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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649

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.

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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 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.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

In making a working-class girl the protagonist...

(The entire section contains 2401 words.)

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