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.

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