This is a very big novel. When compared with the satire of society that Jane Austen offers, Gaskell offers so much more in exploring the big issues: societal structure, economy, religion, and a woman’s place in society. There is even political dissidence in the form of Frederick! And of course, the moral is in the ending – Margaret marries Thornton, whom she once considered beneath her in class. And she exclaims “I am not worthy.” when they finally speak of their love. Compare this to the rigid ideas offered by Emma about marrying outside of class.
Social structure is questioned at every turn. Edith and her family are all basically nice enough, but they are more or less a useless waste of space. So the natural authority of the gentry is questioned. Elevated status associated with the clergy is questioned (Gaskell was in a safe place to do this, as she was a clergyman’s wife.) as Mr Hale falls from grace, so is Margaret’s self importance and pride in her father’s role in the community. Likewise, elevated status based on education is questioned, Hale says of the manufacturers: “some of them do really seem to be fine fellows, conscious of their own deficiencies, which is more than many a man at Oxford is.”
The emerging manufacturer’s class is shown to have both slimy mercurial people and honourable people (e.g. Thornton and his mother) but even the slimy people are at least useful – they are able to discuss politics and economy around the dinner table at Thornton’s party.
Finally, Higgins and Boucher round off the panoramic view of society, showing the stupid, ignorant, but utterly pitiable Boucher of the lower classes, contrasted with Higgins, who is a clever man, a philosopher, a Unionist, an atheist, and as honourable and good a man as Thornton is. Higgins might just be Gaskell’s favourite character.
The overall tone of the novel is that social structure is artificial, there being good and worthy people on every level, and is very socialist in sentiment that when we all work together, learning about each other, and losing prejudices, it is better for each individual and for the whole.
The weaknesses of both sides of the political struggle in Milton are exposed in Gaskell’s novel. Thornton’s Capitalist notion that any man can raise himself through work is shown to be false, and the sad poverty of those at the base of the Capitalist system is shown. Ailments from the lack of work legislations such as Bessy’s sickness and eventual death are also attributed to the great Capitalist machine. The message here is that Capitalism alone is not the answer – although it does drive progress, there are many social casualties.
The unionist we focus on most is Higgins, who is an honourable man, who gives out of his own meagre purse to help others in the movement. He is fighting not just for himself, but for the others, like Boucher, who aren’t able to fight for themselves. He only wants what’s fair – he is an idealist and very moral. So the sentiments of the Union movement are praised in Gaskell’s novel. However, the realities – that people like Boucher, who don’t share Higgins’ intelligence or idealism – turn violent in mobs, is an unpleasant side effect. The fact that many Unionists pressure others to join the union in the workplace is another unpleasant side effect. And the quietly slipped in question – “Where do the unions get their money from?” is implicit of corruption at the most, or mandatory fees from their pressured-in members at the least. So the message is that, while the Unions are good in theory, their application is lacking in real world situations.
However, Gaskell’s notion that if men and masters respect and understand each other, the system prospers for all is equally idealistic and lacks in real world application, for it relies on the fact that all members are both honourable and well educated.
This gap in reality is partly accounted...