Form and Content

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 listen to her and pushes Mary to marry Jem, fearing that she will become like her aunt. When Jem appears soon after and proposes, Mary, still angry with her father, refuses him. She immediately regrets having done so but can say nothing, since it would not be “womanly” to pursue him.

In the meantime, tension between workers and owners increases, resulting in a strike. At the negotiations, Henry Carson ridicules the workers and convinces the owners not to give in to their demands. The workers meet with a union representative who advocates acts of violence. Later, they agree to kill one of the owners and draw lots to decide on the murderer. That evening, Henry Carson is fatally shot.

The next day, Barton leaves town and Jem is arrested for Carson’s murder. Mary realizes that it is her father and not Jem who has committed the murder, and she sets out to prove Jem’s innocence without implicating her father. The only alibi that would prove Jem innocent could be provided by Jem’s cousin Will, who is about to sail from Liverpool. Mary goes to Liverpool and is rowed out to Will’s ship as it leaves the harbor. She is able to convey the message that Will’s testimony is needed but is unable to keep the ship from sailing. At the trial, Mary confesses her love for Jem when she is asked which of the two men she favored. Will appears at the last moment, and Jem is cleared of the charges.

When Mary returns home, her father is there. He summons Jem, Mr. Carson, and Job Legh to the house and confesses to them. Mr. Carson is, at first, too consumed by revenge to forgive him. Later, witnessing an encounter between two children of different classes, he recalls Christ’s words of forgiveness and returns to the house, where Barton dies in his arms.

Jem finds it impossible to return to work at the foundry because of the suspicions of his fellow workers. He, Mary, and...

(This entire section contains 649 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

his mother emigrate to Canada. At the end of the novel, they, along with their son Johnnie, are awaiting the visit of Margaret and Job Legh, who are accompanying Margaret’s new husband Will on one of his voyages.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In making a working-class girl the protagonist of her novel, Gaskell confronted one of the central problems posed by the Victorian idealization of women’s domestic role. While this idealization stressed the importance of women’s separation from the public sphere of work to devote themselves to the moral upkeep of the family, the economic reality of the working-class woman necessitated bringing in a second income. Factory work for women was seen as a particular evil by social reformers, who connected the limited financial independence afforded to women with loose moral behavior leading to the worst example of the working woman, the prostitute. Gaskell seems to agree with this view in her portrait of Mary’s Aunt Esther. In her description of the women factory workers at the beginning of the novel, however, she praises their intelligent features, their buoyant steps, and independent manner. It is also important to note that Mary’s seemingly more domestic seamstress work leaves her just as vulnerable to seduction as is Esther, and that Margaret’s sewing, which is properly done in the confines of the home, is rewarded only by blindness. It is only when Margaret takes up the more active and public role of a performer that her fortunes take a turn for the better.

The ideal model also demanded that women play a passive rather than an active role, especially in courtship and marriage. It is difficult, however, to construct a story around a completely passive heroine. This problem comes into focus when Mary rejects Jem but immediately regrets her decision. As the narrator informs the reader, Mary is beginning to act in a proper womanly fashion when she decides not to tell Jem of her change of heart but allows that change to be made manifest by her behavior. Because Jem and Mary do not see each other again until Jem’s trial, however, he is never given the opportunity to witness this change. In fact, Jem’s mistaken notion that Mary is in love with Henry Carson leads to the confrontation that makes Jem a prime suspect.

The problem of Mary’s passivity is solved by the murder. Rejecting inaction, Mary becomes a whirlwind of activity in her attempt to prove Jem’s innocence. The trial also legitimizes Mary’s declaration of love for Jem, since she is forced to speak the truth. This solution is made possible only because Mary’s passivity leads to Jem’s arrest. Like the narrator’s assertion that “all men are brothers,” her endorsement of the Victorian feminine ideal is contradicted by the events of the novel.

Places Discussed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

*Green Heys Fields

*Green Heys Fields. Open area several miles from the center of the city of Manchester. With its fields, village, and half-timbered buildings surviving, Green Heys symbolizes the life left behind by Manchester’s factory workers—a world to which they hope to return. This is particularly expressed by Alice Wilson throughout the book. All her life she aspires to return to the farm where she lived as a child but never manages to do so. In her final illness, she believes she has returned to the country.

Barton house

Barton house. Home of John Barton in central Manchester, amid an area of half-finished houses erected to accommodate factory workers. The house looks onto a small paved court—in which the washing is hung—a typical arrangement in Victorian towns. Its central gutter indicates that no drainage has been laid. The house is small, with one main room in which the family lives and cooks and a small sculler-cum-pantry leading off it, and also a coal-hole. Upstairs are two small bedrooms. The downstairs room is crowded with furniture that would normally be regarded as a sign of prosperity; however, it is clear that much of the furniture is for show rather than use. The house is clean and bright, an indication that the family, though poor, is respectable.

Alice Wilson’s cellar

Alice Wilson’s cellar. Home of the washerwoman, sick nurse, and herbalist Alice Wilson; a basement room at 14 Barber Street in Manchester. Her single room serves as both bedroom and workroom. Like the Bartons’ house, it is clean and whitewashed, but it is also damp. Alice has fewer possessions than the Bartons, so there is a stark contrast between her bare room and their crowded house.

Legh’s house

Legh’s house. Home of Job Legh and his granddaughter Mary Barton, in a Barber Street apartment above Alice Wilson’s cellar. Legh is an amateur entomologist, and his room is like a “wizard’s dwelling,” crowded with display cases, books, and scientific instruments.


*Manchester. Industrial city in central England. Central Manchester, the oldest part of the town, is the site of Carson’s mill, which is located on a street consisting of public houses, pawnbrokers’ shops, rag and bone warehouses, poor grocery shops, and crowded alleys and back streets. It is a rundown area susceptible to fire.

Davenport’s cellar

Davenport’s cellar. Home of Ben Davenport, a man thrown out of work by the fire at Carson’s mill, on Berry Street. His court is not paved, and the central gutter on his building does not drain as well as that in the Bartons’ court. His cellar is dark, dirty, and not whitewashed, and its windows are broken. The cellar is damp and cold. Davenport, his wife, and several children live in the cellar, and Davenport is dying of typhoid brought on by the place’s unhealthy conditions. His cellar is a stark contrast to Alice Wilson’s cellar.

Carson’s house

Carson’s house. Home of Mr. Carson, the owner of the mill. Located far from the mill, almost in the country, the large house is well decorated and staffed by servants. When Jem Wilson is sent to Carson’s house to get an infirmary order for Davenport, he waits in a kitchen, wherein the life of the house is laid open to him. Even the servants live luxurious lives in comparison to his own, and they are at first unaware that he is starving. Wilson is received by the Carsons at the breakfast table in the well-appointed library, which acts as a counterpoint to his own much less comfortable house.


*Liverpool. Major English port city on the west coast to which Mary goes to find an alibi for Jem Wilson when he is accused of murder. Liverpool is a seafaring city, with the docks in the center of the city. Manchester is compared unfavorably with Liverpool as a “nasty, smoky hole.”

Sturgis’s house

Sturgis’s house. Home of Ben Sturgis in which Mary Barton takes refuge after she is taken out by boat to catch Will Wilson’s ship before it sails; there she recuperates after an illness. The old-fashioned house was built long before the rest of the houses on its street and looks as though it belongs to a country town. The house represents a return to an older, better time, and emphasis is laid once again on light and on cleanliness, with hints of the exotic in the objects brought back from a foreign country by the sailor.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Brodetsky, Tessa. Elizabeth Gaskell. Leamington, England: Berg, 1986. The chapter on Mary Barton places the novel within the historic, economic, and social events leading up to the Chartist movement and trade unionism. Brodetsky also examines the theme of miscommunication in the novel and gives an extended analysis of the characters.

Easson, Angus. Elizabeth Gaskell. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. Easson analyzes the novel within the framework of Gaskell’s biography. He points out the contradiction between Gaskell’s organic and Christian view of society and her representation of the social deprivation of the poor. He also briefly describes some of the contemporary reactions to the novel.

Lansbury, Coral. Elizabeth Gaskell. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Although Lansbury sees the discrepancy between the novel’s events and the narrator’s attitude of placation as the major difficulty in the novel, she also points out that some of this placation was necessary given the censorship of the time. It was believed that depictions of trade unions and strikes had to be critical, because it was thought that a positive depiction would bring on more social unrest. In these circumstances, Lansbury sees Gaskell’s central focus on the working class as remarkable.

Lucas, John. “Mrs. Gaskell and Brotherhood.” In Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Critical Essays on Some English and American Novels, edited by David Howard, John Lucas, and John Goode. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1967. Concludes that Gaskell was unwilling to deal with the implications of sweeping social change and fell back on the weak suggestion that mere conversation could reconcile master and servant. Points out that she did, however, succeed in showing the masses as being composed of individuals.

Schor, Hilary M. Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Discusses Gaskell as a woman writer in Victorian England. In the analysis of Mary Barton, Schor explores Gaskell’s use of a romantic plot and a marriage-bound heroine to critique an authoritarian political and social structure.

Spencer, Jane. Elizabeth Gaskell. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Provides a good overview of the writer and her works. Points out that Gaskell’s intention in Mary Barton was to provide a voice for the working class and that she was addressing her own group, the largely Unitarian Manchester establishment. Notes, bibliography, and index.

Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Notes that in Mary Barton the author opposes a working class, with its feminine, nurturing virtues, to a middle class characterized by masculine vices. This anticipates later books that deal specifically with issues of gender. Bibliography and index.

Wheeler, Michael. The Art of Allusion in Victorian Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. In a chapter on Mary Barton entitled “Dives versus Lazarus,” Wheeler explains the significance of many of Gaskell’s references. The often criticized structure of the novel is justified by Gaskell’s basing her work on the biblical Dives-Lazarus story.

Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. “Why Political Novels Have Heroines: Sybil, Mary Barton, and Felix Holt.” Novel 18, no. 2 (Winter, 1985): 126-144. Yeazell examines the interaction between plots of courtship and politics, finding that the events in the political plot give the heroine the ability to speak (even before she is spoken to), whereas the actions of the politically dangerous hero in the political plot give way to those of the sexually passive young woman.


Critical Essays