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.