“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.

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