What would be a good study guide for North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell?

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The North and South of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel refer to those areas in England, where the author examined social changes of the mid-nineteenth century. A contemporary of Charles Dickens, Gaskell authored numerous insightful commentaries, many published in his magazines and anthologies. A precursor of the realist tendencies that dominated the later part of the century, Gaskell crafted fiction in which female protagonists overcome many obstacles but still largely adhere to traditional Victorian values.

North and South features Margaret Hale, who moves from Hampshire to the city of Darkshire, a pseudonym Gaskell assigned to the real Derbyshire. Navigating this industrial urban maze, Hale is at first daunted by the materialism and cut-throat pace and practices. Sometimes longing to return to the slower pace of rural life, Margaret realizes that its hierarchical nature poses its own distinct problems for those not born into status.

The mill owner, Mr. Thornton, wants to improve his mind along with accumulating money—but, she suspects, for appearances’ sake and not for love of learning. Opposed to his strict policies for workers, Margaret befriends a young female textile mill worker who has become ill from overwork and poor conditions in the factory. Union organization contrasted with the owner’s efforts to employ strike breakers illuminates issues of the time such as the plight of the Irish hired as “scabs” at lower wages to break the strike. Margaret even intervenes to quell a riot as strikers clash with their replacements, and she negotiates a temporary peace.

As the labor unrest continues, the strikers’ conditions worsen, and many are fired or even blacklisted. Their limited options, such as voluntary exile to work abroad, so distresses Margaret that she continues to prevail upon Thornton. Further plot complications involve her brother, Frederick. More irresponsible than deliberately malicious, he has apparently contributed to a shipboard mutiny and involves his sister in efforts to cover up further escapades. The continuing tension over the workers’ conditions is intertwined with the possibility of romantic attachment between Margaret and Thornton. Whether she would be compromising her principles to become seriously involved with him is one of the novel’s dilemmas. While Margaret is an intelligent, determined woman, the author’s unflagging emphasis on her moral stance makes her seem rather unreal.

While eNotes does not have a full Study Guide for this novel, there is an extended summary of it and several other major works on the webpage of “Elizabeth Gaskell Critical Essays.”

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