‘Dusky Ruth’ by A.E. Coppard


Coppard, A.E. 1921

Dusky Ruth by A.E. Coppard, 1921

The magic trick:

Imbuing his tale of a one-night stand with just the right amount of sexuality

“Dusky Ruth” is about a one-night stand, so it stands to reason that sexuality is at the heart of the story. That kind of thing can go off the rails real fast, but Coppard lays it on in just the right amount. He captures well the desperate desire and temporary passion inherent to such an encounter. Likewise, he is spot-on in his portrayal of the sober return to reality brought forth by the following morning.

A century later, it’s a favorite topic of another British pop-culture institution, rock band the Arctic Monkeys; surely Alex Turner would enjoy this lustful little nugget of a story. And that’s quite a trick on Coppard’s part.

The selection:

He whispered: “Ruth!” and she was standing there. She touched him, but not speaking. He put out his hands, and they met round her neck; her hair was flowing in its great wave about her; he put his lips to her face and found that her eyes were streaming with tears, salt and strange and disturbing. In the close darkness he put his arms about her with not thought but to comfort her; one hand had plunged through the long tresses and the other across her hips before he realized she was ungowned; then he was aware of the softness of her breasts and the cold naked sleekness of her shoulders. But she was crying there, crying silently with great tears, her strange sorrow stifling his desire.

5 thoughts on “‘Dusky Ruth’ by A.E. Coppard

    • I’ll have to look that up. Thanks! I wasn’t awed or anything by this story initially, but in the months since that first read I feel like it’s stuck with me more than many I’ve read for this blog. There’s something haunting about it.

  1. Everyone, including no less a writer/critic than Frank O’Connor, seems to miss the point of this story, which is: why did Ruth tearfully changed her mind at the last minute? The secret lies in Coppard’s two mentions in passing of a man’s execution that day. One mention of it would have been colour; two mentions mean it’s significant. And it is. We infer it’s the reason Ruth changed her mind. We’re not told who the man was, but the execution’s being mentioned twice means it has something to do with Ruth—i.e., that it was almost certainly her lover/husband or some other male close to her. “Dusky Ruth” is by far Coppard’s best story and, when understood, one of the dozen best stories in the English language.

    Robert Cox

      • Glad I got you interested again. The crux of the story, then, is that the traveller was just after a one-night stand, whereas Ruth was in desperate need of human comfort, not sex. The traveller goes his way next morning without any sort of emotional engagement, but Ruth has to stay where she is, still mourning, still needing compassion.

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