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.

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