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Mary Barton Essay, Research Paper

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Nineteenth Century novel, Mary Barton, is an example of social realism in its depiction of the inhumanities suffered by the impoverished weavers of Manchester, England.

The main story in Mary Barton is that of the honest, proud and intelligent workingman so embittered by circumstances and lack of sympathy that he finally murders a mill owner’s son as an act of representative vengeance. In growing embittered, he becomes as a natural consequence, more isolated in his community; both humanity and faith lose their power to guide him. Mary Barton, his daughter, really loves Jem Wilson, who is arrested after having threatened the murdered man for trying to seduce Mary, and it is her efforts that produce the melodramatic last minute evidence that saves him.

Against the novelistic background of this murder and the central love stories, Mrs. Gaskell outlines her main themes of life in Manchester during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution and of the conditions that initiated the Chartist Movement.

Thus, the historical background of Mary Barton is as much, if not more important than its strictly novelistic aspects. Manchester becomes a symbol of the outrageous conditions endured by the laborers, instead of a real city in itself. It is always grimy, oppressive, and ugly, just like the lives of its inhabitants.

The only detail the author gives us is with the individual homes, not with the city itself. It is almost as if she were afraid of impairing the city’s inherent symbolism by describing any actual streets or shops. Even when wealth is shown, as with the Carsons, the setting is still ugly and drab; the only difference is that the drabness has been made comfortable with money. For example, in the Carsons’ house, just before Harry’s murder is announced, Mrs. Gaskell gives us a picture of a decadent upper-class family that is so used to indolence that it does not know what to do with itself. The author tells us that Mrs. Carson’s “sick headaches” would be cured by a little bit of housework. In other words, we are never out of sight of the fact that the Carsons rose from the same class as the Bartons and the Wilsons and are now making the lower class workers pay for their leisured indolence. Yet they are not well bred enough to do anything constructive with their time; thus, they have no real right to leisure at the expense of the laborers.

Against this setting, we see individuals, families, the social group that it concerns, fighting or succumbing to the external influence according to the strength of their moral natures and the integrity of the human heart. John Barton is not so much a victim of his surroundings as he is of both his environment and his own depravity. In this sense, then, Mary Barton never loses hold of its realism, despite the social message it is trying to convey.

The social range is limited, seldom moving beyond the world of the mills and the ill workers. The mill owners appear in the plot because of the theme of reconciliation and understanding between masters and men, but they are only shown as the modern day Dives who oppresses the working Lazarus. Mrs. Gaskell, in limiting the space and the environment, succeeds in showing us the extent to which life was cramped and conditioned by the physical, social, and mental environment of the new technologies.

Within this narrow range, Mrs. Gaskell looks closely at the problem as she sees it. Her starting point is that each human being is an individual soul deserving close contact with nature as opposed to technology. Technology, such as it was in England in he early years of the Industrial Revolution, kept men free from the blessings of nature and turned men against each other.

At the end of the novel, the main characters have found happiness by moving away form Manchester into the country and back to the glories of nature, which put them back in touch with their souls. In the meantime, before the end of the novel, they must content themselves with other outlets for their souls: Job Legh has an interest in natural history, Alice is an herbalist, Job’s granddaughter loves music. Contrasted with them is the Carson family that tries unsuccessfully to while away the time until tea: one sister half-heartedly copies music, another falls asleep over Emerson, and the third takes a nap. Mrs. Gaskell seems to be saying that the closer an individual is to technology, in the sense of embracing it, the farther one gets from nature and one’s soul. The things of the imagination and the senses must fight against the negative forces of drabness and dreariness.

Yet for all the drabness and rootlessness fostered by circumstances, the author is forced to recognize strength and vigor and a sense of purpose in Manchester. She realizes that a new power is thrusting through and that the individual suffering that distresses her is in some way a part of the inevitable change. Job Legh’s final opinion expresses this:

It’s true it was a sort time for the hand-loom weavers when power-looms came in: them new-fangled things make a man’s life like a lottery; and yet I’ll never doubt that power-looms, and railways, and all such-like inventions, are the gifts of God. I have lived long enough, too, to see that it is a part of His plan to send suffering to bring out a higher good…

The new energy that overtakes Manchester seems to convert Mrs. Gaskell gradually, as though she recognized the possibility of a meeting ground between technology and nature. She comments on “an acuteness and intelligence of countenance, which has often been noticed in a manufacturing population,” and there is pride in the way she talks of the firm for whom Jem Wilson worked:

One of the great firms of engineers, who send from out their towns of workshops engines and machinery to the dominions of the Czar and the Sultan.

The historical situation surrounding Mary Barton is closely interwoven with the social themes of the novel. The sudden upsurge of the Industrial Revolution with its economic laws of supply and demand made it almost impossible for the industrial cities like Manchester to provide adequate housing for the country people who came to the city to work in the mills and the factories. It was also, so they thought, impossible to raise workmen’s wages without at the same time raising the prices of their products and thus pricing themselves out of business.

This basic situation made it easy for industrial bosses like Carson to take advantage of conditions and become right through the hard work of the laboring class. Carson himself had come from the laboring class, but this, according to Mrs. Gaskell, only made him harder on those in his employ. He was unsure of his wealth and of the future of his position, and this drove him to achieve as much as possible in a short time.

The final scene of the novel in which Jem and Job confront Mrs. Carson with the true facts concerning Harry Carson’s death revel the basic feelings of the lower class concerning the relationship between worker and management. They are aware that capitalism is good and necessary and that equal distribution of goods would be folly. What the Chartist Movement was all about, as described in this scene, is the restoration of a basic, humane existence and an attitude of human concern on the part of employers. The strong (employers) must help the weak (laborers) in the matters of concern and subsistence.

What we have here is the reconciliation of the industrial movement with the elements of Christianity that the Chartist action was geared toward accomplishing. Job Legh emphasizes this fact in his insistence that the laboring class would be more than placated if only the employers would try to find a solution to the problem of supply and demand, while at the same time improving the lot of the workers. Then, this having failed, the employers need only show that they tried and that they wish that something could be done in order for the laboring classes to lose its resentment against them.

Mrs. Gaskell anticipates that this will happen in her final comment on the changed character of Mr. Carson, who has been brought to understanding by the murder of his son and by the words of Jem Wilson and Job Legh:

… The wish that lay nearest his heart… was that a perfect understanding, and a complete confidence and love, might exist between masters and men; that the truth might be recognized that the interests on one were the interests of all, and, as such, required the consideration and deliberation of all; that hence it was most desirable to have educated workers, capable of judging, not mere machines of ignorant me; and to have them bound to their employers by the ties of respect and affection, not by mere money bargains alone…

This is, perhaps, too idealistic and has been one of the criticisms of Mary Barton. Nonetheless, it was not so unrealistic as to attempt to impose a form of socialism on Nineteenth Century England.

Mrs. Gaskell’s novel is historically important because it gives us a clear social background to the new industrialism in England and the conditions that led up to the Chartist Movement. Despite the author’s concentration on the social aspects of the situation, she has nonetheless succeeded in providing us with the main points of the new economy and its laws.

Mary Barton tells the story from the laborer’s point of view, but we are not without knowledge of the mill owner’s side of it either, especially through the philosophical wisdom of Job Legh. In her attempts to present the plight of the laborer in Manchester, Elizabeth Gaskell has not neglected to make us understand the importance and significance of the industrial movement, as well as the great possibilities it possessed.

It is, perhaps, a dated novel. However, it is important in its delineation of the social, political, and economic forces that were at work in England from 1835 – 1850, and it is an attempt to bring them all into harmonious focus.

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