Recognizing the (M)other: Maternal Relationships in Mary Barton

Throughout Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Mary frequently thinks and speaks of herself as motherless, a fact which she believes contributes to her difficulties in making the right choices. She most clearly articulates this at Jem’s trial:

“For you see, sir, mother died before I was thirteen, before I could know right from wrong about some things; and I was giddy and vain, and ready to listen to any praise of my good looks; and this poor young Mr. Carson fell in with me, and told me he loved me; and I was foolish enough to think he meant me marriage: a mother is a pitiful loss to a girl, sir . . .” (405)

Mary tries to attribute her errors and ignorance to her lack of a mother. Gaskell, however, gives readers a more complex view of the influences of motherhood and the causes of Mary’s choices.

Motherly influence clearly does not steer a girl in the correct direction by itself. Sally’s mother is just as “lightly principled” as Sally herself, and she rather encourages Sally’s “vulgar-minded” behavior rather than directing her to conduct herself more properly (134). Margaret, as a counterexample, has only old Job, who tells of his struggles in trying to become a mother to his infant granddaughter (154). Despite having only her grandfather to nurture her to adulthood, Margaret is clearly portrayed as virtuous and good. Surrogate-mother figures often meet with success throughout the novel, whether Job Legh raising Margaret or Alice Wilson raising Will. Gaskell seems to demonstrate that simply having a mother is neither necessary or sufficient cause for growing up as a virtuous person.

Rather than looking for someone to fill the role of mother in her life, Mary is constantly seeking her mother in dreams, and her frequent dwelling in the past potentially blinds her to the motherly figures that abound in her life. Job and Margaret’s relationship exemplifies a potential outcome for the relationship that could have existed if both Mary and her father had turned towards each other for comfort and familial care rather than taking up separate interests and manners of coping with Mrs. Barton’s death and their increasing poverty. Instead, Gaskell portrays them grieving separately and dwelling in the past rather than changing the present (60).

Other figures show promise for providing motherly influence in Mary’s life, but they, too, ultimately fall short. Alice Wilson often provides a positive example of virtue (199), and Margaret frequently gives Mary advice. However, Mary doesn’t seem to recognize these ladies as maternal figures. Anderson notes that both of these women, “two of the most sympathetic and naturally good characters in the novel, gradually lose their senses” (122). Although Anderson attributes their loss of sense to a “spiritualized sympathy,” there may also be a symbolic connection to their relationship to Mary (122). Just as Alice and Margaret lose their literal sense of sight, Mary has an inward blindness to the motherly capacity of these women and others in the novel. She often focuses on her own loss rather than on the friendship of the motherly figures who are available to her. In fact, Mary envies Alice’s loss of sense in which she can return to her childhood and to her mother’s care. However, it is ultimately Alice and Margaret who lose their sight, not Mary. This begs the question of whether something like the “spiritualized sympathy” Anderson discusses could perhaps inhibit both women from fully taking on the motherly potential they have in Mary’s life. Although both women doubtless influence Mary, she still dwells on her missing mother and considers herself a motherless child.

The failure to recognize and connect with motherly figures results in Mary being led by the misrecognized figure of her Aunt Esther. Esther’s ever-present-yet-ever-absent influence over Mary takes the place of a motherly role, but Esther’s mothering ability is flawed, though perhaps not for the reasons she believes. Esther’s distant influence propels Mary to continue in her flirting with Harry, just as Esther fears it will. The narrator explains that “The old leaven, infused years ago by her aunt Esther, fermented in her little bosom” (122). The “leaven” is the belief that Mary can make something of herself and escape poverty by marrying up, as she thinks her aunt did. But if Esther were present, is it possible she could have dispelled the myth for which Mary yearned? Esther refuses to approach Mary for fear of becoming her downfall, but in reality, it may have been her prolonged distance that allowed Mary to construct unrealistic stories of what her aunt’s life was like. Had Mary seen the real-life results of flirting and dreams of wealthy suitors, she might perhaps have been deterred from following Esther’s path.

Esther, however, does not really know Mary. She has not been a part of her life, so she makes assumptions about both her behavior and her character. As a result, her attempt to influence the situation between Mary and Harry ultimately makes things worse, as it leads to Jem’s confrontation of Harry, which places him under suspicion for the murder. When she meets with Mary, Esther further perpetuates the myth that caused Mary so much grief by pretending to be married and well off. Esther has been the closest to a mother figure Mary has, so Mary misrecognizes her as her own mother, since she conceptualizes Esther as little more than an idea (299). However, Mary ultimately does not end up like Esther, and this comes through Mary’s own moral choice, not through Esther’s misguided attempts to save her. Mary is her own woman, as the narrator says in chapter four, “far superior in sense and spirit to the mother she mourned” (60). After Esther’s visit, Mary cannot claim her as a mother figure, however much influence Esther may have had upon her at one time. Mary has already rejected what she perceives to be Esther’s way of life, and Esther rejects Mary’s attempt to kiss her, choosing distance rather than reconciliation and solidifying her absence from Mary’s life at her time of need.

Despite her apparent failure to fully recognize the motherly figures of Alice and Margaret or to connect with the mother she misrecognizes in Esther, Mary eventually finds a mother in Jane Wilson, in spite of Jane’s initial rejection. When Jane first sees Mary, whom she blames for Jem’s arrest, she says “It’s well thy mother does not know (poor body) what a good-for-nothing thou art” (294). Jane rejects the opportunity to take pity on Mary herself, opting to think sympathetically of Mary’s mother rather than recognize the need present before her. Like John and Mary, Jane dwells on the dead mother rather than on the living daughter. Mary cries out, ironically, in the presence of the woman who would eventually become her mother, in a way that could be taken as appealing to Jane herself: “‘Mother! oh mother!’ said Mary, as if appealing to the merciful dead” (294). The wording of “as if” could imply that Mary is not actually appealing to her dead mother. The ambiguous language lends itself to the interpretation that Mary places herself as Jane’s daughter for the rest of the text. She recognizes Jane’s need and continually reaches out to try to help, as a daughter would.

Unlike Esther, Jane Wilson does eventually accept the role of Mary’s mother, after a good deal of struggle against the idea that Mary is stealing her son’s love from her. Jane must give up the idea of Mary as a rival before she can become her mother, and this finally happens when she comes to comfort Mary after John Barton’s death. Mary declares herself alone, despite her knowledge of Jem’s unwavering love and support, in the absence of an earthly parent. In a touching moment of acceptance, Jane opens her heart and gushes honesty to Mary:

“Poor wench! poor, poor wench!” said Jane Wilson, tenderly kissing her. “Thou’rt not alone, so donnot take on so. I’ll say nought of Him who’s above, for thou know’st He is ever the orphan’s friend; but think on Jem! nay, Mary, dear, think on me! I’m but a frabbit woman at times, but I’ve a heart within me through all my temper, and thou shalt be as a daughter henceforward,—as mine own ewe-lamb. Jem shall not love thee better in his way, than I will in mine; and thou’lt bear with my turns, Mary, knowing that in my soul God sees the love that shall ever be thine, if thou’lt take me for thy mother, and speak no more of being alone.” (463-4)

This verbal and physical act of acceptance, the narrator declares, “was heart’s piety, and needed no garnish of texts to make it true religion, pure and undefiled” (464). The remainder of the chapter jumps far into the future, showing just how strong of a relationship develops between the pair. In the wake of losing her father, Mary finally gains a mother once more.

One could argue that Mary has had maternal figures in her life throughout the novel. The motherless girl did not have far to look for a mentor figures. However, although these figures meet with varying degrees of success in influencing Mary’s life, Jane Wilson is the only one who truly becomes her mother. At this point in the novel, the tension of the romance plot as such has already been resolved, but the novel cannot end there. Mary has searched for a mother even longer than she has searched for romantic love, a search that seems to go on in the background. Of course, the romantic plot is foremost in readers’ minds, but the novel would not be complete without Mary finally finding and recognizing a maternal figure. The reconciliation between Jane and Mary affects even Jem (465), and the new family’s mutual relationship is much more the focus of the ending than is Mary and Jem’s wedded bliss. In fulfilling the command of true religion from James 1:27, “to look after orphans and widows in their distress,” Mary and Jane both finally find what they are looking for.


Works Cited

  • Anderson, Amanda. “Melodrama, Morbidity, and Unthinking Sympathy: Gaskell’s Mary Barton and Ruth.” Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture, Cornell University Press, Ithaca; London, 1993, pp. 108–140. JSTOR.
  • Gaskell, Elizabeth C, and Jennifer Foster. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Broadview Literary Texts, 2000.
  • Holy Bible: New International Version. Biblica Inc., 2011,


2 thoughts on “Recognizing the (M)other: Maternal Relationships in Mary Barton

  1. Dear Sir, Madam

    I found your article really interesting and insightful. I am currently working on my English literature dissertation and I would like to ask you for permission to quote a few things from this particular piece. Of course I want to credit the author properly so if you do not mind me citing could you give me any suggestions on how to credit your work?

    Yours faithfully,
    J. Dudek

    • Hello, and thank you for your comment!

      I’ve responded via the email address you provided when commenting. Please comment again if you don’t receive the email.

      My best,

      LaJoie Lex

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