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.

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