Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although the work is often classified as an industrial novel, Mary Barton’s plot is at least as concerned with family and romantic relations as it is with the relationship between workers and owners. The action of the novel primarily transpires during the period around 1840, when Mary Barton is seventeen years old. Leading up to the main action, the opening chapters, set four years earlier, describe two events that set the course for the rest of the novel: the disappearance of Mary’s Aunt Esther and the subsequent death of Mary’s mother in labor.

Elizabeth Gaskell, like other Victorians, places the responsibility for values of compassion and purity on the maternal figure, and with the absence of such influence in the Barton home, John Barton’s hatred toward the rich is not checked and his daughter has no supervision over her flirtatious behavior. The disappearance of Esther leads Barton to keep Mary away from factory work, afraid that she will follow in her aunt’s footsteps, but the work he does choose for her at a dress shop exposes her to the same risks of seduction; it is on her walks to and from work that Mary has her liaisons with Henry Carson. While Mary tries to break class barriers through marriage, her father joins other workers in drafting the People’s Charter. When Barton and his fellow Chartists go to London in an attempt to present the petition, however, Parliament refuses to hear them.

Soon after returning from London, Barton is accosted by Esther, who has witnessed the secret meetings between Mary and Carson. Barton refuses to...

(The entire section is 649 words.)