A Heavenless Hospitality

The dwindling and plague-beset remainder of humanity in the final volume of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man struggles to make sense of and find comfort amid its suffering. Among the narratives that the survivors seek to impose on their experience are predictable appeals to man’s indomitable spirit, his duty to his fellow man, and the hope of survival.  Adrian, for example, makes lofty appeals to his responsibility to mankind, declaring, “I have believed it to be my destiny to guide and rule the last of the race of man, till death extinguish my government; and to this destiny I submit” (Shelley 397). Others cherish the hope of survival, and of becoming the parents of a new human race. Shelley writes that with “pertinacious optimism,” each member of the group bound for Switzerland “trusted that their beloved family would be the one preserved” (409).

Conspicuously absent among the narratives by which the survivors make sense of their plight is an appeal to man’s transience on earth and his permanent citizenship in heaven. Idris and Verney consider such an appeal, but eventually dismiss it. In an attempt to comfort Verney while he is infected with the plague, Idris wistfully conjures an image of heaven in which the dead are “revived with the same companions, the same affections” that they enjoy on earth (Shelley 339). But Idris concludes that she does not believe in the afterlife she has envisioned. She sadly admits to her husband, “the same strong feeling which makes me sure that I shall not wholly die, makes me refuse to believe that I shall live as wholly as I do now” (Shelley 339). Verney echoes his wife’s inability to find consolation in the promise of heaven, saying, “This present moment, short as it is, is a part of eternity, and the dearest part” (Shelley 340). So, while both believe in a sort of heaven, it is to them a poor substitute for earthly life, and an insufficient comfort for their present sufferings.

While Verney makes frequent reference to the divine throughout the novel, his understanding of God’s providence on mankind’s behalf is not primarily in the promise of heaven, but in the equipping of mankind to survive in the increasingly inhospitable earth. Verney addresses the frightened masses at Windsor, urging them that since “God has placed the means for our preservation in our own hands, we will use those means to our utmost” (Shelley 246). He has hope, but it is not that particular species of hope that reduces the earth to man’s miserable and temporary dwelling place—a hope which the skeptic may be tempted to call escapism. And, where such a hope does crop up in the religious faction in Paris, Verney emphatically disavows it.

Instead, the last survivors (and Verney in particular) feel strongly that they are citizens, not of the world to come, but of the present one. I am interested in how Verney’s deep sense of belonging to the earth informs the hospitality he extends to others. Is it a nobler thing to offer the use of your home to another when you view your earthly home as so profoundly and permanently yours? Indeed, is it possible to extend true hospitality when you view your earthly home as transient—to lend for temporary use what you understand to have been temporarily lent to you?

One might expect a worldview which privileges earth over heaven as man’s proper dwelling place to result in a tightfistedness with one’s earthly possessions. Or one might not expect it—I realize that the correlation between a sense of ultimate belonging to earth and an increased proprietary attitude towards one’s earthly belongings is by no means a given. But doesn’t it make sense? Isn’t there a sort of mutuality to belonging? We belong to a particular country, and also call that country “ours.” We belong at home and home belongs to us. In the same way, isn’t it reasonable to expect that a person with such a strong sense of belonging to earth would also feel strongly that earth belongs, in some degree, to him?

But Verney does not begrudge the use of Windsor Castle to the suffering multitudes. He reflects that “It was impossible to see these crowds of wretched, perishing creatures…and not stretch out a hand to save them” (Shelley 236). Compelled by a deep sympathy, he extends the use of his property to those in need, and the castle “became an asylum for the unhappy” (Shelley 236). How can we account for the openhandedness of a man who feels so deeply his belonging to the earth and, presumably, the earth’s belonging to him? It seems to me that the best explanation is not one that diminishes Verney’s proprietary feelings toward the castle, but rather, one that highlights his uncommon capacity for recognizing the shared earthly citizenship of his fellow sufferers.

Verney’s hospitality is noble in the extreme—he offers to others the use of that which he understands to be his true home, and not merely a temporary earthly lodging. However, the worldview which underlies his extension of hospitality, if uncoupled with Verney’s extraordinary sensitivity to the plight of others, seems inclined toward a bitter inhospitality instead. In the previous paragraph, I called Verney’s empathy “uncommon”, and I meant it not only in the sense of its extremity, but also in the sense of its rarity.

Perhaps, then, it would be helpful to read this novel, not as an apology for the worldview that earth rather than heaven is our home, but as exemplary of how best to live if indeed you subscribe to such a worldview—with a great deal of empathy, and with a view to the earthly citizenship of others. Such a reading demands that we see Verney, not as a generic representative of mankind (as the title may suggest), but as an exemplar of mankind’s best qualities. He is not only the last man, but also an extraordinarily good one.

 

 

 

Wherefore the Sybil?

If a reader, frantically eager to begin reading Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, were to inadvertently skip her prologue she would not intuit that she had missed anything. Admittedly, the same could very nearly be said for a number of other, not unsizable, portions of the novel throughout, but it is particularly true of the prologue, which feels awkwardly fitted to the succeeding story. In the prologue, Shelley, or a fictional persona she adopts, claims that she stumbled upon the scattered Sybil’s leaves while flagrantly flouting the directions of her Italian tour guides, and it is through the fruits of this transgressive spelunking that the author manages to piece together and then relate the tale of humanity’s end which makes up the novel proper.

The result of this peculiar framing device is a rather complex layering of narration in the novel. Lionel Verney is the narrator of the novel proper and the titular “last man,” but he is writing this account well after the time at which the author finds (apparently) a transcription of Verney’s future book recorded centuries earlier by the mythic Sibyl. Certainly an odd turn of affairs! Verney’s narration is told through the Sibyl’s leaves as translated by the author, and the author makes it clear that she performed a significant work of interpretation in piecing together the leaves, claiming, “Certainly the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl have suffered distortion…in my hands” (7). Presumably all of this business is meant to somehow shape the reader’s experience of and engagement with the novel, but answering exactly how it is supposed to shape that experience is not easy. The prologue might seem insignificant or even distracting upon first glance (and possibly still after further inspection), but considering the influence of the multi-layered narration does suggest some possible ways that Shelley might have hoped to alter the reception of the text by the reader.

One effect of the author-Sybil-Verney narration could be to render Verney’s account ambiguous enough to make the novel a warning of potential danger rather than a statement about a certain future. Frequently, futuristic and dystopian novels seek to depict a terrible outcome in the future in order to warn about errors in the present. As a forerunner of the dystopian novel genre, Shelley would not have been drawing on this generic tradition as such, but she might nonetheless have tapped into a similar impulse. Perhaps she hoped to write about a catastrophic future for humanity without removing all hope of changing that future, so that her audience might feel compelled to act in order to change the outcome of humanity.

However, this reading is complicated by the fact that the novel does not seem to be primarily, or even very significantly, focused on highlighting humanity’s errors and warning about their destructive tendencies. To be sure, Verney has his fair share of critiques leveled at human foibles and follies, and Shelley does use the collapse of civilization to point out the absurdity of class distinctions and other such distinctions (although the protagonists remain rather distinctly aristocratic in their own perception). But it is never suggested, explicitly or implicitly, that human error is the catalyst of the catastrophe. To the contrary, the origins of the plague are entirely unknown and human conduct, good, bad, or somewhere in between, is all equally incapable of speeding or slowing the spread of the disease. Those who band together in the face of disease, die. Those who selfishly take advantage of the disease, die. Human action is not highlighted as an agent initiating or exacerbating the apocalypse; instead the novel emphasizes humanity’s lack of agency in relation to the plague. The point is not that humanity could have prevented the plague; the point is that they could not have done so.

Thus, rendering the account of the future ambiguous might play a part in Shelley’s motivation, but it does not seem to be a major part. So why else might Shelley employ this complex, rather unintuitive, narrative structure?

Well, perhaps she was simply trying to find a way to write about potentially “unbelievable” events in a future world. In the mid-nineteenth century, the novel was still a relatively young genre, and many novelists had chosen to somehow couch their story in the guise of a true account in some way. Shelley employs such a technique but is hampered by the fact that she cannot very plausibly present the text to her readers as an authentic recording of true events if those events take place in the future. And who better to relate the future than the Sibyl? There is no point dealing with second-rate future-gazers when you can just send your author straight into the Sibyl’s cave. This practical strategy for evoking a sort of “truthiness” might well explain Shelley’s layered narration in part.

However, we ought also to consider the inverse of the first possible answer we pondered. We have asked whether Shelley might have wanted to make Verney’s account questionable by the ways in which she drew it from the future to the present, but she might also have wanted to obscure her novel’s biographical elements by pushing present and recent past into a far-off future. Clearly, Shelley is not laboring to conceal the parallels between Lord Raymond and Lord Byron or between Adrian and the similarly sailing-accident-prone Perce Shelley. However, she is also not writing a straight biography or some kind of biographical allegory. She could have expressed her complex feelings about Byron and her somewhat perplexing feelings for Shelley by writing about them as themselves, but such writing is, in some ways, uncomfortably confined by facticity. To simultaneously write about and not write about the passing of the Late Romantics, who made up so significant a part of her life, she may have had to create enough distance between her fictional subjects and factual friends so that her readers would not draw too direct a correlation between them. Lord Raymond resembles Byron in many ways, but he is not Byron. As such, he can be better than Byron, while still modeling his faults and his fall. And the divorce between the angelic Adrian and the errant Perce seems much greater. Perhaps, by placing these departed figures in the future, Shelley was able to not only reflect on what they were but also imagine what they might have been. In some ways, dark though her plague-wracked future is, it at least allows her drowned Perce a chance to shine in a new light.

Shelley’s novel is many things. It’s a bit of biography. A bit of tragic romance. A bit of social critique. And a lot of apocalypse. And perhaps that variety is, in the end, what her framing device enables her to accomplish. The novel feels a bit oddly patched together at times, but then she frames it as something almost literally patched together from leaves and scraps of leaves gathered off the floor of an Italian cave. Her layered narration secures her freedom, and, while there is probably much more we could say about what Shelley might be doing with that freedom, we could at least perhaps conclude that that freedom is likely, to some extent, an end in itself.

The Right of Kings in The Last Man

Shelley’s The Last Man begins with the background narrative of a king abdicating his throne for the sake of an egalitarian republic. By the second half of the novel, that egalitarian ideal has seemingly been realized as “the race of man had lost in fact all distinction of rank” (293). The plague has struck, it’s the end of the world, and the destruction of humankind has made class barriers irrelevant. Shelley’s novel comes hard on the heels of the French Revolution, and questions of birth, rank, and rule—and specifically the notion that rule might be inconsequential to birth—are a part of public discourse in unprecedented ways. Shelley participates in this conversation about the fragility of class distinctions throughout The Last Man. As the novel’s crisis grows, the boundaries between class divisions become permeable and hierarchies upended: “Poor and rich were now equal, or rather the poor were the superior, since they entered on such tasks with alacrity and experience; while ignorance, inaptitude, and habits of repose, rendered them fatiguing to the luxurious, galling to the proud” (309). In the face of humanity’s fast-approaching annihilation, class distinctions become all but absurd: “We were all equal now; but near at hand was an equality still more levelling, a state where beauty and strength, and wisdom, would be as vain as riches and birth” (317). The novel becomes a hyperbolic example of what a great leveler death can be.

However, there is something deeply inconsistent in Shelley’s egalitarian apocalyptic society. Peasants may now be living in palaces, but the people are also being willingly ruled by Adrian, erstwhile son of a king. Despite painting his mother, the Ex-Queen, as a villain because of her unwavering commitment to the rights of the monarchy, the narrative repeatedly affirms these rights in action. Her monarchal hopes for Adrian are realized in the apocalypse. Ryland, who was not born of kings, abandons the protectorship when threatened with the plague. He considers it a position beyond the call of duty. “When I am a plague-spotted corpse,” he says, “where will my duties be? Every man for himself! the devil take the protectorship, say I, if it expose me to danger” (244). If the egalitarian impulse of the apocalypse is really an “every man for himself” impulse, then no wonder the survivors reject it and return to something resembling the monarchal structure of past ages. Though Adrian’s position as Lord Protector comes about by parliamentary decision after Ryland’s abdication, it’s significant that he is essentially taking on the same role his father rescinded, ruling his people not as a duty, but in a sense as a birthright.

As humanity’s numbers dwindle to the hundreds, factions arise, each with its own leader. Though most of these factions submit to Adrian as Lord Protector, the impulse to rule, to be ruled, or to conquer are persistent. Class distinctions may have disappeared, but the impulse towards them persists. An interesting example of this inconsistency is the sect that breaks off from Adrian’s Englishmen in Paris near the end of the novel. Shelley describes them as “mostly drawn from that which, when such distinctions existed, was denominated the lower rank of society” (387). Of course, observing the class division within the sectarian division, only serves to maintain that distinction. The divided sect is a fanatical religious group ruled over by a power-hungry leader who has been using religious fervor to draw and keep followers. The only members of his following not among the previously-lower class are “high-born females, who, panic-struck, and tamed by sorrow, had joined him” (387). Thus, in addition to maintaining class division through sectarianism, Shelley has also feminized the lower classes. After all, if the only participants of this sect who are not lower class are women, that assumes something inherently feminine about the lower class. This would be fine if Shelley had given her sex agency and authority in the narrative, but she’s consistently cast women as dependent creatures—all the more dependent as they are virtuous. If class distinctions have functionally disappeared in The Last Man—which hardly seems to be the case—gendered dynamics have certainly not disappeared. If anything, they’ve expanded to encompass social groups which would once have been understood in terms of class.

Initially, one might consider Verney a prime example of the broken class barriers Shelley is advocating. Born in poverty and obscurity, he is raised to the right hand of Adrian, Lord Protector and rightful heir to the English throne, long before the plague arrives. From a childhood of noble savagery, “an outcast and a vagabond,” he rises to marry Adrian’s sister and call Windsor Castle his home (262). But Verney is a poor example of the dissolution of class barriers precisely because of this meteoric rise. As his father had also been the king’s right-hand man before being banished from the crown, Verney’s ascension back to the position of his father confirms an underlying substance to the claims of birth. Thus, when the religious sect in Paris captures him, he warns them to “Remember…who I am,” because who he is matters (390). His position means something to them—or should, in Verney’s estimation—despite the supposed political equality of the human race.

One could argue that the perpetuation of the monarchal structure is the consequence of engrained English habit. Yet it’s also significant that Adrian and his family are among the last of the human race to die. As England, Europe, and the whole wide world perish with speed, Adrian, Idris, the Ex-Queen, and the children last an irrationally long time. Perhaps this is just sloppy storytelling. But that’s all the more reason it might say something about Shelley’s unexplored assumptions concerning monarchy, rule, and the royal blood which claims it.

Excess and Obscurity

Here is a passage fairly unrivaled in The Last Manin its horror-inducing attention to the grotesque and visceral:

“I lowered my lamp, and saw a negro half clad, writhing under the agony of disease, while he held me with a convulsive grasp. With mixed horror and impatience I strove to disengage myself, and fell on the sufferer; he wound his naked festering arms round me, his face was close to mine, and his breath, death-laden, entered my vitals. For a moment I was overcome, my head was bowed by aching nausea; till, reflection returning, I sprung up, threw the wretch from me, and darting up the staircase…” (336-7)

That the passage is also remarkable for its depiction of the “negro half clad”—for its locating him in and as the grotesque and visceral but also his location in the movement of the scene, as an impediment between Verney and what matters (the polarity of the “negro half clad” and the one to whom Verney is going, “Clara trembling, and paler than whitest snow” (337), could hardly be rearticulated more baldly than it is given)—is, in turn, unsurprising and offers a helpful critical perspective on the novel. Peter Melville’s reference to Alan Richardson’s reading elucidates these dynamics: the “negro half clad” as the object of Verney’s disgust embodies of the colony, and the moment expresses “English disgust at the colonial other” (quoted in Melville, 169). Melville’s own stress in his reading is also insightful, emphasizing not just the dead-end of colonial racist imagination but the way in which Verney’s reaction to the unavoidably colonial body marks a limit of performed or actual hospitality (the failure, in other words, of the Lawto come being), more specifically “the failure of English hospitality” that warns of the refusals present in even the most radically hospitable circumstances (169-70).

But what I am interested in here is not so much arguing that a colonial imagination produces Shelley’s “negro half clad” (which borders being incontestable) but in taking up the passage to explore a relationship between the plague, nature, and the colonial geographic imagination that runs throughout the novel. In this sense, the identity of the “negro half clad” and the colonial other that is unavoidable in this scene is inseparable from the identification of the “negro half clad” and the plague itself. The scene effects a sort of compresence, an incarnation of the senselessness, antic obscurity and perversity of the plague in the antic obscurity of the “negro half clad”—effects it most not only in Shelley’s extended attention to his grotesqueness but also in his meaninglessness as a character, let alone human sufferer. (It may not even be necessary to remark the difference between this man’s suffering and the way in which Verney’s friends and companions tend to wane and slip away in their illness. The death of white bodies in The Last Manoccasions Verney’s attempts at serious philosophical and romantic reflection; the dying of the “negro half clad” offers only a site of horror and physiological description, an encounter with the physical reality of fetid decomposition and corruption, “aching nausea, the suffering of being “naked” and “festering,” suffering (un)measured in fluids and excrescences.) The plague arrives for Verney, like it does for his world, out of nowhere—both particularly for Verney in that it is not prepared within the narrative (Shelley produces a sort of demon ex machina) and in a larger sense in that the novel is generally unconcerned with ultimate or even medical causality, with cure, with explanation on those terms.

Still, to say that the plague comes out of nowhere, whether this describes the plague generally or the plagued body of the “negro half clad,” speaks both, it seems to me, the novel’s wider interest in (and uncertainty regarding) the natural world and the way in which that interest and that uncertainty are filtered through particular colonial geographic imaginations—though it might be more illuminative to think of these primarily as fantasies about history rather than geographies. These imaginations pace the movements of the characters, as they trace and re-trace a linear trajectory from England to France to Italy to Greece. That Raymond and England more broadly are sympathetic with Greece and not the Turks is not explained in the novel, neither politicized nor narrated, but assumed. There is a continuity, exclusive of other geographic centers and their significance, that also surfaces in Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education” speech. There the inextricability of geographic, historical, moral and aesthetic imaginations of the world emerges forcefully early in the excerpt (English “abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed us” (849)) and comes to real culmination shortly after: “What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India” (850). In various ways the novel both captures and is captured by this consonance of identity between the English people and Classical history. (While the plague eradicates distinctions in rank and even ethics in England (294), its advent hardly brokers peace with the Turks, nor is their eradication ever countenanced as bad in itself.) Nowhere isn’t nowhere; it’s other places.

Yet if all this describes a limitation of imagination that afflicts the characters (and perhaps Shelley), there is also a way in which the novel’s attempt to inhabit the apocalyptic history that it narrates engenders an encounter with this limitation itself, reveals its provinciality. This encounter becomes visible in the difficulty of determining whether the novel depicts the plague itself as natural. Verney’s reflections on nature border on the schizophrenic. At various moments (that all could bear interpretation): the air is feared because the characters see “the fabric of the universe no longer as our dwelling, but our tomb” (270); Verney longs for “the dear soothings of maternal Nature” (283); the same nature is divested of its divinity on account of the plague (308); the giant wave refutes regularity and instills sublime sense of awe (370-1); humanity’s being unto dust is lamented (398); the earth is no longer a living mother (411); the sublime vantage of the Alps erases memory of the plague (418-9):

Likewise nature consoles with its magnificence (424); yet in one of its final depictions, nature is the enemy of all that lives (460).

What strikes me is the inconsonance itself of these depictions, nature’s slippage past the easy categories of antagonist or friend, source of danger or source of succor. And in so far as the scene of the “negro half clad” is inextricable from these same larger obscurities, its significance lies not only in the problems of Verney’s colonial myopia but in its particular place within the larger context of the world’s excess beyond narration. These obscurities delineate the limitation of the novel’s world as limitation; they mark the failures of Verney’s narrative capacity (no matter how much his diction strains to be large enough) to name the world. The encounter, that is, along Melville’s line, suggests the real existence of other worlds and other peoples, the otherness of nature, excesses impinging on provinciality.

 

Pulling Up a Sibyl by Her Own Bootstraps: Narrative Contradictions in “The Last Man”

by Sørina Higgins

The Last Man is constructed as a tri-partite narrative whose fictions are mutually contradictory, lacking closure, inhospitable to the reader, and difficult to interpret. The three putative narrators are “Mary Shelley,”[1] the Cumaean Sibyl, and Lionel Verney. “Shelley” begins by claiming: “I visited Naples in the year 1818.”[2] She describes her explorations of a cave complex in Baiæ Bay that turns out to be the ancient haunts of the Sibyl. Here, “Shelley” collects leaves “traced with written characters” (3).[3] She spends time “deciphering these sacred remains,” editing, translating, organizing, adding material, and shaping the fragments into a narrative (3). Indeed, she admits: “Sometimes I have thought … they owe their present form to me, their decipherer” (4). Shelley thus uses this first frame to plant suspicion in the reader’s mind about the accuracy of the story displayed within: not a welcoming move.

The second narrator is nearly subsumed into the first: the Cumaean Sibyl is not allowed to speak for herself, but only as channeled through “Shelley” (who is, of course, channeled through Shelley). Within the frame, the reader is meant to believe that the main components of the story originated in Sibylline oracular writings—i.e., that they are divinely inspired and inescapably true. This origin story renders the embedded tale of humankind’s devastation by the plague as a warning. Many predictions of disaster include a comforting caveat; after Jonah’s declamation to Nineveh—“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4)—repentance led to God’s “relenting” and holding back “the destruction he had threatened” (3:10). The readers of The Last Man, however, have no such option. No repentance is called for. No method of avoiding destruction is offered. Their only hope, oddly, is to disbelieve the story and put its inaccuracy down to the distortions introduced by “Shelley” during her process of “adaptation and translation” (4). This is a strange way to frame a novel: By encouraging readers to disbelieve it. Clayton Carlyle Tarr writes that frame narratives “frequently disturb narrative cohesiveness,” and that is certainly the case here.[4] From the very opening of The Last Man, the reader is encouraged to trust its veracity as a divinely-inspired prophecy of the future and simultaneously to suspect its accuracy due to its dubious reconstruction.

The third narrator is Lionel Verney, the main character, and his account contradicts the other two. Those may be harmonized with each other (the Sibyl could have written the leaves and “Shelley” could have transcribed them), but if his account is true, theirs must be ignored and erased to make space for his supposed authorship. When he is the last person alive on earth (as far as he knows), he decides to write a book dedicated “to the illustrious dead,” speculating that “the children of a saved pair of lovers” somewhere will re-populate the globe and read his book (339). In it, he narrates his life from solitude through young love, domestic life, and political action to solitude again. His writing of the book introduces a strange loop somewhat similar to the variously-named bootstrap paradox that bedevils time travelers. If the Sibyl wrote the leaves and “Shelley” edited them, then Lionel did not write the book; but then the prophecy is false, because the prophecy includes and is in some way predicated upon the book’s being written. If Lionel did/will write the book, then the Sibyl did not write it, and it is not a divine prophecy.

The Last Man’s frames, then, contradict one another; the first two are historical, the last is prophetic. One scholar asks: “Do prophecy and history contend as narrative modes?”[5] They certainly do in Shelley’s novel. This book “complicates conceptions of history and authenticity, and, because the opening frame never returns, Shelley leaves us with a perplexing understanding of what we have read and how we have read it.”[6] Have we read a prophecy of our own future? Or a fictional account of future we need not fear? The most crucial question raised by these debating narrative personae may be: Why did Shelley write a book whose conflicting frames alienate a reader via skepticism?

Scholars have wrestled with the destabilizing implications of The Last Man’s narrative frames. They may be merely a pragmatic writing technique, allowing the past-tense narration of events in the future.[7] But more is going on. Morag Veronica McGreevey thinks that “the novel’s annihilating conclusion denies the possibility of an audience,” which then forced Shelley to create the Sibylline frame as an excuse for the book’s creation in the past so that it may have an audience in the present (before the plague-ridden apocalypse).[8] But this ignores Lionel’s hope that survivors might still exist to be fruitful and multiply. Emily Steinlight takes the opposite approach, arguing “The Last Man does not foretell a destiny, much less an end of history,” because it assumes a present audience.[9] This ignores the story’s claim that it was written (by the Sibyl) in ancient times and edited by “Shelley” in 1818 and thus could easily be read in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.

Many scholars read the open-ended narrative frame, with its account of questionable editing practices, as a destabilization of faith in authors, editors, or publishers.[10] The most dramatic of these is Tarr, who argues the lack of closure is “an enduring horror.”[11] This reading sees the conflicting frames as Shelley’s intentional device, either to protest her mistreatment by the literary industry of her day or to question her role as Percy’s literary executor.

There is a way to reconcile the varying frames, but it is inhospitable to narrators and reader alike. It requires believing (contrary to her report) that “Shelley” copied the Sibyl’s prophecy exactly—that’s what we are reading—and the prophecy will be fulfilled in our future, when Lionel Verney will write, word-perfectly, the book predicted by the Sibyl, constructed by “Shelley,” and written by Shelley. It could all be true, and we are awaiting our doom. It’s coming soon, in 2100.

NOTES

[1] I use the quotation marks to distinguish this character from Mary Shelley and to acknowledge the many scholars who read this narrator as an ungendered fictional figure.

[2] This is, in fact, true of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

[3] I am using this edition: Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. New Introduction by Brian Aldiss. London: The Hograth Press, 1985.

[4] Tarr, Clayton Carlyle. “The Force of a Frame: Narrative Boundaries and the Gothic Novel.” University of Georgia Dissertation, 2013. Abstract.

[5] ENG 274 notes: “Mary Shelley in Context.” web.stanford.edu/class/english274a/originals/lastman.doc.

[6] Tarr 36

[7] Franci, Giovanna. “A Mirror of the Future: Vision and Apocalypse in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.Mary Shelley: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985) p. 186., qtd. in Albright, Richard S. “‘In the mean time, what did Perdita?’: Rhythms and Reversals in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.Romanticism on the Net. Issue13, February, 1999.

[8] McGreevey, Morag Veronica. “Reading Apocalypse: Ruptured Temporality and the Colonial Landscape in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.” B.A. Hons, The University of British Columbia, 2013. 1.

[9] Steinlight, Emily. Populating the Novel: Literary Form and the Politics of Surplus Life. Cornell University Press, 2018. 72.

[10] Zolciak, Olivia. “Mary Shelley’s The Last Man: A Critical Analysis of Anxiety and Authorship.” Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2017. 50-51. Webb, Samantha. “Reading the End of the World: The Last Man, History, and the Agency of Romantic Authorship.” Mary Shelley in Her Times. Ed. Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. Webb, Samantha Christine. Literary Mediators: Figures of Authority and Authorship in English Romantic Prose. Temple University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1999. 129. Tarr 36, 138.

[11] Tarr, Clayton Carlyle. Gothic Stories Within Stories: Frame Narratives and Realism in the Genre, 1790–1900. McFarland, 2017.

The Purposes of the “Love Plot” in Mary Barton

In reading Mary Barton as a novel of the industrial age meant to present the problems of working class individuals, one might wonder what the true significance of the love plot is. Why include Mary going back and forth between Jem and young Mr. Carson? It can seem as if nothing truly important is revealed through this interplay and yet, through the love plot, Gaskell is able to shed light on another important aspect of the this time period that adds richness and a better overall understanding of the context within which the characters are interacting with one another. As contemporary reader, we are introduced to the fact that marriage was not as simple as being about who you loved, but was also about who could provide for you. This is not to say that this idea is not prevalent in our current society, but in this novel, we see it as much more of a serious consideration.

This idea of being able to provide is evident in each of the marriage proposals from both Jem and Mr. Carson. Jem tries to woo Mary by mentioning what he could provide for her when he says “Mary, I’m a foreman in th’ works, and dear Mary!…I’ve a home to offer you” (179). By Jem’s pleading, the reader gets a sense of just how important this particular aspect of marriage was as Jem makes sure that Mary knows she will be cared for. This idea is taken even further by Mr. Carson in his proposal when says “You shall have every luxury that money can purchase and every charm that love can devise to make your life happy” (187). By comparing these two proposals to what one might see in a contemporary proposal, one is made aware of how integral this piece of marriage was in the industrial society. Considering this, the reader becomes a little more understanding of why Mary would entertain someone as arrogant as Mr. Carson in the first place.

Mary does not actually have deep feelings for Mr. Carson at all. Her sole interest in Mr. Carson is based on what Mary thinks he could provide for her. She even says that “Mr. Carson  was rich, and prosperous, and gay, and (she believed) would place her in all circumstances of ease and luxury” and this is the main attraction that Mr. Carson holds for her (181). Yet, when she finds out that he never really had true intentions of marrying her, it is that much easier for her to let him go because she never truly felt much for him anyways. This might prejudice the reader against Mary in that it seems shallow to have entertained Mr. Carson in this way, especially when she realizes she truly loves Jem. However, when one looks at the struggles that Mary and her father encounter simply because of their class status, it makes a little more sense why Mary might want Mr. Carson over her true love (at first). Thus, while the love plot may seem to detract from the class plot at times, it actually adds to it by approaching the issue of class from a romantic standpoint.

The Narrative Voice In “Mary Barton”

The narrator serves an equally important purpose as the reader- they convey the story being told, and dictate what we as readers do or do not know, and even how we are to feel. In Mary Barton, the narrative voice is third person limited, with occasional interjections of first person thought and reflection, the latter of which will be the chief discussion.

The two main schools of thought concerning the first person narrative use are that it is Gaskell herself placing her thoughts in the novel at face value, and the other is the ambiguous narrator quantifying the underlying opinions given throughout the text. I believe it is a mixture of the two, where Gaskell framed her thoughts and opinions in the voice of an unidentified narrator in order to bolster the opinions stated free of bias. This opinion giving is evident throughout the novel, one such example occurs on page 54, with the narrator stating (in the first person) “and I know what is the truth in such matters: but what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and thinks”. Here the narrator states her knowledge of the plight of the lower class, and says that he/she wants to give us as readers the same knowledge. If Gaskell had outright said this from the voice of her own person, it would serve to discredit the opinions of the narrator, rather than strengthen them, because applying a known identity to the narrator also applies what is known about that identity- in this case that Gaskell is a well-to-do and prominent female author who arguably cannot personally relate to the issues the lower class faced outside of her independent philanthropy work.

The general tone of the narrator when discussing the actual lower class members is one that is condescending at best, and assumes with relatively low levels of warrant that the members of the lower class are not actually self aware of their ignorance, but are rather embodied by it. This is evident on page 225, where the narrator claims that “the actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein”, where the implication here is that the lower class has basic elements of human life, but nothing more. This condescending tone occurs again with one of the narrator’s calls to action on page 340, where they state that “as you and I, and almost everyone, I think, may send up our individual cry of self-reproach that we have done all that we could for the stray and wandering ones of our brethren”. The interesting pairing of an effective call to action with a patronizing tone may not have been intentional, but the negative consequences of such pairing were avoided by the narrator being ambiguous rather than known. Had Gaskell had truly implemented her own being into the novel, she would have presented herself and her work in a negative light. By using the ambiguous narrator, she was able to hide (for lack of a better term) behind a faceless man, who was able to take all criticism and give all the call to action.

The Setting of the Home in Mary Barton

In her industrial novel Mary Barton, author Elizabeth Gaskell effectively uses a realist setting of home life through imagery and diction so as to illustrate the class distinction of the owners. Throughout the novel, Gaskell guides the reader through the homes of the Bartons, Davenports, and Carsons to demonstrate the class to which each house belongs. In the Barton’s home specifically, this realistic and vivid description of home life depicts the effect of the strained economy on the working class through the changes that the indoor endures.

Initially, the Barton home is described as comfortable and in little want. When entering, the family brings life into the house, shown when “Mrs. Barton lighted a dip by sticking it in the fire…on hospitable thoughts intent” (Gaskell 14). The reader enters with them, now able to see that “the room was tolerably large, and possessed many conveniences,” such as “a longish window, with a broad ledge,” “blue-and-white check curtains, which were now drawn,” and “two geraniums, unpruned and leafy, which stood on the sill” (Gaskell 14). This ample imagery rhetorically provides a realistic portrayal of the home. The reader is almost privy to this home tour through its vividness of detail. The specifics of the Barton’s home even go so far as to describe that “resting against the wall, was a bright green japanned tea-tray…[on which] the fire-light danced merrily” and “gave a richness of colouring to that side of the room” (Gaskell 14). The diction of “bright green,” “fire-light,” and a “richness of colouring” all contribute to the happy and illuminated sense of home life. The further claim that “the place seemed almost crammed with furniture (sure sign of good times among the mills)” explores the monetary consequences of indoor decoration. This description changes, however, as the novel continues and the economy’s poor state affects those in the industrial working-class realm. As the story progresses, the house is “dingy and comfortless” (Gaskell 109). Gaskell recalls the past, noting that “the house wanted the cheerful look it had had in the days when money was never wanted to purchase soap and brushes, black-lead and pipe-clay” (Gaskell 109). Through exploring the physical changes in the home, she also aids the political plot in the narrative by illustrating the direct effect of the increasing poverty. Even the bright nature of the past is sorely missed, as now “there was not even the dumb familiar home-friend, a fire” (Gaskell 109).

Gaskell’s use of setting to advance the invocation of sympathy in the reader is well skilled. I would love to further explore how deeply the setting of the indoor home life specifically influences this rhetorical goal, as well as how it speaks to the characterization of the owners. The contrast of the dynamic portrayal of the Barton house would be interesting to contrast between the two ends of the spectrum, with the Davenport and Carson homes respectively.

Mary’s Development and Gaskell’s Call to Action

Written during a time of an intense economic downfall, many authors used the Industrial novel to inform the upper classes of the need for societal reform, and Gaskell is no different. In her novel, Mary Barton, Gaskell depicts the lives of a few members of the working class in an attempt to educate the upper classes of the issues the working class experiences throughout their lives. Although many of Gaskell’s characters endure dramatic transformations as the book progresses, I find Mary’s development to be the most intriguing because she ends up becoming a representation of the transformation Gaskell urges her audience to make.

Early on, it was clear that Mary was wrapped up in her own little world. Like her aunt Esther, she had ambitions of one day becoming rich. This is evidenced when the narrator states, “So with this consciousness she had early determined that her beauty should make her a lady; the rank she coveted the more for her father’s abuse; the rank to which she firmly believed her lost Aunt Esther had arrived” (Chapter 3, pg. 58). Mary’s desire to become “a lady” parallels that of the desires of the upper class. In a world where the working class struggles to maintain subsistence, the upper classes seem rather self-absorbed, consumed by a desire to either maintain their status or climb even further up the socio-economic totem pole.

Mary maintains her egocentricity until a pivotal point in the novel hits, which is when she realizes that she loves Jem, a member of the working class, and not Harry, a factory owner. In many ways, Mary’s newly recognized love for Jem has given her a reason to return to virtue. This love later allows Mary to serve others even when she is under fire. This is best depicted in a scene where Mary, after being kicked out of Mrs. Walton’s home, comes across a homeless young boy and decides to feed him:

“She stood an instant, diverted from the thought of her own grief by the sight of his infantine gladness; and then bending down and kissing his smooth forehead, she left him, and sought to be alone with her agony once more” (Chapter 20, pg. 297).

Despite her spirits being low, Mary moves from an egocentric mindset to a philanthropic mindset. Although a member of the working class, Mary gives up what little resources she has to provide for someone in need of her help.

Mary’s transition from a self-absorbed, materialistic character to a kind, loving one depicts the change Gaskell hopes to inspire in her readers. Gaskell’s decision to have Mary undergo the transition she does provides the reader with a clear message: although we may never be able to make every person in the working class rich, perhaps we owe it to them to help them make their lives more bearable by first having love in our hearts and compassion for their situation.

What an Omniscient Narrator Can do for a Love Story

The narrative voice in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton is one of the main aspects that makes this novel stand out so much to me. I have always loved an omniscient narrator, and the narrator in this novel seems to know everything about everyone. From my point of view, the narration is pretty consistent throughout the novel in regards to viewpoint. Sometimes the narrator even gives her own opinion. For example, in chapter eight, the narrator seems to know everything that is going on in Mary’s head during an interaction with Jem, “She was very cunning, I am afraid. She pretended to read diligently, and not to listen to a word that was said, while in fact she heard all sounds, even Jem’s long, deep sighs, which wrung her heart” (Gaskell 79). In this passage, the narrator knows Mary through and through. She seems to be in Mary’s mind and knows her exact motivations and confusing thoughts about Jem. However, she definitely does not agree with Mary’s actions. Although this all-knowing, nameless narrator sees Mary, she is also quite critical of her, as seen by the fact that she calls her cunning and says it instills fear in her.

Although the narrator seems to be harsh on Mary in certain instances, she also shows understanding for her situation. “…how sorely Mary’s heart ached; for more and more the fell certainty came on that her father was the murderer! She struggled hard not to dwell on this conviction; to think alone on the means of proving Jem’s innocence…” (Gaskell 236). I get a more sympathetic vibe from the narrator at this point in the story. I think that the narrator is harsh on Mary when she is having conflicting thoughts about Jem, but once she decides to help him and feels more loving towards him, the narrator starts to be more positive towards her. This leads me to draw the conclusion that the narrator is subtly a pretty big fan of Jem and has been rooting for him.

Jem is a character who stirs up a lot of sympathy in me personally, and I think that is because of both how the narrator portrays him and also how she portrays Mary. Mary is so back and forth with Jem for awhile and it really makes me feel for him. The narrative voice in this novel is the main reason we can see just how indecisive Mary is. On the other hand, Jem loves Mary and always has. It seems to be more black and white for him, while for her it is just messy and confusing. “Her heart began to despair, too, about Jem. She feared he had ceased to love her; and she – she only loved him more and more for his seeming neglect” (Gaskell 188). Bringing my personal experiences into play here, I know what it is like to have someone want you more only when you stop wanting them. It is quite aggravating. This is one of the main reasons I am so sympathetic with Jem in his love story with Mary. The number one reason we as readers are able to see the raw emotions displayed in this love story is because of the narration technique. The narrator sees Mary’s raw thoughts, her confusion, and her indecisiveness about Jem and showcases it for the reader. Omniscient narration, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to tell a riveting story like this one.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Choice of Narrative Voice

The narrative voice in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton uses a technique that never allows the audience to fully experience the emotional range of Gaskell’s characters.  The feelings of tragedy, suffering, joy and triumph are present, but they linger just beyond the reader’s grasp.  This results in our narrator sounding like a tourist, remaining on the outside of the culture of the Manchester working class.  To further remove the audience, the narrator halts the action of the story to reassure the reader that the characters possess human feelings and that we should sympathize with them because of the complexity of their situation (342).

The question must be asked, why did Gaskell choose to use a detached third-person narrative voice?  Was there a specific reason that she chose to not tell the story from the perspective of one of the main characters?  How different would the story have been told or perceived by readers if the narrative voice belonged Mary or John Barton?

Elizabeth Gaskell felt that the working class and upper class were “bound to each other by common interest,” and commented on the frustration and hopelessness felt by the working class.  She writes that they “seem to me to be left in a state, wherein lamentations and tears are thrown aside as useless, but in which the lips are compressed for curses, and the hands clenched and ready to smite.”  She strongly believed that both groups were dependent on each other and essentially wanted the same thing.  They wanted dignity and freedom, as all humans do.  Her fear was one of impending doom, a reckoning alluded to in the final lines of her preface in which she refers to “events which have so recently occurred among a similar class on the Continent.” She also recognized that they had no voice and would not be heard by her peers.  She refers to them as “dumb people,” with no voice, and she feels that she must “give some utterance to the agony” which they must feel.

The audience for her work would have been the middle and upper class.  Using a narrative voice removed from the characters facilitates, for the readers of her time, an easier approach to the challenging material that Gaskell presents.  Being shown the horrific conditions of the poor working class from their perspectives may have been too much to stomach or believed to have been twisted by the perspective of the sufferer.

Gaskell attempts to achieve much in her novel.  By showing the social injustice suffered by the working class, she intended to spark conversation and hopefully enact change.  The method in which she takes up the mantle can certainly be challenged, but her intentions seem pure.  Ultimately her goal was to present an honest picture of the working class, and she seems to succeed at that.

Mr. Carson’s Character Development

Though many characters grow throughout Mary Barton, Mr. Carson’s Bildungsroman is perhaps the most notable. While he is not a main character, his change of heart is the greatest. In the beginning, Mr. Carson is the factory owner and the father of Mary’s fling, Harry Carson, and known for being a cruel and power hungry master. When a fire burns down his factory, he is not worried for “the insurance money would amply pay” and lays off his workers, including Mr. Wilson. Mr. Carson is not concerned with the “deep, terrible gloom” of “no wages to pay for the bread the children cried aloud for in their young impatience suffering” (95). For the rich, no work meant “leisure” that was a “pleasant thing” and meant “happy family evenings” (95). Rich families, including Mr. Carson’s, do not attempt to understand the intense weight of having no money. Rather than compensating for lost time, because the factory workers need it so badly, it is considered a luxury to not work. Meanwhile, Davenport falls ill and Wilson goes to the Carson’s to ask for medicine. Mr. Carson fails to recognize his name and doesn’t “pretend to know the names of the men [he] employ[s],” even though Davenport had worked for him for three years. He is unconcerned with the needs of his workers while in this time period, the people working in the factories need all the help they can get.

Carson continues to be ignorant of the workers’ conditions and needs until it directly affects him in the murder of his son, Henry. After he finds out his son has been shot, he reverts to using his money. He offers a “handsome reward [that] might accelerate the discovery of the murderer” (273). Rather than grieving his son’s death, comforting his hysterical wife or reflecting on how short life is, Mr. Carson seeks vengeance on the murderer: “My son! My son…but you shall be avenged, my poor murdered boy” (277). It is “a speedy conviction, a speedy execution” that “seemed to be the only things that would satisfy his craving thirst for blood” (286). This shows immaturity, recklessness and again a lack of concern for those around him. The death of his son has not so far as changed Mr. Carson but rather encouraged him to use his power and money to further fight fire with fire.

At the trial, Mr. Carson shows glimpses of emotions when he contemplates over his son’s love of Mary. He “abhorred her and her rumored loveliness” and “grew jealous of the love with which she had inspired his son” (402). Instead of pitying her and considering her loss of her “lover,” he felt a “severe” “satisfaction” when she is about to come testify against Jem. The narrator leaves out his reaction when the court rules Jem not guilty, maybe because the reader is not concerned with Mr. Carson at the moment—only Mary and Jem— or because his emotion would bring down the happiness of the reader. It is not until several chapters later that the narrator explores the reactions of Mr. Carson. This is when Mr. Carson has a change of heart and actually considers another person’s point of view: “But suddenly, while he was deliberating, and searching for motives which should be effective to compel him to exertion and action once more…suddenly I say, the thought arose within him that more yet remained to be learned about the circumstances and feelings which prompted John Barton’s crime” (466-7).

He then calls for Will Wilson and Job Leigh to help Mr. Carson understand. Once they explain it to him, the first thing he says is, “Now how in the world can we help it?” (471). Instead of getting angry or blowing them off as he might have done earlier, he asks what he can do. This shows immense growth in Mr. Carson’s character. He allows Wilson and Job to explain John Barton’s reasons and thanks them “for speaking candidly” about “the power, or want of power in masters, to remedy the evils the men complain of” (474). The death of Henry opened his eyes to the hurt, hunger and hate that ultimately comes from being poor and knowing there is nothing one can solely do about it. Yet with the power that Mr. Carson has from being a master and having money, he understands how he is one of the people who can actually do something about it. This development in Mr. Carson is a total change in his character. This gives the reader hope because of this growth. Mr. Carson is not a main character but he is an impressionable character because of his Bildungsroman.

Female Virtue

Mary Barton contains a motif of female virtue, which is reflected in Mary and her aunt Esther. As discussed in class, during Gaskell’s time, women were seen as the moral guard of men. Therefore, Esther’s status as a street walker was most likely looked down upon or even condemned. Her failure to uphold this standard for women has tragic repercussions in the novel.  In fact, Esther’s plight is a worst-case scenario of what could happen to Mary. She becomes destitute, is rejected by society, and comes to see herself as repulsive and fallen as well. “How can I keep her from being such a one as I am; such a wretched, loathsome creature” (125). She blames herself for Jem’s incarceration and believes that she is responsible for Mary’s infatuation with being rich. The idea of females as moral guards also explains why  the violent treatment towards Esther is overlooked. John “gripped her arm….and dragged her, faintly resisting, to the nearest lamppost” before passionately shaking her and then pushing her to the ground (124-5). Esther is then arrested for disorderly vagrancy. It is clear that morally fallen women are judged much more harshly than men. In fact, the men who provide demand for prostitutes are not mentioned at all. She also functions as a voiceless character who gets no redemption. John Carson and John Barton are both redeemed in the end: John confesses to murdering Harry and Carson forgives him, having come to an understanding of the losses the poorer classes suffer constantly. However Esther, dies without any sort of redemption or happy ending.

The same duties of female virtue are pushed onto Mary. Jem says that Mary may hear he has become a criminal, but she will have no right to blame him because, “it’s your cruelty that will have made me what I feel I shall become.” While this was not necessarily approved of in the nineteenth century, Glaskell again shows the audience that women are socially obligated to “save” men. The idea of women keeping men out of trouble is also seen when Jane Wilson faults Mary at first when Jem is arrested, although Mary had no idea what was happening. She blames Mary for the suspicion placed on Jem. “Folk say…that for the sake of such as you, my precious child shot yon chap” (226). Despite Mary having turned Jem down, Jane Wilson still believes she is a “vile, flirting quean” who caused Jem’s arrest (227). This reinforces the idea that women have the power to cause men to go astray. However, Glaskell does invert this trope by having Mary eventually save Jem through providing an alibi, rather than by being his moral safeguard.

I believe Glaskell was attempting to question the idea that women must save men morally. Through Esther, she showed how the standards for women caused Esther’s unhappy demise while providing a happier ending for Mary, who subverted the trope of women guarding men.

 

John Barton as Bathsheba

As a result of Elizabeth Gaskell’s religious background, Mary Barton is full of biblical allusions. For example, the relationship between the rich and the poor echoes the story of David and Bathsheba. David, as king, has everything he could want, including women, yet he sees a married woman bathing and succumbs to temptation by sleeping with her. The factory masters have endless wealth, but they take advantage of their workers by providing meager wages and working conditions. After describing John Barton’s suffering as opposed to that of the masters, the narrator states, “The contrast is too great. Why should he alone suffer from bad times?” (55). The word “contrast” emphasizes the extremities of wealth and poverty. John Barton, along with other workers, suffer “alone” while the masters cling to stability.

After David has an affair with Bathsheba, she becomes pregnant. David sends for her husband, Uriah, who is a soldier, under the pretense of a reward, so everyone will think the child is Uriah’s. John Barton, along with other delegates from the factory workers, goes to London to speak to Parliament about the plight of their class. When he later recounts their rejection, he states, “Th’ morning of taking our petition we had such a breakfast as th’ Queen herself might ha’ sitten down to. I suppose they thought we wanted putting in heart” (145). The reference to the Queen suggests that the upper class, for possibly the first time, treats Barton as an equal, but this treatment is a bribe, which the condescension of the final phrase emphasizes. One of the workers’ main complaints is that they are starving to death, so Parliament uses a meal to assuage their anger and mask the sins of the masters.

Just as Uriah refuses to lay with Bathsheba when David sends him home, the men are unable to eat “when they [think] o’ them at home, wives and little ones, as had, may be at that very time, nought to eat” (145). Uriah will not sleep inside his house because his fellow soldiers are still at war. A key difference is that the workers start to eat. Unlike Uriah’s situation, which is a matter of comfort, the meal is a matter of life and death, but they cannot continue to eat when they remember their families are still starving. The lower class therefore displays a greater understanding of the hardships of others than the upper class ever does.

Because neither Uriah nor the workers succumb to the temptations used to oppress them, their superiors sentence them to death. David has Uriah sent to the front lines and orders the rest of the army to retreat. The masters similarly leave the workers behind to die by ignoring their requests. After John Barton dies, Job Leigh explains that they “kept him at arm’s length, and cared not whether his heart was sorry or glad; whether he lived or died, – whether he was bound for heaven or hell” (471). The masters work to maintain distance, in this case “arm’s length,” between the classes while the workers try to cross that divide. The problem is that the masters do not care about the fate of the poor, so they do nothing to help them. Instead, they make it impossible for them to work to provide for their families then criticize them for their poverty.

 

 

 

Accepting Kindness

Kindness is a big focus for Elisabeth Gaskell in her novel Mary Barton. In fact, it is the main point she tries to make, with Job Legh telling Mr. Carson “If we saw the masters try for our sakes to find a remedy… [even if they] could only say, ‘Poor fellows, our hearts are sore for ye;…’ – we’d bear up like men through bad times” (474). Here Job is asserting that all the poor want from the upper classes is kindness and sympathy. Kindness is used in other ways throughout the novel though, with the poor helping each other. In this Gaskell ends up showing that it is just as important to accept the kindness of others as it is to give it out.

Gaskell establishes both John and Mary Barton as kind individuals willing to help their fellow men. When Wilson comes to ask John for money to help the dying Mr. Davenport, John asserts he has no money. After he takes a bit of food to the suffering family, however, he goes and gathers up all the belongings he can spare and “pawned them for five shillings” (98). Even in the beginning when he said he had no money to spare, he was still willing to spare some food for the suffering family. Then, upon seeing the extreme case of the Davenports, he went and sold what he could to help them. This shows a kindness and willingness to help, something that Mary also shares.

When Mary hears about the murder of the younger Mr. Carson, she is distraught mainly because she suspects Jem of being the murderer. On her way home after hearing this, she runs across a hungry boy on the road who asks for food. At first she claims that “hunger is nothing” and rushes past, but then “her heart upbraided her… and she hastily entered her door and seized the scanty remnant of food which the cupboard contained, and she retraced her steps” to go give the food to the boy (296-297). Mary is shown here to be kind of heart as well, but both she and her father have trouble accepting kindness in return.

Job says “John Barton was not a man to take counsel with people” showing that he did not get advice from others (470). He also did not accept money from his union, wishing it to go to other families instead. So when he was the one in need, he did not get help, he just retreated further into himself. Mary has the same inclination. When Jem is considered to be a murderer, she feels that she has to clear his name and that she has to do it all by herself. In this mind set, Margaret offers Mary money to help Jem. Mary does accept it, but reluctantly taking it “for Jem”, but not even taking all the money offered (333). This causes Margaret to expound upon the idea of kindness.

Margaret claims that we should say ‘let others do unto you, as you would do unto them” (333). She asserts that helping others can make one happy and that depriving them of the ability to help hurts them. This shows a bit of where the Bartons have been going wrong. John thinks he has to do things by himself, but that only makes him more irritable and angry towards the world, to the point of even hitting his daughter. Mary runs around trying to save Jem only to end up fainting at his trial from exhaustion and needing to be tended to by strangers. Gaskell seems to be saying that, while the upper class does need to step up and help the poor, the poor also need to accept the help and perhaps even ask for it, if not from the unhelpful lawmakers than at least from their neighbors.

Kindness is shown throughout Mary Barton, and the intricacies of it help to show not only that the poor are kind to each other and that the rich should be kind to them too, but also that they need to accept kindness so that they don’t end up getting hurt in the end.