North and South: Dominated by the struggle of powerful personalities

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is a novel dominated by the struggle of powerful personalities. The Bildungsroman style of novel explores the coming of age of Margaret Hale, the nineteen year old protagonist, and the ‘struggles’ she faces and the preoccupations she is ‘struggling’ with. Alongside Margaret, Gaskell presents characters including Mr. Thornton, Mr. Hale, and Nicholas Higgins, all of whom, in some sense have a powerful personality, which may not be authoritatively or physically ‘powerful’, but as a character who plays a ‘powerful’ literary role within the scope of the novel. Through close analysis of Gaskell’s choice of language, structure and form, the ‘struggle’ of each character can be assessed through the presentation and exploration of the social concerns which are related with autonomy and the value of class in the context of 1850’s England.

Margaret Hale’s character, as the protagonist, dominates Gaskell’s novel. Gaskell’s own working title for her novel, first published in Dicken’s Household Words between 1854 and 1855, was ‘Margaret Hale’, which illuminates her character’s significance. However the altered title; North and South, proposed by Dicken’s himself, suggests that Margaret’s personal struggles, appear “secondary” to the wider theme of class conflict.[1] Margaret’s character does herself struggle with class conflict, and more specifically female autonomy, exemplified in her developing relationship with Bessy Higgins; Margaret considers “more sorrowfully than Bessy did, of the contrast between them.” The “contrast” seemingly appears to be problematic enough for Gaskell to pose Margaret to “sorrowfully” reflect on the differences between the two friends, which at the moment of reflection, mirrors Margaret’s evolving opinions of the people of the North. Margaret appears to observe the behaviour of everyone she is contact with, process it, and adopt the parts that will serve to improve her own character. She also uses every uncomfortable or difficult moment to improve her character, both consciously and unconsciously, which exemplifies the struggle for her female self-determination amid her relationship with Mr. John Thornton.

Margaret does not accept the assumption that women are inferior in any particular, and revels in her eloquence and personal strength; which is often evident in her convincing and somewhat provocative tone. For instance Margaret flirtatiously provokes disagreement from Mr. Thornton when discussing the debated topic of class struggle in Milton, in the North, “’But’, said Margaret in a low voice”, with “what she said only [irritating] him.” The hushed tone of Margaret implies that she understands that her rebuttal is controversial, and that contextually for a lady to speak out against a man in the patriarchal society in which her character is struggling to comes to terms with, illuminates Margaret’s true personality. Margaret’s true character is one who must deal with her suppressed feelings for John Thornton, a man who she considers to be below her social status, which is evidence therefore to suggest that her ‘powerful personality’ confronts the struggles of class conflict, which is a recurrent theme throughout the novel.

The relationship between Margaret Hale and Mr. Thornton personifies the social divide between the North and South; and the struggle for Margaret to evolve into a less audacious, outspoken, Southerner. “The North in mid-Victorian fiction is not merely a place by a figure for capitalist values for which Manchester was often the symbol”[2], illustrates Gaskell’s presentation of Thornton’s conventional attitude to the government determining the political economy, and that how, as a multi-faceted, sympathetic character, he exemplifies how a man from the North does not have to have his ability to succeed, squandered by his social class. Mr. Thornton struggles to justify with Margaret how he believes that “It is one of the great beauties if our system, that a working-man may raise himself into the power and position of a master.” Although Gaskell suggests to her middle class readership that Margaret struggles with her affection she feels toward Mr. Thornton, contrastingly, Thornton seemingly has no difficulty whatsoever. The literary use of free indirect discourse within the omniscient narrative, exemplifies the continuously conflicting opinions which the people from the North and the South use to justify to their companions, which is of use in observing the evolution of Margaret and Mr. Thornton’s relationship. Upon meeting Margaret, every detail of her character appears to fascinate Thornton, for example when taking tea at the Hale household, Thornton is presented by Gaskell to be captivated by a bracelet on Margaret’s arm, which required “re-placing”, “until it tightened her soft flesh”, Thornton “watched” Margaret struggle with this minute imperfection in her dress, so much so as to suggest he observed “with far more attention than he listened to her father.” Through examination of the couple’s relationship, Thornton’s character undergoes a transformational journey that provides Gaskell’s contemporary readership with thought-provoking questions concerning the struggle of social responsibility and how a responsible society should be managed.

By contrast, the characterization of Mrs. Hale suggests that North and South is also dominated by the struggle of personalities, though not necessarily those of ‘powerful’ ones. Mrs Hale, somewhat like her daughter Margaret, struggles with the loss of her idyllic life in Helstone, where Margaret’s depiction of the two locations, exemplifies the female character’s views of their homes, meanwhile essentially commenting on their declining social status. Margaret describes Helstone as “like a village in a poem—in one of Tennyson’s poems,” where cottages had “roses growing all over them.” The manufacturing town of Milton-Northern cannot be more different; it had a “lead-coloured cloud” hanging over it, and its air “had a faint taste and smell of smoke.” Mrs. Hale’s health declines immensely in the period of movement from the South to the North, and this physical struggle she undergoes juxtaposes the psychological turmoil she evokes of herself. A sense of regret in her choice of spouse is evident in Mrs. Hale’s character, particularly when compared to the domineering, matriarchal character of Aunt Shaw, whereby her choice of marrying for status has only been a positive one, in comparison to Mrs. Hale marrying for the love she felt for Mr. Hale, which unfortunately has led to her movement to the industrialized North. If not a ‘powerful personality’ in Gaskell’s novel, it is considered what literary purpose Mrs. Hale’s character serves, and arguably her purpose is one of satirical juxtaposition amid the characters as a whole. Whereby her refutation and dislike of all things industrialized and ‘Northern’, contrasts Margaret’s ever-changing opinions of the acquaintances she has made; exemplified in Bessy and Mr. Nicholas Higgins. Gaskell is known for writing “in the dialect,” that is, writing the way characters of a certain background speak. She does so in this novel in the case of Bessy and Nicholas Higgins, who are daughter and father, poor Milton laborers who are befriended by Miss Hale, and who play central roles in rousing her interest in the plight of the Milton workers.

Gaskell presents the theme of religion to be reason for Mr. Hale’s struggle in her novel, North and South. The novel is replete with religious and biblical references. Faith and morality are core ingredients for the existence of the central characters that are Margaret Hale and her father, Richard Hale, and is to a great extent the cause of all the Hale’s struggles related to the North. It is argued however, that Mr. Hale’s character is not readily defined as a ‘powerful personality’, implied by Gaskell’s portrayal of his ‘feminine’ features and actions. His appearance in part portrays Mr. Hale’s ‘femininity’, especially his face, in which his eyelids are “large and arched”, which give his eyes “a peculiar languid beauty which was almost feminine.” The implication of a female’s beauty being “languid” or lethargic, to the modern feminist, appears disrespectful, though one can infer it is Mr. Hale’s tenderness that evokes femininity, rather than weariness. “His timidity, weakness and emotionalism are seen, as critics have noticed, as undesirable by the narrator,” not so much because they are ‘feminine’ qualities, but more to the extent to which his excess of both female and male characteristics burden his daughter with the decisions, which in normal circumstances, would be those of a father. Margaret for instance evolves to adopt a masculine way of thinking, and is tasked with the struggle of managing the practicalities of the move to Milton, and her mother’s distress.

It is certain that Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, is dominated by the struggle of powerful personalities, although it is not solely ‘powerful personalities’ who are depicted to be struggling. Margaret Hale, as the protagonist dominates the story line of Gaskell’s novel; and although her character may not be physically powerful though brute strength, her audacious nature and the manner with which she expresses her opinion are considered to be powerful. Somewhat similar to Margaret, Bessy Higgins is an idealist who represents vain hope within Gaskell’s novel, and it is certain that her ‘power’ is not physical. Mr. Hale furthermore represents a rather feminine character, whereby he struggles with the coming to terms of accepting the guilt of his wife’s terminal illness. From a different perspective, Mr. John Thornton represents a ‘powerful personality’ who struggles to win the heart of Margaret, whilst weakly succumbing to her outspoken behavior.

[1] E. Gaskell, North and South (1853) Penguin Classics: London. p. xii

[2] Gaskell, Ibid. p. xiii

Leave a Comment