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.

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