets ugly enough – a woman will do anything for her family. The part that's already living" (1.2.235). Though Ruth hates the idea of aborting her child, she feels it's the best decision for her financially-strapped family.
In the end, though, Ruth chooses to keep her child. She finds hope in the fact that the Younger family will soon be moving out of their cramped, roach-infested apartment and into a new house. She'll still have to work to help pay the mortgage, and they'll all have to deal with the racist backlash of living in a white neighborhood. Yes, times will still be tough for Ruth, but with her family around her she feels ready for to face the struggle.Timeline