In reading Mary Barton as a novel of the industrial age meant to present the problems of working class individuals, one might wonder what the true significance of the love plot is. Why include Mary going back and forth between Jem and young Mr. Carson? It can seem as if nothing truly important is revealed through this interplay and yet, through the love plot, Gaskell is able to shed light on another important aspect of the this time period that adds richness and a better overall understanding of the context within which the characters are interacting with one another. As contemporary reader, we are introduced to the fact that marriage was not as simple as being about who you loved, but was also about who could provide for you. This is not to say that this idea is not prevalent in our current society, but in this novel, we see it as much more of a serious consideration.
This idea of being able to provide is evident in each of the marriage proposals from both Jem and Mr. Carson. Jem tries to woo Mary by mentioning what he could provide for her when he says “Mary, I’m a foreman in th’ works, and dear Mary!…I’ve a home to offer you” (179). By Jem’s pleading, the reader gets a sense of just how important this particular aspect of marriage was as Jem makes sure that Mary knows she will be cared for. This idea is taken even further by Mr. Carson in his proposal when says “You shall have every luxury that money can purchase and every charm that love can devise to make your life happy” (187). By comparing these two proposals to what one might see in a contemporary proposal, one is made aware of how integral this piece of marriage was in the industrial society. Considering this, the reader becomes a little more understanding of why Mary would entertain someone as arrogant as Mr. Carson in the first place.
Mary does not actually have deep feelings for Mr. Carson at all. Her sole interest in Mr. Carson is based on what Mary thinks he could provide for her. She even says that “Mr. Carson was rich, and prosperous, and gay, and (she believed) would place her in all circumstances of ease and luxury” and this is the main attraction that Mr. Carson holds for her (181). Yet, when she finds out that he never really had true intentions of marrying her, it is that much easier for her to let him go because she never truly felt much for him anyways. This might prejudice the reader against Mary in that it seems shallow to have entertained Mr. Carson in this way, especially when she realizes she truly loves Jem. However, when one looks at the struggles that Mary and her father encounter simply because of their class status, it makes a little more sense why Mary might want Mr. Carson over her true love (at first). Thus, while the love plot may seem to detract from the class plot at times, it actually adds to it by approaching the issue of class from a romantic standpoint.