Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597
Mary Barton, the protagonist. By the end of the novel, Mary represents an ideal of Victorian femininity. Much of the novel traces Mary’s development toward this ideal as it comes into conflict with the reality of her social standing. Mary is the ambitious daughter of a laborer. Her...
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Mary Barton, the protagonist. By the end of the novel, Mary represents an ideal of Victorian femininity. Much of the novel traces Mary’s development toward this ideal as it comes into conflict with the reality of her social standing. Mary is the ambitious daughter of a laborer. Her prescribed social role is to remain at home, running the household, but she fantasizes about a marriage that would cross class boundaries and allow her to become a lady. She constructs these fantasies around her thoughts about her aunt Esther, who ran away with a soldier. Mary imagines her as being well off when, in fact, Esther has become a prostitute. Mary’s ambition makes her scorn the attentions of a young man from her own class, Jem Wilson. Her involvement with Henry Carson, the son of a factory owner, leads to tragedy when Carson is murdered and Jem is arrested for the crime.
John Barton, Mary’s father, who is almost as important a character as Mary. Unlike his friend George Wilson, John is a working man whose tribulations, especially the death of his young son Tom from undernourishment, have embittered him. After the death of his wife, John sinks further into an isolating cynicism. He does not give enough attention to rearing Mary and is overindulgent with her. His despair over their class standing feeds Mary’s ambition.
Margaret Jennings, Mary’s best friend. She is the model for proper behavior against which Mary is contrasted. She lives with and cares for her grandfather, Job Legh, whose behavior acts as a positive contrast to that of John Barton. Margaret, like Mary, is a seamstress, but she does not go out to work. Her long hours of sewing eventually make her blind, but she and her grandfather are saved from penury by Margaret’s singing. As her singing takes her away from Manchester, her good influence on Mary abates.
Jem Wilson, the son of George Wilson. Early in the novel, Jem’s heroism is highlighted as he rescues his father and another workman from a fire at the Carson Mill. Jem is a self-made man who improved his class status through education as an engineer. He loves Mary from childhood and eventually confronts Henry Carson, not to vie with him for Mary but to demand that Carson marry her or leave her alone. His self-sacrificing nature is displayed again at his trial, at which he refuses to reveal John Barton’s guilt, even to save himself, for fear of what this might do to Mary.
Henry Carson, the only son of the owner of the Carson Mill. He is spoiled and irresponsible. His treatment of the factory owners, unlike his father’s, comes not from ignorance of their poverty but from contempt for their lack of refinement. He begins to flirt with Mary because she is attractive and appears easily swayed by wealth. Eventually, he realizes that he loves her, but his confession of love makes it clear that he saw her initially as only a conquest.
Mr. Carson, Henry’s father. His actions at the mill toward the workers are described as similar to those of a neglectful parent. When his son is killed, he becomes a figure of vengeance, using all of his power to ensure a speedy trial and execution. After hearing John Barton’s deathbed confession, Mr. Carson is able to reform his relationship with the lower classes, fulfilling what the author clearly sees as the proper role of beneficent patron.