The Second Fall: Fallen Women

A key feature of the novel is character development. The typical development is a positive change. The character learns something from his struggle in the plot and improves. The following novels use a downward character progression to examine the character of the fallen woman. In this application, society perceives that a previously innocent woman loses her purity. After this shift, society rejects her. Mill on the Floss, Mary Barton, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles explore the character of the fallen woman. Mill on the Floss depicts Maggie as a fallen woman. When her brother rejects her, she searches for affection in the wrong people. Her brother condemns her, and society upholds his decision. She can only find redemption in the form of forgiveness and affection through death. In Mary Barton, the fallen woman is a side character of the novel. Esther sees herself as a lady. When she falls in love with a soldier, she thinks she will attain that vision, but he does not marry her. Instead, he leaves her behind with an ill child. She turns to prostitution to support herself and her child. Her child dies, and she escapes through alcohol. As a side character, she serves as warning for Mary. Although she saves Mary, she still has to die in order to be reunited with her family. Tess of the D’Urbervilles explores the lack of a woman’s choice in her fate as a fallen woman. Tess’s family puts their future in her hands by expecting her to provide for them through marriage. They send her to live with a woman, whom they believe to be a long-lost relative. The woman’s son, Alec, fails to seduce Tess, so he rapes her. She later has a child who dies. Alec ensures her fate as a fallen woman without any fault of her own.

In Mill on the Floss, Maggie faces the plight of the fallen woman without committing any true sexual misconduct. As a child, “Maggie was always wishing she had done something different” (Eliot 95). Maggie struggles to find the balance between her identity and societal pressures. Throughout the novel, Maggie chooses one over the other, and Tom reprimands her. Either way, she can never live up to his expectations in order to receive his affection. While attaining Tom’s affection remains her goal, she looks for other forms of affection, such as friendship with Philip or romance with Stephen. Both lead Tom to view her as a fallen woman and turn against her. After Tom learns of Maggie’s walks in the woods with Philip, he says, “If your feelings are so much better than mine, let me see you show them in some other way than by conduct that’s likely to disgrace us all – than by ridiculous flights first into one extreme and then into another. Pray, how have you shown your love, that you talk of, either to me or my father? By disobeying and deceiving us” (361). Maggie’s father made his children promise not to be a friend to Philip, and Tom enforced that promise. Maggie’s actions therefore slight Tom on two accounts. She first proves to be disloyal and dishonest by breaking the promise and keeping her actions secret. She furthermore puts the family’s reputation, which Philip’s father puts at risk, in greater danger by being alone with a man in the woods. Tom has worked to redeem that reputation, and he reacts accordingly when he learns she has disregarded it. Together, her deeds ensure that Tom cannot forgive her. Maggie therefore finds unsolicited affection from Stephen, who offers her another form of forbidden love. She unwittingly runs away with Stephen, but she turns away from him without marrying him, which is her greatest sin. When Tom finds out about the affair, he responds, “I loathe your character and your conduct” and goes on to insist that “the world shall know that I feel the difference between right and wrong” (484). Tom believes that Maggie has again done irreparable harm to him and his family through dishonor and deceit. He turns against her for the final time. Society mimics his rejection on a larger scale and ensures Maggie’s demise. She seeks redemption by saving her brother’s life in a flood, but he only forgives her in their death. The last line of the novel is the epitaph on their shared grave, which reads, “In their death they were not divided” (517). As a fallen woman, Maggie had no chance for redemption in the world of the living. It is only through death that she finds forgiveness and affection.

Mary’s Aunt Esther in Mary Barton represents the traditional fallen woman. At the beginning of the novel, Esther thinks of herself as a lady. Her brother-in-law, John Barton, says, “Esther, I see what you’ll end at with your artificial, and your fly-away veils, and stopping out when honest women are in their beds; you’ll be a street-walker, Esther, and then, don’t you go to think I’ll have you darken my door, though my wife is your sister” (38). Esther focuses on material and physical desire rather than social propriety. Her goal is to become a lady, not for its status, but for its financial and emotional security. John aptly predicts her fate when he suggests she will become a prostitute for her behavior in achieving those ends. When John later discovers she becomes a prostitute, he physically rejects her and throws her into the street (173). As in Mill on the Floss, it is the rejection by a male family figure that seals Esther’s fate as a fallen woman. She later shares her story with Jem in order to serve as a cautionary tale for Mary. She follows her lover, a military officer who wanted to marry her but had to leave her, and has a child out of wedlock (215). When the child grows ill, she becomes a prostitute to save her daughter, who ultimately dies. When Jem tries to rescue her, she answers, “God bless you, Jem, for the words you have just spoken. Some years ago you might have saved me, as I hope and trust you will yet save Mary. But it is too late now; – too late” (218). She uses her last days to save Mary from sharing her fate. Though she succeeds, she knew that she could not be saved in life. She returns to her home to find her death bed. When she wakes just before her death, “‘Has it been a dream, then?’ asked she, wildly. Then with a habit, which came like instinct even in that awful dying hour, her hand sought for a locket which hung concealed on her bosom, and, finding that, she knew all was true which had befallen her since last she lay an innocent girl on that bed” (481). Edith finds herself significantly changed though in the same place. She cannot imagine that what she has endured was a reality, but her locket confirms her fate as a fallen woman. She lost her innocence, her lover, her child, and ultimately, herself. Like Maggie, she can only rejoin her family in death. After she dies, “[her family] laid her in one grave with John Barton. And there they lie without name, or initial, or date” (481). Their only identification is a Bible verse from Psalm 53:9, “For He will not always chide, neither will He keep His anger forever.” Edith finds family and forgiveness in death. Her unity in the grave with John Barton nonetheless suggests that her crimes equate that of a murderer. She loses her identity in her death, and the only way she can find redemption is when God’s anger subsides. Even her family succumbs to the judgement of the fallen woman.

Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles descends from pure heroine to fallen woman. At the beginning of the book, the narrator states, “Tess Durbeyfield at this time of her life was a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience” (Hardy 48). Tess is an innocent girl without knowledge of the world. She exists in nature rather than in society. It is only when society infringes upon her that she loses her innocence. When Alec rapes her, the narrator explains, “Why is it that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a course a patter as it was doomed to receive” (104). Unlike the other fallen women, Tess has no choice in her fall. She was asleep when Alec raped her. In addition, Tess’s moment of lost innocence is vague. This vagueness leads even her to question her role in her defilement. Throughout the novel, Tess is a scapegoat for horrific acts, such as the death of the family horse or her rape. Her family relies on her and uses her as a method of support. Her mother sends her to Alec in he hopes that he will marry her, but she does not teach her daughter about the intentions of men. Tess is left on her own to learn “that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing” (105). She loses her innocence through experience because of her lack of knowledge. When she returns home, her mother laments not the loss of her daughter’s innocence, but her loss of income (112). The village is relatively ambivalent toward Tess until the death of her child, which symbolizes a larger judgement of her. Tess leaves the village to seek a new life for herself after tragedy, but she instead finds love. She tries to reject this love from the belief that she is not worthy. When Angel proposes, she tries to tell him her past, but he silences her. After they marry, he tells her of a previous affair, and she reveals her story. Once Angel learns the truth, “he looked upon her as a species of imposter; a guilty woman in the guise of an innocent one” (243). In their relationship, Angel sees Tess in the context of nature, where she is innocent, rather than in society, where she is guilty. He considers her the ideal woman without consideration for her past struggles. When he learns of her suffering, he condemns her. He does not consider his own sexual impropriety because he only upholds the need for female innocence. In addition, he ignores that her transgressions were inflicted upon her. He shows no mercy and leaves her behind with a suggestion that he might return for her. She is again left to endure her own struggles in an effort to provide for herself and her family. She must ultimately turn back to Alec because she does not know that Angel will come back for her. He finds her too late as she has married Alec, whom society views as her true husband. After she sees Angel, she kills Alec and runs away with Angel. They are safe in nature, but society catches up to them, and Tess must pay for her crimes. The novel ends when the narrator states, “’Justice,’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschlyean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess” (396) Her death is only justice in that it rids society of the fallen woman. Tess’s death is the one death that is not natural; instead, it comes from society. The quotations around justice suggests that the narrator does not view her death as just, which reinforces Tess as a pure woman according to Hardy’s subtitle. Like the other fallen woman, Tess finds redemption in death alone. Through the character of the fallen woman, Hardy explores the contrast between nature and society. It is society that condemns Tess. As a passive character, Tess is a victim to her surroundings. When she leaves nature to endure society, she falls.

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,


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.

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.

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.




The description in Mary Barton is the most potent weapon to help the working class movement

Though each of the characters have certain traits that make them endearing or despised by the readers, it’s the descriptions in the book that ultimately make their situation come to life. The realism, the sharp contrast between scenery in classes and the descriptions of faces and feelings, make this a novel important for the working class movement.

As one reads in the novel, the author almost always describes a place and then contrasts it with another with basic similarities but not equal at all. There are countless examples, but the one that struck me the most were those of the mill and the houses near that area. According to the book the mill faced a “dingy-looking street, consisting principally of public houses, pawn brokers shops, rag and bone warehouses, and dirty provision shops” furthermore she writes that the mill was old, the alleys were often crowded and the fire produced there was something of concern, possibly for the neighborhood. While on the other side was a gin place previously owned by a rich man, which had a great size “handsome stone facings” with “splendidly fitted room, with its painted walls, its pillared recesses, its gilded and gorgeous fitting ups…”(Chapter V) I think these two contrasting descriptions are very important because it adds to the main theme of the novel, which is the large differences between classes. The fact also that a gin place is better taken care of than a work place also speaks discretely to the minds of those 19th century readers in order to perhaps review their priorities. Furthermore her heavy use of negative adjectives helps to emphasize the realistic conditions the people lived in.

Actually, the element of accurate realism is often present in Gaskell’s descriptions throughout the book. Not only do they render the situation of the poor appalling to any reader, it paints a truthful portrayal of what was out there in 19th century Manchester for generations to come. One of the most sad descriptions is that of Berry street and the Davenport house; the book describes the streets to be filled with human excrement, ashes, it was “damp and muddy” then it proceeds to describe the cellars, where a dying family was currently living, were in the most dire hygienic conditions “the smell was so fetid as almost to knock the two men down” it was dark, the windows were broken, the floor was “stagnant with the filthy moisture of the street oozed up” the mother and the children were starving and the husband was dying of fever (Ch.VI). The editor’s note on this particular description confirms that “This description is highly realistic” and because it unites empathy and shock factor, the confirmation of its reality only serves as a more effective way to produce and attitude of change in her readers.

Elizabeth Gaskell not only focuses on the descriptions of situations and people, she also makes a great effort in describing the emotions of the characters. This is important for the novels goal because if a reader is not able to identify with any of the poor working class characters, then the effectivity of the book disappears. The description on how Mary feels after Jem proposes speaks a lot about human nature regarding emotion. When most people are young, its often hard to interpret our feelings and figure out what they mean. Since the beginning Mary had had mixed emotions about Jem, but its in this scene, particularly, that she admits having no time to analyze the reason for her emotions before. The author also describes all her thoughts about both Carson and Jem until finally she makes a decision (Ch.XI), demonstrating the familiar trail of thoughts we all have or had when making an important decision. It is also the descriptions of a character’s manner that make the reader view them as bad or good, even to judge their behavior. Later in the book, John, Mary’s father, kills young Henry Carson, and yet the reader feels compelled to feel more sympathy for John  because his past actions and thoughts deemed him as a good man.

Moreover, she doesn’t rely on the concrete description of emotion to spark empathy from the reader, she also uses the description of objects, like the fake Japanese pottery which Mrs. Barton was so proud of despite how simple it was, or the description of the face of Jem’s mother as he testifies in the audience, where she is described to have an appearance that “was so much beyond her years…but partly owing to her accident in early life, which left a stamp of pain upon her face, partly owing her anxious temper, partly to her sorrow and, partly to her limping gait…” (Ch. XXXI).

In conclusion, the characters themselves make a very important point about the struggles of the working class, but the powerful descriptions of emotions, manner and scenery are what truly moves people to make a change and feel empathy rather than pity towards the struggles of the good people stuck in the working class.

What’s With the Secrets?

The tension created by the secrets in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton is enormous.  Mary’s excitement every time she knocks on Jem’s door, whether it is to attract or repel him, and her anxiety as she stands on the pier waiting for a boat to chase Will Wilson for an alibi is our tension also.  Every time we think that this time the truth cannot fail to be know, that this time, Jem will learn from young Mr. Carson that Jem is Mary’s favored lover, that this time everyone might be happy, something happens to thwart it.  In a town that allegedly values frank, no-nonsense talk, there sure are a lot of secrets and miscommunications.

There are two kinds of secrets in the novel: the obvious, large ones that characters keep from others (Mary’s love for Jem, Mr. Barton’s murder) and the ones that characters keep from themselves.  The “coming of age” story for Mary Barton is driven by the gradual revelation to herself of the advice of her own “secret oracle” (3084). This term is a curious one by which the narrator explains why Margaret’s advice to Mary is so effective.  Advice only carries such weight when “it puts into language the secret oracle of our souls.  It was the whisperings of [Mary’s] womanly nature that caused her to shrink from any unmaidenly action” (Loc. 3084). Such a phrase occurs again when, at the novel’s end, a “secret instinct inform(s)” Mary’s soul (Loc. 6475) that death is her father’s only happy end.

In Gaskell’s conception of this character, then, there is a whispering, secret advisor of which Mary becomes more and more aware as she matures.  The first shocking awareness of this is, of course, her revelation that she loves Jem.  “What were these hollow vanities to her, now she had discovered the passionate secret of her soul?” (Loc. 2331). Understanding her heart forces her to value young Mr. Carson’s “virtues” as she ought – as hollow vanities – and after this, to begin to place all other vanities in their appropriate relation to that overpowering guide of love for a good man.

The effects of these small, self-secrets are the same as the large plot-driving secrets.  Jem’s lack of knowledge about Mary’s love leads to confusion, despair, hatred for Mr. Carson, and finally his false accusation as a murderer.  But it was Mary’s own lack of self-knowledge that caused her to flirt with Mr. Carson in the first place.  This resulted in her rejection of Jem’s proposal, which led to her self-revelation, and created the great secret of the novel – that Mary loves Jem and can’t tell him.  This secret causes half of the subsequent trauma of the novel.

The other half of the trauma results from a similar lack of communication between Mr. Barton and the Carsons – a type for the confusion between the worker and the master. Clearing up part of this confusion becomes the narrator’s stated purpose for the book, “to disabuse the work-people of so miserable a misapprehension” (Loc. 61) of the mater’s viciousness, and to convince the masters that when “the secrets of all hearts shall be made known, the virtues [of the poor] will astound us in far greater degree.  Of this I am certain” (Loc. 1006).  The end of the novel satisfies the wish for this confusion to be understood through John Barton’s confession, and Mr. Carson’s forgiveness.  The quite study at the end where Joe, Jem, and Mr. Carson can converse with freedom, revealing secrets, and explaining motives is the final resting place of the novel.  It is this we have hoped for. I suspect that Gaskell hopes this novel will become a similar space: a virtual sitting-room where master and worker, friend and lover can meet and understand one another at last. And this is why we find such a building of pressure such a desire for truth to be known.  But it is not initially the revelation between people, but within Mary Barton.

The Power of Imagination

In her commencement address at Harvard University in 2008, J.K. Rowling spoke of the importance of imagination. She said, “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” This function of imagination is at the heart of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. All of the adverse events of the novel arise from characters’ inability to imagine themselves in others’ circumstances, and the novel as a whole seems to be Gaskell’s attempt to help her audience develop their imaginative powers.

Though Gaskell’s novel deals with the large-scale social problems of England, most of her narrative takes place on a much smaller scale. She is much more interested in the joys and adversities of a small group of Manchester residents than in the political movements of the trade unions. She discusses the difficulties the unions face in order to show the effect of those difficulties on particular characters. Gaskell makes England’s problems personal, and in doing so, she allows readers to imagine themselves in position of the characters. She doesn’t give us the unions or Parliament as the primary actors in her tale. Instead, she shows us suffering individuals and families and asks for our empathy. She also emphasizes the importance of empathy in her characters.

The central action of the novel itself comes about as the result of a lack of empathy. On the one hand, the factory masters cannot imagine themselves in the situation of their workers. They do not see them as suffering individuals but as a collective nuisance. When the masters hear the demands of the delegation of workers, Gaskell says, “No one thought of treating the workmen as brethren and friends, and openly, clearly, as appealing to reasonable men” (240). Instead, they mock their shabby appearance. However, it is not just the masters who are incapable of empathy. On the other hand, John Barton, though he is described as a good man, is also incapable of any sympathy with the upper class: “[T]he only feeling that remained clear and undisturbed in the tumult of his heart, was hatred to the one class, and keen sympathy with the other” (Gaskell 226). John Barton does not think past his hatred of the rich to see the potential consequences of his actions for Carson’s family and anyone else who might get caught up in the wake of his crime.

Mary Barton is somewhat unique in that fifteen chapters go by before the main action of the novel is even mentioned. For those first fifteen chapters, Gaskell paints a vivid and devastating picture of the lives of the working poor. She takes readers into the squalid cellars in which they live to see their sickbeds and hear the cries of their starving children. She makes them confront the weeping mothers who have lost their husbands and children to fevers that could have been prevented with regular meals and suitable housing. Over and over, the characters wonder how their rich masters allow their workers to live in such squalor, and they profess that these masters must not know of their suffering because if they did, their humanity would not allow it to continue. Gaskell makes sure that her readers cannot fall back on this excuse of ignorance. She  shows her audience the realities of poverty and forces them to imagine it in all its horror. By focusing on the condition of the Bartons and their friends rather than on the condition of England or workers in general, Gaskell is better able to help readers develop imagination and empathy, demonstrating the power of fiction to address social concerns.