Unsuitable Suitors: Why Jem Doesn’t Make the Cut

I would like to use this opportunity to explore something that has been plaguing me. My goal is to articulate my reasons for not being able to get with the Jem program, jump on the Jem bandwagon, join the Jem club…whatever you want to call it. I realize that he has some admirable qualities and that I don’t have Victorian values (and hence may be making my judgments unfairly), yet I can’t seem to reach a compromise. I feel dissatisfied accepting Jem as a hero. Roland Vegs says in “Mary Barton and the Disassembled Dialogue” that part of Jem’s problem is the matter of public self-representation (177). “Jem should have worked on his own image in order to influence his audience” (177). While Vegs is referring to the trial scene here, and the jury is the audience in question, I would like to apply this observation to several of the times we encounter Jem in the novel, and consider readers of the novel (including myself) the audience. I find that most of the time, Jem is doing something that irks me; he is either stealing a kiss from Mary without her consent, blurting out his feelings about Mary just after his twin brothers have died, proposing marriage to Mary in a bumbling, ill-advised way, approaching Henry Carson and demanding that he make an honest woman of Mary, or, having won the case, focusing more on having won Mary’s love. With these things going on, I either find him cloying or spiritless, meddlesome or not involved enough – never pleasing. Let me examine four of the examples I have cited.

When the twins die, Jem is understandably distraught. Mary’s comforting touch and soothing voice give rise to “a strange leap of joy in his heart…Yes! It might be very wrong; he could almost hate himself for it; with death and woe so surrounding him, it yet was happiness, was bliss, to be so spoken to by Mary” (119). I am not taken aback by the feelings Jem experiences, for they are complicated and can’t be helped, but I am shocked that he would admit them at that inopportune moment. Is Mary supposed to be flattered that she was having such an effect on him? This situation is not unlike a real-life one in which I heard a young man declare that he was glad his mother had died, for the object of his affections had held him comfortingly in the hours afterwards. Needless to say, the object of his affections found him a little repulsive after that. Mary’s being turned off as soon as the words are out of Jem’s mouth is – I would say – a realistic reaction.

Second, Jem’s proposal is rather rushed. He goes from making a passionate case for himself to behaving like a petulant child with the words, “If you say No, you will make me hopeless, desperate” (179), then going on to mention how gladdened Mary’s father would be if they were to marry. Even in an era in which family considerations were very important, it is clear to us, the readers, that Mary is somewhat headstrong when it comes to being married off – she glares and pouts when her father states, after Jem rescues people at the Carsons’ mill during the fire, that Jem could have Mary the next day without a penny to his name should he so wish. It is a little surprising that Jem wouldn’t anticipate Mary’s irritation at the (mistaken) notion that her father may have solicited Jem’s interest in Mary (179). Of course, Gaskell is setting up Jem for failure, for Mary is supposed to refuse him, but Jem’s way of presenting himself comes across as simply too ill-planned. He even tries to make her feel guilty with the warning that he could very well become a drunkard, thief or murderer as a result of her cruelty (180). Well done, Jem!

Third, Jem’s confrontation with Henry Carson is, as Carson states, “interference” (237). Sure, I’m supposed to view this scene as one of self-sacrifice, because Jem is giving up his lifelong love to the man that Mary wishes to be courted by (or so Jem still believes); however, I as the reader find myself wishing that Jem had cultivated his own personality and appearance through whatever means he could, rather than failing dismally at the proffer of love and then being big-hearted enough to hand over Mary to another man.

Last, the fact that “he could not dwell on anything but her words” and wished to be soothed by “the knowledge of her love even in his dying hours” (414) make him, in my eyes, a sickeningly besotted character. Mary’s treatment of Jem has not been consistent, but Jem has had the same unwavering devotion for her since he first saw her. I therefore cannot attribute the beginnings of Jem’s love to anything but attraction, and am exasperated as I always am when a simple-minded oaf pines for a beautiful, haughty girl.

There is no doubt that Jem has principles and is an upstanding character. However, when it comes to being a suitor, and one who will eventually win the girl, I feel that there should be more to doing that successfully than just being a good person who is madly in love. (Henry Carson clearly does not fit the bill either.) Gaskell does not employ much of the “show, don’t tell” method in this novel; it is very much tell, tell, tell, and tell it some more to drill it into their heads. Sympathy and liking for characters is demanded of readers rather than inspired within them, and this is done to a great extent with Jem.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Literary Texts, 2000.

Végs, Roland. “Mary Barton and the Dissembled Dialogue.” Journal of Narrative Theory 33.2 (2003): 163-183. Project Muse. 28 Jan. 2013.


Who will be redeemed?

That was the primary question occupying my mind as I raced to finish Mary Barton.  And now I feel I have at least a partial answer.  John Barton, however, did not make my list of characters for whom Gaskell successfully achieved redemption, and in my defense I offer the following reason from Catherine Gallagher: “There is not even a hint of possible damnation in the novel” (67).  In John Barton’s case, I believe this is so.  Throughout the novel, the narrator sympathizes with him and consistently identifies him as a victim — almost to the point of excusing him his crime.  Barton himself insists that “I did not know what I was doing!” (451), and Mary, Job Legh, and Jem each try, equally unconvincingly, to defend Barton.  He again tries to defend himself on his deathbed by saying, essentially, that he could have lived a good life if he’s ever seen it modeled (455-56), indirectly incriminating others. Thus, there is little sense that Barton bears any responsibility for his crime, and if he is not truly responsible, he cannot be brought to justice.  I had the distinct feeling that I was expected simply to pity and to forgive: “Death! Lord, what is it to Life?” he asks, and instead of wanting him to die for his crime, I wanted him to live with the realization of what he had done, while at the same time realizing that Gaskell’s ever-sympathetic narrator would let him die peacefully, as if he deserved such a death who took another man’s life.

If Gaskell does not succeed in redeeming John Barton, she does succeed in redeeming the elder Mr. Carson — and through him, the younger Mr. Carson.  She redeems the elder both as a character, in showing his humanity through the depths of his suffering (452-455 is perhaps the most poignant passage of the book), and spiritually.  Unlike John Barton, there is a clear indication that for Mr. Carson, damnation is a serious possibility: take his chilling words, “Let my trespasses be unforgiving, so that I may have vengeance for my son’s murder” (452).  Remember also the narrator’s comment: “All night long, the Archangel combated with the Demon” (455).  There is a certain nobility in Mr. Carson’s struggle, for without the possibility of damnation, there is no possibility of salvation.

I mentioned that through Gaskell’s redemption of the elder Mr. Carson, she also redeems the younger Mr. Carson, who (it can be argued) was never given the chance for repentance himself, at least not that we, the audience, were allowed to see.  In the brief episode that the elder Mr. Carson witnesses on his walk home from his meeting with John Barton, of the careless boy who knocked to the ground a little girl in the charge of her nurse, it is clear that Carson sees himself in the figure of the nurse, who angrily upbraids the boy for hurting the child, and threatens to bring him to the authorities.  I would argue that the reaction of the little girl (obviously meant to be Harry Carson, though the words she utters [“He did not know what he was doing,” p. 455] are John Barton’s of just a few pages ago) communicates that Harry Carson himself has forgiven his murderer, and is present with his father in the supreme gesture of tenderness Carson displays at John Barton’s deathbed:  “He raised up the powerless frame; and the departing soul looked out of the eyes with gratitude.  He held the dying man propped in his arms.” (457).

Gallagher, Catherine. “Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton.” The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form 1832-1867. University of Chicago Press, 1985. 62-87. Print.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Toronto: Broadview Literary Texts, 2000. Print.

Rampant Illness in Mary Barton…The Purpose?

Question: What is the significance behind the multiple maladies suffered by the various women in this novel?

Coming to the end of Mary Barton this week I couldn’t help but notice the inordinate number of illnesses and impairments experienced by Gaskell’s characters, in particular the women.  In my last post I discussed Mrs. Carson’s headache and Margaret’s blindness, but the infirmities don’t stop there.  In the latter half of the novel we have Alice’s altered mental state following a stroke, Mary’s quick decent into a psychosomatic delirium following the trial, and Esther’s wracking and ultimately deadly cough brought on by her life as a  “street-walker.” However, beyond simply noting these numerous maladies and setting them aside as perhaps mere features of the industrial novel, I suggest that many of these infirmities can be viewed not only as commentaries on the socio-economic issues of the time but also on contemporary views of women.

First, consider Margaret’s blindness (resulting from cataracts as we later find out) brought on by her long nights working to support herself and Job. As I discussed last week, this malady is particularly devastating to her as a member of the working class, a great contrast to Mrs. Carson’s headache. However, not only does this illness threaten her livelihood, it also handicaps her ability to satisfactorily fulfill her duties specifically as a woman. Frequently she puts herself down and laments her diminished capacity to either sew or adequately care for the ill. In a sense, she is presented not simply as a handicapped person but as an incomplete woman. This is further supported by the final events of the novel when Jem and Mary receive the letter from Manchester. Modern science has cured Margaret’s eyes and finally she is to marry Will. While not explicitly stated, the implication is that while she was blind and unable to ‘be a woman,’ sweet and pious Margaret could not receive the reward of marriage.

Throughout the second half of the novel, Alice makes frequent appearances despite, or rather because of I argue, her illness. In each case she is in an incoherent state, trapped—or rather freed—to her reimagined childhood. Not only is her mind at peace and at rest, but her countenance is as well, described several times as youthful. In this state she describes flowers and greenery that recall the opening scenes of the novel—the countryside surrounding Manchester yet untouched by the hardship and industrialization of the city. I argue that this focus on Alice’s return to youth presents her as the ultimate example of the hard life of the working class. She lives most of her adult life in a cellar akin to those described by Engel in his The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, labors tirelessly, and dies having only found relief in her imagined return to childhood. Hers was the life of a typical working class woman, and its depiction is a striking commentary on Gaskell’s part.

Next consider Mary’s psychosomatic illness following the trial. Veg characterizes it as a nervous breakdown, attributing it to “her anxiety over the lie” she tells by withholding the truth (179). He suggests that this breakdown over the anxiety “reflects Auerbach’s reading of the repressive cultural anxiety about theatricality” (179). I agree with Veg, but I would take this even further to consider Mary’s illness in light of the Victorian conception of hysteria. Mary is depicted as seriously ill, “hover[ing] between life and death” (409), and yet she is not sick from disease but rather a weak mind, a characteristic attributed particularly to women at the time.

Finally there is Esther who falls ill and dies as a direct result of her life choices. She is an eternal outsider—a fragile, bruised “butterfly” looking in from the dark through the window at Mary with Jem. She represents the fallen woman: a prostitute who cannot be redeemed. Even as she is brought into the house, she is not given a final voice but simply dies. Of all the illnesses depicted in Mary Barton, hers is the most striking commentary not only on the hard lives of the working class—and those who fall below it—but contemporary views of women as well.

Vegs, Roland. “Mary Barton and the Dissembled Dialogue.” Journal of Narrative Theory.  33.2 (2003): 163-183.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Oxford: Oxford Press, 1998. Print.

From Bobbins to Proper Top*

It is only a matter of time before we see Mary Barton as a major motion picture. I mean, we have the lovable, suffering underdogs (everyone not named Carson), the villains (everyone named Carson), romance that is long deferred (Mary and Jem; Margaret and Will), a shoot-first maverick who does bad things that we come to love in the end (John Barton), and so on. If this film were set in contemporary Manchester, imagine the possibilities with the Mancunian dialect. Mary talking to Job about traveling to Liverpool to find Will might say: “Ah, Job, me heads in biscuits. Am I off my trolley to look for Will? Will the search be a proper top, or will it be for nish?” To which Job would reply, “Ah, stop your skriking, child. You are no knapper, but will the Scousers aid you in finding that bowat is beyond me.*”

All slang aside, language has a complex relationship with action in Mary Barton. There is ample evidence. John, on his death bed, mentions several times not understanding the “text” of the Bible in earlier days. The other texts he reads, people, act incongruously to what he reads in the text of the Bible (456). John does not have anyone to interpret either texts, for he was “asking the meaning of this or that text, an [sic] no one told me” (456). Therefore, John then chooses vigilante action, which produces a great chain of events and suffering.

Before Mary leaves for Liverpool, she and Job, fall to fighting when they are attempting to formulate a plan of action to find Will. They soon reconcile, where Job blesses her, to which “the old man’s blessing came like words of power” (354). Once in Liverpool, there are examples where language loses its meaning because she becomes so distressed. When she realizes she has lost her directions to Mr. Bridgenorth’s after seeking Will, the words in her mind fail her as she cannot remember the address, “everything passed away, and it did not signify,” (376) and her world becomes meaningless.

Job, on the other hand, is the ultimate signifier in the narrative, the image of meaning in the midst of suffering. In part, the seemingly oddly placed story about his daughter earlier in the narrative provides evidence for my claim. I say oddly because scholarship seems to overlook this story as unimportant. For example, Roland Végs, in his “Mary Barton and the Dissembled Dialogue,” briefly discuss it as a “story thrown in by Job Leigh to divert attention from Barton’s gloomy forebodings” (173). The story does this, but it achieves something more. It connects the Job of Mary Barton with the Job of the Hebrew Scriptures. Job is a man of sorrows who knows suffering, for his daughter dies young and he and Jennings encounter trials of the journey home. Because of his knowledge of suffering, others look to him for meaning in the midst of disorder. Furthermore, that Job makes meaning out of suffering is most prominently seen near the end of the novel. Mr. Carson summons Job and Jem to his home, ultimately to help him find meaning in his suffering. Job states, “I have lived long enough, too, to see that it is part of His plan to send suffering to bring out a higher good” (472). He then goes on to articulate what John Barton believed so vehemently, that the rich should lighten the suffering of the poor if they can. He is able to find meaning where John Barton does not until near death. It is therefore fitting that the last words of dialogue in the novel are “Job Leigh” (483).


Bobbins: Really bad

Proper Top: Really good

“Ah, Job, I am stressed out. Am I crazy to look for Will? Will the search succeed, or will it be for nothing?” Job: “Ah, stop your crying, child. You are not crazy, but will the citizens of Liverpool aid you in finding the boat is beyond me.”


Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Literary Texts, 2000.

Végs, Roland. “Mary Barton and the Dissembled Dialogue.” Journal of Narrative Theory 33.2 (2003): 163-183. Project Muse. 28 Jan. 2013.

When Failure Is Really Success

In “Mary Barton and the Dissembled Dialogue,” Roland Vegs states that Jem’s “failure at public self-representation is part of the general pattern in Gaskell’s novel of the working-class failure of dissembled dialogue” (177). I agree with Vegs that Jem does not represent himself successfully, but does that necessarily mean that he fails at what he tries to do and that the working class fails, too?

The point isn’t that Jem fails at representing himself but that he succeeds in representing another.

John Barton loses his voice and needs someone else to speak for him until he can regain it. First, as the official delegate sent to represent his class to those in the authority, John is rejected when his plea is disregarded. The subsequent representation of John’s people is assigned by Harry Carson in the form of a caricature, but this silent paper serves to incite laughter rather than speak change. Next, when John draws the fateful murder card, he is chosen to represent his people once again, but this time incognito. “No one, save God and his own conscience, knew who was the appointed murderer” (Gaskell 251). The representational regression from delegate to caricature to marked paper paradoxically signifies a progression of action to compensate for failed dialogue. John is not a successful representative in the dialogue, and fate would have him jettison words in favor of action.

Enter Jem Wilson. Intentionally or not, John chooses Jem as his representative when he takes Jem’s gun. I don’t think John tries to set Jem up as a villain, but the murder weapon automatically points to its owner. Jim accepts the role assigned him, sacrificing his own right to defend himself by keeping mum about the true murderer. When given a chance to represent himself in the dialogue of the courtroom, Jem relinquishes his personal rights so that he can be a scapegoat for John and the rest of the community.

This is voluntary forfeiture, not failure. Jem’s very successful sacrifice exemplifies Dr. James Phillip Kay’s concept of “mutual relief,” essentially workers helping workers. (Goodlad 609). In order for John Barton and the rest of the working class to receive representation, one from their class, Jem, had to speak (or cover) for all of them. Thomas Chalmers would advocate that this “abandonment of self to the social” is a necessary step toward change (599). As Jem succeeds in his self-sacrificing purpose to cover for the real murderer, he finds that Mary and Will cover for him. As a result, the dialogue signifying “the final consolidation of the classes”–Barton’s conversation with Job Legh and Mr. Carson—can occur later in the book (Vegs 167). Jem wins a voice for Barton—a voice that can confess and effect change through private dialogue. Success.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Toronto: Broadview, 2000.

Goodlad, Lauren M.E. “‘Making the Working Man Like Me’: Charity, Pastorship, and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain; Thomas Chalmers and Dr. James Phillips Kay.” Victorian Studies 43.4 (2001): 591-617.

Vegs, Roland. “Mary Barton and the Dissembled Dialogue.” Journal of Narrative Theory 33.2 (2003): 163-83. Project Muse. 8 Jan. 2013.

Flirting with Death: Slut-Shaming and Kill Joys in Mary Barton

I have earlier, in these very pages, pitied a young man for being young, handsome, educated, and rich. Had I known better, I would have saved my tears. His fate was a hard one, to be sure, but it doesn’t even begin to compare to that of young Mary Barton herself. The poor girl was cursed with good looks, social graces, admirers, friends, and a love of pleasure. It is truly miraculous that she was able to repent from her heavy sins and wed a good, steady, man who could lead her to virtue.

I know that many will think I exaggerate her list of sins, but I’m afraid that, if anything, I underrate them. The list is black indeed and must be shown. “She knew she was very pretty…trust a girl of sixteen for knowing it well if she is pretty” (Gaskell 17-18). This is a very great sin. To be pretty is bad enough, but to know it is far worse. If one knows that one is pretty, one must be expected to do outrageous things like enjoy being told so. Indeed, the power of being pretty is a dangerous temptation that friends do well to avoid. Margaret, that saint of a singer who earns her bread by praising the Lord, “had no sympathy with the temptations to which loveliness, vanity, ambition, or the desire of being admired, exposes so many; no sympathy with flirting girls” (165). Indeed, while idle flirting may seem to be no more than harmless youth enjoying itself, we are told in no uncertain terms that fun is a sinful trap: “Good natured, generous, jolly, full of fun; there are a number of other names for the good qualities the devil leaves his children” (183).

Prettiness does not only imperil the soul of the pretty creature, but also ensnare others. It is her good looks which charm Charlie into aiding her Liverpool chase (189) and which win her the right to stay up late before the trial (206). This witchcraft can easily lead to a darker purpose, asserts Job (and Mrs. Wilson and the law clerks): murder (164, 151, 198). What’s more, when men act as she wills it is not their fault, but hers! It is only logical that, after Mary rejects Jem’s marriage proposal, she is responsible for his becoming a thief, a drunkard, or a murderer. “Remember! when all are speaking ill of me, you will have no right to blame me, for it’s your cruelty that will have made me what I feel I shall become” (87). Job, the wise scientist, casually asserts that he does not blame Jem for murdering Carson over a pretty woman (164). Jem plays his part, as she plays her game. Women are far crueler, forgiving nothing. “That’s what I call regular jilting…And he lying cold and bloody in his coffin now!” (145). Because of her prettiness, and her audacity in enjoying it, Mary is a hussy (118, 149, 150). She’s “a bad one” because  “it’s the bad ones as have the broken hearts” (206).

Fortunately, the brave soul is repentant: She would “wait for years” for Jem Wilson, “as a penance for her giddy flirting” (88). In the trial, which peculiarly judges her conduct more than the actual murder (for, remember, Jem is only acting as her beauty forced him), she confesses that she “was giddy and vain, and ready to listen to any praise of my good looks” (214). This repentance, coupled with being “utterly cast down” and “bear[ing] the bitter, bitter grief in [her] crushed heart” allowed Mary Barton to “[submit] to be taught by suffering” (206, 255).

I do not know if it is jealousy (expressed perfectly at 7:40-7:45 or in any of the recent A-Rod stories) or priggishness that leads to such a miserable lesson, but in either situation I have little patience for it. Harry Carson’s biggest sin, we’re repeatedly told, is that he is arrogant because he enjoyed the attention of beautiful women. This is Mary Barton’s as well, but I have a hard time seeing it as a sin. Enjoying the attention of a lover is not a fault, and, while it may be carried to excess, the problem is not that she wants to have fun, it’s the dishonesty. As I said last week, there is an idea that tragedy is the higher art, that comedy is a low art form. Against I have only a single point: the Fall was tragedy, but the end of the story is a Divine Comedy. Felix culpa, maybe. But felix ascension certainly. There is no sin in being “Good natured, generous, jolly, full of fun.”

Girl Power! in Mary Barton

Roland Vegs declares that “Gaskell’s anti-revolutionary novel projects the need of a non-violent social changed based on a sympathetic social dialogue” (165). He goes on to suggest that “aesthetic experience which then defines the function of art itself as a means of social dialogue” (165). I am intrigued by this idea of art as social dialogue, with political underpinnings, and Vegs’ contention that “by writing the novel [Gaskell] is actively involved in ‘action’ by initiating a social dialogue” (166). I tend to think of political fiction as more pedantic and preachy, and though Gaskell does lay on the disparity between the classes rather thickly, I appreciated that she avoided some of the excruciating moralizing in other novels I could name. But is this political dialogue limited to the discrepancy between classes? I would argue that she is subtly but discernibly incorporating questions of gender roles in her novel as well.

Gaskell accomplishes her social dialogue by her choices of agency in the narrative. First, she makes Mary the heroine while simultaneously alluding to the classical trope of men quarrelling over a woman, which helps the average Victorian male to be lulled into a stuporous complacency before being gently bushwhacked by the second half of the novel. This was rather nicely done; the first half gives Mary nothing more to do than toy with Henry Carson’s emotions while Jem pines away, but once the murder occurs, Mary becomes the active agent driving the action. She delegates finding a lawyer to Job while she herself braves the journey to Liverpool alone, hires a boat to pursue Wil’s ship, and arranges for him to save the day with his testimony. Giving a woman such a prominent role must have raised a few eyebrows among the bourgeoisie to whom Gaskell wrote. This, coupled with the helplessness of Jem, the perfidy of John, and the obtuseness of the Carson boys, reverses the dynamics of narrative power between women and men.

This is not to say that Gaskell is a full-on feminist; Mary frequently needs ‘rescuing’ by male figures throughout the novel. Charley provides information and guidance to the docks so she can flag down Wil’s ship, Ben the Grouch takes her back to his house where his wife cares for her, Wil’s testimony is what ultimately saves Jem, and Jem nurses her back to health. But even here Gaskell is playing with social roles; as Job jokes when they all return to Manchester, “Thou’lt give Jem and me good characters for sick nurses, I trust. If all trades fail, I’ll turn to that” (438). Mary is exhausted to grave illness from her endeavors, while Jem and Job sit idle, dependent upon her actions, and when she lies abed, the men act beyond their normative roles to tend her.

A final example. The senior Caron summons Job and Jem to him for a final confab, and recalls his lose of reserve in his grief and anger in the face of Barton’s extreme remorse and agony. And it is the unmanly display of emotion, both by Caron and Barton, that ultimately serves to reconcile and redeem both in the face of guilt and unforgiveness. I can’t help but wonder what tragedy might have been averted if the delegates had allowed some measure of their extreme desperation and despair to shine through their shabby appearance and appeals before the masters.


The Mediatorial Quality of Gaskell

In the introduction to his book Realism, Ethics, and Secularism: Essays on Victorian Literature and Science, George Levine asserts, “Knowledge is a condition of sympathy…and epistemology links immediately to the ethical” (10).  Reading Mary Barton, I cannot help but feel that Elizabeth Gaskell herself might have said the very same thing, and has in part made it her purpose in Mary Barton to communicate this truth to anyone who reads her book.  She indicates in her preface that the thought that prompted her to write Mary Barton was “how deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided” (29).  Throughout the novel, she evokes her reader’s sympathy with detailed descriptions of the filthy and destitute conditions in which the working-class of England lived; one notable example is her vivid description of the horrific poverty in which the Davenport family lives, and in which the father, ill of the fever, dies (97-100).

In thus providing her audience with knowledge of the conditions in which the poor working-class lived, Gaskell is enabling and encouraging readers to feel sympathy, and thereby to impel them to action.  Her consistent references to John Barton’s thoughts and words about the wealthy (“Why should he alone suffer from bad times?” [55]) are a reminder of the social wrongs she believed needed to be addressed, hence opening opportunities to sympathize; those wealthy among her readers who took offense at Barton’s often accusatory attitude towards the rich might be softened and the more roused to action by Gaskell’s own tactful explanations of Barton’s frequent bitterness: “I know that this is not really the case; and I know what is the truth in such matters: but what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and thinks” (55).

Gaskell’s attempts to bridge the gap between rich and poor by both accurately presenting the mindset of the poverty-stricken and by explaining for the wealthy why they were so often hated and resented by the poor might also be seen as an example of what Michael Timko calls the “mediatorial quality” of Victorian literature (626).  This quality is a reflection of the Victorian concern “to mediate fact and value” (626-27), and about the proper relation of knowledge to action, as Levine also indicated in his discussion of the link between epistemology and ethics.  Gaskell’s treatment of poverty in England, and her apparent desire to communicate the knowledge of the conditions of one class to the class who had the means to raise the fortunes of those who suffered, seems to me to be one of the things that makes her “Victorian.”

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Literary Texts, 2000. Print.

Levine, George.Realism, Ethics, and Secularism: Essays on Victorian Literature and Science.

Timko, Michael. The Victorianism of Victorian Literature.” New Literary History, Vol. 6, No. 3, History and Criticism: II (Spring, 1975), pp. 607-627. Print.

Idleness born from “Enchanted Fruit”

Clearly, Elizabeth Gaskell takes great pains in Mary Barton to emphasize the divide between the poor and the rich in industrial Manchester during the hungry forties. The description of the Davenport’s cellar ‘home’ with its back room where pigs could barely live, much less humans, aligns with Engel’s depiction of the city in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 as rife with ‘living spaces’ he characterizes as “holes” for “some poor creature…who can pay for nothing better” (584). As Engels asserts, these are holes that are hidden that they might not “affront the eye and the nerves of the bourgeoisie” (583).

I want to consider this divide as Carlyle characterizes it in Book 1 of Past and Present. He names the riches produced in England during this period “enchanted fruit” which can benefit none (552).  Elaborating, he continues on to say, “in Poor and Rich, instead of noble thrift and plenty, there is idle luxury alternating with mean scarcity and inability” (553).  The rich squander their earnings, while those of the working class labor in vain, rarely making enough to survive even when there are jobs to be had.

As a primary example in this limited space, consider the contrasting images of an evening at the Carson’s and an evening at the Barton’s. The opening of chapter eighteen provides a glimpse into the idle of lives of Mrs. Carson and the “three Miss Carsons,” while the middle of chapter five details a busy evening of Mary and Margaret. In the former, Mrs. Carson suffers from “the luxury of a headache,” a malady, the narrator informs readers, which is a “natural consequence of the state of mental and bodily idleness in which she was placed.” The narrator then continues her intrusion into the scene, suggesting offhandedly that Mrs. Carson might take on the “work of one of her housemaids for a week” as a cure (237). (As a side note, it is interesting to consider that Mrs. Carson was once a member of the working class, a factory girl. It seems Carlyle’s “enchanted fruit” got the best of her, turning her to idleness despite (presumably) her knowledge of greater hardship.) The Misses Carson lounge about attempting to read or thumbing through music scores. Their only hardships are overtiredness from the previous night’s dancing and whether they should ring for tea. This contrasts starkly with the evening Margaret and Mary spend sewing mourning dresses in the dim light. Instead of an idle headache, Margaret suffers from a true malady—her failing eyesight threatening to steal her livelihood. Contrasting with Mrs. Carson’s headache, this illness arises not from a lack of work, but rather too much and at a high cost. Like Alice and other women in the working class, Margaret needs all of her senses to make her living, lest she and Job fall victim to the all too real consequence of death. Furthermore, for her, singing is not an idle past time, but becomes her only option once she is too blind to sew.

With the narrator’s intrusion into the scene at the Carson’s home (which culminates in the revelation of the consequences for Harry Carson’s treatment of the divide), it is clear that Gaskell intends to emphasize not only the “scarity and inability” on the side of the working class, but the ill effects of the “enchanted fruit” on the rich as manifest specifically in their idleness. It would be interesting to look at other scenes in Mary Barton through this Carlylian lens.

Works Cited:

Black, Joseph et al, eds. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature Concise Edition. Vol. B. Broadview Press, 2007.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.


Mermaids, Flying Fish, Manx Cats, and Mary Barton

At first, chapter thirteen in Mary Barton seems like a simple diversion from the rest of the novel. Lovesick Mary follows Will to a party, hoping she’ll spot her crush there; when she doesn’t, she’s convinced the night will be a bust. Fortunately, Will saves the evening when he pulls out his traveler’s tales to entertain everyone and distract them from their “dark, heavy, oppressive” lives (Gaskell 209). They all have a great time together then disperse back to solitude and despair.

What does Will’s spiel about mermaids and other oddities have to do with the rest of the book?

Surely Gaskell just inserted the little mermaid codswallop in mad-lib fashion to give the characters some lively conversation before they returned to their rather depressing reality. They could have talked about anything, right? For some reason, mermaids, flying fish, and Manx cats not only entertain but also bring people together; I argue this power comes from their peculiarity.

What makes them so powerfully strange? Since mermaids cannot survive in Manchester, no one in the town has ever actually seen one; the creatures are strange partially because they aren’t an organic part of the community. German sociologist Georg Simmel agrees that the Stranger comes from the outside and is no “owner of soil,” but he also argues that the Other plays an active, positive role in the community (1). Because she only shows up in a story, I was skeptical of her importance in Manchester until I noticed her similarities to Mary. Even as a green-haired, finned woman, her beauty and situation mirror that of Gaskell’s title character. Freshly mourning her own escape from Jem’s pursuit, Mary enthusiastically voices her wish that the whalers had caught the lonely mermaid. Will also jokes about the aquatic woman’s feminine fickleness, a trait with which Mary closely identifies.

Not only do Will’s strange creatures evoke sympathy in Mary but they also unite him, a stranger, with others in the group. Even though naturalist Job Legh scoffs at the sailor’s mermaid talk, he warms up to the young man when Will offers to bring him a flying fish or a Manx cat. The men so bond over their fascination with strangeness that Will starts making Mermaidicus jokes and Job has Margaret sing for him. Of course, her singing wins his heart, and their romance buds from this stem of strangeness.

According to Catherine Gallagher, Gaskell purposely switches around from tragedy to melodrama to domestic fiction in Mary Barton because the form can reveal or hide reality  (75). The unique form of Will’s sailing yarn makes it more than just an interlude; his strange talk makes possible the unimagined.


Gallagher, Catherine. “Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary             Barton.” The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and                        Narrative Form, 1832-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. 62-87.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Toronto: Broadview, 2000.

Simmel, Georg. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Trans. Kurt Wolff. New York: Free             Press, 1950. 402-8.


“Gentle Humanities”

In the midst of the tension of the class disparity in Victorian England, I was struck by the manifestation of human solidarity within Mary Barton. In one poignant passage, John Barton goes on an “errand of mercy,” in search of aid for his neighbors suffering from typhus.  As he walks through the crowd, he feels resentment towards the “joyous” people surrounding him (101). He experiences the tragedy of human injustice. The narrator maintains, however, that Barton does not know the interior struggles of those he encounters:

But he could not, you cannot, read the lot of those who daily pass you by in the street. How do you know the wild romances of their lives; the trials, the temptations they are even now enduring, resisting, sinking under? You may be elbowed one instant by the girl desperate in her abandonment, laughing in mad merriment with her outward gesture, while her soul is longing for the rest of the dead, and bringing itself to think of the cold-flowing river as the only mercy of God remaining to her here. You may pass the criminal, meditating crimes at which you will to-morrow shudder with horror as you read them. You may push against one, humble and unnoticed, the last upon earth, who in heaven will for ever be in the immediate light of God’s countenance (101).

The narrator condemns Barton for the “thoughts of his heart…touched by sin, by bitter hatred of the happy….” (101). Despite the clear injustice within the class system, Gaskell insists upon the dignity of the human person; she does not simply reduce humanity into binaries of rich and poor, as Barton does. Barton’s hatred for the rich, the “gentlefolk,” is palpable. He argues that only the poor have compassion for the suffering of their brothers and sisters.  In some sense, Barton is correct. Gaskell portrays affecting moments of tenderness and empathy between the impoverished: the warmness of the Barton’s simple home, Alice Wilson’s selfless kindness, and the close relationship between Mary and her father.  She also shows the lack of compassion on the part of Henry Carson. However, while one can blame social injustice for the action within the novel, Gaskell resists such simplification.  As Catherine Gallagher notes in her essay, “Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton,” Gaskell dismisses absolute determinism for the sake of allowing moral freedom. While the forces of social inequity are inescapable, one still possesses free-will. By recognizing the external forces which encroach on man’s dignity, Gaskell sympathizes with the downtrodden. However, she does not allow these forces to become an excuse for living beneath one’s dignity by surrendering one’s moral agency. She notes Barton’s loss of his nature: “One of the good influences over John Barton’s life had departed that night. One of the ties which bound him down to the gentle humanities of earth was loosened, and henceforward the neighbors all remarked he was  changed man” (58).  Elizabeth Gaskell portrays the tension inherent in the class system, but resists the temptation of dehumanizing her characters by removing their free-will.

Gallagher, Catherine. “Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton.” The Industrial Revolution of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form 1832-1867. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985. Print.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. London: Penguin Group, 1996. Print.

Into the Open Air

In “Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton,” Catherine Gallagher argues, “It is not surprising that, in Gaskell’s words, no one ‘saw’ her ‘idea of a tragic poem,’ for the tragedy [of John Barton’s story] is… obscured by antagonistic interpretations at the end of the novel” (87).  In her essay, Gallagher lays particular emphasis on the novel’s “final episodes” as the cause of Gaskell’s “failure” to “express perfectly her tragic intentions” (87), claiming that these episodes render John Barton’s story “irrelevant” (84).  Gallagher contends that, in light of these episodes which grant Barton forgiveness and redemption without reference to the causality or consequences of his crime (87), “all John Barton’s and the narrator’s explanations are for naught” (84).
In concluding thus, however, does not Gallagher ignore her own astute observation that Gaskell distinctly resists in Mary Barton the notion that reality is always “amenable to clear cause-and-effect analysis” (83)?  Gallagher’s thesis attempts to imposes on Mary Barton the very artificial and sterile logic that the novel reveals to be an utterly inadequate account of real life.  Though Gallagher identifies the influence of James Martineau’s “Religion of Conscience,” which Martineau describes as “an escape from a logical cage into the open air,” on Gaskell’s thoughts and intentions for the novel, and while Gallagher even highlights Gaskell’s objection to “abstract language,” which, again in the words of Martineau, prohibits one from “[mingling] with the world and [believing] in what one [sees] and [feels], without refracting it through a glass, which [construes] it into something else” (65), Gallagher’s critique of Mary Barton comes from within the very cage of logic from which Mary Barton insists on emergence and freedom.  Gallagher does not recognize the non-contradictory nature of the realities of hardship or prosperity of all varieties, on the one hand, which weigh on every individual and carry the potential to influence or shape, and individual choice and will, on the other, which defy determinism.  Consequently, from the narrow view which the cage of logic within which Gallagher remains affords, Gallagher does not see the continued significance (and non-contradictory nature) of the narrator’s and Barton’s explanations relating to causality once Barton takes moral responsibility for his crime.
In opposition to Gallagher’s thesis, I would like to suggest that the ultimate redemption of Barton does not render the rest of his story irrelevant, nor are his or the narrator’s explanations relating to causality “for naught.”  The basis of my argument is that Gaskell, according to her own declaration, intends John Barton to represent the “many such whose lives are tragic poems… which cannot take formal language” (66).  In light of this intention, neither John Barton’s suffering nor his sin represents merely the abstract or hypothetical which the cage of logic houses.  John Barton’s story is not about the logic of suffering or moral responsibility, but the undeniable experience of both.  Barton’s salvation does not render irrelevant either his own suffering or the suffering he caused.  None of the dead – Bartons, Wilsons, or Carsons – spring back to life upon Barton’s repentance and redemption, nor will the deceased or dying loved ones of the families whom Gaskell’s characters represent.  Moreover, the suggestion of eternal peace for Barton or any other character does not negate the need to deal with temporal realities, for the same gospel that mediates John Barton’s redemption enjoins men and women to bind the wounds of their neighbors, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in and clothe the stranger, and visit the sick and imprisoned.
In other words, the fact that the narrator concludes, in the words of Gallagher, “that John Barton should be forgiven, no matter what the sources or consequences of his crime” (87), does not mean, in contrast to Gallagher’s interpretation, that those sources or consequences are less real or explained “for naught.”  Rather, the narrator’s and Barton’s explanations remain not only relevant but powerful because their accounts represent those of real people who face both the suffering and the moral responsibility which both Barton and Carson face in their different ways.  The workers, masters, and families of Mary Barton represent the workers, masters, and families who live in the real, open air of which Martineau writes – men and women who daily face decisions regarding how to act in light of the humanity each shares with every other.  In such open air, there is no contradiction between the existence of moral freedom (and responsibility) and “social and economic necessity” (64).

Works Cited

Gallagher, Catherine. “Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary
Barton.” The Industrial Revolution of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form 1832-1867. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985. Print.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. London: Penguin Group, 1996. Print.

The Jem Complex

Does Jem have enough complexity to make him a compelling character?

Early in the novel, things do not look good for Jem in regard to this question. He possesses the subtly of Roger Sterling when it comes to his love for Mary, which is not a positive thing. And his lack of ease around Mary repulses her. Indeed, it keeps her focused on what seems the goodly Mr. Carson, until we find out that he is a total blackguard, jerk, scuzzball, ratfink—well, you get the point. I felt mildly sorry for Jem’s awkwardness, but I must admit I was rooting for Henry Carson. I know, I know, as an American I am legally obligated to root for the underdog. But is it so wrong to wish the beautiful Mary to marry the equally handsome gentleman Henry? They did seem to love each other. At least, until we see his lack of complexity when we realize that he is a bully to Mary, Jem, and his employees (186-188, 237, 241-244).

Jem, on the other hand, begins to show his depth in his despair as a rejected lover. When he is speaking with Esther, Mary’s aunt, he makes comments that seem a contrived sort of despair on the surface, “It would be better. Better we were all dead” (218). But then we recall that he has lost his father and the twins. And we remember the Manchester that Friedrich Engels was so horrified to witness, strewn with “refuse, filth, and offal” (584). Jem then considers suicide, but quickly moves on from this thought. He realizes that he must shake his despair and save Mary. This moment shows his great depth as a character in the novel. “He braced up his soul, and said to himself, that with God’s help he would be that earthly keeper” (222). Jem decides to love Mary sacrificially, providing an interesting inversion of the sacrifices that John Stuart Mill, in “The Subjection of Women,” states are forced upon women (593).

What is more, Jem begins to love Mary sacrificially by invoking the phrase, “with God’s help” used in the liturgy for the sacrament of Holy Baptism in the Anglican Church, which is the church he was presumably a part of. The line “with God’s help” is repeated in two sections of the liturgy for Holy Baptism. First, when children are presented for Baptism, the parents and godparents repeat “with God’s help” as they claim responsibility for helping the child grow in the Christian faith. Moreover, the phrase is said by the congregation as they are renewing their Baptismal vows. I argue that when Jem utters this, he is binding himself to sacrificially love Mary, for she has “no other friend capable of the duty required of him” (223). And though he is called by Esther to a brotherly duty, it seems likely that he will be renewing his vows of love for Mary. With this fresh resolve, “peace came into his soul; he had left the windy storm and tempest behind” (223).


Engels, Friedrich. “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, Concise Edition, Volume B. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2007.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Literary Texts, 2000.

Mill, John Stuart. “The Subjection of Women.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature Concise Edition, Volume B. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2007.

In Defense of Henry Carson

In reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, I found myself inexplicably rooting for Henry Carson, the ostensible villain of the piece. He was, the poor lad, cursed by the author as a “gay, handsome young man,” rich, well read, and relatively charming (when he had a mind to be so) (117). It is apparent from the listing of his virtues that he must die.  He was not a steady man, such as Jem Wilson, nor a plain working man. This is his sin, from which there is no salvation.

Now, to be sure, I make my point a little two strongly. Carson does have serious flaws–his arrogance is repulsive, his treatment of the working class is abhorrent, and his treatment of Mary Barton herself is extremely unchivalrous. However, I might hope that this sins are treated as the sins of youth and responded to with grace, rather that murder. Gallagher’s Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton provides an excellent reading of the novel that accounts for the tragedy of John Barton, the poor worker who, by means of a system beyond his control and that he rails against, finds his life destroyed and worn down endlessly. Gallagher sees his tragedy as a touch of realism, fighting against the “sentimentality of Esther and Mary and the farce of Sally Leadbitter and Harry Carson.” She continues, “His interpretation, of course, immediately undercuts all the story’s romance…makes it merely a part of a larger social tragedy” (70). The reader naturally sympathizes with the tragic hero of John Barton, and who could not? He is a hard worker who, through forces beyond his control, loses his wife, his income, and his health. And yet, despite this, it is still his choice to turn to murder. The system broke him down, but it did not turn him to murder. But we forgive him this fault, because his poor, ugly, and downtrodden.  We do not forgive Carson his faults, though they be far less.

Carson’s damning moment is his caricature of the working class representatives, in which he “wrote a hasty quotation from the fat knight’s well-known speech in Henry IV” (123). The speech, claims Gallagher, comes from Act IV, Scene II, and is summed up by Falstaff’s claim that his men, scrawny, pale soldiers, are “good enough to toss; food for powder, food / for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better.” The Falstaff connection is strong. That is certainly one of the fat knight’s worse moment, just as it is Harry Carson’s. But it is impossibly to recall that speech without recalling an earlier,“If sack and sugar be a fault, /
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a / sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if / to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine / are to be loved… banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

For Henry to be truly villainous, I would like to see him offered Grace–perhaps in the form of marriage to Mary Barton–and reject it. Were he to offer her the life of a mistress, and she reply that they should instead wed he would have the chance to grow in wisdom, love, and humanity. In rejecting that choice, and turning only into himself (the sin of Gomorrah), we would see his true evil: a sinful narcissism, an idolatry of self beyond mere youthful ego-centrism. Instead, he is killed for being young, handsome, and rich–as much a victim of the system as John Barton–and he dies unmourned. Jem is right when he realizes that “a man’s a man,” but he fails to see that this category moves both ways (118). He very much has the right to talk to Henry Carson and Henry Carson very much has the right to live and repent. Gaskell’s novel offers free will only to the heroes. Its villains are, unfortunately, damned.

Gallagher, Catherine. “Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton.”The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Forom : 1832-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985. 62-87. Print

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. 2011. Kindle

Mary Barton and the Value of Neighborly Love

From Friedrich Engels’ disheartening report on the living conditions of the working class in England one would think that spirits in the working-class districts of Manchester would be similarly dire. However, we find that this is not the case in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. For sure, there is some degree of grief and discomfort, as is natural with the quality of life one condemned to poverty may expect to enjoy, but Gaskell takes pains to avoid allowing her main characters to fall into wretchedness.  I think one of elements that keeps the working-class from utter despair is the community of neighbors and friends that seems to have organically formed around most of our main characters.

When you read Engels assessment of the working-class districts and hear tell of the conditions that faced the workmen and their families in what Engels terms “The Industrial Epoch (584), it is easy to wonder how any individual could withstand things such as the “lone string of the most disgusting blackish-green slime pools…from the depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise and give forth a stench unendurable” (584). Yet for Mary Barton and her ilk, though they are not exactly living in the lap of luxury there seems to be a certain contentment afforded to those beings that live within a community.

The practical implications of living well within community are obvious and examples of such are replete in the novel, but to name an instance of neighborly assistance in action that is particularly vivid: we have repeated statements and evidence that Jem’s Aunt Alice is a tireless care-giver and nurse to the sick in her community (even those she does not hold as personal friends or relation) and is often out of her house for days on end tending to those in need, in addition to the manual labour and other domestic duties she performs daily.  Or if we are desirous of a less selfless example of neighborly good we can examine the practice of neighbors keeping their neighbors house keys and/or relaying messages or receiving packages for the occupant when he or she is unavailable as we see with both the Wilson’s neighbor Mrs. Davenport and the Barton’s neighbor (whose name slips past my recollection at this point).

But beyond practical assistance this community of people (mainly women though not entirely) also offer a great deal of psychological assistance in the form of frequent and varied social visits. At the beginning of the novel Mary Barton seems to be constantly engaged in the making of visits or reception of visitors, both male and female.  It seems that after a long and tedious day, in the mills and warehouses for men and possibly at the factories, shops or homes for women, it is some sort of balm to a worn body and mind to chat amicably over tea and tea-stuffs (what do they eat here anyway?) by the fire, or share a meal or merely to pop-in to commiserate over some misfortune or celebrate some triumph.  This friendly practice allows those who have little in the way of monetary comforts to offer comfort to their fellow workpersons in a more intangible but just as meaningful (could we argue moreso?) sense.

Because, as Engels illuminates in his article, the abodes of many of these working-class people were literally built right on top of one another it was less of an ordeal to go a-visitin’ then I imagine it would be for those bourgeoisie folk whose living quarters were less spread out and their visitations more ceremonious.  So even the architectural design of the working districts encourage this practice.

It is to this sense of neighborly obligation and affection that I attribute the unbelievably bright outlook of most of our main characters in the first half of Mary Barton.