Is “The Wisest Thing” a Moral Responsibility? Martineau and Benefit Clubs

In Cousin Marshall, Martineau refers to Benefit Clubs as a viable alternative to reliance upon parish relief several times, especially because of John Marshall’s use of this financial option. When the widowed Mrs. Marshall writes to Ned about his money, she says, “I quite approve your wish about the Friendly Society, knowing how my husband did the wisest thing in belonging to one, and at times could have got through in no other way” (123). Earlier, the narrator characterizes John as “a slow and dull, though steady workman” of whom his friends say “that his club served him instead of a set of wits” (73-74). Furthermore, the narrator indicates Mrs. Marshall does not fully recognize that he is not particularly bright because of this one wise choice that enabled them to be self-sufficient when his hard work was not enough to keep them financially afloat: “His wife, who never seemed to have found out how much cleverer she was than her husband, put the matter in a somewhat different light. She attributed to her husband all the respectability they were enabled to maintain…She gave him the credit, not only of the regularity of their little household…but of the many kindnesses which they rendered to their neighbors” (74). Mr. Marshall’s responsible character and Mrs. Marshall’s careful stewardship of their resources also receive attention in these passages, but Martineau stresses how the Benefit Club played a major role in their abilities to be financially responsible and stable. Additionally, Martineau makes a point of clarifying that John is not actually a smart or talented man but rather a good but average man who just had the good sense to listen to the advice of his father and invest in this safety net (73). Martineau considers wise financial decisions as being within the grasp of all the working class that are not severely disadvantaged through disability, as even an allegedly dim-witted fellow like Mr. Marshall could make that choice.

Despite the support the Benefit Club provides the Marshall family in their times of need, Burke, the doctor who presents explanations and solutions for England’s political economy, does not think that Benefit Clubs are inherently the solution and therefore should not be made compulsory. When Effingham asks him what he thinks of the idea of requiring people to join Benefit Clubs, Burke responds,

No man approves such societies more than I, as long as they are voluntary; but fellowship of this kind would lose its virtue, I doubt, by being made compulsory. There are no means that I know of, of compelling a man who will not earn to store his earnings; and the frugal and industrious will do it without compulsion, as soon as they understand the matter: so that in fact the worst classes of society would be left as free to roam, and beg, and steal, as if the institution did not exist. (115-116)

For Burke, and seemingly for Martineau, as her concluding summary echoes much of Burke’s other ideas presented in the narrative, the good, hard-working people will do the common-sense thing once they know its benefits, and the people associated with the term “undeserving poor” would not act sensibly even if they could afford to do so.

Martineau’s characterization of the Marshall family and the contrasting Bell relatives, as well as several other conversations and characters, reveal her strong belief in the difference between deserving and undeserving poor. This is best represented by Louisa Burke’s conversation with Mr. Nugent, in which she expresses her concern for the lack of separation between “blameless and culpable indigence” (29). Of course, Mr. Nugent considers her categories “somewhat too nice,” for Martineau acknowledges that this is indeed an oversimplification. However, though her views are likely more nuanced than her characters’ explanations, she considers a major difference between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor to be the willingness and wisdom to save up resources through these Benefit Clubs. By associating John Marshall, a man who is not especially educated or even smart, with the wisdom of benefit clubs, which then in turn allows him to benefit other people and his relatives, the Bells, whose financial decisions are clever but unwise and often even unethical, with those who would not have the foresight to save through Benefit Clubs, is Martineau suggesting that though Benefit Clubs ought not to be legally required, that there is a sort of moral imperative to make such wise decisions?

While financial responsibility and frugality are certainly admirable qualities that allow for greater participation in the moral responsibility of charity toward neighbors, it seems that Martineau’s fairly clear distinctions between the deserving poor and undeserving poor move financial wisdom from an admirable quality to a characteristic that helps separate the virtuous from the unvirtuous and the deserving from the undeserving in troubling ways. What about those who would have joined the Benefit Clubs had they not already been receiving relief as children or who were trying to be self-sufficient in caring for their aging parents and therefore could not set aside the necessary earnings? Ned is an extreme example of the hard-working poor, but would Martineau find those in similar situations who did not break the cycle of poverty as he did to be undeserving? While she does not explicitly portray failure to plan ahead financially as a moral failing, her characters present limited examples of virtuous people who are not able be fairly self-sufficient through wise financial decisions, and thus, she seems to ignore the possibility of those who do not clearly fit in one category or the other.

The Carson Women

Harry Carson’s death is first introduced in the Carson home. Though he makes sense as a target for the union’s assassination plot, Gaskell does not provide this information in that scene. Instead, we only really know that Jem and Harry have had a fight in the streets, that Harry has shown himself to be particularly unconcerned with the plight of the working men, that someone has been chosen to assassinate a factory owner, and that John Barton has been acting strangely. While John’s murder of Harry neatly ties the already interwoven plots together in ways that make it almost predictable, it is not given to the reader. Part of the reason for Gaskell’s careful presentation and revelation is likely from a desire to create some suspense, but her decision to first reveal to the readers that Harry was the target of the union’s plot through his family’s discovery of his death also suggests that the Carson family’s reactions to his death are of greater significance than his actual moment of death. Given the importance of the event in Mr. Carson’s growth and reconciliation at the end of the novel, it makes sense that his initial reaction would be pertinent in moving the reader toward sympathy so that the resolution is believable. However, Harry’s mother and sisters receive considerable attention in this scene but never reappear. In a novel whose narrator asks readers to consider “the lot of those who daily pass you by in the street,” what do Sophy, Amy, Helen, and Mrs. Carson reveal to readers (101)?

The Carson women are only mentioned or appear in a few moments in the text: Amy is present when George Wilson asks Mr. Carson to have Ben Davenport admitted to the infirmary, one sister was mentioned as being with Harry when he sees Mary, and their extended scene in which they discover Harry’s death. When the scene opens, Amy, Helen, and Sophy are discussing Harry’s behavior toward a popular girl in their circle and criticizing his flirtatiousness. At least one of the sisters has seen his attentions to Mary, but they only consider his attentions to girls of their social standing (177). The readers have seen the full extent of Harry’s flirtatiousness and know that he had shown Mary affection without intending to marry her, which would likely shock his sisters if they knew, considering how they respond to his more subdued efforts with Jane Richardson (187, 266). Amy defends Harry against Sophy’s criticism simply because he is a good brother, to which Sophy replies, “…He is a good, kind brother, but I do think him vain, and I think he hardly knows the misery, the crime, to which indulged vanity may lead him” (266). Here Sophy shows herself to be the more level-headed of the three sisters, but it is also an interesting rhetorical technique to have the family criticize Harry’s actions right before he is revealed to have been murdered. The rest of the scene shows the family in extreme and understandable grief, but Gaskell reminds readers that Harry is not a particularly upright man, though Sophy uses similar language about vanity and flirting that the narrator uses to describe Mary Barton’s own actions. At his death, he cannot be seen as a villain but simply errant — readers are reminded that he is no angel but that his death is still a tragedy. This is in keeping with Gaskell’s portrayals of people as flawed but redeemable and of violence and suffering as tragic no matter who they affect. Yet, to have his sisters unknowingly speak ill of the dead creates an uncomfortable tension.

When the family enters crisis mode, Sophy plays a significant role in spreading the news and caring for the other family members. Once they receive the news from the nurse, she is assigned to tell Mr. Carson (269-271), and she later takes action when Mrs. Carson’s grief prevents her from recognizing the reality of Harry’s death (274-275). Mrs. Carson’s reaction certainly inspires readers to sympathy and compassion, but what about the sisters? Shortly after telling her father, he sends her back so that she does not see the body. The narrator states, “Miss Carson went. She could not face death yet” (271). However, after Mrs. Carson has seen Harry’s body and believes him to be simply sleeping, the narrator describes the sisters’ reactions: “Then the three sisters burst into unrestrained wailings. They were startled into the reality of life and death. And yet in the midst of shrieks and moans, of shivering and chattering of teeth, Sophy’s eye caught the calm beauty of the dead; so calm amidst such violence, and she hushed her emotion” (275). One particularly striking phrase in this passage is “They were startled into the reality of life and death” (275). The Carson family, until now, had four children survive past childhood. Readers have learned of the deaths of Tom Barton, Mary Barton’s unborn sibling, the Wilson twins, and Esther’s child, as well as the deaths of many adults, like Mrs. Mary Barton, Margaret’s parents, George Wilson, and Ben Davenport. While the surviving working class characters are certainly grieved by the loss of their friends and relative, “the reality of life and death” has been perpetually present for them throughout the novel. The reaction of grief does not differ between classes, but the regularity of it seems to plague the working class more than the employing class.

Gaskell seems to be using this scene to accomplish a wide variety of aims: to remind readers that Harry’s death is still tragic despite his flaws and to remind readers that death itself is a tragedy, no matter the class of the person who died. Using the sisters to illustrate these concepts and speak to these concepts works well to remind the readers to be sympathetic toward the Carsons in this moment, but why do they disappear after this? Where are they in the trial or in their father’s new approach to the working class at the end of the novel? Why do they appear to inspire a moment of difficult compassion only to fade completely from view during their father’s character growth? Their function within their scene raises some questions, but what is their function within the novel as a whole?


Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Broadview, 2000.

Nature in the Time of Plague

Mary Shelley uses variant meanings of the word “nature” throughout The Last Man. Even when she applies it to describing Nature as the surrounding world and its forces, its characterization varies. Nature is credited as a force behind the plague, while still being described as maternal. Nature simultaneously mocks and comforts the remnants of the human race. After becoming the last man, Lionel Verney describes Nature as “the enemy of all that lives,” but then the novel concludes with him venturing out into the dangerous nature that killed his last companions (460). What then is Nature’s relationship to humanity in the time of plague, particularly in Lionel Verney’s view?

Nature’s relationship with the plague seems to complicate the idea of mother nature. As the plague’s domain expands in the second book of the novel, Lionel explains the general human feeling about nature at this point: “Nature, our mother, and our friend, had turned on us a brow of menace. She shewed us plainly, that though she permitted us to assign her laws and subdue her apparent powers, yet, if she put forth but a finger, we must quake” (232). In this passage, the plague is operating at Nature’s will. Furthermore, her allowance of the plague is described in part as her reminder to humanity of her power. This passage implies a causal relationship between Nature and the plague. Furthermore, Lionel, as he characterizes the plague as having “entwined herself with [man’s] being,” suggests that man can no longer be considered “lord of the creation,” which implies that the plague is part of the creation and which now lords its authority over man (316). From these two passages, it seems as though Nature and Plague are cooperating to put humanity in its place. Though it is not entirely clear why Nature is now allowing retaliation in response to human dominion, these passages suggest that humanity’s understanding of and attempted control over nature are in some way related to the spread of the plague.

And yet, Nature is also a comforter. As Lionel and the small remnant of people traverse the Alps, Lionel and Adrian receive some comfort from Nature: “Nature, or nature’s favourite, this lovely earth, presented her most unrivalled beauties in resplendent and sudden exhibition.…Carried away by wonder, I forgot the death of man, and the living and beloved friend near me….An enthusiastic transport, akin to happiness, burst like a sudden ray from the sun, on our darkened life” (418-419). This sublime aesthetic moment does not actually resolve the problem facing humanity or have a lasting effect on their happiness, and yet this moment allows them to momentarily forget their pain. Soon after this moment and after more deaths in their small party, he writes again, “Nature, true to the last, consoled us in the very heart of misery. Sublime grandeur of outward objects soothed our hapless hearts, and were in harmony with our desolation” (424). In these passages, Nature positively affects those who witness her sublimity, though in one passage she causes people to forget their mourning and in another, she adds majesty to their tragic experiences. However, Nature’s abundance and beauty are also presented as causing further pain. As the seasons pass through the initial years of plague, Lionel portrays nature thus: “Nature was the same, as when she was the kind mother of the human race; now, childless and forlorn, her fertility was a mockery, her loveliness a mask for deformity” (329). While in some passages, this beauty is restorative, this passage describes the beauty as a haunting reminder of her own flourishing amidst human destruction.

These accounts of Nature’s relationship with humanity are not necessarily incompatible, as humanity’s relationship to nature is complex and consequently presented in seemingly contradictory ways, and much of literature acknowledges this tension. Still, it is unclear what Lionel’s overall view of nature is, especially as this account as depicted as his personal account written in Rome after he becomes the last man on earth (467). He is likely looking back on and re-interpreting his past experiences with Nature in light of his current understanding of what has happened to the human race. Despite witnessing Nature’s destruction of humanity through plague and stormy seas, Lionel, when remembering his encounters of the sublime, still imagines Nature as having the capacity to comfort the very people she has brought destruction upon. Because he views the plague as Nature’s instrument, what does it mean that he rejoices in the sublime even as he has seen firsthand the destruction Nature has caused? Furthermore, how does Lionel’s view of nature relate to the Romantic view of nature? With the autobiographical influences on the characters and interpretations relating to Mary Shelley’s views of Romanticism more broadly at this point her life, how are Shelley and her characters relating to nature?

Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Oxford UP, 2008.

Godfrey Cass’s Character and His Dealings with Molly Farren

The narrator in Silas Marner offers frequent commentary on Godfrey Cass’s thoughts and actions, while also continuing to portray him in a generally favorable and sympathetic light despite his failures as a father. One area of little direct narratorial commentary, though, is Godfrey’s relationship to his first wife. Godfrey’s thoughts about Molly are almost entirely negative. In her first introduction, Dunsey reveals her substance abuse, referring to her as Godfrey’s “drunken wife” and suggesting that she may one day overdose on laudanum and die (23-24). The narrator explains that Godfrey finds that Molly “became more odious to him every day” (29). In contrast, the narrator offers a more ambivalent depiction of Molly that allows for some sympathy despite an emphasis on her desire for vengeance and the problems of her opium addiction. Eliot’s narrator explains, “It is seldom that the miserable can help regarding their misery as a wrong inflicted by those who are less miserable. Molly knew that the cause of her dingy rags was not her husband’s neglect, but the demon Opium to whom she was enslaved, body and soul, except in the lingering mother’s tenderness that refused to give him her hungry child” (96). Throughout Chapter XII, Molly’s addiction and her desire to care for her child are at odds, and her vindictive nature is portrayed as somewhat justifiable.  She is not an endearing character, but her predicament and pain are portrayed as deserving of sympathy.

The narrator gives readers an interpretation of Molly that complicates the Cass brothers’ earlier narratives. How does the narrator’s reading of Molly shape readers’ interpretations of Godfrey Cass? He shows little to no sympathy for Molly, while the narration implies that the readers should. What of his responsibility to his wife? This question receives little direct attention from the narrator, but the narrator’s sympathetic portrayal of Molly gives cause for further analysis of Godfrey’s shortcomings as a husband to a woman suffering from addiction. Additionally, the few references to her after her death suggest varying levels of expected responsibility and varying levels of regret for the way Godfrey handled the situation.

It is Nancy Lammeter Cass who notes that the facts of the marriage between Godfrey and Molly and Molly’s death might be problematic when she tells Godfrey that the revelation of his paternity should happen over time “because she felt strongly the painful light in which Eppie must inevitably see the relation between her father and mother” (148). Though the specific reasons are not directly stated, the passage may imply that Eppie will recognize that her father’s absence and the circumstances of her mother’s death indicate an unhappy and loveless marriage. The Cass family sees this as undesirable because they want Eppie to join their family and a negative view of Godfrey’s behavior toward her mother could ruin their chances of parenthood. However, nothing in this passage directly suggests that Godfrey should have acted differently toward Molly.

When the narrator gives readers insight into Godfrey’s thoughts concerning the situation, he seldom considers his duties to his deceased wife and only focuses on how he can act honorably toward his child without revealing the undesirable marriage. His desire to marry Nancy is not seen as a dishonorable one, even though he is already married. The option of marital reconciliation with Molly is not suggested as a possibility and the question is only whether or not Molly will die soon enough for him to marry Nancy. Molly receives no sympathy from him and only serves as a complication. As he journeys toward the Stone-pits, he fears that she is actually alive. As he considers how he will act in either situation, the narrator notes, “Deeper down, and half-smothered by passionate desire and dread, there was the sense that he ought not to be waiting on these alternatives; that he ought to accept the consequences of his deeds, own the miserable wife, and fulfil the claims of the helpless child” and that he feels guilt that he feels compelled to take the irresponsible course (105). His main concern is his convenience and happiness, and the narrator makes his selfish reasons for his behavior apparent. Additionally, his sense of responsibility for Eppie seems entirely divorced of a sense of responsibility to Molly.

One moment does indicate a possible sense of responsibility to Molly, and though he does not fulfill his duty to her, as evidenced by her “pauper’s burial” and “unwept death,” he experiences some guilt (108). The description of Godfrey’s memory of viewing Molly’s body indicates the haunting that comes with regret: “He cast only one glance at the dead face on the pillow, which Dolly had smoothed with decent care; but he remembered that last look at his unhappy hated wife so well, that at the end of sixteen years every line in the worn face was present to him when he told the full story of this night” (105-106). This scene indicates no love for Molly, but at least the circumstances of her death have troubled him for as long as he kept the secret from others. In this passage, it seems that when he tells Nancy that Eppie is his daughter, he cannot forget Molly, which indicates some feeling of responsibility or regret.

From the passages relating to Godfrey’s relationship to his first wife and their child, the narrator reveals Godfrey’s flaws as father without making much of his flaws as a husband to his first wife. Yet, through the sympathetic portrayal of Molly, readers can determine that perhaps Godfrey was also not fair to her. The description of his final glance at his dead wife raises questions about the extent to which he felt responsibility for his wife, despite his repeated neglect. The text does not directly hold him responsible for what happened to Molly and does not directly fault him for his handling of his first marriage, but the few passages that refer to Molly do leave further questions about Godfrey’s character and the extent to which his actions towards his first wife should complicate his otherwise good nature.

Eliot, George. Silas Marner. Edited by Juliette Atkinson, Oxford UP, 2017.