On Endings and Being Out of Reach

The happy ending of Mary Barton follows quickly on the heels of Esther’s tragic death. “I see a long low wooden house, with room enough and to spare,” the narrator announces, with no transition besides the Bible verse that appears on the tombstone of John and Esther. After the suffering and pain of the text, the idyllic nature of the scene that follows is surprising and—to this reader at least—a bit jarring. Mary, Jem, and Jane seem firmly and happily established in their new life, and have been joined by a happy child. To round out this happiness, letters appear from Margaret and Will: Margaret has regained her sight, and they and Job all plan on coming to Canada. It is the ultimate instantiation of hospitality and happiness: there is space enough in Canada for all, and they are all welcome, and providence (if that’s the word) has seen fit to make things go very well indeed for them.

This happy ending for two of our main female characters, Mary and Margaret, contrasts sharply with Esther’s death, which seems to be a “first ending” of the text—just a page before. The unrelenting sadness of her death seems unnecessarily harsh when compared with the overabundance of happiness of the second ending. She dies, crying constantly: “she cried feebly and sadly as long as she had any strength to cry, and then she died” (481). There is no happiness here. Why must Esther die so pitifully? Was an alternative open to her? And at the risk of being crotchety, why did Margaret regain her sight when this is the fate of Esther? It seems an unnecessary boon, since Margaret has come to terms with her loss, it has freed her to discover her talents at singing, and she has found a beau. Her sight does not seem like a good that is necessary for the novel to end happily, since she has what truly matters . . . could not some of these characters’ happiness be diverted to Esther?

At a first glance, the difference between the two endings—between what might be seen as gratuitous happiness and gratuitous grief—might be simply due to how Margaret has not sinned. Margaret is upstanding and virtuous, stable and secure in her innocence: she has “ no sympathy with the temptations to which loveliness, vanity, ambition, or the desire of being admired, exposes so many; no sympathy with flirting girls, in short” (318). And Mary, though tempted, fights through unseemly conduct to uprightness. Perhaps Margaret receiving her sight is a bonus to distinguish her absolute innocence, and that’s all there is to it. Pure woman, fallen woman: good input, good output; bad input, bad output . . . it’s a simple enough equation for life.

The implications of this seem problematic, though. Within the novel, does sin always bring on personal suffering—and is one’s suffering always one’s fault, and relief from it one’s fault too? If true within this text, we should expect an economy of sin and justice in which suffering afflicts the guilty and relief from suffering is granted to the innocent.

This narrative would fit with Mr. Carson losing his son after years of ignoring the plight of his workers, with Henry Carson dying after seeking to seduce Mary and drawing the nasty caricature, John Barton experiencing anguish and dying after murdering someone in cold blood, and Mary experiencing difficulties for favoring her secret admirer and not acting as a “good girl” should.* It would also fit with how these characters receive rewards after repentance: Mr. Carson finds meaning and significance in working for good relations between masters and workers (475-476), John Barton receives the comfort of forgiveness on his deathbed after confessing and being willing to go to trial (457), and Mary is rewarded with a loving family after she recognizes the errors of her ways. Esther experiences the pains and degradations of street life because she falls into prostitution, and she dies still sad because she will not answer Jem’s call to a new life. This would be a very crisp and clean system…perhaps problematically so when compared to the messiness of life and suffering.

But can we really say that captures this book’s perspective on sin and suffering? The main hurdle for this idea is Jem: dear, perfect Jem, who is dragged through awful suffering because of the sins of others. However, he is ultimately rewarded for suffering well with a new life of marital and pastoral bliss, and what seemed bad (losing a factory job) is actually a gift because it helps his family escape the industrial city. He does not even have to wait for heaven for this reward. Suffering extends to the innocent Jem, but it ultimately helps him to a happy ending here on earth and within the text.

I think, then, what actually seems inconsistent to me is that the text implies it has eternity in mind (with its emphasis on sin and grace) yet favored characters (characters who commit what must be the less-bad sins) all receive happily-ever-afters in this life and within this text, and the others (worse sinners) have to hope that the angry God will one day posthumously and post-textually be appeased. As the scripture verse that is the fulcrum between the sad and happy endings of our texts states: “For He will not always chide, neither will He keep His anger for ever.” Why does his anger last longer for some, so this promise of anger ending at some point (it is not even an affirmative promise!) has to appear on Esther and John’s tombstone, when the other main characters receive grace and happiness on this earth and in this book?

Is it that Esther mourns, but she did not work off her sins? True, Esther did not leave the streets. Her ending emphasizes her lost innocence, when she wanders back to her old home “to see the place familiar to her innocence, yet once again before her death” (481), and when she has “fallen into what appeared simply a heap of white or light-coloured clothes, fainting or dead, lay the poor crushed Butterfly—the once innocent Esther” (480-481). Her lost innocence is repeated a third time before she dies: “all was true which had befallen her since last she lay an innocent girl on that bed” (481). She is not “innocent,” though she is deeply saddened. Mary, in contrast, does work off her sins (via her work on Jem’s behalf, physical suffering, and mental anguish), Mr. Carson does (by doing good after his son’s death), and John does (by confessing and being willing to stand trial). Does grace, then, require our work to reach us?

Yet the novel’s grace seems to have only made abortive effort to reach Esther. Esther was only asked by Jem on the one occasion to return: why could they not find her when they looked again? The novel could have allowed Mary to find her again, and provided a scene where Mary showed grace to her aunt. Why could a recovered prostitute not go to the new world with them? Are prostitutes outside the scope of forgiveness?

Can the world, and our novel, not bear the weight of Esther’s sin, so that she has to die unhappy before the text wraps up? It seems so, which is an odd message to receive in a novel that ultimately seems to propose grace and forgiveness and brotherhood. Esther, alienated in her prostitution, has committed the sin that exiles a woman from normal society and from the people that she loves. Mary recovers, because she did not quite fall and then works hard, and Margaret flourishes, because she is never even tempted. Even John has a moment of forgiveness and brotherhood before he dies. Esther, however, remains out of reach of our characters and out of reach of any earthly forgiveness or happy ending.

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