The description in Mary Barton is the most potent weapon to help the working class movement

Though each of the characters have certain traits that make them endearing or despised by the readers, it’s the descriptions in the book that ultimately make their situation come to life. The realism, the sharp contrast between scenery in classes and the descriptions of faces and feelings, make this a novel important for the working class movement.

As one reads in the novel, the author almost always describes a place and then contrasts it with another with basic similarities but not equal at all. There are countless examples, but the one that struck me the most were those of the mill and the houses near that area. According to the book the mill faced a “dingy-looking street, consisting principally of public houses, pawn brokers shops, rag and bone warehouses, and dirty provision shops” furthermore she writes that the mill was old, the alleys were often crowded and the fire produced there was something of concern, possibly for the neighborhood. While on the other side was a gin place previously owned by a rich man, which had a great size “handsome stone facings” with “splendidly fitted room, with its painted walls, its pillared recesses, its gilded and gorgeous fitting ups…”(Chapter V) I think these two contrasting descriptions are very important because it adds to the main theme of the novel, which is the large differences between classes. The fact also that a gin place is better taken care of than a work place also speaks discretely to the minds of those 19th century readers in order to perhaps review their priorities. Furthermore her heavy use of negative adjectives helps to emphasize the realistic conditions the people lived in.

Actually, the element of accurate realism is often present in Gaskell’s descriptions throughout the book. Not only do they render the situation of the poor appalling to any reader, it paints a truthful portrayal of what was out there in 19th century Manchester for generations to come. One of the most sad descriptions is that of Berry street and the Davenport house; the book describes the streets to be filled with human excrement, ashes, it was “damp and muddy” then it proceeds to describe the cellars, where a dying family was currently living, were in the most dire hygienic conditions “the smell was so fetid as almost to knock the two men down” it was dark, the windows were broken, the floor was “stagnant with the filthy moisture of the street oozed up” the mother and the children were starving and the husband was dying of fever (Ch.VI). The editor’s note on this particular description confirms that “This description is highly realistic” and because it unites empathy and shock factor, the confirmation of its reality only serves as a more effective way to produce and attitude of change in her readers.

Elizabeth Gaskell not only focuses on the descriptions of situations and people, she also makes a great effort in describing the emotions of the characters. This is important for the novels goal because if a reader is not able to identify with any of the poor working class characters, then the effectivity of the book disappears. The description on how Mary feels after Jem proposes speaks a lot about human nature regarding emotion. When most people are young, its often hard to interpret our feelings and figure out what they mean. Since the beginning Mary had had mixed emotions about Jem, but its in this scene, particularly, that she admits having no time to analyze the reason for her emotions before. The author also describes all her thoughts about both Carson and Jem until finally she makes a decision (Ch.XI), demonstrating the familiar trail of thoughts we all have or had when making an important decision. It is also the descriptions of a character’s manner that make the reader view them as bad or good, even to judge their behavior. Later in the book, John, Mary’s father, kills young Henry Carson, and yet the reader feels compelled to feel more sympathy for John  because his past actions and thoughts deemed him as a good man.

Moreover, she doesn’t rely on the concrete description of emotion to spark empathy from the reader, she also uses the description of objects, like the fake Japanese pottery which Mrs. Barton was so proud of despite how simple it was, or the description of the face of Jem’s mother as he testifies in the audience, where she is described to have an appearance that “was so much beyond her years…but partly owing to her accident in early life, which left a stamp of pain upon her face, partly owing her anxious temper, partly to her sorrow and, partly to her limping gait…” (Ch. XXXI).

In conclusion, the characters themselves make a very important point about the struggles of the working class, but the powerful descriptions of emotions, manner and scenery are what truly moves people to make a change and feel empathy rather than pity towards the struggles of the good people stuck in the working class.

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