NORTH AND SOUTH
In contrast to Ruth who emerges a saintly care-giver from a naive and gullible girl, Margaret Hale of North and South has a strong character from the outset. Ruth was the first of the five girls to show some awareness of the growth of her character, but Margaret is the first to think and analyze words and events to find their significance in her life. Perhaps this is because she is the most intelligent and independent of the five Gaskell heroines.
North and South is concerned with the condition of industrial England, like Mary Barton (1848), but whereas Mary Barton was criticized for being too one-sided in favor of the working classes, in North and South Elizabeth Gaskell concentrates on representing both sides of the unrest between masters and workers. To facilitate this, the main character is a young woman who moves to the industrial city of Milton Northern from the small southern hamlet of Helstone, where she is a member of the same class as the mill masters. Margaret Hale learns the point of view of the masters through her family's friendship with Mr. John Thornton. She learns the other side of the story from a friendship with a poor working man's family. Unfamiliar with the strife between the classes in the north, Margaret makes an unbiased mediator and attempts to bring about some kind of understanding between them by working on the smaller scale of her friends, Mr. Thornton and Nicholas Higgins. In addition to working to affect change for the better in the struggle between the classes, Margaret is at all times working to change and better herself.
At the start of the novel, Margaret has been living not with her parents, but with her Aunt Shaw and cousin Edith in London for several years. Although she has been growing up in fashionable London, surrounded by pretty people and things, Margaret is able to see through outward appearances and concentrate on substance rather than form. Edith is busy preparing a very flashy wedding, complete with a beautiful trousseau, many bridesmaids, and wedding breakfast. Margaret doubts whether these are "quite necessary troubles" (13) and prefers to look forward to quietly resuming her place as the only daughter at the Helstone country parsonage. This is one of the first indications that Margaret is not like other girls of her age, a point which the remainder of the novel reinforces.
If Margaret is unlike her cousin Edith, she is also unlike her Aunt Shaw. Aunt Shaw did not marry for love and this has been the deciding factor in her life as a "victim" (15). As a victim, she chooses not to run her life for herself but to influence other people's thinking in order to get the things she wants. For example, she affects a cough when she wants sympathy and doctor-ordered vacations in Italy. Her sister, Margaret's mother, married for love but she has not obtained the happiness that Mrs. Shaw imagines results from such a union. Instead, Mrs. Hale wishes for all the superficial things that her sister could have, "a silver-gray glace silk, a white chip bonnet...and hundreds of things for the house" (17). Neither woman is much concerned with anything that does not immediately affect her comfort or happiness, or intrude upon her private world.
While these two women are in positions to be guiding influences on Margaret, she is not following either of their paths. Margaret appears to observe the behavior of everyone she is contact with, process it, and adopt the parts that will serve to improve her own character. She also uses every uncomfortable or difficult moment to improve her character, both consciously and unconsciously. There is a phrase that runs, "if something doesn't kill you, it gives you character," and this could well be Margaret's motto in life.
One of her first difficult moments in life is when she must break the news to her mother of their remove to Milton. Her father has doubts which have forced him to give up his ministry and move to a place where he is a stranger and can start life anew as a private tutor without any reminders of his beloved Helstone. Mr. Hale can not face his wife with the news, and he asks Margaret if she would very much dislike the job.
Margaret did dislike it, did shrink from it more than from anything she had ever had to do in her life before...'It is a painful thing, but it must be done, and I will do it as well as ever I can. You must have many painful things to do'(39).
Whether it is "a painful thing" or not, Margaret is not one to shirk responsibility when it is apparent that there is no one else to do the job. It is clear that she is the strong one in the family; perhaps if her brother Frederick had not gone off to sea, things would be different and he would be the mainstay of the family; but as it is, Margaret is the rock on which the Hale family is built.
Part of the responsibility that Margaret takes on is being strong for everyone else and keeping her own feelings inside. Margaret's mother is upset that her husband did not come to her as a confidant when he was first experiencing his "doubts" and is consequently not much use in the practicalities of moving house. Mr. Hale is not much help either, so "Margaret's admirable sense enabled her to see what was best, and to direct how it should be done" (50). To the servants it appears that Margaret does not care that she is leaving Helstone:
They could not understand how her heart was aching all the time, with a heavy pressure that no sighs could lift off or relieve, and how constant exertion for her perceptive faculties was the only way to keep herself from crying out with pain. Moreover, if she gave way, who would act (54)?
Though Margaret is hurting inside, she doesn't show it; she keeps her feelings inside and gives off an air of confidence and strength that is a balm to those suffering with her. It is this air that is mistaken for pride and haughtiness by Mrs. Thornton, John Thornton's mother, and others who do not know Margaret's true character.
Mrs. Thornton is described by Gaskell as "strong and massive...[a] firm, severe, dignified woman" (77). Before she had even met Margaret, Mrs. Thornton disliked her. She is extremely protective of her son and is deeply offended that "a renegade clergyman's daughter" had dared to treat her son "with a haughty civility which had a strong flavor of contempt in it" (78). After meeting Margaret, Mrs. Thornton still does not like her, but does appreciate Margaret's occasional frankness and vitality. Mrs. Thornton represents old-fashioned values and is challenged by Margaret who is the embodiment of the new and independent woman. Part of the reason that Mrs. Thornton dislikes Margaret is that the pair have similar characters: both are strong, proud, and devoted. However, Margaret has the youth and vitality that are necessary to be a powerful force in the changing age. Mrs. Thornton lives vicariously through her son in her old age and is upset to find that she is losing some of the control of Mr. Thornton to Margaret. At the very end of the book it is Margaret's engagement to Mr. Thornton which symbolically creates a merger between the old and the new through the mother and fiancee's united concern in the welfare of the man the two women love.
Before this can be achieved, however, Margaret has much more to learn about herself. She learns a great deal from her friendship with Nicholas Higgins and his dying daughter Bessy. Bessy's consumption was brought on by working in the cotton mills and inhaling the fluff. She takes an instant liking to kind Margaret and her last days are made a bit more pleasant through Margaret's kindness to her. Margaret "shrank from death herself, with all the clinging to life so natural to the young and healthy" (90) and had as yet never experienced the death of someone close to her. When Margaret learns of Bessy's death and is asked to see the body, she is afraid and does not want to go. However, the one thing Mary is most conscious of is cowardice in herself and to avoid this she determines to fight her fear and see poor Bessy's dead body. We often see Margaret faced with a situation in which she could take the easy way out and avoid any discomfort to herself, but without fail she chooses to face the obstacles in her never-ending course of self-improvement.
Margaret is set apart from her peers yet again when we compare her behavior to Fanny Thornton, Mr. Thornton's younger sister, during the riot of striking workers outside of the Thornton's house and mill. In Mr. Thornton's own comparison of the two young women he says:
I see a great deal of difference between Miss Hale and Fanny. I can imagine that the one may have weighty reasons, which may and ought to make her overlook any seeming impropriety in her conduct. I never knew Fanny have weighty reasons for anything. Other people must guard her. I believe Miss Hale is a guardian to herself (305).
At the start of the riot, "Fanny had returned, screaming upstairs as if pursued at every step, and had thrown herself in hysterical sobbing on the sofa" (172). She has been portrayed up till and including this moment as a silly, weak creature with a constant malady of one sort or the other to prevent her from doing anything she finds distasteful. Margaret has the rare ability to learn from every situation, but Fanny has not or she would be chastened by the poor state from which her family rose. Mr. Thornton's remark certainly must refer to Margaret's actions during the riot as she is ruled by her passion and rushes out to save him from the impending violence of the crowd. By her action, Margaret has passed the test that Mrs. Thornton has redefined for her: the test of bravery versus cowardice.
Margaret's goal is complete control over herself. She is at her weakest when she feels that both a situation and herself are out of control. Even if she is in turmoil within, she must appear cool on the outside. This is perhaps a defense mechanism that was developed during her time living in London when she was often in the shadows cast by Edith. Margaret receives a letter from Edith and wishes that she could have just one day of the carefree life her cousin enjoys, because she feels so old now, much older than her years.
At one point she finds herself feeling so old and tired that she begins to "anticipate cares and sorrows just as if [she] were an old woman" (315). However, she quickly chastens herself and resolves to think less and do more, the motto of youth. Margaret is always aware of the changes that have occurred in her through her struggles and losses and she does take moments out to reflect and "appoint each of them its right work in her life" (336). When Margaret has come full circle and is living in London again, she feels herself slipping back into the leisurely ways of her girlhood and has to recall herself again and take care to retain the values that have been the reward for her suffering. During her time in Milton, Margaret felt old beyond her years as she adapted to each difficult situation presented to her. In the end, she is able to join her young self with the older and wiser woman she has become through observing and analyzing the behavior of her acquaintances, to form the type of woman needed to successfully face the changes occurring in society.
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