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Analysis of North and South by Elisabeth Gaskell

By aastonishman Feb 08, 2011 1350 Words

British Civilization

24 January 2011


The reign of Queen Victoria, the longest reigning of British monarchs, who bestowed the country her name, and the century her character which distinguished Victorian Britain from, and integrated her with the rest of the world. Most of the writers of that time mentioned the issues of class, lantern of society, moral questions, gender, religion, individualism, divisions both between people and geographies, family relationship and communication. Elizabeth Gaskell is one of the writers of Victorian Era. Her novel, North and South is about a family moving from the industrial riots of discontented millworkers through to the unsought passions of a middle-class woman, and from religious crises of conscience to the ethics of naval mutiny, it poses fundamental questions about the nature of social authority and obedience. Gaskell’s novel comes to term with the loss of an idealized rural past, and the ascendance of the urban. The book has it all: class conflict, policy, religion, woman’s right, society. Through the story of Margaret Hale, the middle-class southerner who moves to the northern industrial town of Milton, Gaskell skillfully explores issues of class and gender in the conflict between Margaret’s ready sympathy with the workers and her growing attraction to the charismatic mill owner, John Thornton. Although we have quite a few themes to examine in the Victorian age, the working class people, north and south division, class and gender issues will be elaborated especially.

It was in Queen Victoria’s reign that merchants, manufacturers and bankers started to gain political power, and began to exert pressure on the legislative body, the Parliament. We can understand the gravity of the situation through some professional information. Furthermore,

Many of the established landed elite not only prospered through the effects of general economic expansion on their estates, which generated buoyant incomes and capital appreciation that were welcome financial sustenance in keeping up their position, but also themselves formed part of the leading edge of economic development by undertaking or encouraging the building of docks, harbours, railways, mines, or housing estates. They did not, therefore, present a blankly hostile or alien face to the capitalist entrepreneurs, even if no member of the aristocracy would have cared to be classed as a businessman (153).

The condition of working and middle class people can be learned from both novels like Gaskell’s and other books examining that time. As Ertuğrul Koç states in his book; ‘Working class people could make upward or downward movement within their class only. Movement from working class to middle class was almost impossible. Again, the social mobility depended on education. For many working class families, however, education was a luxury.’ The system of that time is also stated by Mr. Thornton and Mr. Hale when they all sit including Margaret; Mr. Hale states

‘Is there a necessity for calling it a battle between the two classed? And Mr. Thornton answers ‘It is true ; and I believe it to be as much a necessity as that prudent wisdom and good conduct are always opposed to, and doing battle with, ignorance and improvidence. It is one of the greatest beauties of our system, that a working-man may raise himself into the power and position of a master by his exertions and behaviour ; that, in fact, every one who rules himself to decency and sobriety of conduct and attention to his duties, comes over to our ranks ; it may not be always as a master, but as an overlooker, a cashier, a book keeper, a clerk, one on the side of authority and order’(96).

Another theme to argue is gender in ‘North and South’ In recent years, psychologists and historians have been exploring gender and it’s effect both men and masculinity should be approached as femininity is. We can see clear examples of this issue in the novel. Mr. Thornton states that

I take it that ‘ gentleman’ is a term that only describes a person in his relationship to others ; but when we speak of him as ‘a man’, we consider him not merely with regard to his fellow-men, but in relation to himself-to life-to time-to eternity. A castaway, lonely as Robinson Crusoe- a prisoner immured in a dungeon for life-nay, even a saint in Patmos, has his endurance, his strength, his faith, best described by being spoken of as ‘a man’ I am rather weary of this word ‘gentlemanly’, which seems to me to be often inappropriately used, and often, too, with such exaggerated distortion of meaning, while the full simplicity of the noun ‘man,’ and the adjective ‘manly,’ is unacknowledged—that I am induced to class it with the cant of the day (194).

And as Ginger S. Frost states in her book Courtship, Class and Gender in Victorian England ‘’men were expected to be brave, facing the consequences of their actions. For one thing, men were cowardly to refuse go through with bargain’’ (42). And in the same book she says ‘’Probably the most interesting insight into masculinity from breach-of-promise cases was the court’s reaction to male sexuality. Once a man had sex with a woman, he was responsible for her. In this way the action undermined the harsh Victorian strictures on female chastity’’ (44). We can say that the possible marriage between john and Margaret could be affected by all the gender and social issues.

The last theme we will examine is the north and south divide, while analyzing the social, intellectual and artistic developments in Victorian Britain, we must mainly think of the Industrial Revolution, the economic factors and the rise of the middle classes which radically altered the means of production, the politics, the customs, and culture. In a conversation between Mr. Higgins and Margaret, she states;

‘You must not go to South’ said Margaret, ‘’for all that. You could not stand…You would not bear the dullness of the life; you don’t know what it is; it would eat you away like rust. Those that have live there all their lives are used to soaking in the stagnant water. They labour on from day to day, in the great solitude of steaming fields-never speaking of lifting up their poor, bent, downcast heads. The hard spade-work robs their brain of life; the sameness of their toil deadens their imagination; they don’t care to meet to talk over thoughts and speculations, even the weakest, wildest kind, after their work is done; they go home brutishly tired, poor creatures! caring for nothing but food and rest. You could not stir them up any companionship, which you get in a town as plentiful as the air you breathe, whether it be good or bad (364).

In the novel, John works hard to earn the respect of his workers and tries to comprehend the life conditions. This is probably a good idea because Karl Ittmann states in his book ‘As the inner city grew more congested, the homes of the manufacturers and merchants, no longer used as places of business, migrated up the hillsides in order to escape the filth disease and noise of the city’(103).

Consequently, we can say that Elizabeth Gaskell combines the themes of that time brilliantly and renders the issues visible for all trying to figure out Victorian Era.

Works Cited
Primary Source:

Gaskell, Cleghorn Elizabeth. North and South. Oxford University: Chapman and Hall, 1855.

Secondary Sources:

Frost, Ginger Suzanne. Promises Broken: Courtship, Class, and Gender in Victorian England. United States of America: University of Virginia, 1995

Ittman, Karl. Work, Gender and Family in Victorian England. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Koç, Ertuğrul. The Victorians and The Novelist: from Dickens to Hardy. Ankara: Barış Kitabevi, 2010. Michael, Francis. The rise of respectable society: a social history of Victorian Britain 1830-1900. Boston: Harvard Univ. Pr, 1988. Shepherd, Anne. ’’Men and Women: Challenging the Stereotypes.’’ Journal of an overview of the Victorian Era, 1993 Victorians

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