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...
(The entire section is 597 words.)