“Living Encounters” and the Problem of Charity

Third Blog Post:

Anderson’s “Melodrama, Morbidity, and Unthinking Sympathy”

            Amanda Anderson’s chapter takes two of Gaskell’s novels, Ruth and Mary Barton, to explore the theme of the “fallen woman” and, at least in the case of Mary Barton, it intersects with the novel’s political concerns. She begins by noting “Gaskell’s recurrent ambivalence toward the workers she wants to help” (109), which manifests itself in both the in-novel depictions of characters such as John Barton and in the author’s extra-literary attitude toward reformist movements in her day. For the latter, Anderson draws a contrast with Dickens in particular. According to Anderson, Gaskell placed her hopes in individual charity rooted in the “actual encounter between living persons” (110), linking the suspicion of systemic or “depersonalized” reform to Unitarian belief and practice. I frankly don’t know enough about Victorian era Unitarianism to comment on the accuracy of this characterization. It does raise a question germane to the themes of this course, however. Within Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox contexts, the sources for conceptualizing both hospitality and charity arguably privilege precisely these “encounters between living persons.” The Scriptures that we examined earlier in the course featured biblical persons such as Abraham receiving the three Strangers in a highly personal manner, cooking for them, making his home available to them. This also reflects the Near Eastern cultural context standing behind the text, in which individual hospitality is highly prized. One might also think of moments in the Gospels—Mary and Martha’s frequent receptions of Jesus, the anonymous homeowner who makes the “upper room” available for Jesus to eat with his disciples, the wealthy women who support Jesus’s ministry out of their means, even Joseph of Arimathea’s donation of a tomb—that exemplify this sort of individualized, “face to face” charity. Jesus was nothing if not the “worthy poor.” On the other hand, the Hebrew prophets frequently called for a broader, more systemic approach to poverty. We rarely find prophets advocating for this or that poor person. Rather, they call on kings and those in authorityto address the conditions that create poverty in the first place. It is no accident that Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of quoting the prophet Amos.

The two streams, personal and systemic, run throughout Christian history as well. The traditional sources that we’ve examined so far have centered on the tales of saints and monks who received individual travelers (including a few who turned out to be far more than they seemed!). Charity in high and late medieval western Christianity was highly individualized as well. From about the fourteenth century on, it was strongly rooted in beliefs concerning merit and the afterlife. The explosive growth of ecclesial—and charitable—structures connected to the doctrine of purgatory has been identified by historians such as Eamon Duffy as thedefining characteristic of late medieval Christianity. “Charity” often meant endowing masses to be sung for suffering souls, who naturally were the worthiest of the poor (their very presence in purgatory rather than hell guaranteed that they were destined for salvation, eventually). Sir Thomas More authored a polemical treatise, “Supplication for Souls,” in 1529 that essentially argued that that to donate alms for departed souls was a far greater deed than relieving the hunger of bodies (early English evangelicals like John Frith and Simon Fish were arguing the opposite).  Social historians such as Carter Lindberg have also noted the increasing and occasionally violent tensions between pre-Reformation city councils (i.e. Strasbourg) and the clerical establishment precisely on this point: cities wanted to feed their hungry poor and were developing elaborate “poor relief” systems to accomplish it. The church wanted to succor souls (and, well, endow large clerical foundations). Which project would claim the territory’s limited resources?

This historic detour is my attempt to show that the tension that Gaskell experienced in the nineteenth century between “personal” and “systemic” approaches to poverty was not at all newin Christian thought. Indeed, the text of Mary Barton arguably serves as a forum in which this tension is negotiated. Anderson dwells at length on the ambivalent character of Esther. In traditional terms, she is “fallen,” the undeserving poor. Nonetheless, Gaskell has the virtuous Jem regret his paltry efforts at aiding her. Anderson attributes this to the nature of Esther’s character; her presence in the novel represents “the kinds of sympathetic encounters and acts of mutual cooperation that [Gaskell] believes can heal a class-divided social world” (119). On the other hand, the “melodramatic” tropes scripting Esther’s story essentially doom her; no amount of sympathy or individual action can ultimately recall her from her fallenness. She hovers as a sort of specter over the text, complicating the notion that personal encounters are sufficient for reform. Her burial side-by-side with John Barton—the novel’s spokesperson for systemtic and political action—becomes emblematic for the unresolved tension between the two approaches. Gaskell seems neither comfortable with fully endorsing Barton’s Chartist vision nor does she allow Esther to be “saved” (at least in a this-worldly sense). The novel’s conclusion may thus leave the reader questioning just what can be donefor the industrialized poor the author depicts. Anderson points to the “reconciliation” of Mr. Carson and Barton as embodying the problem. Carson recognizes to some extent his sins, and yet there is little suggestion that the fundamental system over which he presides will change. Meanwhile, Barton is still corpse (120).

Ultimately, I don’t believe that Gaskell “answers” the question of charity. Her novel wonderfully narrates its complexities, however. I should also add that I don’t think that “personal” and “corporate” charity must be in competition; a Christian ethic may and should embrace both. But it’s also helpful to recognize that the church has historically struggled with just how to conceptualize that balance. For example, the rise of “liberation” thought in Roman Catholic theology in the twentieth century and the initially quite negative reactions from some in the hierarchy (including a young Joseph Ratzinger) suggest that the tension remains with us. In our discussion of Mary Barton’s conclusion, I will be eager to explore how the novel presents these questions to us and how the text might serve as a resource for reflection.  It will also be worth asking how “charity” relates to hospitality—they are distinct concepts, and yet I doubt whether they can be wholly disentangled either.

Anvilicious Narm in Mary Barton?

With dramatic phrases and pauses, with rhetorical flourishes and sensational descriptions, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton veers dangerously close to that scorned genre, melodrama. Chapter twenty-eight, in particular (the chase after HMS John Cropper), is a fast-paced, emotional, adventuresome, high-stakes, life-and-death escapade full of tears and breathlessness. Similarly, the courtroom chapters stage scenes of sentimental theatricality climaxing in a last-minute entrance and a fainting woman. The novel wraps up with a deathbed confession and reconciliation, a long-delayed marriage for love, and the curing of blindness. These are sensational events indeed.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, melodrama is a work of literature that excites its audience “by exaggeration and sensationalism,” or, “More generally: any sensational incident, series of events, story, etc.; sensationalist or emotionally exaggerated behaviour or language; lurid excitement” (OED). With the exception of “lurid” excitement, these descriptions fit Mary Barton, particularly the chase scene. Chapter twenty-eight, “John Cropper, Ahoy!” is full of sensational diction. There is even a gothic tone to Mary’s fear when “a kind of nightmare dread and belief came over her, that every thing animate and inanimate was in league against her one sole aim and object of overtaking Will…. she sat silent with clenched hands…. But she was sickening all the time with nervous fear” (370). Here is the damsel in distress, motionless in a boat, at the mercy of men and nature. Yet the girl’s suffering is in the context of a high-speed inverted escape trope nearly as pulse-pounding as a “Follow that car!” chase scene in a modern heist movie. The little river-boat struggles to catch up with the ship, and “as they looked with straining eyes, … they saw her sails unfurled and flap in the breeze, till, catching the right point, they bellied forth into white roundness, and the ship began to plunge and heave, as if she were a living creature, impatient to be off” (371). Dramatic sensationalism is located in the elements, as the wind picks up, and in the vessels, as boat and ship compete against each other and against time, tide, and tempest. Such an unconventional vehicle chase is certainly an example of a sensational incident heightened by exaggeration.

Furthermore, not only the situation, but also Mary’s emotional actions during this hot pursuit are dramatized and sensationalized. Not content any longer to sit still and await the men’s initiative, “Mary stood up, steadying herself by the mast, and stretched out her arms, imploring the flying vessel to stay its course by that mute action, while the tears streamed down her cheeks” (371). Those outstretched arms, those tears streaming down cheeks, are the classic stuff of melodrama, as is the diction of what happens to Mary next. The captain shouts down to see what she wants, but “Her throat was dry; all musical sound had gone out of her voice; but in a loud harsh whisper she told the men her errand of life and death, and they hailed the ship” (372). The adjectives here are themselves melodramatic—dry, musical, loud, harsh—especially ‘musical,’ which hearkens back to the origins and etymology of melodrama as musical theatre. The captain’s harsh rebuff and Mary’s traumatized, religiously-tinged response also heighten the tension and enlarge the scale of ordinary interactions:

He swore a dreadful oath; he called Mary a disgraceful name; and he said he would not stop his ship for any one, nor could he part with a single hand, whoever swung for it. The words came in unpitying clearness with their trumpet-sound. Mary sat down, looking like one who prays in the death-agony. For her eyes were turned up to that Heaven, where mercy dwelleth, while her blue lips quivered, though no sound came. Then she bowed her head and hid it in her hands. (372)

This purple passage seems dangerously close to ham-handed bathos, and indeed “melodrama” is typically used as a term of insult, suggesting ineptitude on the part of the author or poor taste on the part of the reader. However, Mary Barton’s reception is not that of a dime-story bodice-ripper or cheap true-crime thriller. It is treated by academics as a serious work of literature and enjoyed by thoughtful readers as a lively but sophisticated novel. However, then, does it escape from being melodrama?

One possible feature that raises this novel above heavy-handed sentimentalism is Mary’s active, heroic role. She is not the standard, passive, damsel-in-distress of Gothic horror, macho Westerns, or lurid warning tales like The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall with its defenseless maidens and their infamous virgin bosoms “that rose heaving above the border of lace” (Lippard 73). Instead, Mary Barton is a proactive, sensible protagonist who makes plans and executes them in order to save her helpless lover and help her guilty father. I recently heard a very persuasive paper by my colleague Nichole Bouchard arguing that Mary Barton is a remarkable example of a nineteenth-century heroine who overcomes hysteria, manages the bodily symptoms of anxiety, and retains her wits under great strain (in the courtroom scene), and that Gaskell made this character choice at a time when most other writers were showing their female characters as victims of these very ailments. Perhaps such fortitude is what raises Mary Barton above melodrama.

There are other possibilities, of course. Perhaps Gaskell does not shy away from melodrama in this book, but rather shows that the genre has been unfairly maligned. Or, more subtly, she may use Mary Barton to reveal hypocrisy in the hearts of many academics, who claim to have exalted literary tastes, but who really like a cheap, page-turning, romantic beach novel as much as anybody else. Such a strategic move would be in keeping with Gaskell’s social agenda throughout the book, as she strives to arouse in middle-class readers sympathy with and understanding for their economically underprivileged neighbors. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Gaskell cleverly drawing her snobby, bourgeois audience into enjoyment of a much maligned, supposedly low-class genre.


Many thanks to that inestimable site of wisdom, TV Tropes, which I consulted freely while writing this post.

The Goodness of Grief in Mary Barton

When Mary Barton first learns of George Wilson’s death, it comes at the end of a litany of dying in the narrative—from her mother to Ben Davenport, the Wilson twins, and so many others we don’t witness whose mourning clothes Mary provides according to her trade. Gaskell writes of Mary, “Though not guarded from unnecessary sight or sound of death, as the children of the rich are, yet it had so often been brought home to her this last three or four months” (135). This implies that the frequent scenes of death and dying in Mary Barton are particular to Gaskell’s efforts to write a novel of the lower classes where premature death was an issue of injustice. But Gaskell frequently uses scenes of death and dying even in her narratives about the middle class. Margaret Hale in North and South and Molly Gibson in Wives and Daughters experience more than their fair share of grief. In fact, their encounters with death serve as signposts in the development of their characters as they mature into womanhood. Are these characters anomalies among their class? Might the same relationship between grief and character development be true for Mary Barton? Certainly there are other ways the young women in Gaskell’s novels come of age. All of them encounter public scorn and misunderstanding, the questioning of their character. They suffer the almost certain loss of the one they love because of their own stubbornness or silence. But these are purposeful plot devices. The heroines’ encounters with death, however, reflect something fundamental to the development of their characters.

The novel begins with death. “Mary Barton” is the name of both mother and daughter, and in the opening pages, a reader might wonder which of them the book’s title refers to. As the mother dies, the daughter Mary takes her place as the central figure in her household and in the reader’s attention. While we aren’t given any idea about the younger Mary’s familiarity with death at this point, we see she “mechanically helped the neighbor in all the last minute attentions to the dead” and checked her own mourning when “it flashed across her mind that her violence of grief might disturb her father” (52). If she is not already familiar with a deathbed, she is learning how to care for both the dead and the grieving through the death of her mother.

The novel names many small practices and attitudes associated with grief and death that suggest there are good and healthy ways to do both that might need to be learned. As seamstresses, both Mary and Margaret continually participate in at least one practical aspect of mourning by fitting out mourning dresses. Mourning clothes are considered a necessity, and they’re needed frequently. When Mary questions their relevance, Margaret tells her that the clothes “do good…in setting people (as is cast down by sorrow and feels themselves unable to settle to anything but crying) something to do” (82). This is a kind of education for Mary that will stand her in good stead a short while later, when she recovers from shared griefs by preparing widow’s weeds with an attitude “so busy and so glad over her task that she had, every now and then, to check herself in singing merry ditties” (112).

These mourning clothes are for Mrs. Davenport, whom Mary is asked to comfort after the death of her husband. Though Mary is unsure of what to do or say to the widow, she forgets herself in the practical work of empathy: “Mary forgot all purposed meeting with her gay lover, Harry Carson; forgot Miss Simmonds’ errands, and her anger, in the anxious desire to comfort the poor lone woman” (111). This encounter takes Mary out of herself and into the griefs of another. The things she forgets are petty, superficial, perhaps even sinful. Sharing Mrs. Davenport’s grief makes a better woman of her. Although the grieving widow is worth the novel’s attention for her own sake, and although the focus of this narrative is intended more broadly to show the ills of poverty and the carelessness of the upper classes, it is clearly also Gaskell’s intention to show the particular impact of the experience on Mary Barton. In the very next line, she observes of Mary: “Never had her sweet face looked more angelic, never had her gentle voice seemed so musical as when she murmured her broken sentences of comfort” (111). We are called to look at Mary’s beauty in the act of comforting the grieving, because it matters to our understanding of her character. Sharing in others’ suffering makes better people of us all.

But how might this relate to the novel’s aims as a whole? If Mary’s encounters with death help her to develop as a character, what do they do for the larger project of class critique? John Barton’s concerns with class divisions hindering empathy might help us here. In the opening scene of the novel, Barton clearly enunciates his grievance against the upper classes. At its heart is an objection to their carelessness about the lives and deaths of those below them: “If I am sick, do they come and nurse me? If my child lies dying, (as poor Tom lay, with his white wan lips quivering, for want of better food than I could give him), does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life” (40)? In light of the emphasis Gaskell gives to character development stemming from our care for the dying, Barton’s objections take on special significance. After all, if her characters fundamentally grow in maturity—even spiritual maturity—by tending to the dying and grieving, then by extension, those who avoid this essential act of empathy do damage to their own development of character and spiritual maturity. This is a heavy accusation to lay against the upper classes, which is perhaps why it is communicated as much in the particular character of Mary Barton as it is in the angry screeds of her righteously indignant father.

When Harry Met Mary: A Flirtation Without Narration

Despite Elizabeth Gaskell’s scene-heavy narrative style in Mary Barton, the flirtation between the novel’s eponymous heroine and her wealthy suitor, Harry Carson, is never directly narrated. It is alluded to during narrations of other scenes; Harry, for instance, anticipates being “in time to have a look and a smile from lovely Mary Barton” while Mr. Wilson petitions Mr. Carson for Mr. Davenport’s infirmary order (Gaskell 110). Mary, too, dwells upon her lover when they are apart, imagining the good she will be able to do when she is “Mrs. Harry Carson” (Gaskell 121). But the nature of their clandestine meetings—the topics of their conversation, the words and glances exchanged—are never directly recorded in the novel.

In fact, when Mary does speak directly about her flirtation with Harry Carson, it is to express her intention not to see him. First, this is a temporary arrangement during her father’s absence from Manchester. Mary says to Sally Leadbitter, the messenger between her and her suitor, “You must tell him I can’t come…I have said I won’t meet him while father is away, and I won’t” (Gaskell 137).

When Mary next speaks directly about this flirtation, it is during her rejection of Harry’s marriage proposal. In the only narrated scene between Harry and his beloved, Mary says, “I have made up my mind to have nothing more to do with you” (Gaskell 186). When Harry protests and asks her meaning, Mary insists, “I mean, sir,…that I will never speak to you again, at any time, after to-night” (Gaskell 186).

As a result, the reader’s impression of the flirtation between Harry and Mary differs from the impression left on Mary’s neighbors and friends. Upon learning of Harry Carson’s murder and Jem’s arrest, Mrs. Wilson calls Mary a “dirty hussy” for her conduct with Harry, and even Margaret is “surprised and disappointed” by Mary’s behavior (Gaskell 318). But perhaps no one is as hard on Mary as she is on herself. The narrator records the “self-reproach gnawing at her heart” and even says that Mary felt “she deserved it all” for having flirted with Harry Carson—that is, deserved the imprisonment and likely death facing the supposed killer (Gaskell 297). While the community understands Mary’s relationship to Harry as one of careless, condemnable flirtation, the reader perceives it as one of reluctance and even resistance because of the lack of narrative attention devoted to their time together.

Why does Gaskell allow this disparity between the community’s and the reader’s impressions of their relationship? What is the intended effect of withholding direct narration of the pair’s interactions, and thus, leaving the reader with a vision of their relationship that is much more innocent than other characters’ vision of it?

One effect of withholding narration of Mary’s and Harry’s flirtation is a necessary lack of readerly attachment to Harry as a character. We do not see him when he is tender and winning—we see him only at his worst, when he is stubborn in the face of Mary’s refusal, or haughty in response to Jem’s confrontation. As a result, the reader is free to respond to Harry’s murder, not principally with grief for him, but with concern for his accused killer, Jem. If Gaskell had narrated Harry’s kinder moments—his soft words to Mary, his presentation of the bouquet of roses—the reader may well have been off-put by Mary’s excessive worry for Jem and failure to mourn for her murdered sweetheart.

Indeed, another consequence of Gaskell’s refusal to narrate the flirtation is a preservation of the reader’s sympathy for Mary. Because the reader does not believe Mary to be at fault in any significant way for the murder of Mr. Carson—that is, we do not have any reason to believe that her flirtation with Harry is passionate enough to justify murder by a jealous lover—our sympathy for her is maintained amidst (and perhaps, even heightened by) Mrs. Wilson’s accusing monikers and Margaret’s sidelong glances. By refraining from any direct narration of Mary’s and Harry’s interactions, Gaskell ensures that Mary remains an eminently sympathetic character after Harry’s death.

I feel the need to clarify a point made in the previous paragraph. I have said that Mary’s conduct with Harry does not “justify murder by a jealous lover”, as if any conduct, no matter how forward or suggestive, could justify it. I don’t mean that a murder driven by jealousy would be morally justified if spurred by the demonstrably wayward affections of the beloved, but rather, that the murder would be causally related to those affections in a way that the reader could understand. And even this claim—that the reader might hold Mary accountable to some extent if Jem had murdered Harry because of her conduct—is dubious and highly dependent on the reader’s context. Perhaps a Victorian reader would have assigned more culpability to Mary if her flirtation had induced Jem to murder Harry. To the twenty-first century reader (or, at least, to me), such assignment of blame is unthinkable.


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.

Crucifiers and Crucified: Questioning Christological Identity in Mary Barton

For much of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, religion seems to play a fairly marginal role in the novel and in most of the characters’ lives (with the notable exception of Aunt Alice). However, in the climax of the story, this relative silence on religion is, in a way, identified as the primary source of the societal and personal problems at the heart of the novel. In the moving final exchange between John Barton and Mr. Carson, both men see each other anew through the Christian gospel and discover that gospel anew through one another. After this event, the reader, looking back at the novel, is led to read many of the characters through a Christological lens, identifying some characters with Christ through their suffering and some characters, often the same characters, with Christ’s crucifiers through their violence or neglect of others. This crucifier/crucified duality transcends the boundaries between the rich and the poor, between the workers and the masters, showing Christ and thus humanity in all of them. However, the titular Mary Barton does not seem to fit into this paradigm of crucifier/crucified as tidily as many other characters, particularly the male characters. This leads to the question of whether this Christological connection is reserved for male characters, while female characters enter into the Passion of the novel differently or whether Mary too can be read, in a subtler way, as being linked to Christ in her suffering.

After Mr. Carson states that he would rather bear the burden of unforgiveness himself then extend forgiveness to his son’s murderer, Gaskell writes: “all unloving, cruel deeds are acted blasphemy” (342). This is what John Barton has come to understand in the light of the murder he has committed, especially after witnessing Mr. Carson’s anguished suffering, and it is a truth Mr. Carson realizes, to some degree, after this first brutal exchange between himself and John Barton. Carson’s revelation is inspired by the example of a little girl forgiving the rough young lad who knocked her over and especially her words “He did not know what he was doing,” which send him back to the gospel account of Christ’s salvific suffering (345). In thus seeing Christ through the little girl’s action, Carson comes to see Barton’s humanity through Christ, finding the strength to forgive the dying Barton in his final moments. It might seem arrogant to say that Carson sees himself linked to Christ through his own suffering, thus extending forgiveness to Barton who has inflicted that suffering on him, but the words through which he offers forgiveness simultaneously recognize his own need for forgiveness of trespasses: “God be merciful to us sinners.—Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us!” (346). Carson’s later actions reveal that he has not only seen himself as linked to Christ through his suffering but has also seen others, the poor whose needs he has neglected, as equally human by virtue of their shared connection to Christ through suffering. Thus, Carson and Barton are united as crucifiers and crucified alike.

In light of this climactic revelation, we are led to read Jem Wilson through a Christological lens as well. Jem, innocent and falsely accused, standing trial before a hostile court, is characterized particularly by his silence, much like Christ before Pilate and Herod. Indeed, Mary interprets Jem’s gaze as questioning, “Am I to do for what you know your—” (306). The unfinished words her are presumably “father did,” but the ambiguity suggests the possibility of connecting Jem’s sacrifice to the more broadly substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.

So then what about Mary? She is our protagonist after all, so it might seem odd that we do not seem to be clearly led to locate her in this Christological framework, which comes to almost define the novel and in which each of the major male characters can be situated. There are a few different possible answers to this seeming issue.

One possibility is that Mary is actually linked thematically to Christ through her suffering after all. Even as Jem acts as a Christ-type in court, Mary is arguably sacrificing herself for him in turn. Mary’s successful efforts to prove Jem’s alibi, push her to a point of physical and psychological exhaustion that seriously threatens her life after the trial. While Jem, unlike Christ, goes free after his trial, it seems that Mary comes close to fulfilling the Passion by dying, and her recovery from that state of near-death resembles, perhaps, a kind of resurrection.

However, Mary’s return to life can, probably more compellingly, be read as a rebirth into new life. To be sure, this too is a kind of resurrection, a resurrection of the believer with Christ in traditional Christian theology, but the language of new birth is associated with the role of the Christian rather than Christ, the saved rather than the savior. When Mary first wakes up after her long feverish delirium, Gaskell writes, “Her mind was in the tender state of a lately born infant’s” (324). Gaskell continues to describe Mary in this way, remarking later that “she smiled gently as a baby does” and describing her gaze as “infantine” (325). Clearly, Mary’s recovery and return to life are linked to a rebirth and, given the religious reading suggested by the climax, it seems natural to link that language to the idea of spiritual rebirth in Christian soteriology.

Might Mary then be thematically related to one or both of the two major Mary’s of the gospel accounts: Mary, Mother of God, and Mary Magdalene? Mary’s appearance in the court is compared not to any madonnas but instead to Guido’s Beatrice Cenci, an interesting connection in the ways that it positions Mary as a potential victim of her father and of a detached aristocracy. However, the choice to describe Mary’s melancholy beauty in terms of the Guido painting, when plenty of madonnas could fit the bill, suggests that the Marian connection is not one Gaskell was particularly pursuing. Mary Magdalene, however, seems to offer a more promising parallel. After Jem’s arrest, many try to cast Mary as sexually wanton. She is judged and denied grace by others, linking her perhaps to the reputed backstory of Mary Magdalene. This, in conjunction with the emphasis on Mary’s baby-like birth into new life, might seem to connect Mary to Christ in a more removed and more passive way, linking her to a woman adjacent to Christ rather than to Christ himself.

However, we might be falling into something of a false dichotomy if we reach this conclusion. Carson’s and Barton’s connection to Christ through their suffering and to his crucifiers through their cruelty does not conflict in any way with their simultaneous identities as believers, being born again into new life. To the contrary, all of these aspects of identity are part and parcel of being a believer, and thus we are not constrained to choose one of these several options for reading Mary’s identity. Mary can be linked at once to Mary Magdalene and to Mary Magdalene’s redeemer, just as Mary Magdalene herself was before Mary Barton ever entered the scene.


Works Cited:

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Ware, UK, Worsworth Editions, 2012.

Maggie as a Destructive Force

Eliot seems to associate destruction with Maggie Tulliver throughout Mill on the Floss. From the beginning, Maggie unintentionally breaks things or treats them with violence. She accidentally kills Tom’s rabbits and knocks over his house of cards. She pushes Lucy into the mud and impulsively cuts off her own hair. As a child, her anger is taken out on a Fetish, which “was now entirely defaced by a long career of vicarious suffering” (27). She later internalizes this anger and suffering, which is destructive to herself. When she hugs Tom, Eliot writes that, “Maggie hung on his neck in a rather strangling fashion” (31). At the very least, her relationship with Tom is characterized by violence and destruction. However, because Eliot focuses on Maggie’s point of view in the novel, her acts of destruction come through as accidental acts of love. This destructive and unruly tendency puts her almost as an “other” and as an outcast.

Later, as she begins to internalize such destruction, she begins to deny herself. When she is unable to deny herself, her relationships suffer. Although it was possible that, because Mill on the Floss is focused on Maggie’s point of view, we do not know much about the relationships of other characters, it seems as if Maggie’s relationships are the most tumultuous. Aside from the massive quarrel she has with Tom over Philip, she does not appear very close to her other relatives. She tears apart the relationship between Lucy and Stephen—albeit not in a malicious way—and then her own relationship with Stephen disintegrates. This of course causes a rift between herself and Lucy and, of course, Philip. Although Maggie did not act destructively intentionally, she still manages to destroy relationships around her. This obviously leads to the downfall of her reputation and her ostracism from society again.

In the very end, Maggie has mended nearly all of her relationships except for arguably the most important one—her relationship with her brother. In trying to fix this relationship—the one most characterized by violence–she dies an untimely and almost violent death. Before she dies, Eliot describes her as having, “eyes of intense life” (482), which points to the extremes of emotion that lead to multiple instances of destruction. Even though she is reunited with Tom and Eliot seems to imply it was good for them to be united in death, I feel that her untimely death was characteristic of her destructive force.

Are gender roles the central theme of Mill on The Floss?

Among the many themes in the book “The Mill on the Floss”, the one that seems to be more prominent is the one about gender roles of the 19th century. One might even consider this book to be a social critique about how these imposed gender roles affect both boys and girls. The author tells us through Maggie and Tom’s example how gender roles go against people’s nature, that they are extremely exaggerated and narrow, that they are unreasonable and, how they have the capability to enhance negative traits and to change people for the worse.

In the novel one can see many examples on how the gender norms and expectations seem to go against both Maggie and Tom’s desires and personality. We have many instances where Maggie is forced to quiet down her opinions even though they are morally correct, like when the family decided to curse Mr. Wakem in their Bible and when she pleaded for them to stop she was reproofed with a “Quiet down Maggie.” From Tom(P.291). Tom on the other hand is often described in the novel as being awkward and he often has difficulty expressing himself like Maggie. When he grows up, the pressure of the house is set on his shoulders upon the sickness of his father, and he is expected to behave and act accordingly like the man of the house. However, his lack of confidence and the pressure of this duty only made him miserable because he had to force himself into that role: “One day was like another, and  Tom’s interest in life, driven back and crushed on every side, was concentrating itself into the one channel of ambitious resistance to misfortune.”(p.297)

The author also makes these gender notions seem exaggerated with phrases like “she’s twice as ‘cute as Tom. Too cute for a woman I’m afraid”(p. 56) perhaps to make the readers of those times realize how silly the gender role expectations truly were. Likewise she makes these norm seem unreasonable like in the case of Mr. Tulliver who chose his wife “ ‘cause she was a bit weak, like; for I wasn’t agoin’ to be told the right o’ things by my own fireside”(p. 64) and in a way back fires. If Mrs. Tulliver would have been more stronger and clever she would had stopped Mr. Tulliver into “going to law” and they would have not ended in poverty. Furthermore, when their situation does come to that, Mrs. Tulliver is not much moral support and ends up wallowing in her own self-pity.

Additionally, one of the most important examples on how said gender roles were illogical is the education of Tom and Maggie. According to the novel, rather than being at school, Tom wanted to be “a substantial man like his father” he wanted to ride, to hunt, and to follow his father’s line of business (p.169), but because Mr. Tulliver wanted him to be a lawyer and to have a more prosperous life as himself Tom was forced into an education which in the end did not help him at all. Maggie, who wanted desperately for an education of her own and to help her family with money was denied such privilege because of her sex. Hence, when poverty came about them they were both miserable in their forced situation; Maggie feeling helpless and Tom having “to carry a ton weight on his back.”(p.287).

Finally, there is a moment in which Maggie reflects on her situation and how  easy it would be for her to fall into a state of bitterness and resentment if it were not for her strong emotions and moral convictions (p.308) which are characteristics that were not deemed favorable or feminine. So one can say that these gender roles almost made her into her aunt Glegg in a way. In Tom’s case the expectations placed upon him because of these gender roles basically heighten his most negative characteristics and made him into someone with “no pity: you have no sense of your own imperfections and your own sins. It is a sin to be hard; it is not fitting for a mortal –for a Christian. You are nothing but a Pharisee. You thank God for nothing but your own virtues—you  they are great enough to win everything else. You have not even a vision of feelings by the side of which your shining virtue are mere darkness!” (p.361) as Maggie says.

In conclusion, the author critiques various aspects of her society, but her clear and varied examples of the notions and expectations of gender make them one of the central and most important themes throughout the novel.

The Setting of the Home in Mary Barton

In her industrial novel Mary Barton, author Elizabeth Gaskell effectively uses a realist setting of home life through imagery and diction so as to illustrate the class distinction of the owners. Throughout the novel, Gaskell guides the reader through the homes of the Bartons, Davenports, and Carsons to demonstrate the class to which each house belongs. In the Barton’s home specifically, this realistic and vivid description of home life depicts the effect of the strained economy on the working class through the changes that the indoor endures.

Initially, the Barton home is described as comfortable and in little want. When entering, the family brings life into the house, shown when “Mrs. Barton lighted a dip by sticking it in the fire…on hospitable thoughts intent” (Gaskell 14). The reader enters with them, now able to see that “the room was tolerably large, and possessed many conveniences,” such as “a longish window, with a broad ledge,” “blue-and-white check curtains, which were now drawn,” and “two geraniums, unpruned and leafy, which stood on the sill” (Gaskell 14). This ample imagery rhetorically provides a realistic portrayal of the home. The reader is almost privy to this home tour through its vividness of detail. The specifics of the Barton’s home even go so far as to describe that “resting against the wall, was a bright green japanned tea-tray…[on which] the fire-light danced merrily” and “gave a richness of colouring to that side of the room” (Gaskell 14). The diction of “bright green,” “fire-light,” and a “richness of colouring” all contribute to the happy and illuminated sense of home life. The further claim that “the place seemed almost crammed with furniture (sure sign of good times among the mills)” explores the monetary consequences of indoor decoration. This description changes, however, as the novel continues and the economy’s poor state affects those in the industrial working-class realm. As the story progresses, the house is “dingy and comfortless” (Gaskell 109). Gaskell recalls the past, noting that “the house wanted the cheerful look it had had in the days when money was never wanted to purchase soap and brushes, black-lead and pipe-clay” (Gaskell 109). Through exploring the physical changes in the home, she also aids the political plot in the narrative by illustrating the direct effect of the increasing poverty. Even the bright nature of the past is sorely missed, as now “there was not even the dumb familiar home-friend, a fire” (Gaskell 109).

Gaskell’s use of setting to advance the invocation of sympathy in the reader is well skilled. I would love to further explore how deeply the setting of the indoor home life specifically influences this rhetorical goal, as well as how it speaks to the characterization of the owners. The contrast of the dynamic portrayal of the Barton house would be interesting to contrast between the two ends of the spectrum, with the Davenport and Carson homes respectively.

Mary’s Development and Gaskell’s Call to Action

Written during a time of an intense economic downfall, many authors used the Industrial novel to inform the upper classes of the need for societal reform, and Gaskell is no different. In her novel, Mary Barton, Gaskell depicts the lives of a few members of the working class in an attempt to educate the upper classes of the issues the working class experiences throughout their lives. Although many of Gaskell’s characters endure dramatic transformations as the book progresses, I find Mary’s development to be the most intriguing because she ends up becoming a representation of the transformation Gaskell urges her audience to make.

Early on, it was clear that Mary was wrapped up in her own little world. Like her aunt Esther, she had ambitions of one day becoming rich. This is evidenced when the narrator states, “So with this consciousness she had early determined that her beauty should make her a lady; the rank she coveted the more for her father’s abuse; the rank to which she firmly believed her lost Aunt Esther had arrived” (Chapter 3, pg. 58). Mary’s desire to become “a lady” parallels that of the desires of the upper class. In a world where the working class struggles to maintain subsistence, the upper classes seem rather self-absorbed, consumed by a desire to either maintain their status or climb even further up the socio-economic totem pole.

Mary maintains her egocentricity until a pivotal point in the novel hits, which is when she realizes that she loves Jem, a member of the working class, and not Harry, a factory owner. In many ways, Mary’s newly recognized love for Jem has given her a reason to return to virtue. This love later allows Mary to serve others even when she is under fire. This is best depicted in a scene where Mary, after being kicked out of Mrs. Walton’s home, comes across a homeless young boy and decides to feed him:

“She stood an instant, diverted from the thought of her own grief by the sight of his infantine gladness; and then bending down and kissing his smooth forehead, she left him, and sought to be alone with her agony once more” (Chapter 20, pg. 297).

Despite her spirits being low, Mary moves from an egocentric mindset to a philanthropic mindset. Although a member of the working class, Mary gives up what little resources she has to provide for someone in need of her help.

Mary’s transition from a self-absorbed, materialistic character to a kind, loving one depicts the change Gaskell hopes to inspire in her readers. Gaskell’s decision to have Mary undergo the transition she does provides the reader with a clear message: although we may never be able to make every person in the working class rich, perhaps we owe it to them to help them make their lives more bearable by first having love in our hearts and compassion for their situation.

What an Omniscient Narrator Can do for a Love Story

The narrative voice in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton is one of the main aspects that makes this novel stand out so much to me. I have always loved an omniscient narrator, and the narrator in this novel seems to know everything about everyone. From my point of view, the narration is pretty consistent throughout the novel in regards to viewpoint. Sometimes the narrator even gives her own opinion. For example, in chapter eight, the narrator seems to know everything that is going on in Mary’s head during an interaction with Jem, “She was very cunning, I am afraid. She pretended to read diligently, and not to listen to a word that was said, while in fact she heard all sounds, even Jem’s long, deep sighs, which wrung her heart” (Gaskell 79). In this passage, the narrator knows Mary through and through. She seems to be in Mary’s mind and knows her exact motivations and confusing thoughts about Jem. However, she definitely does not agree with Mary’s actions. Although this all-knowing, nameless narrator sees Mary, she is also quite critical of her, as seen by the fact that she calls her cunning and says it instills fear in her.

Although the narrator seems to be harsh on Mary in certain instances, she also shows understanding for her situation. “…how sorely Mary’s heart ached; for more and more the fell certainty came on that her father was the murderer! She struggled hard not to dwell on this conviction; to think alone on the means of proving Jem’s innocence…” (Gaskell 236). I get a more sympathetic vibe from the narrator at this point in the story. I think that the narrator is harsh on Mary when she is having conflicting thoughts about Jem, but once she decides to help him and feels more loving towards him, the narrator starts to be more positive towards her. This leads me to draw the conclusion that the narrator is subtly a pretty big fan of Jem and has been rooting for him.

Jem is a character who stirs up a lot of sympathy in me personally, and I think that is because of both how the narrator portrays him and also how she portrays Mary. Mary is so back and forth with Jem for awhile and it really makes me feel for him. The narrative voice in this novel is the main reason we can see just how indecisive Mary is. On the other hand, Jem loves Mary and always has. It seems to be more black and white for him, while for her it is just messy and confusing. “Her heart began to despair, too, about Jem. She feared he had ceased to love her; and she – she only loved him more and more for his seeming neglect” (Gaskell 188). Bringing my personal experiences into play here, I know what it is like to have someone want you more only when you stop wanting them. It is quite aggravating. This is one of the main reasons I am so sympathetic with Jem in his love story with Mary. The number one reason we as readers are able to see the raw emotions displayed in this love story is because of the narration technique. The narrator sees Mary’s raw thoughts, her confusion, and her indecisiveness about Jem and showcases it for the reader. Omniscient narration, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to tell a riveting story like this one.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Choice of Narrative Voice

The narrative voice in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton uses a technique that never allows the audience to fully experience the emotional range of Gaskell’s characters.  The feelings of tragedy, suffering, joy and triumph are present, but they linger just beyond the reader’s grasp.  This results in our narrator sounding like a tourist, remaining on the outside of the culture of the Manchester working class.  To further remove the audience, the narrator halts the action of the story to reassure the reader that the characters possess human feelings and that we should sympathize with them because of the complexity of their situation (342).

The question must be asked, why did Gaskell choose to use a detached third-person narrative voice?  Was there a specific reason that she chose to not tell the story from the perspective of one of the main characters?  How different would the story have been told or perceived by readers if the narrative voice belonged Mary or John Barton?

Elizabeth Gaskell felt that the working class and upper class were “bound to each other by common interest,” and commented on the frustration and hopelessness felt by the working class.  She writes that they “seem to me to be left in a state, wherein lamentations and tears are thrown aside as useless, but in which the lips are compressed for curses, and the hands clenched and ready to smite.”  She strongly believed that both groups were dependent on each other and essentially wanted the same thing.  They wanted dignity and freedom, as all humans do.  Her fear was one of impending doom, a reckoning alluded to in the final lines of her preface in which she refers to “events which have so recently occurred among a similar class on the Continent.” She also recognized that they had no voice and would not be heard by her peers.  She refers to them as “dumb people,” with no voice, and she feels that she must “give some utterance to the agony” which they must feel.

The audience for her work would have been the middle and upper class.  Using a narrative voice removed from the characters facilitates, for the readers of her time, an easier approach to the challenging material that Gaskell presents.  Being shown the horrific conditions of the poor working class from their perspectives may have been too much to stomach or believed to have been twisted by the perspective of the sufferer.

Gaskell attempts to achieve much in her novel.  By showing the social injustice suffered by the working class, she intended to spark conversation and hopefully enact change.  The method in which she takes up the mantle can certainly be challenged, but her intentions seem pure.  Ultimately her goal was to present an honest picture of the working class, and she seems to succeed at that.

Female Virtue

Mary Barton contains a motif of female virtue, which is reflected in Mary and her aunt Esther. As discussed in class, during Gaskell’s time, women were seen as the moral guard of men. Therefore, Esther’s status as a street walker was most likely looked down upon or even condemned. Her failure to uphold this standard for women has tragic repercussions in the novel.  In fact, Esther’s plight is a worst-case scenario of what could happen to Mary. She becomes destitute, is rejected by society, and comes to see herself as repulsive and fallen as well. “How can I keep her from being such a one as I am; such a wretched, loathsome creature” (125). She blames herself for Jem’s incarceration and believes that she is responsible for Mary’s infatuation with being rich. The idea of females as moral guards also explains why  the violent treatment towards Esther is overlooked. John “gripped her arm….and dragged her, faintly resisting, to the nearest lamppost” before passionately shaking her and then pushing her to the ground (124-5). Esther is then arrested for disorderly vagrancy. It is clear that morally fallen women are judged much more harshly than men. In fact, the men who provide demand for prostitutes are not mentioned at all. She also functions as a voiceless character who gets no redemption. John Carson and John Barton are both redeemed in the end: John confesses to murdering Harry and Carson forgives him, having come to an understanding of the losses the poorer classes suffer constantly. However Esther, dies without any sort of redemption or happy ending.

The same duties of female virtue are pushed onto Mary. Jem says that Mary may hear he has become a criminal, but she will have no right to blame him because, “it’s your cruelty that will have made me what I feel I shall become.” While this was not necessarily approved of in the nineteenth century, Glaskell again shows the audience that women are socially obligated to “save” men. The idea of women keeping men out of trouble is also seen when Jane Wilson faults Mary at first when Jem is arrested, although Mary had no idea what was happening. She blames Mary for the suspicion placed on Jem. “Folk say…that for the sake of such as you, my precious child shot yon chap” (226). Despite Mary having turned Jem down, Jane Wilson still believes she is a “vile, flirting quean” who caused Jem’s arrest (227). This reinforces the idea that women have the power to cause men to go astray. However, Glaskell does invert this trope by having Mary eventually save Jem through providing an alibi, rather than by being his moral safeguard.

I believe Glaskell was attempting to question the idea that women must save men morally. Through Esther, she showed how the standards for women caused Esther’s unhappy demise while providing a happier ending for Mary, who subverted the trope of women guarding men.


John Barton as Bathsheba

As a result of Elizabeth Gaskell’s religious background, Mary Barton is full of biblical allusions. For example, the relationship between the rich and the poor echoes the story of David and Bathsheba. David, as king, has everything he could want, including women, yet he sees a married woman bathing and succumbs to temptation by sleeping with her. The factory masters have endless wealth, but they take advantage of their workers by providing meager wages and working conditions. After describing John Barton’s suffering as opposed to that of the masters, the narrator states, “The contrast is too great. Why should he alone suffer from bad times?” (55). The word “contrast” emphasizes the extremities of wealth and poverty. John Barton, along with other workers, suffer “alone” while the masters cling to stability.

After David has an affair with Bathsheba, she becomes pregnant. David sends for her husband, Uriah, who is a soldier, under the pretense of a reward, so everyone will think the child is Uriah’s. John Barton, along with other delegates from the factory workers, goes to London to speak to Parliament about the plight of their class. When he later recounts their rejection, he states, “Th’ morning of taking our petition we had such a breakfast as th’ Queen herself might ha’ sitten down to. I suppose they thought we wanted putting in heart” (145). The reference to the Queen suggests that the upper class, for possibly the first time, treats Barton as an equal, but this treatment is a bribe, which the condescension of the final phrase emphasizes. One of the workers’ main complaints is that they are starving to death, so Parliament uses a meal to assuage their anger and mask the sins of the masters.

Just as Uriah refuses to lay with Bathsheba when David sends him home, the men are unable to eat “when they [think] o’ them at home, wives and little ones, as had, may be at that very time, nought to eat” (145). Uriah will not sleep inside his house because his fellow soldiers are still at war. A key difference is that the workers start to eat. Unlike Uriah’s situation, which is a matter of comfort, the meal is a matter of life and death, but they cannot continue to eat when they remember their families are still starving. The lower class therefore displays a greater understanding of the hardships of others than the upper class ever does.

Because neither Uriah nor the workers succumb to the temptations used to oppress them, their superiors sentence them to death. David has Uriah sent to the front lines and orders the rest of the army to retreat. The masters similarly leave the workers behind to die by ignoring their requests. After John Barton dies, Job Leigh explains that they “kept him at arm’s length, and cared not whether his heart was sorry or glad; whether he lived or died, – whether he was bound for heaven or hell” (471). The masters work to maintain distance, in this case “arm’s length,” between the classes while the workers try to cross that divide. The problem is that the masters do not care about the fate of the poor, so they do nothing to help them. Instead, they make it impossible for them to work to provide for their families then criticize them for their poverty.




Accepting Kindness

Kindness is a big focus for Elisabeth Gaskell in her novel Mary Barton. In fact, it is the main point she tries to make, with Job Legh telling Mr. Carson “If we saw the masters try for our sakes to find a remedy… [even if they] could only say, ‘Poor fellows, our hearts are sore for ye;…’ – we’d bear up like men through bad times” (474). Here Job is asserting that all the poor want from the upper classes is kindness and sympathy. Kindness is used in other ways throughout the novel though, with the poor helping each other. In this Gaskell ends up showing that it is just as important to accept the kindness of others as it is to give it out.

Gaskell establishes both John and Mary Barton as kind individuals willing to help their fellow men. When Wilson comes to ask John for money to help the dying Mr. Davenport, John asserts he has no money. After he takes a bit of food to the suffering family, however, he goes and gathers up all the belongings he can spare and “pawned them for five shillings” (98). Even in the beginning when he said he had no money to spare, he was still willing to spare some food for the suffering family. Then, upon seeing the extreme case of the Davenports, he went and sold what he could to help them. This shows a kindness and willingness to help, something that Mary also shares.

When Mary hears about the murder of the younger Mr. Carson, she is distraught mainly because she suspects Jem of being the murderer. On her way home after hearing this, she runs across a hungry boy on the road who asks for food. At first she claims that “hunger is nothing” and rushes past, but then “her heart upbraided her… and she hastily entered her door and seized the scanty remnant of food which the cupboard contained, and she retraced her steps” to go give the food to the boy (296-297). Mary is shown here to be kind of heart as well, but both she and her father have trouble accepting kindness in return.

Job says “John Barton was not a man to take counsel with people” showing that he did not get advice from others (470). He also did not accept money from his union, wishing it to go to other families instead. So when he was the one in need, he did not get help, he just retreated further into himself. Mary has the same inclination. When Jem is considered to be a murderer, she feels that she has to clear his name and that she has to do it all by herself. In this mind set, Margaret offers Mary money to help Jem. Mary does accept it, but reluctantly taking it “for Jem”, but not even taking all the money offered (333). This causes Margaret to expound upon the idea of kindness.

Margaret claims that we should say ‘let others do unto you, as you would do unto them” (333). She asserts that helping others can make one happy and that depriving them of the ability to help hurts them. This shows a bit of where the Bartons have been going wrong. John thinks he has to do things by himself, but that only makes him more irritable and angry towards the world, to the point of even hitting his daughter. Mary runs around trying to save Jem only to end up fainting at his trial from exhaustion and needing to be tended to by strangers. Gaskell seems to be saying that, while the upper class does need to step up and help the poor, the poor also need to accept the help and perhaps even ask for it, if not from the unhelpful lawmakers than at least from their neighbors.

Kindness is shown throughout Mary Barton, and the intricacies of it help to show not only that the poor are kind to each other and that the rich should be kind to them too, but also that they need to accept kindness so that they don’t end up getting hurt in the end.