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.