Ruth's description of herself as a "small" woman captures the essence of her character. "Stunned into silence" by her psychologically abusive husband, Ruth's growth has been stunted, like that of her "half-grown" daughters and the dying maple tree in the side yard.
A complicated woman who seems to "know a lot and understand very little," Ruth clings to the memory of her dead father, Dr. Foster, whom she perceives as the only one who ever really cared about her well-being. Consequently, she fails to see the similarities between Macon and Dr. Foster. Both are despised by the community but granted a grudging respect for having obtained a measure of status and prosperity. Both are contemptuous of lower-class blacks and oblivious to the fact that their ability to sustain their affluent lifestyles depends on the support of the black community. And both have found a way to escape the painful realities of their spiritually dead lives while maintaining their facades as prosperous community leaders.
In many ways, the frail, vulnerable Ruth is the direct opposite of the strong, independent Pilate. Pilate is depicted as a tall, black cedar tree blessed with the power of an elephant and the wisdom of an owl; Ruth, with her "lemon yellow" skin, is a fragile flower and a doll-like creature who seems to have no mind of her own. Pilate has overcome her "dry birth" and created a meaningful life for herself; Ruth relies on others to create her reality and validate her existence. Pilate revels in the beauty of nature; Ruth sees nature as an ominous force that threatens to intrude on her carefully crafted environment. And finally, Pilate's house is a "safe harbor" for her extended family; Ruth's house is "more prison than palace."
Conversely, although Ruth seems reluctant to admit that she is anything like the unkempt, eccentric Pilate, the women have several things in common. Both communicate frequently with their dead fathers and share an intuitive, internal wisdom that transcends the mundane, external knowledge of others. Both have found a way to manipulate Macon and undermine his oppressive, domineering behavior. And both share an intense love for Milkman and an ardent desire to see him succeed in the world. But while Ruth attempts to steer him into the medical field, Pilate encourages him to follow his own spiritual path.
Ruth's difficulties as a wife and mother stems in part from her failure to experience a close, nurturing relationship with her own mother. Unlike Pilate, who has fond memories of her mother, Ruth's only memory of her mother is as a rival for her father's love. Like Hagar, Ruth's "narrow but deep" passions render her incapable of differentiating between sex and love. Consequently, for Ruth, nursing Milkman is not a maternal, nurturing act but a secret, furtive ritual she engages in for her own sexual pleasure. Frustrated by unfulfilled desires, she perceives her son's imminent death at the hands of his lover not as a tragedy that would deny him the opportunity to achieve his potential but as "the annihilation of the last occasion she had been made love to."