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.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*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...

(The entire section is 761 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 557 words.)