Margaret Hale, who has been living in London with her well-connected relatives. She received the upbringing of a lady. She is quiet but with a well-defined personality, which is enlarged throughout the novel by a series of new demands on her that require resourcefulness, initiative, and firmness of character. She is plunged from upper-class London life to lower-middle-class Manchester life, without any status or prospects. Nevertheless, she attracts two suitors, suave London attorney Henry Lennox and factory owner John Thornton. She rejects both, perhaps too decisively, preferring her independence. She has to learn to love, in the end, through being humiliated. Thornton, though rejected, still rightly honors her. Unexpectedly, her inherited riches become his reward as much as hers. She becomes many things to many people: a source of support for her mother, an intellectual companion to her father, a source of spiritual solace to Bessie, a source of encouragement to Higgins, and a challenge to the Thorntons. She absorbs northern energy to become a fully integrated young woman.
The Reverend Richard Hale
The Reverend Richard Hale, whose theological doubts are never really explored; in an age of growing doubt, they remain ciphers. The “bravery” of his decision is counterbalanced by his inability to tell his wife or to comfort her. He wins respect in Milton from both Thornton and Higgins, and he sincerely seeks to mediate in the class struggle he finds there.
Maria Hale, the Reverend Richard Hale’s wife. She comes from an upper-class family and is very aware that she has lowered herself by marrying a humble clergyman. The loss of her son and her further lowering of status are more than she can take. She becomes a hypochondriac, and then in reality an invalid.
John Thornton, who has worked his way up from being a shopkeeper to being a factory owner. His desire for a classical education suggests desires and sensitivities atypical of his colleagues. His love for Margaret is slowly born and genuine, based rather more on admiration for her independence than on her good looks and refinement. He becomes a true gentleman as he honors her despite rejection and outward appearances. His false sense of power is broken by his loss of capital and replaced by a new desire to concern himself respectfully with his workers’ conditions. He is a much worthier suitor than Lennox and deserves the help Margaret finally is able to give him.
Mrs. Thornton, the driving force behind her son. A striking matriarch, she is fiercely protective of John and therefore sees Margaret as a threat. She is thus all too ready to give her a severe talking to in place of advice after her mother’s death. Paradoxically, she allows her own daughter, Fanny, to be a self-regarding moral weakling.
Nicholas Higgins, the most outspoken of the workers. His involvement with a union is seen as a weakness, as is his propensity to drink. He has ideals, and in Mr. Hale he finds a ready listener to whom he can articulate some religious faith. He is broken by Bessie’s death but can still support Boucher’s family after they are left fatherless.
Bessie Higgins, a deeply religious woman who educates Margaret into northern ways. She has worked in a factory, in such unsanitary conditions that she contracted a fatal pulmonary disease. Her death follows a long tradition of set-piece lingering deaths but is portrayed effectively in an understated way.