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.