Gender in the Moral and Political Arena in Gaskell’s North and South

April 20, 2022 by Essay Writer

One can see easily that Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is a novel that presents us with many dualities, sets of matching or opposing pairs. Not only does the title suggest this, but a quick glance through the chapter headings will say the same: “Roses and Thorns,” “Masters and Men,” “Likes and Dislikes,” “Comfort in Sorrow,” “False and True,” to name just the most obvious few. Of course, opposing or otherwise complexly intertwined pairs figure largely thematically as well. One of the most salient of these pairs is masculine and feminine, but Gaskell joins that with another pair, moral strength versus political strength. These two pairs are embodied in her two protagonists, Margaret Hale and John Thornton. The two are perfectly matched in their diametrical clashing, with Margaret Hale the femininely moral and John Thornton the masculinely political. Through their interactions with each other and Margaret’s personal changes, Gaskell explores the combinations of influences possible between these four aspects. The identification of Margaret with the moral and Thornton with the political is clear from almost any of their conversations (or debates) with each other. In a pivotal discussion where their two primary ideologies clash, Thornton tries to justify the way he views and treats his workers. He likens them to children that “require a wise despotism to govern” them (120), telling the Hales that “I must necessarily be an autocrat…to make wise laws and come to just decisions in the conduct of my business…I will neither be forced to give my reasons, nor flinch from what I have once declared to be my resolution.” He sees his factory as a primarily political machine; his relationships with his workers is that of governor to governed. There is no personal obligation; he is a God with mysterious reasons that are beyond reproach. On the other hand, Margaret subverts his initial analogy of workers as children in order to argue that Thornton must have a quasi-parental, moral responsibility to them as well. She brings up an example of a man who raised his son up in ignorance, failing to educate him in any way. The son then “did not know good from evil” because his father had tried mistakenly to rule him to “save him from temptation and error” (121). The parallel, of course, is that manufacturers cannot keep their workers in ignorance to “save” them from the economic havoc the manufacturers think they would wreak on themselves and others, but they must educate the workers to know “good from evil.” Though Thornton responds by asserting that he is respecting his workers right to independence outside of the factory, Margaret counters with an argument almost moral in its tone, suggesting that such political talk of “rights” forces “every man has to stand in an unchristian and isolated position, apart from and jealous of his brother-man: constantly afraid of his rights being trenched upon?” (122). In this pivotal statement, Margaret summarizes the opposition. She values the Christianity, brotherliness, compassion, and she sees as obstacles the politically-nuanced “rights” that Thornton stresses. The waters get muddy, of course, for the point of the novel is not to maintain such clear-cut differences, but to let them clash, interact, and influence each other. Accordingly, Margaret, Mr Thornton and their respective worlds influence each other; as a result, Margaret cross the borders of femininity and masculinity, morality and politics. She does not remain confined to herself; instead, she is a dynamic character that adapts to her environment and plays the requisite arenas. The most gripping scene of the novel is when Margaret throws her femininity out into the political world. The horde of strikers is ranged before Mr Thornton’s house, ready to erupt into violence, when Margaret “made her body into a shield from the fierce people beyond” (177). She explains it as “only a natural instinct” and that any woman would “feel the sanctity of our sex as a high privilege when we see danger” (192). This is the epitome of crossing borders; the feminine has crossed into the forbidden political world to protect a political figure, no less. The feminine sex becomes a possible asset in the dangerous political and masculine world. Ultimately, her gesture fails to prevent violence, for “if she thought her sex would be a protection…from the terrible anger of these men…she was wrong” (177). At this point in the novel, femininity is still relatively powerless as a practical force, though her gesture is still a powerful symbol for her forbidden crossing into the masculine and political arena. In a way, that forbidden crossing is what prompts Mr Thornton to propose to her, for he is “bound in honour” (186) to redeem what he misunderstands as a shameless public display of feminine feeling. Her sexual and moral reputation is compromised because this bold act cannot be interpreted on her own terms; her act cannot be perceived as a political move to protect against violence; because of her sex Mr Thornton must perceive the gesture as a “personal act” (193). The public in the novel cannot stomach a woman too strongly masculine or too political; neither would Gaskell’s Victorian readership. She must thus take care not to compromise Margaret’s femininity too much; moreover, the vital balancing contrast between Thornton and Margaret would disappear. Margaret cannot be too masculine, or the romance becomes rather absurd, like a romance between Mr and Mrs Thornton. “The opposition of character…seemed to explain the attraction [Margaret and Thornton] evidently felt towards each other” (81). Thus, to make the novel push gender borders subtly, Gaskell masterfully manipulates Margaret’s tears. Margaret gives way to tears, a classic sign of femininity, on an average of once every twenty pages, which seems excessive. However, her feminine tears somehow highlight rather than detract from her strength. She cries over her father’s dissent from the church, over the doctor’s visit announcing her mother’s fatal disease, over her lie about Frederick, and over various deaths of her family and friends. Not one reason is silly or sentimental, and she eventually pulls through all of these dire crises. In sharp contrast, her cousin Edith Shaw’s tears at the end of the book could hardly be more different. When Margaret makes a slightly haughty comment to her, “Edith began to sob so bitterly, and to declare so vehemently that Margaret had lost all love for her, and no longer looked upon her as a friend…”: in short, making such a big fuss over nothing that we feel only annoyance for her (399). Edith’s tears are for show; they are to persuade Margaret to take back her words: Margaret ultimately ends up “being Edith’s slave for the rest of the day” (399). Margaret is always honest about her tears and suffering; her tears are only allowed to “force their way at last, after the rigid self-control of the whole day” (48). Thus, they can never be manipulatively for show or absurdly pitched the way Edith’s are. In this way, Margaret evinces her own strong moral core, being at once feminine and strong. While Margaret’s morality is her strength, but she is again unique in this trait because she can take moral strength a step further to combine it with practical action. She can be feminine, cry honestly, and still arrange all the details of the family’s removal and her mother’s funeral. Even after her mother’s death, “Her eyes were continually blinded by tears, but she had no time to give way to regular crying. The father and brother depended on her; while they were giving way to grief, she must be working, planning, considering…” (247). While her male family members are rendered incapable by grief, Margaret takes over the practical action, at once reversing gender roles without detracting from her feminine moral sensibilities. The other characters that possess the strong moral core that Margaret does—Bessy and Mr Hale—cannot take action or really accomplish anything in the tangible world. Sick little Bessy dwells on the Bible day and night, longing for death. She is not a fighter the way Margaret is, who encourages Bessy to talk of “something about what you used to do when you were well”(102). Margaret dwells on the positive and the good possibilities, while Bessy is simply resigned to her illness, looking forwards to her death. “‘Spring nor summer will do me good,’” she says upon their very first meeting, and she lives by this dictum of resignation and inaction. Similarly, Mr Hale is strong enough to wrestle with his inner shadowy objections to the church and even resign his livelihood over them, but then Margaret must finish taking care of the consequences of his decision. He is paralyzed, unable to speak to his wife or take care of the details of the family removal. Thus, Margaret possesses both the introspective morality and piety as well as the external capability of practical action. She then seems to be in a unique position to impact the political arena in a positive moral way. However, some sudden turning point in the way Milton society is run does not happen through Margaret’s direct, moral action. Her action at the riot may have prevented a massive amount of violence, but ultimately only its romantic consequences last, and even those are bitter; politically, nothing really changes. In fact, Margaret even risks what seemed to be her strength; morality. Her real crisis concerns the lie she tells the police inspector to buy her outlawed brother time to flee the country. Mr Thornton not only finds out about the lie, but even exerts his political influence as a magistrate to save her from it although he knows nothing about the existence of a brother and believes that she has compromised her morality by lying to protect a lover. Unexpectedly, “She suddenly found herself at his feet, and was strangely distressed at her fall” from “her imaginary heights” (278). He moral superiority and strength evaporate, leaving her prostrate at the feet of Mr Thornton’s political strength. The language of her moral fall is strangely sexual as well, for a “fall” from innocence is almost always associated with sex, and her position at his feet is strangely suspect. Thus, at this turning point in the novel, Margaret loses both her moral power and her pure feminine sexual status. We wonder, then, what Margaret can bring to the clash between herself and Mr Thornton and how, in the larger scheme of things, Gaskell is planning to resolve the issues between the two paired concepts we have pursued. Victorian novels must have their happy marriage endings, and though the relationship is jeopardized over Margaret’s lie, the two do get together in the end. However, Margaret finally regains the ability to face Mr Thornton not just by regaining her moral reputation in his eyes, but by gaining actual political and external influence. When her godfather dies, he leaves her a significant sum of money that affords her independence in the world and some social standing in the mercenary culture of Milton. In fact, when the economy crashes and Mr Thornton loses his own economic standing, it is Margaret that saves him with her money and marriage. They do not come together in the end in some grand finale of a resolved intellectual argument between morality and politics; no symbolic action happens where Margaret extends her feminine and moral influence into the political arena, as in the riot. Instead, the marriage happens when all hope seems to be lost because of a stroke of luck that is almost deus ex machina: money that wins her direct political influence essentially falls out of the sky. Her final ability to save Mr Thornton and her final power over him has nothing to do with her morality. In fact, “she was most anxious to have it all looked upon in the light of a mere business arrangement…” (424). Their marriage resolution nominally unites the two opposing conceptual pairs, but ultimately they are directly brought together through monetary circumstances. The whole novel, an elaborate study of clashes between gender identities and opposing ideological paradigms, would have come to naught without the Margaret’s final inheritance. Margaret, the most complex character, is the only person who slips back and forth across gender borders, alternately acting morally, politically, or both, but even though her remarkableness sets up the romance, they would have gone their separate ways and all changes would have sunk into oblivion if Margaret had not had the money. What seems to be a novel that radically enlarges the scope in which pious female figures can play seems to be sending the final message that without the proper political, masculine power of money, all a woman’s potential to extend herself into the political world is of minimal value. Margaret wins the lasting power to affect her society by marrying the manufacturer, and she can only do that through money. An independent woman seems to have little hope of lasting effect, no matter how exceptional. Ultimately, Gaskell creates Margaret to only bring up the various possibilities that a feminine moral influence like her may have on the male political system. Though Gaskell ends the novel conventionally, Margaret’s existence and spotlight for a few hundred pages just opens up the idea that a woman might make a political difference under different circumstances and that, moreover, she has a unique moral capacity to contribute to it. Love, marriage, and the economic dynamics of both may be inescapable, but a woman and her strengths may have a exclusive place in the system. References Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. Ed. Patricia Ingham. New York: Penguin, 1995.

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