Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800
John Barton, his pregnant wife, Mary, and their thirteen-year-old daughter, “little” Mary, are on a spring outing with their friends George and Jane Wilson and the Wilsons’ twin babies and son Jem. Mary is extremely worried because her sister Esther has disappeared, probably with a lover. When the group returns to the Barton home for tea, George’s sister Alice joins them. Later that night, Mary goes into labor; there are complications, and the doctor is unable to save her life. John blames Esther for his wife’s death.
The next year, young Mary becomes an apprentice to a dressmaker. Through Alice Wilson, she meets Margaret Jennings, a poor girl blessed with a beautiful voice, and Margaret’s self-educated grandfather, Job Legh. Margaret tells Mary that she is going blind. Since she will no longer be able to do needlework, her only hope is to earn a living by singing.
When the mill catches fire, Jem Wilson saves both his father and another mill worker from the flames, becoming a hero. The owners of the mill, including Mr. Carson, think the fire was a godsend, for with the insurance money they will be able to replace outdated equipment. Their former employees, however, out of work because the mill is not operating, face starvation. When an epidemic rages among the weakened workers, the Wilson twins, always delicate, become ill and die.
Although Mary has strong feelings for Jem, she is surreptitiously seeing Harry Carson, encouraged in this by Sally Leadbitter, another apprentice. When George Wilson dies suddenly Mary is shaken, but she does not pay a visit of condolence because she cannot face Jem. Margaret’s future looks brighter after she finds work as a singer.
John Barton’s situation, on the other hand, is grim. He had quit his job and gone to London with a group of mill workers to petition Parliament, but the petition was rejected, and no one will hire a Chartist and a union man. He and Mary have to pawn their possessions in order to live. Angry and frustrated, John begins taking opium. One night Mary’ s aunt, Esther, now a prostitute, comes to warn John about his daughter’s involvement with Harry, but, still holding Esther responsible for his wife’s death, John refuses to listen.
Mary, however, finally realizes that all she likes about Harry is his wealth. It is Jem she loves, but some time earlier she firmly rejected Jem’s proposal of marriage. At Margaret’s suggestion, Mary calls on Jem’s mother. There she sees Jem’s sister Alice, now deaf and blind, and meets Alice’s foster son, Will Wilson, a fine young sailor, who becomes Margaret’s suitor.
Esther tells Jem about Mary’s involvement with Harry, and shortly thereafter, Jem seeks out his rival. Carson strikes Jem with his cane, and Jem knocks him down. At a trade union meeting, the members draw lots to decide which of them will attack one of the mill owners; John is chosen. Soon after, Harry Carson is shot and killed. Jem is arrested for the crime, as his gun is identified as the weapon used, and his feelings for Mary suggest a motive.
After Esther brings Mary a piece of paper she found at the scene of the crime, Mary realizes that her father is the murderer. Margaret remembers that Jem had walked to Liverpool with Will on the night that Harry was shot. Job, Jem, and Mary all set out for Liverpool, where Jem is to be tried. Mary needs to find Will, who can establish an alibi for Jem. After taking a boat out to Will’s ship and obtaining his promise to appear in court, Mary returns to testify. She publicly admits her love for Jem and manages not to collapse until Will turns up, along with a pilot who can corroborate his story. Jem is acquitted.
Having been dismissed from his job, Jem begins making plans to emigrate to Canada with his mother and Mary. John knows now that he is dying. Calling for Mr. Carson, he confesses to the killing of Harry and begs the bereaved father’s forgiveness. At first, Carson refuses, but after seeing the charitable behavior of a little girl, he returns to the Barton house, where John dies in his arms. Carson thereafter becomes a guiding spirit in improving working conditions in Manchester.
Just before Jem, Mary, and Jane are to leave England, Esther comes home to die. In a final scene set in Toronto, Jane is playing with her little grandson when Jem brings home good news: After surgery, Margaret has recovered her sight; she and Will are soon to be married, and when Will makes his next voyage, Margaret and Job intend to accompany him and visit their friends.