Explain the theme of determinism vs. choice with respect to Gaskell's Mary Barton.

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton, we essentially find determinism operating as a secularized notion of the Calvinist concept of predestination. Destiny for Gaskell, however, is not divinely ordained for individuals, but rather a factor determined by class and gender. Despite Mary's dreams and abortive efforts at rebellion, she can not escape the destiny of a woman of her class. In a sense, what we see over the course of the novel is people who, by will or negligence, step outside their prescribed roles, only to step back into them by the end of the novel.

Mary's father, John, is a Chartist, struggling against the unfair nature of the English class system. Although the efforts of the Chartists eventually led to the passage of the Reform bills, John's efforts appear to have no immediate effect, and he falls into despair and penury as a result.

Mary's dreams of becoming a lady lead her to a misguided flirtation with Henry. She only finds happiness when she assumes a more traditional position as Jem's wife.

Henry Carson and his father get in trouble when they abdicate their responsibilities as members of the upper classes, but the father is redeemed when he remedies his negligence and begins to fill his role as patrician with appropriate benevolence.

Jem, by his steady character and studies, does manage to move up into the middle classes, showing that choice combined with steady determination rather than wild dreams does (gradually) cause change.

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