North and South
Presentation of Social Class Realities and Interactions
North and South is a condition of England novel which, like Gaskell’s earlier work Mary Barton, sought to give a voice to the working class and expose the middle and upper classes to their suffering through the medium of literature. Published in 1854, and written in the style of a Bildungsroman, North and South explores the geographical and social divide amid the industrialised town of Milton, and the picturesque hamlet of Helstone. The characters of Bessy Higgins, Boucher, and the protagonist, Margaret Hale herself, to at least some degree, each embody Gaskell’s presentation of the poor and working class in Milton. Through an in-depth consideration of these and others characters relationships and interactions, the social divide within the early nineteenth century England will be illuminated.
The town of Milton, located in the north of England, and presumed to be an interpretation of industrial Manchester, is a location which is used by Gaskell to contrast the “idyllic hamlet” of Helstone in the south. The contrasting geographical locations in Gaskell’s novel, are illustrative of the social divide throughout England in the Industrial Revolution. Milton is predominantly inhabited by factory workers who are for the most part impoverished, implied largely by their seemingly constant “clemmin”. By comparison, Milton is also home to several characters of contrast who live the affluent lifestyles of a “Master”. John Thornton is the owner of the Marlborough Mills in Milton, which is infamous in the north for its successful production of cotton. Gaskell’s novel depicts the encroachment of capitalist values into a somewhat feudal-system society, which therefore explains to a certain extent, her unforgiving yet empathetic depiction of the poor. Capitalism has the capability to alter relationships between humans, but also between that of a man and his surrounding landscape, whereby illustrated in this novel through Thornton seeing the Marlborough Mills in Milton as an economic benefit, and cares not for the physical well being of his employees. The Thornton’s descriptions of their employees both as “hounds” and “fools” degrades them almost to a sub-human status, emphasizing their perception of them merely as “hands.” It is therefore believed that before the creation of the welfare state, the workers had no support system in times of strife, which is implied in the misery and hardship of the poor in Milton, who often only have a “black miserable frizzle of a dinner.”
The life and death of Bessy Higgins in Gaskell’s novel illustrates the many adversities which the working class encounter upon living and working in Milton. Upon moving to Milton, Margaret Hale befriends Bessy, who like Margaret, is a young lady whom necessitates to find a purpose in the entrepreneurial climate of Milton. Bessy is presented to be an extremely sick young girl, who as a result of working in a cotton mill, has inhaled a treacherously large amount of “fluff” into her lungs. Bessy is therefore too ill to even consider leaving her own home, and as the novel progresses, becomes increasingly immobile. Consequential to her illness, Bessy’s disposition often changes; she is at times calm and resigned with her fate, whereby she seeks comfort in religion, but at other moments, her character is illustrated to be delirious and raving. In this sense, Bessy Higgins exemplifies the differences in opinion of many of the inhabitants of Milton; those who are accepting of their way of life, which for the majority is destined to remain cold and bleak, but also of those who find it their best interest to take action and bring about change, which culminates in Chapter XIX with the “turn out” of the factory workers.
Furthermore, Bessy’s friendship with Margaret helps the protagonist understand the manners and activities of the working class in the Milton society, and although their opinions of social norms differ, arguably Margaret is ameliorated for knowing and befriending her. Gaskell’s use of dialect and colloquialisms moreover highlights and to a certain extent alienates the societal class divisions in Milton, alongside giving the population a sense of identity. Margaret adopts the so-called “factory-slang” and as the novel progresses, her tone and mannerisms become more of those of a woman from Milton. In a ‘breach of convention’, Margaret is depicted to be, as Patricia Ingham describes, “on the wrong side of the class divide by the casual use of a few dialect terms in contexts where the workmen and their families might use them.” The poor’s “slang” however is seen by Mrs Hale as vulgar and unrefined, however Margaret’s response illustrates the extent to which her character grows to understand the language, and arguably therefore the identity, of the people she has come to live with in Milton; “And if I live in a factory town, I must speak factory language when I speak it. Why, mamma, I could astonish you with a great many words you never heard in your life.” Margaret’s spirited tone demonstrates the degree to which she believes how the way a person’s speaking and their dialect, reflects their sign of class. Margaret actively seeks to understand, as can be seen in her many conversations with Mr Higgins and Bessy Higgins, as well as in a significant conversation with John Thornton in which they discuss their different interpretations of “man” and “gentleman”. In this way, Gaskell presents Margaret to embody cultural mediation, illustrated through her use of the poor’s “slang”, which comes to be representative of each character’s identity.
The tragic character of John Boucher furthermore depicts the harsh, material conditions of the lives of the working class population in Milton. Gaskell illustrates Boucher to be a workingman who refuses to join the Union Committee in the town. Boucher’s “children are hungry ad are not yet old enough to work for themselves; his wife exerts continuous pressure on him; and the Union exercises a “slow, lingering torture” that prevents him from making his own decisions.” In consequence to these hardships, Boucher drowns himself in a brook where “there’s not water enough to drown him,” illustrating that he was a “determined chap. He lay with his face downwards. He was sick enough o’ living, choose what cause he had for it.” Gaskell depicts the suicide of Boucher, which although is heartrending for his six children who are representative of many of the “clemmin” youth in Milton, in the long-term, the suicide is exercised to encourage Nicholas Higgins to temper his class antagonism and ask for work from the “masters” that he originally opposed in the strike. The presentation of Boucher, who the reader later discovers is of Irish descent; Margaret exclaims that “I would guess from their tones that they had Irish blood in them”, which illustrates how Boucher’s determination for an alternative future confirms “the inability of the Irish to be incorporated into England’s developmental times.”
Elizabeth Gaskells North and South depicts the punitive conditions in which the working class lived throughout the industrialization of England in the mid-1850s. The presentation of characters including John Boucher, Bessy and Nicholas Higgins and their interactions with those from a more privileged background, highlights the fact that North and South celebrates characters that subordinate alternative futures and synthesise multiple cultural times. Furthermore, it is significant that both the characters of Bessy and Boucher eventually die in the novel, and Gaskell uses death to open the eyes of the middle class to the suffering of the lower, whilst simultaneously forcing the lower to realize the positive effects of the middle class influence.
 E. Gaskell, North and South (1853) Penguin Classics: London. p. xii
 Scholl, L. Place and Progress in the Works of Elizabeth Gaskell. (2015)
Women Entering the Public Sphere
Margaret Hale in Gaskell’s condition of England novel; North and South enters the public sphere of industrialised Milton. As a form of Bildungsroman, this ‘Manchester’ novel illustrates the representation of industrial life and their purchase on the relations of workers and masters, labour and capital, while depicting Margaret’s first encounters with this world. It is suggested that middle-class women upon entering the public sphere, in this case only one woman; Margaret entering Milton, face some form of danger.
In North and South the greatest danger Margaret confronts, is the potential threat to her own personal livelihood, both physically, morally and physiologically, exemplified in Chapter XXII A Blow and its Consequences, where she is struck by a stone meant for Mr. John Thornton. Margaret’s sheltered and somewhat passive childhood at Helstone undoubtedly juxtaposes her existence and coming into the public sphere in Milton. The “idyllic Helstone” represented Margaret’s feminine lifestyle of discussions concerning fine silks and reading novels, and the reader infers a great sense of gender role-reversal upon entering and residing in Milton. Margaret arguably adopts a more traditionally masculine role in Milton, first noted in the fact it is she who must arrangements for the choosing and purchasing of her new home, not her father Mr. Hale. This gender fluidity from the one perspective enables Margaret to live a life challenging the status quo of what she believes is an unjust society, where “masters and men” and the treatment of “hands” as cash nexuses represent social inequality.
There are alternative interpretations as to what inspired Margaret’s desire to question this injustice. Margaret debatably is a product of her father who finds the strength to challenge The Articles of the Anglican Church, which is the most pertinent reasoning for her coming to Milton originally. Alternatively, it is through Margaret’s affections towards Mr. Thornton that she enforces her opinion of social injustice, made abundantly clear where upon she stands, firstly alongside and then ahead of Thornton to face the strike. Margaret denies her feelings for Thornton on many occasions, perhaps so as to not appear weakened by emotion, and one example of this strong exterior is where her character fiercely denying that it was “a personal act between you and me”. This exterior strength is juxtaposed in this chapter when Margaret is struck by a stone “meant for [Thornton]” which produces a “thread of dark-red blood”. This one bold act of courage from Margaret not only implies her assertion of her opinion, but also of her place in society, and upon realizing a more masculine character is required, exemplified in her emasculating language when she tells Thornton to “Go down and face them like a man” she is able to physically place herself within the “masters and men” politics of Milton. Margaret therefore uses the refashioning of gender boundaries as a means to overcome the physical danger she places herself in during the “turn-out”. Margaret’s entering into the public sphere of Milton brings her out of her interiority. This coming into the ‘real world’ is positive for her character, as if not, an interiority can distort one’s sense of reality and identity.
In order to represent the psychic consequences of overwhelming experience, Gaskell draws on the language of dream and trance. Through this she implies that the experience of emotional upheaval, which Margaret faces often, can be tantamount to entering an altered state of consciousness, for example Margaret likens the news of her father’s decision to leave the Church as “a night-mare – a horrid dream – not the real waking truth!” Gaskell’s recourse to the language of dreams allows her to suggest the jolt that Margaret’s perception of reality has suffered as a result of her mother’s illness. Margaret’s expulsion of interiority somewhat allows the friendship between her character and the Higgins’ family to be born. The relationship she builds with fellow nineteen year-old Bessy Higgins, illustrates the dangers of emotional distress which a middle-class woman can face upon entering the public sphere. Bessy, like Margaret, is a young lady who necessitates to find a purpose in the entrepreneurial climate of Milton. Bessy is presented to be an extremely sick young girl, who as a result of working in a cotton mill, has inhaled a treacherously large amount of “fluff” into her lungs. Bessy is therefore too ill to even consider leaving her own home, and as the novel progresses, becomes increasingly immobile.
Gaskell presents the interactions between her and Margaret in order to show the reader the protagonist’s ability to interact compassionately with the public sphere, and Margaret’s apparent mothering of Bessy, resultant of their family’s lack of a mother figure, illustrates Miss. Hale’s feminine role in the novel. Margaret’s discontentment with the social injustice of Milton is amplified when Bessy dies, and this outpouring of emotion arguably contributes to Margaret’s impulsive public actions – saving Thornton from the mob and secondly lying to a policeman to save her brother, which are from a part of the self that is not under conscious control. The implication of Margaret’s lie depicts her characters willingness to purge herself for those who she cares for; and on entering the public sphere, these people become more than her closest family.
Gaskell regularly reminds the reader of Margaret’s beautiful physical form, most notably her facial features, which is debatably why Mr. Thornton’s initially enamors himself with Margaret. Gaskell portrays the protagonist as delicate and serene in her appearance, which is antagonistic to the impression of her rebelliousness which we see in Chapter’s including XXXIV False and True. Margaret’s beauty once more caught a character – the police-inspector, off-guard by her haughtiness and steely, quiet reserve. Mr. Bell, Margaret’s godfather, rationalises the lie to Miss. Hale by referring to the “temptation” as “strong, instinctive motive”. The self-forgotten or possessed is invoked both here in Margaret’s lie but also to explain her impulsive actions at the strike: Margaret wonders “what possessed” her to defend Thornton. And after lying to defend Frederick, she tried to recall that “she has lied to save him”. Each of these occasions on which Margaret feels possessed or cannot recall what prompted her action is also accompanied by a scene of swooning or loss of consciousness. Margaret’s loss of consciousness and stunned faculties, where she “fell prone on the floor in a dead swoon”, make her seem a conventional “fainting Victorian heroine”, which juxtaposes her supposed masculine qualities of strength and rebellion. On entering the industrialised public sphere of Milton, Margaret both confronts and refashions the challenging dangers. Margaret’s ability to stand up for what she believes in has the capability to inspire the likes of Higgins and the striking “hands” to search for a greater social justice. Gaskell presents Margaret to be somewhat oblivious to the dangers which encircle her in Milton, as in consequence, Margaret is rewarded with the power to be able to refashion the society, which as a woman growing up, is placed to live and flourish in.
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. 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”, 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.
 E. Gaskell, North and South (1853) Penguin Classics: London. p. xii
 Gaskell, Ibid. p. xiii
Fredrick Hale: Viewing North and South From A Transatlantic Lens
Most literary critics agree that Margaret Hale is the central figure in Gaskell’s North and South. Margaret’s emotional, social, and psychological contexts are often analyzed with excruciating detail, as many view her story to be of principal importance. However, the narrative of Fredrick Hale, Margaret’s brother, should be viewed with the same amount of importance, if not more. Despite being viewed as a minor character, Fredrick Hale is the link by which Milton is connected to the rest of the global society. Through Fredrick, the conflicts in the novel are replicated on a transatlantic scale that is made possible by the advent of industrialization and capitalism; Fredrick’s narrative, along with his various conflicts not only mirror the context of the “Milton revolution” but also conflict in the United States and abroad. It is not often that minor characters receive five chapters devoted to them, yet Gaskell gives Fredrick’s narrative ample time to breathe. Some have made claims that Fredrick’s tales are strictly to obscure the central plot, yet they fail to look at Fredrick’s adventures from a more global perspective (Lee). By analyzing Fredrick from a global perspective, Fredrick’s narrative begins to imitate the bevy of conflicts happening in Milton as well as other transatlantic nations.
Although it is not clear how close Fredrick and Margaret were, Gaskell is very quick to introduce the character of Fredrick. When informed of Mr. Hales decision to leave the Church, Margaret immediately relates the decision to Fredrick’s situation (Lee). By mentioning a “minor” character so early, Gaskell seems to suggest that Fredrick will play a significantly greater role throughout the course of the novel. Fredrick is frequently mentioned by Mrs. Hale in thought as well as conversation. Lee argues that Fredrick occupies “too much” of her own character, as she frequently wishes for her son to be physically present. Although Margaret does not seem to worry over Fredrick’s predicament at the beginning of the novel, there is an obvious change in her thoughts towards the end. After Fredrick’s sudden intrusion into the plot, Margaret becomes fixated on his safety to the point where it interferes with her daily tasks (Lee). It is also important to note that Fredrick’s story is conveniently nestled at the end of Volume I, thus serving as the beginning of Volume II. Therefore, Fredrick is the transitional point of the entire novel. It is on these grounds that Fredrick Hale is much more than a simple secondary character.
Fredrick’s introduction to the novel is through the description of his occupation and a very brief mention of the mutiny. Fredrick’s mutiny is a direct comparison to the subsequent strike in Milton. Although Fredrick did not truly “strike,” he did successfully manage to disrupt the established social order (on the ship), much like the strikers in Milton wished to do. By learning of Fredrick’s mutiny before the Milton strikes take place, Gaskell seems to hint at the importance of Fredrick. The mutiny also foreshadows the issues with Thornton’s business practices, which mirror that of an Enlightened Despot, as well as the possible problems that the participants in the strike will face (Lee). To further discuss Fredrick’s importance to the novel, his naval experiences will be examined. Hale’s profession in itself is a direct foil to the societal relations in Milton. As a sailor, Fredrick is able to transcend not only geographical boundaries, but hypothetical boundaries as well. Fredrick’s general fluidity is a direct contrast to the rigid, caste-like system of Milton. Much like his sister, Fredrick is elevated beyond the artificial boundaries of class. However, Fredrick is elevated above class boundaries because his specific class roll is unclear. Although he comes from a relatively middle class family, Fredrick loses his sense of class during his sailing expeditions. Due to his captain’s cruelty, Fredrick’s class shares much commonality of slaves (Lee). Captain Reid’s treatment of Fredrick can easily be compared to the treatment of the American slave. According to Bolster, sailors could frequently be severely flogged, the practice become more lethal and prevalent during the height of British impressment (Bolster). By comparing Fredrick’s transatlantic mistreatment to that of slaves, Gaskell is able to link Fredrick to the institution of capitalism, a main theme of the novel. Fredrick is essential to the idea of capitalism, as he is the literal and theoretical link between nations. Hale is the link between the cotton producing Antebellum South and the North of England (Lee). From this link, Gaskell’s novel can be seen in a much broader, global context, mirroring that of an emerging capitalistic society.
Through Fredrick’s link to the cotton trade, the text seems to shows how American interests and ambitions impact Britain, which can very well impact domestic relations, especially in regards to labor. Around the time of publication, England was in a very poor place domestically. When looking at the global economy in the nineteenth century, English stability in the domestic realm was directly impacted by American stability (Lee). Therefore, it could be reasonably assumed that the rising tensions in Milton could be a result of a tumultuous economy, where America is possibly to blame. Therefore, the link between America and England, primarily through societal relations and capitalism, is crucial to the plot of the novel, as the two nations fates are essentially intertwined.
Due to the economic link between the two nations, the text allows for connections between the United States and England. The primarily link that can be examined are worker relations and the institution of slavery. Lee points out the fact that many of Gaskell’s novels seem to mirror social conditions in not only England, but America as well (Lee). Around the time of publication, British citizens became increasingly aware of slave narratives, that frequently included tales of “cruel masters” in addition to “scenes with whippings” (Lee). It is evident that Fredrick’s tales of mistreatment aboard the HMS Russell reflects many slave narratives of the era. Yet, Fredrick’s story mirrors that of a slave that shared his surname, Fredrick Douglass. Both of the Fredricks’ storylines primarily revolve around a revolt against a sadistic master. Lee argues that the character of Leonards, a former mate of Fredrick’s, mirrors the consequences of the Underground Railroad, specifically the constant battle between freedom and the risk of getting caught (Lee). Not only does Fredrick mirror an American slave, he is a slave to the system of capitalism. As a sailor, Hale’s employment essentially is governed by global demand. The text suggests that much like Fredrick, Milton and England will eventually fall prey to capitalism. Therefore, Fredrick’s tales mirror the slave narratives and subsequently portray Fredrick as a man who lacks national identity, a rarity in a time where nationalistic tensions frequently manifested themselves in countries. The fact that Fredrick does not have a distinct identity is a direct contrast with every other character in the novel. Although the other characters various identities change, there is no arguing that they are present. Fredrick is a man caught between two nations, the nation of his birth and the nation where he currently resides, Spain. Hale’s identity crisis is a representation of the English identity crisis, as England is in the transition from a Southern, agrarian society to a hearty, industrial Northern society but does not yet fully belong to either.
Although Fredrick lacks an identity as well as a specific social class, he brings about subsequent changes in characters after his fairly brief appearance. Fredrick, more so than any other character, is responsible for bringing about a substantial change in his sister. During Fredrick’s brief stint in Milton, he is able to provide comfort to a visibly worried Margaret. However, after Mrs. Hale’s death, their roles are subsequently altered. Margaret is then charged with comforting not only a distraught Mr. Hale, but her brother as well. Margaret’s emotions are much more visible after Fredrick’s appearance. After Fredrick’s visitation, her relationship with John seems for naught, as Thornton developed an animosity towards Fredrick and Margaret. From a logical standpoint, it is quite possible that Margaret would not have lied to the police inspector to protect Fredrick. Through her actions, it is evident that Margaret is acting out of love for the only family member she cares for. Despite the plethora of emotional distress, Fredrick’s visit changes Margaret yet again. From this point on, Margaret’s transformation as the patriarch begins to take place. After her time with Fredrick, Margaret begins to slowly develop her confidence and eventually asserts herself into the business of Marlborough Mills. Margaret also indirectly experiences globalization, as she soon picks up a new vernacular. Mrs. Hale was disgusted that Margaret had traded her sweet tongue of Helstone for the “horrid words of Milton” (Lee). Although Fredrick is not directly responsible for this phenomenon, Margaret shows that even she is subject to the forces of globalization and acculturation. Thornton’s personal and financial distress can be directly related to Fredrick. Thornton’s very personality is attacked by Fredrick, who he mistakenly mistakes for Margaret’s lover. Thornton is also attacked by capitalism and the global market, the very system that is the essence of Fredrick. Thornton, constrained by inefficient Irish scabs, soon decimates the personal fortune he had at the beginning of the text. Despite his somewhat rapid loss of wealth, Thornton’s outlook on worker relations and Margaret begin to change. Without Fredrick, who in this specific case represents the fledgling, capitalist, global economy, it can be argued that Thornton’s transformation would never had taken place.
In closing, Fredrick deserves equal, if not more, respect by readers and critics alike. Although it is nice that Gaskell gives him a sizable portion in the novel, he needs to be viewed from a much more critical level. As the sole entity that links Milton with the rest of the world, Fredrick is the vehicle by which Gaskell introduces the potential pitfalls of conducting business in a fledgling capitalist, global economy. Although Fredrick is unassociated with a specific class, his ability to transcend traditional Victorian social constraints is of utmost importance. By exploring comparisons between Fredrick and the slave novels, it shows how Hale lacks national identity, rather becoming a citizen of the globe. Through Fredrick, Gaskell hypothesizes on the future of social, economic, and political implications in a globalized world.
Works Cited Bolster, W. Jeffrey. “Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sails.” The Journal of American History (1997): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. 4 Mar. 2015. Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. London: Penguin, 1995. Print. Sun-Joo Lee, Julia. “The Return of the “Unnative”: The Transnational Politics of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 61.4 (2007): 449-78. JSTOR. Web.
An Eye for an Eye: Gazing and Courtship in Gaskell’s North and South
Although Margaret Hale and John Thornton do not fall in love ‘at first sight,’ sight, or gazing, plays an important role in the asymmetrical power relations implicit in the courtship of the protagonists in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” introduced the now-familiar concept of the gaze. Taking the work of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan as the basis for her theory, Mulvey argues that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (39). The voyeuristic gaze, traditionally wielded by a male, has the ability to reduce a woman – that is, fetishize or objectify her – in a way that renders her passive. Mulvey explicates Freud’s concept of scopophilia, or pleasure in looking, and asserts that in “their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact” (40). While Mulvey’s theory is based in film studies, Nalini Paul suggests that “the phenomenon of gazing in literature strikes relevant parallels with gazing in film theory” (1). Thus, the application of this theory to North and South sheds light on the exchange of power within the courtship of Margaret and John. To be sure, while John finds erotic pleasure in seeing Margaret, his gaze upon her does not reduce her or render her passive; in fact, Margaret’s attractive physical appearance and ability to appropriate the gaze endows her with authority over John, and leads to a constant and reciprocal exchange of power that culminates in their marriage. The power dynamics of the relationship between Margaret and John are immediately established in their first meeting in Milton. Gaskell writes: “Mr. Thornton was a good deal more surprised and discomfited than [Margaret]” at meeting “a young lady of a different type to most of those he was in the habit of seeing” (58). His bewilderment is compounded when she returns his gaze with a “simple, straight, unabashed look” (58). Upon seeing Margaret, John realizes she is different from most of the women he has encountered before, and more specifically, those he commonly “sees” or looks upon. John’s expectations are further troubled when she blatantly stares back as him. Her stare is “simple,” supposedly because she does not realize the socially awkward or perhaps inappropriate nature of the look she returns. Of course, at this point in the narrative Margaret has had little social interaction with possible suitors (with the exception of Mr. Lennox, whom she never considers as such) and is unaware of the implications of her stare. The initial looks exchanged between the two characters are figured overtly in relation to authority and power. Gaskell notes: “Mr. Thornton was in habits of authority himself, but she seemed to assume some kind of rule over him at once” (58). Margaret is unpredictable for she returns John’s gaze, and in so doing figures herself as an equal – not inferior – individual. From the outset Margaret exerts personal sway over John, albeit unconsciously, through her gaze. Contrary to Mulvey’s expectations, Margaret is not rendered passive but rather wields power through her own gaze.In the same initial scene, John’s gaze upon Margaret becomes scopophilic; her continuing return of the gaze, however, further undercuts the power – in the possessive sense – typically associated with the voyeuristic male gaze. Gaskell writes of Margaret and John:She sat facing him and facing the light; her full beauty met his eye; her round flexible throat rising out of the full, yet lithe figure; her lips, moving so lightly as she spoke…her eyes, with their soft gloom, meeting his with quiet maiden freedom. He almost said to himself he did not like her…to compensate for that mortified feeling, that while he looked upon her with an admiration he could not repress, she looked at him with proud indifference… (59)Margaret’s physical description is decidedly erotic and highly sexualized. The narrative sketch focuses on her bare throat, her limber physique, and her lips. John looks curiously at Margaret’s body, which Mulvey emphasizes is a “function of sexual instinct” (39). This objectifying process, for John, is a positive one; his “admiration” of her suggests pleasure, approval or agreeable surprise in beholding her attractive appearance. The pleasing feeling of looking upon Margaret is disturbed, however, by the gaze she once again returns. Her eyes have “maiden freedom”; she is naïve and fails to recognize the sexually charged nature of their glances. Interestingly, while Margaret is unaware of the power dynamics aligned with the gaze, John is uncomfortably aware – he is embarrassed to feel so much pleasure in looking at her and resents her effortless ability to make him question his own feelings. Consequently, while John’s scopophilic gaze figures Margaret as a sexual and erotic spectacle, her unfettered return of the gaze prevents her from simply becoming a passive object. As the romance plot continues to develop throughout North and South, John’s erotic gaze upon Margaret begins to determine his actions and thoughts. Even after she rejects his marriage offer, John, more than ever, feels the need to gaze upon Margaret. To justify visiting the Hales, John brings the ailing Mrs. Hale a second basket of fruit. He tells himself that “he would not – say rather, he could not – deny himself the pleasure of seeing Margaret. He had no end in it but the present gratification” (217). His gaze is overtly scopophilic – he yearns only for the pleasure he gets in gazing upon Margaret. To John, Margaret is continues to be a sexual and pleasing object to behold. Yet while he finds pleasure in seeing her, this urge actually controls his actions more than it controls Margaret’s. He is, in a sense, possessed by the need to see her. The need is so great that he questions if he is “bewitched by those beautiful eyes” (192), further strengthening the connection between sight and sexual attraction. John’s desire to gaze upon Margaret reaches self-abusive heights. Upon hearing of Mrs. Hales death, John thinks of Margaret: “For all his pain, he wished to see the author of it. Although he hated Margaret at times, when of thought of that gentle familiar attitude and all the attendant circumstances, he had a resting desire to renew her picture in his mind” (247). Margaret causes John extreme emotional distress, and yet he continually feels the urge to see her again. To counter his growing preoccupation with his unrequited love, John vows to “see as little of her as possible – since the very sight of that face and form…had such power to move him from balance” (306). Indeed, the sight of Margaret does less to control her than it does to control John. His obsessive need to gaze upon her actually dominates his consciousness, and has an irresistible “power” over him. Critics E. Ann Kaplan and Mary Ann Doane argue that men are not the exclusive bearer of the look, but even when a female appropriates the gaze she fails to inherit its agency (121, 1). This is not true of Margaret. Margaret is a notably active heroine in North and South, and this characteristic unquestionably plays into her courtship with John. Margaret is the object of John’s gaze, and yet Margaret reverses this formation by studying John and therefore becoming the subject of the gaze. She tells her father that John is “the first specimen of a manufacturer – of a person engaged in trade – that I ever had the opportunity of studying, papa. I know he is good of his kind, and by and by I shall like the kind” (152). Margaret figures herself as the observer, the studier, and the scientist, while John becomes the object of study, the “specimen.” Her dehumanizing and condescending rhetoric places her in a superior position to her object of study – John. Later in the novel, after the two have been separated for over a year, she still plays the role of the scientist inspecting her specimen. Gaskell writes: “Margaret was watching Mr. Thornton’s face. He never looked at her; so she might study him unobserved, and note the changes which even this short time had wrought in him…” (389) This passage also focuses on sight and observation, and places Margaret in the dominant position as the studier and subject of the gaze. The agency aligned with Margaret’s gaze is more overtly demonstrated in the scene in which John comes to propose after Margaret shields him from his violent and disgruntled workers. Margaret is thoroughly offended that John would think her actions were based in love and not womanly duty. “’You had nothing to be grateful for,’ said she, raising her eyes and looking full and straight at him…her very eyes…fell not nevertheless from their grave and steady look” (176). She denies having romantic feelings for John, and bluntly rejects his marriage offer. Her glaring eyes reflect her outright defiance of John’s intentions. No longer is her gaze “maiden” and “simple,” but it is rather deliberately severe and threatening. Margaret’s rejection of a well-off suitor is a bold move considering the particular social and historical milieu, and her fiery gaze is reflective of this audacious decision. In essence, Margaret’s appropriation of the gaze, and the authority therein, allows her an active role in the narrative and a strong degree of power over the male protagonist. In the end, both Margaret and John willingly submit themselves to the other’s gaze; in so doing, they allow their relationship to culminate in a mutually satisfying marriage. After a year apart, the two meet once again. Gaskell writes that Margaret looked “up straight into his face with her speaking eyes” and then dropped “them under his eloquent glance. He gazed back at her for a minute” (392). Margaret returns the gaze at first, but eventually submits to John’s. Taking into account the idea of the gaze and power as closely aligned, it is clear that Margaret’s downward glance forfeits the agency and power she has wielded with her gaze throughout the previous sections of the novel. Furthermore, while she looks away John continues to gaze upon her. In this way he becomes the dominant actor in the interaction. The exchange of power between the protagonists becomes most significant in the final passages of North and South. Gaskell writes: For an instant she looked up; and then sought to veil her luminous eyes by dropping her forehead onto her hands…still lower the head; more closely hidden was the face…after a minute or two, he gently disengaged her hands from her face, and laid her arms as they had once before been placed to protect him from the rioters…she slowly faced him, glowing with beautiful shame. (394-5)Margaret, once again, begins by returning John’s gaze, but physically conceals her gaze with her own hands. John, in disengaging her hands, invites her to return the gaze. As she faces him, we can assume that he, too, is looking at her. The exchange of the gaze in this scene attests to the changed power dynamic between the two characters. Both Margaret and John are now the subject and object of their lover’s gaze, submitting themselves to each other through the reciprocal exchange of power. It is only through this exchange of power that the two lovers can come together in marriage. Gaskell writes that “so much was understood through the eyes that cannot be put into words” (235), and indeed, their exchange of looks signals their commitment to one another in matrimony. Contrary to Mulvey’s central argument, John is not the exclusive bearer of the gaze in North and South. The gaze he directs towards Margaret is scopophilic, to be sure, and yet the gaze she returns – a gaze aligned power and agency – allows her to reject the objectifying gaze that would render her passive. In taking Laura Mulvey’s gaze theory as an apparatus with which to understand the dynamics of the courtship plot, one is better able to investigate the complex and unique approach to romance that Gaskell takes in North and South.
Gender in the Moral and Political Arena in Gaskell’s North and South
One can see easily that Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is a novel that presents us with many dualities, sets of matching or opposing pairs. Not only does the title suggest this, but a quick glance through the chapter headings will say the same: “Roses and Thorns,” “Masters and Men,” “Likes and Dislikes,” “Comfort in Sorrow,” “False and True,” to name just the most obvious few. Of course, opposing or otherwise complexly intertwined pairs figure largely thematically as well. One of the most salient of these pairs is masculine and feminine, but Gaskell joins that with another pair, moral strength versus political strength. These two pairs are embodied in her two protagonists, Margaret Hale and John Thornton. The two are perfectly matched in their diametrical clashing, with Margaret Hale the femininely moral and John Thornton the masculinely political. Through their interactions with each other and Margaret’s personal changes, Gaskell explores the combinations of influences possible between these four aspects. The identification of Margaret with the moral and Thornton with the political is clear from almost any of their conversations (or debates) with each other. In a pivotal discussion where their two primary ideologies clash, Thornton tries to justify the way he views and treats his workers. He likens them to children that “require a wise despotism to govern” them (120), telling the Hales that “I must necessarily be an autocrat…to make wise laws and come to just decisions in the conduct of my business…I will neither be forced to give my reasons, nor flinch from what I have once declared to be my resolution.” He sees his factory as a primarily political machine; his relationships with his workers is that of governor to governed. There is no personal obligation; he is a God with mysterious reasons that are beyond reproach. On the other hand, Margaret subverts his initial analogy of workers as children in order to argue that Thornton must have a quasi-parental, moral responsibility to them as well. She brings up an example of a man who raised his son up in ignorance, failing to educate him in any way. The son then “did not know good from evil” because his father had tried mistakenly to rule him to “save him from temptation and error” (121). The parallel, of course, is that manufacturers cannot keep their workers in ignorance to “save” them from the economic havoc the manufacturers think they would wreak on themselves and others, but they must educate the workers to know “good from evil.” Though Thornton responds by asserting that he is respecting his workers right to independence outside of the factory, Margaret counters with an argument almost moral in its tone, suggesting that such political talk of “rights” forces “every man has to stand in an unchristian and isolated position, apart from and jealous of his brother-man: constantly afraid of his rights being trenched upon?” (122). In this pivotal statement, Margaret summarizes the opposition. She values the Christianity, brotherliness, compassion, and she sees as obstacles the politically-nuanced “rights” that Thornton stresses. The waters get muddy, of course, for the point of the novel is not to maintain such clear-cut differences, but to let them clash, interact, and influence each other. Accordingly, Margaret, Mr Thornton and their respective worlds influence each other; as a result, Margaret cross the borders of femininity and masculinity, morality and politics. She does not remain confined to herself; instead, she is a dynamic character that adapts to her environment and plays the requisite arenas. The most gripping scene of the novel is when Margaret throws her femininity out into the political world. The horde of strikers is ranged before Mr Thornton’s house, ready to erupt into violence, when Margaret “made her body into a shield from the fierce people beyond” (177). She explains it as “only a natural instinct” and that any woman would “feel the sanctity of our sex as a high privilege when we see danger” (192). This is the epitome of crossing borders; the feminine has crossed into the forbidden political world to protect a political figure, no less. The feminine sex becomes a possible asset in the dangerous political and masculine world. Ultimately, her gesture fails to prevent violence, for “if she thought her sex would be a protection…from the terrible anger of these men…she was wrong” (177). At this point in the novel, femininity is still relatively powerless as a practical force, though her gesture is still a powerful symbol for her forbidden crossing into the masculine and political arena. In a way, that forbidden crossing is what prompts Mr Thornton to propose to her, for he is “bound in honour” (186) to redeem what he misunderstands as a shameless public display of feminine feeling. Her sexual and moral reputation is compromised because this bold act cannot be interpreted on her own terms; her act cannot be perceived as a political move to protect against violence; because of her sex Mr Thornton must perceive the gesture as a “personal act” (193). The public in the novel cannot stomach a woman too strongly masculine or too political; neither would Gaskell’s Victorian readership. She must thus take care not to compromise Margaret’s femininity too much; moreover, the vital balancing contrast between Thornton and Margaret would disappear. Margaret cannot be too masculine, or the romance becomes rather absurd, like a romance between Mr and Mrs Thornton. “The opposition of character…seemed to explain the attraction [Margaret and Thornton] evidently felt towards each other” (81). Thus, to make the novel push gender borders subtly, Gaskell masterfully manipulates Margaret’s tears. Margaret gives way to tears, a classic sign of femininity, on an average of once every twenty pages, which seems excessive. However, her feminine tears somehow highlight rather than detract from her strength. She cries over her father’s dissent from the church, over the doctor’s visit announcing her mother’s fatal disease, over her lie about Frederick, and over various deaths of her family and friends. Not one reason is silly or sentimental, and she eventually pulls through all of these dire crises. In sharp contrast, her cousin Edith Shaw’s tears at the end of the book could hardly be more different. When Margaret makes a slightly haughty comment to her, “Edith began to sob so bitterly, and to declare so vehemently that Margaret had lost all love for her, and no longer looked upon her as a friend…”: in short, making such a big fuss over nothing that we feel only annoyance for her (399). Edith’s tears are for show; they are to persuade Margaret to take back her words: Margaret ultimately ends up “being Edith’s slave for the rest of the day” (399). Margaret is always honest about her tears and suffering; her tears are only allowed to “force their way at last, after the rigid self-control of the whole day” (48). Thus, they can never be manipulatively for show or absurdly pitched the way Edith’s are. In this way, Margaret evinces her own strong moral core, being at once feminine and strong. While Margaret’s morality is her strength, but she is again unique in this trait because she can take moral strength a step further to combine it with practical action. She can be feminine, cry honestly, and still arrange all the details of the family’s removal and her mother’s funeral. Even after her mother’s death, “Her eyes were continually blinded by tears, but she had no time to give way to regular crying. The father and brother depended on her; while they were giving way to grief, she must be working, planning, considering…” (247). While her male family members are rendered incapable by grief, Margaret takes over the practical action, at once reversing gender roles without detracting from her feminine moral sensibilities. The other characters that possess the strong moral core that Margaret does—Bessy and Mr Hale—cannot take action or really accomplish anything in the tangible world. Sick little Bessy dwells on the Bible day and night, longing for death. She is not a fighter the way Margaret is, who encourages Bessy to talk of “something about what you used to do when you were well”(102). Margaret dwells on the positive and the good possibilities, while Bessy is simply resigned to her illness, looking forwards to her death. “‘Spring nor summer will do me good,’” she says upon their very first meeting, and she lives by this dictum of resignation and inaction. Similarly, Mr Hale is strong enough to wrestle with his inner shadowy objections to the church and even resign his livelihood over them, but then Margaret must finish taking care of the consequences of his decision. He is paralyzed, unable to speak to his wife or take care of the details of the family removal. Thus, Margaret possesses both the introspective morality and piety as well as the external capability of practical action. She then seems to be in a unique position to impact the political arena in a positive moral way. However, some sudden turning point in the way Milton society is run does not happen through Margaret’s direct, moral action. Her action at the riot may have prevented a massive amount of violence, but ultimately only its romantic consequences last, and even those are bitter; politically, nothing really changes. In fact, Margaret even risks what seemed to be her strength; morality. Her real crisis concerns the lie she tells the police inspector to buy her outlawed brother time to flee the country. Mr Thornton not only finds out about the lie, but even exerts his political influence as a magistrate to save her from it although he knows nothing about the existence of a brother and believes that she has compromised her morality by lying to protect a lover. Unexpectedly, “She suddenly found herself at his feet, and was strangely distressed at her fall” from “her imaginary heights” (278). He moral superiority and strength evaporate, leaving her prostrate at the feet of Mr Thornton’s political strength. The language of her moral fall is strangely sexual as well, for a “fall” from innocence is almost always associated with sex, and her position at his feet is strangely suspect. Thus, at this turning point in the novel, Margaret loses both her moral power and her pure feminine sexual status. We wonder, then, what Margaret can bring to the clash between herself and Mr Thornton and how, in the larger scheme of things, Gaskell is planning to resolve the issues between the two paired concepts we have pursued. Victorian novels must have their happy marriage endings, and though the relationship is jeopardized over Margaret’s lie, the two do get together in the end. However, Margaret finally regains the ability to face Mr Thornton not just by regaining her moral reputation in his eyes, but by gaining actual political and external influence. When her godfather dies, he leaves her a significant sum of money that affords her independence in the world and some social standing in the mercenary culture of Milton. In fact, when the economy crashes and Mr Thornton loses his own economic standing, it is Margaret that saves him with her money and marriage. They do not come together in the end in some grand finale of a resolved intellectual argument between morality and politics; no symbolic action happens where Margaret extends her feminine and moral influence into the political arena, as in the riot. Instead, the marriage happens when all hope seems to be lost because of a stroke of luck that is almost deus ex machina: money that wins her direct political influence essentially falls out of the sky. Her final ability to save Mr Thornton and her final power over him has nothing to do with her morality. In fact, “she was most anxious to have it all looked upon in the light of a mere business arrangement…” (424). Their marriage resolution nominally unites the two opposing conceptual pairs, but ultimately they are directly brought together through monetary circumstances. The whole novel, an elaborate study of clashes between gender identities and opposing ideological paradigms, would have come to naught without the Margaret’s final inheritance. Margaret, the most complex character, is the only person who slips back and forth across gender borders, alternately acting morally, politically, or both, but even though her remarkableness sets up the romance, they would have gone their separate ways and all changes would have sunk into oblivion if Margaret had not had the money. What seems to be a novel that radically enlarges the scope in which pious female figures can play seems to be sending the final message that without the proper political, masculine power of money, all a woman’s potential to extend herself into the political world is of minimal value. Margaret wins the lasting power to affect her society by marrying the manufacturer, and she can only do that through money. An independent woman seems to have little hope of lasting effect, no matter how exceptional. Ultimately, Gaskell creates Margaret to only bring up the various possibilities that a feminine moral influence like her may have on the male political system. Though Gaskell ends the novel conventionally, Margaret’s existence and spotlight for a few hundred pages just opens up the idea that a woman might make a political difference under different circumstances and that, moreover, she has a unique moral capacity to contribute to it. Love, marriage, and the economic dynamics of both may be inescapable, but a woman and her strengths may have a exclusive place in the system. References Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. Ed. Patricia Ingham. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Women, Independence and Financial Status in the North and the South
In order to highlight the underestimated value of women in Victorian society, Elizabeth Gaskell develops the character of Margaret: a powerful and independent woman who does not allow herself to adhere to patriarchal Victorian conventions. Through Margaret’s confident attitude, Gaskell proves that women can be successful and independent. However, the disabled and unhappy character of Bessy Higgins, who serves as the text’s representative woman worker of the Victorian period, contradicts this message. Throughout the novel, Bessy shows admiration and resentment for Margaret, as her driven and confident attitude seems to be exactly what Bessy lacks. However, Bessy’s low spirits and death prove her weakness and lack of perseverance. This further signifies that although Gaskell seems to promote and enforce women’s independence and self-sufficiency through the character of Margaret, she seems to believe that women like Bessy with inadequate financial status have little or no hope.From the beginning of the novel, Margaret plays the authoritative role in her family, presumably in order to prevent her parents from suffering the hardships of life. As her parents’ only child living at home, Margaret takes charge of most of the practical aspects of her family and becomes the backbone of her parents, as she strives to keep them content. She demonstrates these qualities many times, especially when her father decides to leave the Church. For fear of her mother’s reaction and in anticipation of the grief she will likely feel, Margaret responds with a “bright strong look on her face” (39). Here, she attempts to shield her grief and put on a strong front in order to aid her father. Agreeing to speak to her mother highlights her ability to take responsibility for such harsh actions – a trait rarely found in women of the Victorian era. Although “Margaret did dislike it [and] did shrink from it more than anything she had to do in her life before” (39), she responds to her father nobly, expressing that “it was a painful thing, but it must be done, and [she] will do it as well as ever [she] can” (39). This further proves her devotion to her parents and her eagerness to keep her family stable. According to Victorian conventions, the responsibility of ensuring happiness and stability is the job of a man, while “the career for women was marriage and the home was a place of comfort for her husband and family from the stresses of Industrial Britain” (Thomas). However, Margaret does not succumb to the expectations of patriarchal society and does not allow herself to become weak or passive in the face of her dominating male counterparts. She also does not occupy herself with the matters of marriage, focusing more on the well being of her parents and her interests in industrialization. Equally powerful and indicative of Margaret’s devotion to her parents are her efforts at attempting to shield her mother’s sickness from her father. Margaret takes on Dixon’s position as primary caregiver of Mrs. Hale in order to take charge of her mother’s illness. Proving that men do not always possess more emotional and physical strength than women, Mr. Hale is unable to take an active role in helping his wife, just as he was unable to tell her about his loss of faith in the Church. However, instead of succumbing to helplessness, Margaret fulfills her duty as caretaker and does her best to re-create the happiness that has left her household at this painful point in their lives. Throughout the novel, Margaret continuously proves herself to be a strong, capable and resilient young woman, and I believe that Gaskell incorporates this particular character into her novel in order to highlight a woman’s worth. She is able to develop this message quite well through Margaret, who takes on the Victorian female stereotype characterized by passivity and submissiveness and, ironically enough, gallantly ensures the well being of those around her.Margaret is very different from the average Victorian woman in that she asserts her opinions and proves to be very brave throughout the course of the novel. Gaskell describes Margaret as being “full of a soft feminine defiance, always giving strangers the impression of haughtiness” (34). In order to highlight how Margaret’s personality is much different from other women of the time, Gaskell includes Mr. Thorton’s impression of Margaret: “that while he looked on her [he felt] an admiration he could not repress.” During this particular time period it was uncommon for a man to admire a woman in this way, especially because “the qualities a young Victorian gentlewoman needed, were to be innocent, virtuous, biddable, dutiful and be ignorant of intellectual opinion” (Thomas). However, Margaret is strong in her personal opinions and so different from the other women in this novel that Mr. Thorton, a strong and successful man himself, cannot help but be infatuated with her strong-willed demeanor. In addition to her headstrong personality, Margaret exhibits many acts of bravery – even though “Victorian women were expected to be weak and helpless” (Thomas). The most notable is when she jumps into harms way in order to protect Mr. Thorton during the strike. This is particularly shocking in a society where men are expected to protect and care for women, who are viewed as weak, frail and sensitive. However, instead of being afraid, like Fanny and Mrs. Thorton, Margaret chooses to heroically defend Mr. Thorton while attempting to resolve the strike itself. It is clear in this situation that neither Fanny nor Mrs. Thorton would ever put themselves in harms way; however, Margaret, even though she is a stranger to the family, has a desire to protect and to help. She does not view herself as being submissive or subservient to men, and therefore feels that it is her duty as a powerful young woman to attempt to solve the problems occurring in her society. Equally powerful in proving Margaret’s boldness is her response to her mother’s death. Margaret feels she “had no time to give way to regular crying. [Her] father and brother depended upon her; while they were giving way to grief she must be working, planning, considering” (275). Margaret appears less overcome by the loss of her mother than the men of the family, but this is solely because she does not allow the tragedy to keep her from maintaining family stability. She has allowed the other members of the family to rely on her to keep everything intact. This is uncommon in a society where women are seen to be “a fragile delicate flower incapable of making decisions” (Thomas). I believe that through these acts of bravery, Gaskell proves that although Victorian society regards women as fragile in comparison to men, women can be just as strong, or even stronger, than their male counterparts.The other women in this novel do not show the bravery that Margaret demonstrates. For example, Margaret’s cousin Edith serves as a perfect contrast to Margaret’s strength. She alerts Margaret not to be strong-minded, to which Margaret replies: “Don’t be afraid, Edith. I’ll faint on your hands at the servant’s dinner-time, the very first opportunity; and then, what with Sholto playing with the fire, and the baby crying, you’ll begin to wish for a strong-minded woman, equal to any emergency” (509). Here, Gaskell makes the uselessness of a powerless woman apparent while at the same time highlighting the overwhelmingly distinctness between the two women. Mr. Thorton also notices the differences between his sister, Fanny, and Margaret when he says: “I see a great deal of difference between Miss Hale and Fanny. I can imagine that the one may have weighty reasons, which may and ought to make her overlook any seeming impropriety in her conduct. I never knew Fanny have weighty reasons for anything. Other people must guard her. I believe Miss Hale is a guardian to herself” (305). This further establishes Margaret as an accomplished young woman, unconcerned with the stereotypical image of a weak and powerless woman. Bessy Higgins, an utterly weak character, seems to admire Margaret, but is also envious of Margaret’s independence and resilience. Bessy’s angry and unpredictable personality is rooted in her unhappiness with her personal socioeconomic reality, being the victim of unhealthy working conditions in the factory. However, Bessy’s state was not uncommon in an era where “children were expected to help towards the family budget [and] often worked long hours in dangerous jobs and in difficult situations for a very little wage” (Daniels). Because Bessy is the only representative of female labor workers, readers are given the impression that all female workers are as unhealthy and pain-stricken as she is. Furthermore, although Bessy seems to be quite fond of Margaret and enjoys her visits, it is evident through Gaskell’s writing that Bessy is unable to become the capable woman that Margaret is – presumably because she is of a lower class, considering that class status is the only major difference between the two women. Notably, “the economic differences between rich and poor became very noticeable [in the Victorian era]. The rich could afford elegant, well-built villas, while the poor had to tolerate the squalor of cramped, back-to-back housing surrounded by noise and filth” (WWMM). However, Margaret and Bessy share many commonalities aside from their evident differences in wealth. For example, Bessy shows how she is curious about the world, just as Margaret is, when she says: “I want to know so many things, and am so tossed about wi’ wonder” (133). Also like Margaret she longs for wider vistas: “I’ve always wanted to get high up and see far away, and take a deep breath o’ fullness in that air” (144). Furthermore, Bessy, having dutifully worked to support her family, is similar to Margaret, as she has made it her duty in life to serve and protect her parents. Both women have been forced into hardships, but I believe that Bessy realizes that her lack of wealth is perhaps the one thing preventing her from living the life she yearns for (or a life more similar to Margaret’s). Her family is clearly in need of money, and Bessy is forced to work in the cotton factories, causing drastic harm to her health. This realization causes Bessy to feel resentment towards Margaret, as she feels that Margaret has “never known want or care, or wickedness either, for that matter.” Her jealousy of Margaret is apparent when she lashes out at Margaret and says: “I could go mad and kill yo’ I could” (145). Although Bessy does care for Margaret and perceives her as a dear friend, she cannot come to terms with the fact that she is forced to live in poverty while Margaret has not a care for matters of wealth. Nicholas Higgins presents his financial status to Margaret when he questions her: “yo’re but a young wench, but don’t yo’ think I can keep three people — that’s Bessy, and Mary, and me — on sixteen shilling a week?” (480) Furthermore, with Bessy’s death and Margaret’s triumph by the end of the novel, readers are unsure of how to perceive the strength of women. With Bessy’s unhappiness, lack of good health and death, Gaskell implies that even with uncharacteristic strength, at least for the time period, women are still powerless in the face of economic inequalities. It is apparent throughout the novel that Bessy and Margaret come from two different social classes, and this class discrepancy seems to be the reason for Margaret’s success and Bessy’s failure. Although Gaskell does a convincing job of portraying Margaret as a capable and successful young woman, quite different from those around her, she proves that the problem of gender inequalities cannot be solved within the low-class population. Gaskell seems to have to move to the middle-class sphere in order to create a vision of a window of opportunity for women. However, with Bessy’s illness and death, Gaskell implies that Bessy has no hope presumably because she has little or no income within her family. Gaskell’s message promotes female empowerment, but at the same time she seems to contradict this message by suggesting that only middle-class or high-class women have a chance to prove their self-worth. By the end of the novel, readers are left unsure of how to perceive Gaskell’s message, whether it be that women are stronger than society would like to think, or that low-class individuals are robbed of their ability to demonstrate their full value as women with independent thoughts and feelings.
The Role of Women in Percival and Gaskell’s North and South
In modern day society, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase ‘A woman’s touch’, being casually mentioned in discussions of style and the exercise of compassion. The phrase, however, is an apt description for the role of women in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novel, North and South, and the resulting BBC miniseries adaptation directed by Brian Percival (2004). In the respective adaptations, both author and director strive to present the potential of women to be more than the submissive, demure and delicate figures that Victorian society appraise by defining what exactly is meant to be a man and what is meant to be a woman. Through the exemplar characterization of the male and female leads (Margaret Hale and John Thornton), and the unprecedented relationship that ensues between the two, both adaptations of North and South present an equalist ideal that depicts women not as triumphant conquerors, but as necessary mediators of our world.
When examining the males in North and South, it becomes quickly evident to audiences that John Thornton is Gaskell’s representation of the stereotypical man. Possessing many admirable qualities that the men around him lack significantly, the novel repetitively describes the ‘self made’ nouveau riche owner of Marlborough Mills not only as ‘handsome’, but also ‘noble’ with a ‘rigid thick’ build and ‘steadfast’ personality. The BBC adaptation manages to transfer this physical description to the silver screen with the near perfect casting of english actor Richard Armitage, who delivers in terms of appearance and the deliverance of his lines. Despite these positive attributions to his character, however, Thornton cannot be described as a perfect picture of moral virtue. In both the original novel and the miniseries adaptation, the male protagonist is depicted to be a man who ‘tests everything to the standard of wealth’ and holds a non empathetic ‘survival of the fittest’ ideology. As a result of these ideas, Thornton is implied to hold an exceedingly high opinion of his own character. The miniseries builds on this idea of induced pride and superiority, which have come about as a result of his circumstance, through the use of low camera angles when filming the character in the initial episodes of the series. The effect of these angles during scenes with his love interest and other feminine figures, also gives the impression to audiences that he is as a man who frequently ‘talks down’ to others. The riot scene of chapter 22 and episode 2 respectively is a scene that only confirms this inference. All throughout , audiences witness the male protagonist’s shocking lack of empathy and disregard for the welfare of the working class, by remarking that violence (the gender typical solution of man) will make them see ‘reason’, and his command to Margaret :’keep up her courage for a few minutes longer’, as he automatically assumes she is a damsel in distress. When Margaret indignantly denies her ‘damsel status’ with a haughty ‘I am not afraid!’ and requests that the master speak to his workers ‘like human beings,’’man to man’, Thornton begrudgingly agrees, but not before a ‘dark cloud’ comes over his face and his teeth, as the book puts it ‘grind and set’ , both of which are implied signals that he finds the task of attempting to lower himself to the level of his workers as one that is tedious and difficult. This overall lack of empathy in all aspects of his life, combined with his unfailing belief in the system that ‘one makes his own success with the means to which he is provided’ make Thornton a fitting representative and vision for a world of men without femininity — cold, hard and without consideration of anything other than industrial profit.
In contrast, Thornton’s female counterpart Margaret Hale could be considered an apt generalized representation of women. As a graceful, southern English belle with a passion for social responsibility, Margaret is unafraid of pointing out the maltreatment of the working class by men of her status, it comes as no surprise that the protagonist of North and South was deemed by many as unconventional and even scandalous by readers of Gaskell’s day. With that being said, Margaret, remains a woman of fault, not only due to her overwhelming sense of “pride and disagreeability”, but also her excessive and unrealistic idealism. This particular harmatia of hers is only briefly implied in the book, but is explored in greater depth in the miniseries, specifically during the Masters dinner scene. At the table, Margaret, after Thornton accuses her of ‘prolonging the strike’ by ‘supporting the strikers’ with a basket of food, in shock, questions whether ‘providing a dying baby with food’ is ‘simply a question of logic’. The emotively disbelieving way in which Margaret (Daniela-Densby-Ashe) delivers these lines of dialogue strike viewers in the heart, forcing them to acknowledge the absence of compassion in the world that men strive to achieve. While her prolonged call for empathy is admirable in this example, Margaret’s idealism often reaches a point where she endangers herself and the individuals around her. An example of this can be found in chapter 22, the riot scene, in which Margaret, ‘shaking with passion’ places Thornton in danger of violence, when she asks him to calm a crowd of ‘boys, cruel and thoughtless’ ‘whose stormy passions had passed their bounds, sweeping away all barriers of reason, apprehension and consequence.’ When she attempts to calm the throng herself, armed with the foolish belief that her words hold greater value than those of a man, she finds herself unable to do anything, and manages to also cause injury to herself in the process.
Margaret’s actions during the riot, while not achieving their intended effect, were not insignificant to the events of the plot in itself. After she is struck down by the pebble in the original novel, Thornton stands ‘amongst them’, his workers, as if metaphorically lowering himself to their level in an effort to appease the wishes of his love. This is a great change from the logically reasoning Thornton audiences witness at the beginning, and is the first of many examples in which they witness just how much of an influence the female protagonist has been on his character. Over time, readers and viewers alike witness the character’s stony demeanor melt away, and by the end of both the novel and series, audiences are shown a new and improved version of Mr. Thornton — a civil minded master who views his men not as a superior master, but as friends. Richard Armitage, the actor portraying Thornton, portrays this very well in the way he speaks to Nicholas Higgins after the loss of his mill, even reaching the point where the two, who originally despised each other, are able to set aside differences and shake hands. This significant moment, symbolizing the newfound compromises between social classes is emphasized in the miniseries’ final episode with a close up detail shot of the two’s firm handshake. In a similar way, Margaret Hale is also shown to have been influenced by her lover. These differences are quickly noticed by her father who aptly surmises the new grounded and humbled persona of his daughter in episode 4 of the miniseries: ‘My word, Margaret! To admit that the South has its faults and Mr. Thornton has virtues! What has happened to bring about such a transformation?’. By pointing out these pleasant changes, both Gaskell and Percival reveal that the two, man and woman, are better together than apart. The resolution of both narratives, with the upcoming marriage of the two young lovers not only shows the compromise between the North and South, but also the compromise between the two genders in society.
Although Percival is not as direct in his revelation of opinions regarding the role of women in society, he appears to quietly endorse Gaskell’s belief that good men cannot exist without good women and vice versa, as each have an important role to play in an optimally functioning society. Readers and viewers find that the book neither endorses the feminist misconception that ‘women can rule the world’ or the patriarchal delusion that ‘women are servants to men’. Rather, both versions of North and South find a more idyllic, common ground between the two—one which details the necessary requirements of true equality; between not only sexes but also the economic classes.