Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 842

In Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843), the great British intellectual Thomas Carlyle voiced his concerns about the condition of his country. It was becoming increasingly divided, he said, into two classes, one of which lived in luxury while the other suffered, starved, and died unheeded. Carlyle’s works were...

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In Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843), the great British intellectual Thomas Carlyle voiced his concerns about the condition of his country. It was becoming increasingly divided, he said, into two classes, one of which lived in luxury while the other suffered, starved, and died unheeded. Carlyle’s works were at least partially responsible for inspiring the novels of social and political criticism that appeared in the 1840’s, among them those written by Benjamin Disraeli, who was later to be the British prime minister, and by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Whereas Carlyle and Disraeli viewed the situation from a comfortable distance, however, Elizabeth Gaskell, though not a member of the working class, lived with the problems about which she was writing. As the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, one of the industrial capitals of England, she knew the wealthy leaders of her fashionable church, but she also knew the poor. She saw how hard most of them worked, how easily their lives were shattered, and how desperate many of them had become. In Mary Barton, her first novel, Gaskell hoped to persuade her readers that working-class men and women were not automatons but real people deserving of respect, sympathy, and consideration.

Gaskell makes her argument compelling by creating individuals for her novel, not types, and by doing so with marvelous skill. John Barton, for example, is a thoughtful man, an idealist who does not easily accept the difference between the way things are and the way they should be. He seeks for the causes of misfortunes. Essentially, he is a good man, but when Parliament refuses to accept his union’s petition for redress, John’s heart hardens. His compassion for others turns into anger toward those who are causing the suffering, and he becomes a killer. His repentance is in character, based as it is on his compassion for the father of his victim—indeed, on his identification with him, since John, too, knows what it is to lose a son.

Gaskell’s other working-class characters also challenge her readers’ presuppositions. Job Legh, for example, has the mind of a scientist. Jem is not just a stalwart hero but also a brilliant inventor. The quiet Margaret Jennings turns out to have considerable initiative; instead of just bemoaning her blindness, she breaks into a new field. There is no dullness of mind or lack of ambition in such characters, no justification for their being oppressed and ignored.

Cleverly, Gaskell uses her characters’ very imperfections to prove that they are just as human as their supposed betters. Mary is not immune to materialism; when she thinks of Harry, she thinks of his luxurious lifestyle. In the hands of a more sentimental writer, Jane Wilson might have been a pathetic creature, a woman who has lost her twins and her husband and now is facing the loss of her beloved son. Gaskell shows her as a spirited woman who insists on going to her son’s trial. She is also a sharp-tongued and jealous woman who has to learn to forgive Mary for taking Jem away from her.

Although characterization is probably Gaskell’s most effective means for achieving her purpose, she also incorporates a good many practical observations into her book, primarily through dialogue. She reveals, for example, that most industrial accidents occur in the final hours of a too-long workday, and she notes the ironic truth about the new child labor laws, which, because they did not provide funds to allow poor children to attend school, merely put them out on the street while reducing the incomes of their families.

Gaskell was well aware that the conditions she pointed out and dramatized provided a fertile field for revolution. She stopped short, however, of advocating radical political reforms. Instead, she pinned her hopes on personal goodwill. When John sees in Mr. Carson not an oppressor but a bereaved father, and when Mr. Carson, remembering that he is a Christian, manages to forgive his son’s murderer, Gaskell implies that the gap between rich and poor has been bridged. As a result of one influential man’s new understanding, improvements begin to be made.

The social changes mentioned in such vague terms do not affect the principal characters in the novel. John Barton, Alice Wilson, and the unhappy Esther escape from misery by dying; Mary, Jem, and Jane, by emigrating to Canada. Even Job and Margaret loosen their ties to England when they become dependent on Will, a sailor who can live wherever he likes.

In retrospect, given the rift between rich and poor so graphically described in Mary Barton, it is amazing that, unlike France, England was never torn apart by revolution. Historians suggest many reasons that such an event did not occur. Certainly, the emigration of people such as Jem was one of the most important releases of tension. As long as there were alternatives elsewhere, people saw no need to stay and fight. Ultimately they helped create new countries with the energy and beliefs that had been rejected by the old one.

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Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell