Social Injustice in Mary Barton
Throughout Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, social injustice is a powerful and prevalent theme. This essay will focus especially on Chapter Six, where John Barton seeks medicine for his equally impoverished friend, Ben Davenport. This Chapter perhaps presents the fact that Gaskell’s novel moves beyond even social injustice to that of basic human kindness. The phrase ‘social injustice’ suggests that a group in society is ignored, which, undeniably, the lower class in nineteenth century England are. Yet, this focus on Barton’s journey to seek medicine presents the divide between classes as literally a matter of life or death, irrefutably more serious than simply being ignored. Barton’s actions also allude to a wider metaphor regarding the class system. As it has been established, the poor are treated as ‘out of sight, out of mind’; it is a hierarchy that is so foundational to their society that not even someone’s life is worth breaking it.
Gaskell uses an extremely simple metaphor to illustrate this start contrast between classes: light and dark. As Barton journeys to seek medicine, he marvels at the lavishness of the ‘lighted shops’ at night: of all shops a druggist’s looks the most like the tales of our childhood, from Aladdin’s garden of enchanted fruits to the charming Rosamund with her purple jar. The metaphor of the light and dark is used to physically display the social injustice in John Barton’s status. The ‘lighted shops’ emanate an almost holy aspect, as Barton pilgrimages in search of a miracle. This is in direct contrast to his own position in the dark street; the separation of the light and dark suggests a barrier between lower and upper classes, one which John will never be able to breach. Furthermore, the imagery of the fictional tale ‘Aladdin’ suggests the unreachable aspect of the upper classes; for John Barton, it is only possible to experience such wealth if he imagined himself in a fairy tale. This is emphasized further through Barton’s mirroring of Aladdin. As the street urchin had to walk through the garden of enchanted fruits, Barton also has to walk through the street, touching nothing. His social status deems him unable to touch the ‘display of goods’, which seem almost frivolous in comparison to the humble medicine John seeks. Through placing what John seeks –the medicine –akin to a fairy tale, it suggests just how unreachable his goal is. Therefore, the only comfort John seems to draw is from stories of his ‘childhood’; an imaginary world is certainly much kinder than the social injustice he currently experiences.
Through placing Barton on this metaphorical, and physical, pilgrimage, the contrast between the poor and rich is extremely palpable. Therefore, the reader almost expects Barton to embody this pious figure, dedicated to helping his own. Instead, we are presented with his inner, contradictory feelings, allowing the reader to witness not only the actions of social injustice, but the human reactions also: Barton’s was an errand of mercy; but the thoughts of his heart were touched by sin, by bitter hatred of the happy, whom he, for the first time, confounded with the selfish.
Gaskell firstly employs understatement to simultaneously present the unimportance of the lower classes and Barton’s humble attitude; his journey is described as an ‘errand’, despite holding a much higher importance than simply going to collect shopping. This could perhaps suggest the casual brutality of their class reality. Death through poverty is common, so seeking medicine in this manner is perhaps as normal as their usual errands. Furthermore, the use of the semi-colon then separates this idea of mercy from sin, suggesting that the human nature is capable of acting in opposition to their emotions. This moment is also pivotal for Barton as a character, as it is an epiphany where he realises ‘for the first time’ the true nature of social injustice. He has always been aware of his status as poor, but only now does he begin to compare this to others above him; this ‘bitter hatred’ signals the beginning of the realisation that injustice exists. It is important that event occurs in an early chapter, as it lays the foundations for a rising resentment that will eventually push John to the murder of Harry Carson.
Chapter Six is full of contrasts, both physical and metaphorical, to illustrate the divide between social class. Thus far, only Barton as a character has been examined. However, to truly show this contrast, an upper class character must also be presented. Harry Carson is a great example, and ‘was rich, and prosperous, and gay, and…would place [Mary] in all circumstances of ease and luxury.’ The use of three adjectives suggests their innate interconnectivity; if one is both ‘rich’ and ‘prosperous’, they are also ‘gay’. With this emphasis on money, it suggests that moral wealth stands for nothing in this society. This deems John Barton as poor as ever, despite his merciful actions. Yet perhaps the largest contrast is between Carson’s ‘ease’ of life, and Barton’s survival. If Harry Carson were in the same position, his money places him in a position of privilege and he would simply have to call for a doctor. For Barton in the same position, he has nothing to offer and so must set out on the streets to beg. Furthermore, this sense of bitterness at the rich is perhaps enhanced by the opportunities Carson offers Mary; he can place her in ‘circumstances of ease and luxury’, everything that John cannot offer her.
Thus far, this essay has examined the social injustice that exists within the obvious class distinctions in nineteenth century society. Yet it is also interesting to consider the instances when this injustice is less prevalent. For example, John Barton willingly journeys to find medicine for his friend, Ben Davenport, suggesting that this injustice only occurs between classes, and not within each class. This perhaps suggests a fundamental prejudice against what is different. Carson is disgusted by the survival of the lower classes, and Barton resents the upper class ease of life. Therefore, as previously suggested, Gaskell’s novel is not preoccupied with human decency, as this is clearly displayed within classes. This presents a juxtaposition throughout the entire novel; her characters are capable of mercy, but not across classes.
Gaskell, E. Mary Barton (Wordsworth Classics: Hertfordshire, 2012)
The Limits of Formalism in Defining Literariness
Russian formalism, as a movement, arose to prominence in a time of great artistic change, where experimentation and the avant-garde rose to the forefront of literature, and introduced new narrative structures and styles. Russian formalism can therefore be interpreted as a reaction to the chaotic literature of its time, the early Twentieth-Century, especially in how it attempted to define the notion of literariness through a more modernised, scientific method. The Formalists attempted to contain literature, to provide it, through a more objective, scientific method, with set rules and parameters that provided it order and form. Literariness, for the Formalists, was something that was achieved through the use of a certain method in a text, and was not an innate quality given to any piece of fiction, prose or poetry.
It could be argued, however, that though Russian formalism provided an ordered method through which to understand the chaotic literature of its time, this method is unable to fully comprehend literariness. By identifying literature through a fixed definition, Russian formalism disregards several genres of what is considered canon literature, and makes literature a form of art based solely on abstract methods and obscure styles.
In his ‘Introduction to the Formal Method’, Boris Eichenbaum wrote: ‘that the object of literary science, as literary science, ought to be the investigation of the specific properties of literary material, of the properties that distinguish such material from material of any other kind’1. Eichenbaum, considered by many as representative of Russian formalism, thus defines literary science as the investigation into what makes a piece of material literary. What elements of a text make it literary and separate it from another text that is not? We can safely assume that, due to the fact that Eichenbaum introduces this idea in an essay titled ‘Introduction to the Formal Method’, Russian formalism can be referred to as a literary science, and thus Russian formalism becomes a method used to distinguish the literary from the non-literary.
Eichenbaum writes that Russian formalism distinguished the literary from the non-literary through recognising the “opposition between ‘poetic’ language and ‘practical’ language.” (250) Practical language, as defined by the Formalists, is simply language that has “no autonomous value and [is] simply merely a means of communication.” (250) Practical language is thus language whose sole purpose is to convey information; it is a tool of communication. The conversation of our daily lives (“Hello, how are you?” “I’m doing well.”) is an example of practical language as it is simply communication from one person to another, consisting solely of the exchange of information and pleasantries, and holds no symbolic meaning. Furthermore, everyday conversation is non-literary due to its absence of autonomy. Conversation, the Formalists suggested, is not independent from the converser’s language precedent; it is recognised by them and processed without being truly being appreciate for its intricacies and nuances. Practical language, the Formalists argued, does not make a text literary. Textbooks, non-fiction magazines, brochures, and recipe books are therefore classified as non-literary texts as they solely convey information and hold no autonomous value; there is no symbolic meaning to a recipe, it is just a means through which to transfer the steps on how to cook a tasty meal, and the language it uses does not challenge the readers perception of the meal.
The opposite of practical language is poetic language, something which Eichenbaum states is created through the process of estrangement. Estrangement, for Eichenbaum, is the process of distorting the familiar into something unfamiliar, making the ordinary extraordinary. A recipe, just in a plain and simple form, is a non-literary text as it consists solely of practical language. If we were, however, to write a recipe using a variety of techniques and devices (metaphor, allegory, diaspora, etc.) then we could make the recipe literary as it has been estranged and made poetic, the reader is forced by the unfamiliar mix of images and descriptions to comprehend the meal differently. This is, for the Formalists, what makes a text literary, and thus places it into the sphere of art. As Eichenbaum writes, “Art is conceived as a way of breaking down automatism in perception, and the aim of the image is held to be, not making a meaning more accessible for our comprehension, but bringing about a special perception of a thing, bringing about the ‘seeing’, and not just the ‘recognising’ of it.” (251) A text is made literary, therefore, when its language is estranged and thus forces the reader to perceive the content differently, allowing them to become more aware of its meaning.
This definition of literariness can easily be applied to modernist texts, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses. In Ulysses, Joyce used a variety of techniques to record how the human consciousness perceives reality accurately, these techniques including interior monologue, free indirect discourse and, most famously, stream of consciousness. These techniques clearly estrange the language and force the reader to perceive the text differently. Take, for instance, Joyce’s description of his hero, Leopold Bloom, having a sexual fantasy set in a bathhouse:
“He foresaw his pale body reclined in it at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by melting scented soap, softly laved. He saw his trunk and limbs rippled over and sustained, buoyed lightly upward, lemonyellow: his navel, bud of flesh: and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower.”
It is clear to see how Joyce estranges the image of Bloom masturbating at a bathhouse, disjointing his physiology and using metaphorical objects to represent body parts. Formalists would argue that this is a good example of poetic language, that Joyce has written something inherently literary due to the fact he forces the reader to perceive the image differently than they would if they were actually at the bathhouse with Bloom. Perhaps, then, the Formalist definition of literature is correct; literariness is achieved through a process of estrangement, the distortion of perception.
Though this definition of literature can easily be applied to the more experimental, avant-garde works of the early Twentieth-Century, it is, however, more difficult to apply to literature as a whole. It is possible that Russian formalism is a form of criticism that best suites certain genres and styles, but when applied to literature throughout time it can become irrelevant. If a text is only made literary by “breaking down automatism in perception”, then several areas of conflict arise. The genre of realism, for example, offers a challenge to this definition, realism being the attempt to record the everyday life as accurately as possible, convincing the reader of its reality, and attempting to relate to their experiences as closely as possible through language they are accustomed to.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton is seen as a prime example of the industrial novel, a form of realism specifically designed to relate to the daily experiences of the Victorian working class. In the novel, Gaskell makes no attempt to distort the perception of the reader, instead her aims are to record the plights of Manchurian factory workers. This section, from the opening chapter of the novel, shows a definitive attempt to accurately convey the physiology of John Barton, the father of the titular heroine:
“He was below the middle size and slightly made; there was almost a stunted look about him; and his wan, colourless face, gave you the idea, that in his childhood he had suffered from the scanty living consequent upon bad times, and improvident habits. His features were strongly marked, though not irregular, and their expression was extreme earnestness; resolute either for good or evil, a sort of latent stern enthusiasm.”
In many ways this passage can be read as an example of practical language. Gaskell makes no overt attempt to estrange the image of John Barton, instead presenting a man who we, as the reader, can easily envision in our imagination. Metaphor and simile are not used to describe his body, as they are for Bloom’s, and we are not forced to perceive the human anatomy any differently than we already do in our everyday lives. Gaskell simply communicates to the reader the objective appearance of John Barton. This passage is representative of the novels style as a whole, and thus the question as to whether the novel can be, from a Formalist perspective, be considered literary arises.
Realism is generally considered one of the major genres of literature, and many writers thought to be among the finest in history are considered to write realist novels, Gaskell included amidst the likes of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Gustave Flaubert. Dickens, Eliot, and Flaubert are generally considered to be major figures within the literary canon, but if they adhere to a genre that defies the Formalist method, two possibilities arise. Firstly, if the Formalist method is assumed to be the correct way to judge whether a text is literary or not, then realism, through its overt use of practical language and its lack of estrangement, is a genre of literature that is not literature. Instead, it is merely the transfer of imagined information, of fictional images that hold no symbolic value, and differ in no way from the everyday lives of the reader.
The second possibility is to the contrary of the first, and is possibly the more feasible of the two: the method adopted by Russian formalism is impractical and cannot be applied to literature as a whole. If literature can only be defined as a form of art where the normal is made strange, then a great part of what is considered literature should be disregarded and robbed of the label “art”. There have been efforts on both ends of a spectrum of styles to write with opposing intentions, to make literature as unfamiliar as possible on the one end, and as close to human experience as possible on the other. Often times the two attempts get distorted and confused; Joyce’s use of stream of consciousness may distance the reader due to its abrasiveness, intensity, and estrangement, but Ulysses is often considered by critics as as close to a realistic representation of human consciousness as ever has been attempted, maybe making it as familiar as humanly possible to what the reader actually experiences on a constant basis. On the other hand, while Gaskell merely communicates to the reader the physiological information of John Barton, she distances herself from realistic human experience by consciously omitting an endless amount of information, and therefore estranges the way in which the reader perceives reality. The concept of estrangement, when read into, is therefore too vague and loose an idea to be used to define something as vast and diverse as literature.
There is, therefore, no one way to define literature as the Formalists attempt to do. The variety of genres and styles do not allow for a definition of literariness to exist, literature being too diverse to be contained as such. The definition attempted by the Russian formalists can only be applied to certain texts totally, or if it were to be applied to literature as a whole it would provide only a partial definition open to a variety of criticisms and counterarguments. For the Formalist definition of literature to work, the literary canon would have to be wildly accepted as consisting solely of works written in obscure, experimental styles that are difficult for the reader to decipher and understand. The distinction between poetic and practical language is too vague and open to interpretation to have a lasting effect, and though estrangement can be accepted as a tool for making a text literary, it cannot be seen as the sole property in defining literariness.
Examining Cross Class Marriage in Mary Barton
In Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton, class inequality becomes a major theme from the beginning of the book, especially in light of the possibility of a marriage between Mary Barton and Harry Carson. While Mary saw Mr. Carson as an escape from her lower class life of squalor and disappointment, Harry found this partnership to be exciting for reasons other than love. Though the two believed that their nuptials involved only them, Elizabeth Gaskell exemplified how a cross class marriage was more complicated, largely on account of the diverse social classes included. Harry, being lucky in his birth family, does not understand the disparity between love and lust or, if he does, he chooses not to recognize his actions as those of lust and want. As Mary suffered through the physical loss of her mother, she also was forced to face a mentally absent father whose lack of attention and love may have pushed Mary into the arms of Harry. John, Mary’s father, is angered by this marriage prospect, but not because Carson wishes to possess his daughter; rather, John Barton feels as though his daughter will become the kind of upper class citizen that looks down upon him. This is mostly because “…the working man was made to feel…that the bourgeoisie treats him…as its property, and for this reason…he must come forward as its enemy” (220, Engels). This drives John Barton to not only have a hatred for the personality of Harry Carson, but also for his business practices and the practices of those like him. Though all characters exist in the same time period and general location, each has had a different experience based solely on income and finances. John Barton understood this fact because he knew “the working man lived in poverty and want…” even though it was “…he, who did more for society…” (221, Engels).
John Barton, however, was not the only one who was aware of the supposedly obscure class structure; those who resided within the elite class were also mindful of the social organization that sorted England and its citizens into their rightful places. Harry Carson first makes mention of it when speaking to the subject of his infatuation, Mary Barton, about the feelings his parents would have towards their supposed marriage. “I only want now to tell you how much I love you, by what I am ready to give up for you. You know (or perhaps you are not fully aware) how little my father and mother would like me to marry you. So angry would they be, and so much ridicule I should have to brave…I’ll marry you in defiance of the world…In a year or two my father will forgive me, and meanwhile you shall have every luxury money can purchase, every charm that love can devise to make your life happy…Now, Mary you see how willing I am to — to sacrifice a great deal for you; I can even offer you marriage, to satisfy your little ambitious heart…” He believes that winning Mary back entails “…purchas[ing] every charm that love can devise to make your life happy.” As Gaskell proves, Mary is not human to Harry: she is simply an opportunity to prove to himself he is capable of winning someone’s love. As Harry mentions how Mary is “…perhaps…not fully aware…” he is commenting on her lack of understanding of the politics of his lifestyle. He does this, however, by enlisting the power of wealth, a power he has grown up with since birth. The overwhelming privilege evident in Harry Carson only furthers the point that he does not understand the life of the lower class, especially not Mary’s. It’s entirely possible to see how Harry could believe Ms. Barton would respond positively to just the mention of expensive items; however, this further proves the differences between the classes. Whereas Mr. Carson charmed Mary with the simple mention of a monetary gain, Mary required Jem to proclaim his love multiple times before confessing her own for him. The previously mentioned differences are also evident when speaking about the ways Mary’s suitors confessed their affection for her; it was only after learning he was going to lose her that Harry Carson chose to tell Mary “…what I am ready to give up for you…” and how he would “…sacrifice a great deal for you.” When compared to Jem, who could not give Mary such expensive items, but instead could give her love that was not premised on the purchases he would make for her, Harry becomes a superficial suitor, and loses his “trophy.” Considering “…how little my father and mother would like me to marry you,” it seems that Carson sees his own matrimony as an opportunity not only to win back Mary, but also to depart from his parent’s wishes, giving him all the more reason to pursue Ms. Barton. This is partially due to the fact that the Carson’s, or rather Harry’s father, John Carson, in having enough money, no longer needs to stress himself with trivial matters such as romance. This is further exemplified when Harry offers Mary a marriage license “…to satisfy your little ambitious heart.” Harry has developed a sense of privilege and it is because of this same privilege that Harry finds no issue in ignoring the harsh and difficult lifestyle Mary faces each day. Mary should find it in herself to repulse a man who cannot understand or does not even try to understand the harsh challenges she has coped with. The physical death of a loved one is obviously heartbreaking; however, Mary also dealt with the mental loss of her father, a man who was so caught up in his own life he lost the drive to fight for the feelings of the daughter he loved. Though she ultimately flees from the arms of Harry Carson, Mary is also well aware that “…work and study alone were not enough to achieve the same level of comfort afforded by inherited wealth and the income derived from it” (241, Piketty). The class inequality in Mary Barton is found not only in the relationship between Mary Barton and Harry Carson, but also in the relationship between Harry Carson and Mary’s other suitor Jem Wilson, someone who shares Mary’s same social standing. The connection between both her suitors is, of course, Mary; however, that is also where they differ. Their treatment of Mary, whether good or bad, represents the way they live, or rather the outcome of their social standing.
Mary’s own social pressures only complicate this dynamic: “Women agreed with male speakers that a woman’s place is in the home; they also protested against the heavy taxes taken out of their own wages and the stress of laboring hard for a pittance inadequate to support their families.” (234, Clark) As Anna Clark explains in “The Struggle for the Breeches,” the amount of stress placed on female workers was quite incredible. Though Mary may not have worked in a factory, she faced similar emotions simply by having the responsibility of “…laboring hard for a pittance inadequate to support…” her family (234). Gaskell introduces the motivation behind Mary’s social-climbing ways or, as Harry Carson puts it, “ambitious” ways by illustrating the strained relationship between Mary and her father, and the lack of progress her paychecks seemed to make as they came in. “He came in with no word to Mary in return for her cheery and astonished greeting.” In the context of this quote it is not completely fair to say that John Barton’s mood is solely based on his relationship with his daughter, but his lack of even a simple acknowledgement exhibits how even Mary, who loves him so, cannot bring his spirits up, as she wishes to do. Obviously, it is not John Barton’s fault, at least not completely, that Mary found joy in the attention given by Harry Carson, but his neglect may have attributed to her need for Harry’s “love.” The fact that John Barton strongly believed in the Chartist movement also put a heavy burden on the already difficult father-daughter relationship. If Mary was already lacking in a motherly parental figure, her father’s absence only furthered her need for some sort of familial interest. As John Barton was pleading to parliament to pay attention to the needy lower class, Mary was making money for the family, an action Chartists found to be borderline offensive in nature because “…cheap female and immigrant labour was often used to undercut male workers…” (Hudson). Furthermore, it did not help John or Mary’s situation when Mary took over the role of breadwinner as her father fought against nearly impossible odds in facing the mill owners. Today it is widely believed that women in Mary’s position simply aided the household with childcare and housekeeping when “…in practice many households were dependent upon female earnings, especially those households run by widows” (Hudson); though Mary was an orphan rather than a widow, she performed the necessary duties to support her family. A mentally unstable father combined with the lifestyle she had grown up knowing pushed Mary to work, and though John’s chartist ideals stated that “…women working undermined male workers’ manhood and demoralized communities…” there was no other option in the Bartons’ situation. It is very possible Mary also wished to marry rich because she knew many chartists believed “…cheap female and immigrant labour was often used to undercut male workers…” (Hudson).
Whereas Mary Barton was subjected to neglect and forced into the supporting role within her family, Harry Carson was never made to lift a finger in his life. His luxurious upbringing allowed him opportunities unknown and unimaginable to those who worked for him and his father. “Mr. Carson tried to refuse his darling, but she coaxes him into acquiescence, saying she must have it.” Though this exchange occurs between Harry’s younger sister Amy and his father, John Carson, it projects the general attitude regarding money in the Carson household. Amy’s request for a new rose, though it costs “half-a-guinea”, is instantly fulfilled as Gaskell states “‘He knows his little daughter can’t live without flowers and scents.’” Gaskell reveals one of Harry’s motives for having a relationship with Mary in this exchange; it can be assumed Harry gets what he wants as quickly as Amy, so he may decide to chase something that will not easily come to him. Mary, being the daughter of a Chartist, is not easily conquered. Though she may flirt and ask for marriage, she is never fully convinced of her own feelings, making her a prime target for Harry’s predator-like actions. It’s also more than possible that Harry wished to be disobedient in an attempt to earn his father’s actual attention rather than the monetary attention given to all of his siblings. Harry’s unexpected bout with Mary may have been the result of absentee parenting and a son’s attempt to end such behavior through an unanticipated and unwanted love interest. Both Mary and Harry could be driven by the need for parental care and love, instead of the blatant ignorance seen in their fathers.
Although a sad truth, the social hierarchy that existed within nineteenth century England was exactly that, a truth. However, this reality was not silenced by the upper class, as many wished would happen; the lower class found it within themselves to continually protest against the treatment they received. Many in the top tier of the hierarchy found the protests of the workmen to be useless; despite this, workers continued to protest “…simply because they must protest against every reduction…because silence on their part would be a recognition of these social conditions…” (226, Engels). These luddites or “early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery in protest…”(Merriam Webster) found themselves a representative in this novel in John Barton, an enemy of those wealthy mill owners who felt no responsibility for the grievances of the working class. It was blatant class warfare between the rich and those who served “under” them; both classes strongly believed “…the injury of one party is the benefit of the other…” (230, Engels) and it seemed as if any sort of peace could not be reached. Where the lower class found their wages and working conditions to be vile, the bourgeois found that “…the coarse mule-spinners had misused their power beyond all endurance…” (230, Engels). These textile and factory workers harbored a “…bitter hatred of the workers against the property-holding class” (227, Engels). Whether one was upper or lower class, it seemed to impossible to avoid conflict, as was the case when multiple factories were stoned and shut down by their former workers. Specific examples include “…an explosion caused by a package of powder …in the sawmill of Bently & White…” which “…produced considerable damage…” (228, Engels) as well as “…an attempt…to blow up the saw-works of Padgin, in Howard Street, Sheffield” (227, Engels). The conditions of the working class had gone on long enough and they deemed violence the only option to assist them in making a point. The social inequality that was prevalent within Mary Barton was also very much a problem in nineteenth century England; unfortunately, it was usually the wealthier who won out, their monetary status allowing them leeway with the police and with workers who could not afford to go on strike.
In the eyes of the Catholic Church, the wealthy would apparently be in the wrong, especially after treating their workers they way they did; however, this may not be the entire case. As stated by Pope Leo XIII, “…authority of divine law adds its sanction forbidding us in severest terms even to covet that which is another’s…” (4, Rerum Novarum) which means that those in the lower class were in the wrong in coveting the lives of those in the classes above them. However, they are not alone here; Harry Carson is also seen as coveting something his neighbor, Jem Wilson, possesses in Mary Barton, whom he attempts to buy with “…every charm love can devise…” Furthermore, the Church recognizes the poverty the lower class suffered in every day; they saw this scarcity as “…no disgrace…” and believed “…that there is nothing to be ashamed of in earning their bread by labor…” (8, Rerum Novarum). Though the Jesuit ideals would have “…the respective classes…be united in the bonds of friendship…and in those of brotherly love…” the class system remains today, with the added security of a more obscure hierarchy. However, it seems current generations are not only aware of the issues surrounding class inequality, but are willing to do something about it. Mary Barton and Harry Carson came from two separate class spheres; while one sat in the lap of luxury, the other worked to support not only herself, but her family and their addictions. The motivation surrounding the would-be partnership varied in certain ways, such as each member’s monetary gain, but they found common ground in needing attention from mentally-absent parents. While Harry wished to shock his parents into noticing him and his extracurricular activities, Mary wished to marry the opposite of her father, someone who would not abandon her, at least not financially. While Harry recognized the consequences of his actions, which would basically be no consequences, Mary was unaware of the harm hers could bring to those she loved. Though both may have believed that getting married would solve their respective issues, they underestimated the consequences such a union would bring upon not only themselves, but also upon those involved in their lives.
Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1968. Print. Gaskell, Elizabeth. “The Project Gutenberg EBook, Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.” Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 10 Aug. 1999. Web. Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print. Clark, Anna. The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class. Berkeley: U of California, 1995. Print. Hudson, Pat. “Women’s Work.” BBC News. BBC, 29 Mar. 2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
From Commodity To Independent Womanhood, the Spiritual Transformation of Mary Barton in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton
Mary Barton is a story of material temptation, sexual seduction and spiritual transformation. The character Mary Barton is an impoverished girl with considerable material ambitions who is seduced by the lavish wealth of her rich suitor. Mary’s lifelong poverty leaves her with the fervent desire to secure material comforts. Her experience as a dressmaker in a frivolous milliner shop also imbues her with a trace of vanity. This combination of vanity and materialism turns Mary into an aspiring social climber, which makes her highly susceptible to the seduction of the rich Harry Carson. Mary is tempted by Harry’s wealth and treats his seduction as a golden opportunity for social advancement. For the first half of the novel, Mary focuses on her goal of using ber beauty to ensnare Harry into marriage so she can become a lady of leisure. Her attraction to Harry is entirely mercenary. By seeking to capitalize through her physical beauty and to marry a man whom she has no romantic attachment, Mary turns herself into a sexual commodity awaiting purchase by a man who can afford her. However, Mary experiences a life changing epiphany in the middle of the novel which completely alters outlook on life. This epiphany purges her of her vanity and forces her to her end her amorous entanglement with Harry. After she becomes free from Harry Carson, Mary undergoes an astonishing transformation from a passive mistress into an autonomous and independent woman. Mary’s experience demonstrates the that there is more than one path for a woman to gain comfort and success. Becoming self-sufficient is far less destructive than selling oneself as a disposable sexual commodity. In order to understand Mary’s initial attraction to Harry Carson, it is important to understand Mary’s character. In the first half of the novel, Mary Barton is a vain and materialistic woman. Her superficial ambitions are a direct result of her living environment. As a slum dweller in an industrial town, Mary is born into poverty and has always lived in the most wretched destitution. As long as she can remember, the people around her have been plagued by the want of life’s bare necessities. These slum dwellers are known for their intense materialistic obsession. The emaciated, starving people around Mary are focused on obtaining “food, light and warmth” (Gaskell 98). Their materialistic outlook is not instigated by greed or avarice, but because they are dying from the lack of basic necessities. Surrounded by “sorrow and want” (209) and witnessing daily the sight of starving children and careworn parents, it is only natural that Mary would develop materialistic goals. She becomes desperate to extricate herself from her impoverished position. The financial necessity of her family makes her “ambitious” (122) and enterprising. Her practical outlook on life gives her the skill of “practical shrewdness” (122) and turns her into a social climber. At this stage of her life, Mary’s most ardent wish is to climb the social ladder and lift her family out of the mire of poverty into a life of relative ease and comfort (121). Mary’s vanity is also the product of her environment. When she gets a job as a dressmaker in a fashionable millinery, Mary enters into a decadent world of frivolity. The millinery is famous for its luxurious atmosphere where most of the conversations center on “fashion, dress, and parties” (143). It is a make-believe world, completely out of place with the impoverished conditions that Mary goes home to. Mary spends her days making dresses and other fripperies that elegant ladies will find appealing. Her whole existence is devoted to beautifying her clients with decorations and ornaments. Not surprisingly, Mary’s daily contact with these decorative objects makes her susceptible to the seductive influence of pretty dresses and elegant appearances (122). These beautiful fineries beckon Mary and awaken a new kind of hunger in her young and impressionable mind (122). As an uneducated woman, Mary only knows what she sees around her, which her even more vulnerable to the temptation of wealth. By serving the millinery’s elegant customers, Mary develops a desire to become a member of that privileged class. She is fascinated by the lifestyle of the gentility and entertains the hope that she might one day lead a similar lifestyle by “doing all the elegant nothings appertaining to ladyhood” (122). Mary gradually starts to become particular about her appearance and spends her time on deciding “what gown she should put on” (63). She dreams of the day when she will become a genteel lady, living a life and leisure. She begins to take pleasure by turning herself into a decorative object (63) and by “mak[ing] an impression” (63) on others through her appearance. Mary’s newfound vanity and materialistic outlook explains her initial attraction to the rich Harry Carson. She is ambitious and determined to improve her station in life. Mary’s mindset makes her extremely vulnerable to seduction by rich men like Harry. Mary is attracted to Carson because he has the power to satisfy her materialistic ambitions and lift her family out of poverty. He is the son of an immensely rich industrialist who possesses vast property and estates. His polished manners and his “neat and well appointed” (107) dress all portray a luxurious and self-indulgent lifestyle. Mary sees him as a prize that she is competing to win. While Carson has wealth at his disposal, Mary’s beauty is her most valuable asset. As a low-rung dressmaker earning a meager living, she has a very slim chance to achieve any social advancement through honest industry. Mary’s only opportunity climb the social ladder lays in her ability to ensnare a rich man. At first, Mary is determined to capitalize on her beauty. Her “consciousness” (58) of her physical attractiveness endows her with the determination that “her beauty should make her a lady” (58). This mindset reveals her awareness of the monetary value of female beauty. Her beauty gives her the ambition to aspire to great heights, such as a marriage with Harry. By seeking to use her desirable body as the ticket into the world of privilege and wealth, Mary unconsciously treats herself as a sexual commodity to be bartered. Through this lens, her body becomes something with commercial value. Any wealth that Mary obtains through the commodification of her body is thus tainted, because it is the product of carnal exchange rather than that of the honest industry. Mary’s mercenary attraction to Harry turns her into a passive commodity. Secluded in the milliner shop, she spends most of her time in dreaming the day when she will be swept into a life of wealth and status. She is barely conscious of the political agitation around her (143) and is entirely “taken up with visions of the golden future” (116) as Mrs. Harry Carson. Nevertheless, Mary never voices any feelings of love for Harry’s person. When she thinks about him, her mind is always consumed by the vision of fabulous wealth and material abundance that await her. In Mary’s mind, Harry is associated only with material things to the extent that his personality fades into the background. The reader soon finds out that Mary’s true affection belongs to Jem Wilson, her childhood sweetheart and a man of her own class. Mary blushes scarlet when Jem appears and suffers great pain at the sight of his agony. She has a spontaneous outburst of affection for Jem with a passion that she never shows for Harry. Mary’s feelings for Jem are therefore natural and genuine, originating in true love and affection. In contrast, her attraction towards Harry has no bearing to any genuine emotional attachment or love. Yet despite of her affection for Jem, Mary’s material goals take top priority. Since Mary treats her body as a commercial commodity at this stage, money becomes the most important determinant in her choice of husband. She does not see a husband is as an emotional companion. She turns down Jem’s proposal of marriage because he is only a “poor mechanic” (181), and could never place her in the “circumstances of ease and luxury” (181). Mary therefore turns marriage into a commercial exchange. By refusing Jem, Mary sacrifices her affection in the cause of wealth and social advancement. Driven by material ambition, Mary is eager gain value in the eyes of high society by “show[ing] them all [that Harry is the one who] would be glad to have her” (178). Her firm and emphatic declaration that she “can never be [Jem’s] wife” (179) powerfully expresses her practical outlook on life. Mary becomes a pure sexual commodity through her willingness to give herself up to the higher bidder, even though she has no serious romantic leanings towards him. After rejecting Jem’s proposal, Mary suddenly experiences a life- changing epiphany. Jem’s passionate declaration of love catches Mary off guard. Since Mary has always loved Jem, it only takes a little passionate assertion on Jem’s part for Mary to unleash her suppressed feelings of love. After Mary discovers the intensity of her affection for Jem, she realizes that the most important thing in life is love rather than any worldly riches. After this epiphany, Mary resolves to renounce her vanity (181) by ending all her affair with Harry. She realizes that marriage should be an act of love rather above any material considerations. She also realizes that all worldly possessions are empty unless they are shared with the one she loves (181). After this realization, her feelings for Carson immediately change from longing to a near hatred (181). She hates Carson for “decoy[ing]” (181) her from the life of honest labour and emotional truth. Mary transforms herself from a passive commodity back into an autonomous and independent thinking woman. As an autonomous woman, she is at the liberty to go wherever her heart leads her. By choosing to marry her true love, Mary is once more a self-governing woman ruled by the dictates of her heart, and is no longer a disposable commodity that is for sale to any man of wealth. By rejecting Harry, Mary has narrowly escapes the fate of becoming a sexual commodity. Mary is correct when she asserts that she has drawn herself back from the brink of danger (181). She has indeed exposed herself to great danger by encouraging Carson, because his intentions have never honourable towards her. Harry always treats Mary as a sexual commodity. He never gives any serious thought to the idea of marrying a girl so far beneath his social class. He simply wants to indulge in a casual love affair with Mary by turning her into his mistress. In contrast, to the devoted Jem who loves Mary “with all his heart and soul” (190), Harry is a pure libertine who boasts of his ability to “have any lady in Manchester” (189). He uses Mary as a tool for physical pleasure, a product that he can buy and use as he likes. Even though Harry ultimately proposes marriage to Mary, it is entirely the result of hot-headed impetuosity rather than a genuine commitment to matrimony. He easily retracts his proposal by saying that he shall not “offer [Mary] the same terms again” (189). Should Mary enter into an affair with Harry, she would have forever forfeited her moral reputation and is most certain to repeat the mistakes as her Aunt Esther. Esther’s transient affair ended in an unwanted pregnancy, abandonment and social ostracism. As an impoverished, single woman burdened with a child, Mary could never seek an honourable employment again. She would be forced to migrate from the “abode of poverty for the more terrible abodes of vice” (310). Like Esther, she would ultimately be compelled to make her living through prostitution. Her affair with Harry would be prostitution at a higher level, but prostitution all the same. After Mary becomes free from Harry’s seduction, she experiences an astonishing transformation from a passive sexual commodity into an independent and active woman. In contrast to her passive presence in the first half of the novel, Mary assumes an assertive and domineering presence for the second half of the story. In order to clear Jem’s false charges, she undertakes a heroic quest to procure an alibi. She takes on the role of an active woman who courageously ventures into the public space. In order to get hold of the alibi, Mary ventures into a foreign city and chases the potential alibi in a race against time. In her quest to free the man she loves, Mary displays an astonishing “energy [and] perseverance” (353), which contrasts vividly against her once frivolous character. By procuring the testimony of the alibi, Mary single-handedly saves Jem from false execution. Through this noble achievement, Mary elevates herself from a decorative female commodity into a woman of “dignity, self-reliance and purpose” (330). Mary has “struggled and triumphed” (342) over her vanity, and is not the once frivolous girl who takes pride in being pursued by a wealthy suitor. Mary is now an assertive woman with the “confidence…[and] faith in her own powers” (342), and is never again a passive commodity that awaits to be purchased and consumed by a rich man. She has transcended from being a “mere flesh and blood beauty” (403) into a “higher…kind of beauty”, which is the beauty that shines from her noble daring and moral courage. Mary’s experience is an account of an astonishing spiritual transformation. She undergoes a journey from passive commodity into an active, self-governing woman of energy and strength. The Mary in the first half of the novel reflects the 19th century womanhood, where women were expected to remain passive in the domestic space. Mary is not only seduced by Harry, she is in fact seduced by the indolent and unproductive lifestyle of a 19th century lady that he can offer her. Nevertheless, Mary eventually grows out of this passive state. By freeing herself from Harry’s seduction, Mary also frees herself from the appeal of an idle existence. The active and energetic Mary of the second half the novel resembles a modern woman. She bursts with energy and resoluteness, venturing boldly into the public space to undertake of a serious social task. Therefore, Mary’s journey is not merely a transformation from a commodity into a self-governing person, but is also from the passive 19th century femininity into an active state of modern womanhood. Works CitedGaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000.
Chartism for John Barton: A Lesson or a Pure Detriment?
John Barton, father of Mary Barton, became a member of the Chartist movement after he was laid off from his original place of work when his master had failed. While he was forced to look for other work, his son got ill with the scarlet fever. With no food or money to acquire medicine, his beloved son passed away. In lieu of the death of his son, John wanted to seek revenge against the employers who he believed caused it, and joined the Chartist movement as a result. Later on in the book, John goes to deliver the Chartist petition, dubbed the “People’s Charter” to the Parliament for approval. Unfortunately, the Parliament rejected the petition. While the petition was not received well by Parliament, the rejection of the Chartist petition served to be a valuable lesson. This Chartist lesson is that the proletariat of England and the aristocracy should not have attempted to work together, as the rich did not care for the working man and their respective conditions or needs. In this piece, I will using historical evidence to support my claim, then I will then apply that evidence to a close reading of the novel regarding John Barton’s respective situation to further prove that the bourgeoisie simply do not concern themselves with the needs of the proletariat.
In the 1830s and 1840s, it was extremely hard to be a working man in England, as the workers in England were horribly exploited. The book Chartism explains that one factory owner named Sir Robert Peel would whip his workers who were aged from five to seven years old. Chartism also explains that in the year 1809, manufacturers that used cotton spinner machines were exploiting their workers. This was because the workers were routinely getting crushed by the machines trying to spin the cotton for their masters. Along with these incidents, the working order at the time was not helpful. The order included atrocities like: the youngest workers were as young as three years old, working days were about sixteen to eighteen hours, and wages were at 9 shillings a week. According to The Proceedings of Old Bailey, two shillings are currently worth a quarter of one penny. This cruel working order ensued mass sickness and mortality that broke up families. Furthermore, the commerce at the time was so fluctious that the working man was constantly uncertain if he would keep his job. So, what was the frustrated, sick, and tired working man to do?
The Chartist movement aimed to solve this very problem. Chartism was popular in the United Kingdom in the 1830s and 1840s, and the movement was meant to represent the working man. The movement aimed to speak out against the discontents of the working man and the “injustices of the new industrial and political order in Britain” (Britannica, Par. 1). Another book titled From Chartism to Labourism defined the Chartist movement as “the working class made the first attempt to establish a party of its own for the conquest of political power” (Rothstein, 7). People that joined the Chartist movement understood a couple of key aspects, according to Chartism: Firstly, Until the working man’s needs are fulfilled, he will constantly be angry and discontent will follow suit. His needs were “Food, shelter, due guidance, in return for his labour…” (Carlyle, 89). Secondly, the working man had feelings, and his tiredness, well-being, and prosperity should be considered by Parliament as well. By speaking up about these injustices and exploitations mentioned in the last paragraph and the discontent of the working man, the movement also hoped to achieve Parliamentary reform. In fact, Chartists petitioned many times to Parliament.
In fact, according to Chartism, the cotton spinner injustice of 1809 was petitioned by the common working man. Because of this and countless other injustices, they petitioned to Parliament with the demand that there be less apprentices, or working men, in factories. This demand made sense because, as mentioned, they were overworked, underpaid, and horribly exploited. Furthermore, from an ethical perspective, at least don’t have the children work if they don’t need to. To this demand, the Parliament came to the verdict that they could not pass an act that constrains the freedom of the industry, which meant Sir Robert Peel could keep whipping his workers, or could not pass an act that allows the individual worker to dispose the time he should be working to his own interests, like taking care of their sick families. Additionally, Parliament also explained that if they were to pass an such an act, it would contradict the prosperity of the community -meaning it would hinder the profits the community collectively makes-, and it would contribute to the unemployment issue. However, if the manufacturers and the workers’ masters would provide them with better working conditions, this unemployment would not be occuring in the first place. This and countless other petitions were shot down by the Parliament, which showed “a child·like faith in the goodwill and omnipotence of the State.” (Carlyle, 13). The Parliament even had the audacity to advise workers to wait for better times and look for work elsewhere. The unfortunate reality was that the State was more focused on capitalism than the well being of the workers and that Parliament was on the aristocrat’s side, not the working man’s side. While these petitions failed, the Chartist movement tried to push their strongest, most coherent effort to the Parliament in 1839: their very own “People’s Charter”.
The goal of the “People’s Charter” according to Chartism was meant to create a people oriented government rather than an aristocratic one and was meant to transform the social and economic system for the better. When presented to the House of Commons on June 1839, the Charter had over 1.25 million signatures. The Charter was based off of six main principles. According to the United Kingdom Parliament website, these six principles were: All men have the right to vote (universal manhood suffrage), voting should be by secret ballot Parliamentary elections should happen every year rather than once every 5 years, constituencies should be of equal size, Members of Parliament should be paid, and the idea to abolish property requirement for becoming a Member of Parliament. However, government was so over the Chartist movement that they arrested the speakers of the Chartist groups, and the police busted into the working man’s homes. They forbade the formation of secret groups, and martial law was promptly proclaimed in London. This caused the people to riot, but the police quickly shut these riots down. Like every other petition of the working man, the “People’s Charter” was rejected. The rejection came by a huge majority which took place after these riots and arrests. The rejection of the Charter proved that the working man could not ally himself with the aristocrats, and that they are a nation divided. This was how John Barton felt after he witnessed the rejection of the Charter in Mary Barton.
Chapter Nine of Mary Barton began with the return of John Barton. While Mary was extremely happy to see her father and greeted him cheerfully, the fatigued and wet John sat down by the fire to dry off. She tried to cheer her father up, but to no avail. She then heard the political news of that day: the “People’s Charter” was rejected in London, and “that Parliament had refused to listen to the working men…” (Gaskell, 143). Mary understood her father’s grief and sadness, and pressed his hand to show support. An hour later, John spoke to Mary about his trip to London. While in the Parliamentary house, he explained that for breakfast there were “mutton kidneys, and sausages, and broiled ham, and fried beef and onions;”, and it was “more like a dinner nor a breakfast” (Gaskell, 145). John also noted how fancy London was, specifically how nice the carriages were outside the Queen’s house and the people riding them. He explained that “Some o’ the gentlemen as couldn’t get inside (the carriages) hung on behind, wi’ nosegays to smell at, and sticks to keep off folk as might splash their silk stockings” (Gaskell, 146). While his trip to London was swell aside from the rejection of the Charter, his home life was not as swell.
John Barton’s early life was not the easiest. His parents had suffered in the poverty and his mother died from “absolute want of the necessaries of life” (Gaskell, 55). Despite this, John was a good worker with a confident attitude and believed he could supply his wants and needs if he worked hard enough. However, as the introduction states, this was not the case. When his master Mr. Hunter had failed, he only had a few shillings to his name, he went from factory to factory looking for work. Unfortunately, he was turned down at every factory. During that time, his son “…the apple of his eye, the cynosure of his strong power of love, fell ill of the scarlet fever” (Gaskell, 56). Doctors explained to Barton that they only way he would survive is with proper nourishment. “Mocking words!” (Gaskell, 56) the novel exclaims, as there was no food in the house that would come close to a meal. John also grew hungry, but was more consumed with the anxiety he had for his son. He went into town and passed by a shop displaying many delectables, such as “haunches of venison, Stilton cheese, moulds of jelly – all appetising sights to the common passer-by” (Gaskell, 56). As he is admiring the food, Mrs. Hunter, exited the shop and went into her carriage followed by the shopkeep carrying enough food for a party. When John returned home, he found his son dead, “to see his boy only a corpse” (Gaskell, 56).
Clearly, there are many contrasts between the aristocrats and the working man. The rich feast daily and ride in nice carriages wearing beautiful silk, while John the working man and his fellow Chartists lived in a constant state of hunger, had very little worth to their name, and could arrive home to a dead family member at a moment’s notice. This comparison was portrayed while John was in front of the shop displaying the delacacies. While John was staring at the food he was too poor to have, the wife of the master that failed him walked out with enough food for a party. Furthermore when the working men -who live in these basically unlivable conditions and constantly are at the will of their ruthless masters- tried to ask the Parliament to make their lives and working conditions better, they are turned down. After examining the historical evidence and John Barton’s strife, it is still clear that the Chartist lesson, as Chartism eloquently states, is “that the leaders of the proletariat cannot with impunity ally themselves with the bourgeoisie, and that the only guarantee of success lies in keeping live contact with the masses.” (Carlyle, 65). This means, as stated before, that the astristocracy and masters do not care for the working man or their needs and conditions. The lesson also implies that Parliament was on the side of the rich, and that their main focus was on capitalism rather than the well being of those who contributed to said capitalism.
John Barton lost his son, other workers were killed by the cotton machine spinners, and the masses starve while the bourgeoisie enjoyed their mutton, ornate clothing, and their health. When reading Mary Barton, it is important to note this distinction between social classes and understand how detrimental the divide is for the Bartons and their companions. This divide kept the Bartons and their fellow working men hungry and on the verge of death each day. The Chartist lesson was a hard one to learn, and unfortunately the workers who had to learn it, including John Barton, suffered for years and decades to come, even though all they wanted was basic human necessities and some food on the table. At the very least wanted to keep their beloved children alive to succeed them, but even that was a stretch to ask for. To compare John’s strife to the real world, it is important to speak out against manufacturing injustices when they occur, like sweatshops for example. Find ways to help these people now so that they do not suffer as the many families in England did back then.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Chartism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 Feb. 2018, www.britannica.com/event/Chartism-British-history.Carlyle, Thomas. “Chartism.” Google Books, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=-78KAQAAMAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=chartism&ots=iXHFRX1IoB&sig=uvMq8ururb1qnrJMAtWoZhuzou4#v=onepage&q=chartism&f=false.Rothstein, Th. “From Chartism to Labourism.” GIPE, Dhananjayano Gsdgil Library, dspace.gipe.ac.in/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10973/22195/GIPE-008465.pdf?sequence=3.“The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.” Crime and Justice – Trial Procedures – Central Criminal Court, www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Coinage.jsp.“Chartists.” Www.parliament.uk, UK Parliament, www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/chartists/overview/chartistmovement/.