Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534
The novel follows two related story lines: the growth and development of Mary from spoiled and ambitious young girl to the domestic ideal of wife and mother, and John Barton’s tragic progress from political idealist to alienated murderer. Barton’s story is more prominent in the first half of the novel, while the focus on Mary’s actions at the time of the trial bring her story to prominence in the second half. This structure also serves to give the novel closure in the more stable resolution of Mary’s marriage—the conflict between the classes is subsumed by the happy ending of the romance. This structure fits with Gaskell’s general purpose, which is to find the solution to political unrest in the domestic sphere. Thus, the rift between Mr. Carson and John Barton is healed when both men recognize their “familial” relationship and realize that all men, rich and poor, are brothers.
Class issues are not, however, completely absorbed by the domestic/romantic story line. The final scene of wedded bliss cannot, for example, exist in the industrial world represented by the rest of the novel, but only in the far-removed pastoral setting of the New World. In addition, recognition of their brotherly relationship comes to Mr. Carson and John Barton only in their shared grief over the deaths of their sons—a death Carson can only come to experience once Barton commits murder.
Events from the rest of the novel contradict the Christian theme of the family of humankind. This is especially true when the appalling condition of the poor is juxtaposed with the luxury and trivial problems of the rich. For example, when Barton and George Wilson give aid and comfort to the family of a fellow worker who is dying of fever, the family’s hunger, their polluted basement hovel, and the delirium of the dying man are contrasted with the Carsons’ well-stocked kitchen and opulent furnishings, and with Mrs. Carson’s “headaches,” which force her to consume her morning partridge, rolls, and coffee in bed. Given this contrasting portrait of the two classes, it is easier to agree with John Barton’s analogy to the biblical story of Dives and Lazarus (the rich and miserly man who goes to Hell and the poor but generous one who goes to Heaven) than it is to agree with the narrative assertion of Barton and Carson’s kinship.
Contemporary reaction to the novel shows that the critique of the upper class contained in the events of the novel had more of an impact than the narrator’s attempts to downplay that critique. Gaskell was criticized for writing such an “inflammatory” novel, especially given the fact that it covered radical movements such as Chartism, which were of the recent past. Yet Gaskell was also praised by social reformers who saw that the novel gave a human face to the sufferings of the working class. In her only other novel dealing with the conflict between owners and workers, Gaskell gave up some of this focus on the working class by making her protagonist a young mill owner. Both novels, however, stress the lack of understanding and need for reconciliation between the classes.