The Source of John Barton’s Rancor

Matthew Turnbull

Blog Post Three

ENG/REL 5362

22 October 2018

The Source of John Barton’s Rancor

In the penultimate chapter of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, a grieving father and master of one of Manchester’s mills, Mr. Carson, asks Jem Wilson and Job Legh what becomes a leading question: do “you think [John Barton] acted from motives of revenge, in consequence of the part my son had taken in putting down the strike?” (470).  In the remaining pages of the chapter, Job strives to answer that question and, in effect, expresses a sort of manifesto regarding both causes and solutions to the soci0-economic inequity prevalent in English manufacturing towns in the mid-nineteenth century. Encountering this portion of the narrative, the reader begins to wonder if the novel’s fictional conceit has evaporated. It feels as if, when Job Legh humbly exposits his theories about the relationship between the working and middle classes to a prosperous business owner, the rhetorical mode sheds most of its novelistic traits and mutates into a hortatory address in which Elizabeth Gaskell begins direct, extended instruction to the reader. By so doing, is Gaskell observing a perfunctory rite required of authors of industrial fiction?  Or does the novel end this way in service of Gaskell’s own private aim? Given the blatant shift in narratorial quality, it is necessary to ask if this maneuver furthers her central rhetorical goals for Mary Barton, or possibly undermines them.

Such questions prompt reflection on the global structure of the whole work. But specific portions of Job Legh’s manifesto also raise questions. For example, Job theorizes that John Barton’s rancor proceeded primarily from spiritual disillusionment: “he were sadly put about to make great riches and great poverty square with Christ’s gospel” (470).  He could not reconcile his sense of justice with “the great and mocking contrasts presented by the varieties of human condition” (470). What part of the gospel of Christ does Job—or the narrator—have in mind here? Is it the obvious element of Christ’s teaching that human beings should love their neighbors as themselves? Surely a manufacturing master who sought to obey that command would find a way to express love to his workers tangibly, particularly if a neighbor—like John Barton—was suffering loss and privation. Monsieur Madeline, the owner of a bead factory in Hugo’s Les Miserables, managed to show substantial love and concern for his destitute, embittered employee, Fantine.  What good is it, asks the Apostle James, if a brother or sister needs clothing and food and “you do not give them what is necessary for their body? What use is that?” (James 2:15). Or, does Job have in mind the teachings of Christ on the mountain when He assumes that His followers will “give to the poor” (Matthew 6:2)?  Any of these elements of the gospel, and many others, would seem to lend force to Job’s concerns.

Of course, it appears that the unstated assumption behind Job’s idea (and John Barton’s trouble) is that the possession of “great riches” and the suffering of “great poverty” indicates that the gospel of Christ is being disregarded—especially by the masters. It is implied that if masters and men were obeying the gospel, human beings would not experience great riches or great poverty, and the “great and mocking contrasts presented by the varieties of human condition” would disappear. This unstated presupposition raises two further important questions.

First, is it true that gospel-obedience will eliminate great wealth and great poverty? Possibly. What Paul reports in 2 Corinthians 8 may shed light on this question. He writes to the Corinthian Christians that the churches in Macedonia were under “a great ordeal of affliction” and suffered “deep poverty.” Nevertheless, remarkably, because of their “abundance of joy” they gave, “in the wealth of their liberality” and “beyond their ability,” to the suffering Christians in Jerusalem (2-3). Why were the Macedonian Christians so joyful and liberal even though they were so poor? Paul states that it flows directly from the gospel.  Their gracious liberality proceeds from their knowledge of “the grace of [the] Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for [their] sake[s] He became poor, so that [they] through His poverty might become rich” (9). The Macedonians were generous and thoughtful because of the gospel and (it seems safe to assume) those who were suffering were helped and encouraged by their generosity. According to Job, it would seem the disparity between what John Barton experienced, and what he knew the gospel required, was the major source of his bitterness.

But is Job’s interpretation accurate? Does this representation of John Barton’s animosity square with the depiction of his character and his words in the text of Mary Barton? It may be possible that Job over-spiritualizes Barton’s motivations. When he and Wilson are discussing the wretched conditions in which the Davenports are living and dying, the narrator tells the reader that the thoughts of Barton’s heart “were touched by sin” and by “bitter hatred of the happy” (101). Speaking of the masters, Barton asks Wilson, “how come they’re rich and we’re poor?” (104).  He complains that “they’n screwed us down to the th’ lowest peg, in order to make their great big fortunes, and build their great big houses, and we, why we’re just clemming, many and many of us” (104).  As the author presents it in chapter VI, the disparity between the filth and deprivation of the Davenport residence and the opulence and luxury of the Carson home is deeply troubling to the reader. But are Barton’s words more reflective of a philosophical, spiritual difficulty or a sense of spite and jealousy brought on by endless want and suffering?


Was it spiritual disillusionment that needled John Barton and stoked his resentment toward the Carsons? Did he really struggle with their apparent disobedience to the gospel? Or was John Barton angry with God for allowing an endless chain of sorrow and grief to infuse his experience? In response to the death of his wife, the death of his son, the death of his friend, and the death of his hopes for economic and political change, did he provoke his fellow chartists to desperate resolutions and willingly act as their deadly messenger? Was his murder of Harry Carson mostly an act of frantic political strategy, or more an expression of personal rancor towards God aimed at a human target?


One thought on “The Source of John Barton’s Rancor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *