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.

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