“Now don’t be hasty, Mary Barton”: Guilt, Conscience, and Moral Judgment in Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton finds no shortage of moral judgments from its characters, but it is not clear that they are made soundly. From the onset, the first dialogue that opens the book centers on a challenge to readily made ethical judgments, as Wilson reveals to his friend, “Folks said you’d cast [Esther] off,” and John “testily” replies, “Folks always make one a deal worse than one is” (39). Initially, the reader might dismiss John’s statement, as his “testy” tone suggests that he speaks from annoyance and a desire to defend himself, rather than a state of calm reflection or wisdom. Furthermore, John follows his initial caution against hasty judgments by making one against an entire class himself. The idea that the rich “know nothing of the trials of the poor” is an “old tale,” he says, for “if they don’t know, they ought to know,” and John therefore concludes that rich and poor are as separate as Dives and Lazarus (40). Perhaps John is correct about the rich in spite of his bitterness. The elder Carson’s response to Wilson’s entreaty at the behest of a dying family suggests that if the rich man knows not of his workers’ sufferings, he ought to. And yet, if John is correct about the extent of the wealthy class’ moral failures, then his own statement that people always judge others too critically is undermined. Moral judgments are made throughout Mary Barton, but whether aimed at others or the self, the book seems unclear as to how and when people can be good judges.

Much from the novel indicates that judgments are often made too harshly, but the book nevertheless provides some reasons for such judgments. Mrs. Wilson calls Mary a “good-for-nothing,” Mr. Carson believes that Mary is a “Helen,” and the people of Manchester, including Mary herself, immediately believe that Jem is guilty of Harry Carson’s murder (294, 402). The reader has some access to Mary’s inner life and behavior, and therefore can sympathize with her in light of such criticism. Furthermore, because the narrator lets her audience in on Jem’s innocence, the reader knows that the folks of Manchester have indeed judged their good neighbor too harshly. Initially, these examples would indicate that John’s assessment is correct; people are too easy to judge. Yet, it might also be the case one cannot fault these characters for their judgments, as they they lack the evidence that only an omniscient narrator could provide. Gaskell indicates that Mary, “doubted not [Jem’s] guilt; she felt how madly she might act if once jealous of him, and how much cause had she not given him for jealousy?” (295). It is only the paper with her signature that later convinces Mary of Jem’s innocence. Given that the narrator provides reasons for Mary’s initial judgment, and the limits of her own knowledge, can the reader blame her or others for not knowing more?

While judgments of others in the novel are potentially unsound, self-assessments seem to have more weight, though there are reasons to question even these. When John actually casts Esther off in the middle of the book, the narrator states that “his conscience smote him for his harshness,” and Jem, too, finds that, “his conscience smote him. He had not done enough to save [Esther]” (175, 219). Jem and John feel the burden of conscience regarding their own behavior, and perhaps rightly, because they were hasty to judge Esther and made too little an effort to redeem her. Interestingly, the narrator here unites the one who will later be guilty and the falsely condemned under the parallel burden of a smitten conscience. Mary is also a critical judge regarding her own character. When Mrs. Wilson rails against Mary, the narrator states, “Speak on, desolate mother. Abuse her as you will. Her broken spirit feels to have merited all” (295). Mary even excuses Jem’s supposed murder as her own fault, as she “[clings] more closely to [Jem’s] image with passionate self-upbraiding” (298). That the narrator describes Mrs. Wilson’s railings as an “abuse,” and Mary’s convictions as a “feeling,” could indicate that Mary is too hard on herself. What cannot be denied from the passage is the strength Mary’s criticisms. John, Jem, and Mary are sure of their own guilt, suggesting that individuals are better at judging themselves than each other.

If horizontal and inward judgments are complex and faulty, Mary Barton further indicates that there could be a more charitable and true appeal in the vertical. In the final dialogue between Job and Mr. Carson, the former states that he will not judge the masters according to his own understanding or moral standards, but theirs. “When the time comes for judging you;” he says, “I sha’nt think any longer, does he act right on my views of a thing, but does he act right on his own” (474). This could reflect Paul in Romans when he asks, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14.4-5). According Job’s metrics, there is reason to think that one’s assessment of one’s self is more reliable than the judgment of others. Yet, this would also imply that Mary is right to condemn herself because she is “fully convinced” in her own mind, and that Harry Carson, who feels no prick of conscience, is right to be “proud of himself” (107). Is acting right on own’s own view of things sufficient for being considered good? Not enough, it seems, but this might be why Jem concludes that “God does not judge as hardly as man, that’s one comfort for all of us!” (461).

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