North vs. South:
Elizabeth Gaskell reinforces the contrasts of gender and class by illustrating the differences in location. She demonstrates how the North and South of England are incompatible and incomprehensible to one another. She shows the differences in setting, but also using economic and ethical value systems. The pastoral South esteems classical education (113), emphasized politeness (113), refined behavior, farming (101), and a slow leisurely pace of life (59, 101). The South is a relic of an older societal model. Feudalism and unchangeable position in society are the norm. The poorer classes are something to be pitied and then promptly forgotten.
The North-- on the other hand-- is a fresh, booming industrial area, with less rigidity in class structure--where fast business is praised and, as a result of this, money is something to earn and to showcase (60). It is an ugly, smoky place, with visible strife between classes. The conflict between classes occurs partially because society has a new format where those in the lower classes can work their way up the social ladder, becoming the nouveau riche (69). Northerners have a more Teutonic value system, taking pride in fierce independence and strength of will (326).
Power vs. Subjugation:
North and South explores the concepts of power and subjugation on many different levels. The two title characters of the piece, Margaret Hale and John Thornton lock horns on several occasions with their fiery debates. The lovers must first determine which of the two is the dominant figure in the association, and as Margaret is the unconventional strong woman, it is John Thornton who first humbles himself to achieve the match (61). John Thornton's accustomed role of power-wielder in his master-minion relationship makes it more difficult for him to understand and empathize with Margaret (161, 270). Once Thornton takes the upper hand in their relationship, with the perceived-indiscretion of Margaret, the relationship practically terminates (274). Only with the Christian humbling of both partners are they able to unite in a happy union (425).
Gaskell exposes the Nietzschean relationship between the masters of the mills and their workmen, or in societal terms, the nouveau riche and the working lower class. The strike that occurs in the pages of this novel is the climactic point where the cruelties of both classes come to the fore, with starvation, suicide, bankruptcy, double-dealing, and violence being the most visible symptoms of this sort of societal structure (216, 177, 266, 408). Gaskell intones through her heroine Margaret that the ruling classes, i.e. the masters in power, have a responsibility towards their underlings’ wellbeing, and should take that into account rather than indulging in “the tyranny they exercised over their work-people” (70, 109, 84). The masters practice their witticisms on the dehumanized lower class, ridiculing them for their lack of logic and inability to feed themselves (119, 102).
The unwieldy role of power in this novel also brings forth the issues inherent in the class conflicts of the newly reformed society of the north. The class conflicts are most obvious between the southern gentry characters (the Hales) and their northern nouveau riche counterparts, as well as between both of the above and the lower working class (141, 74, 176, 409). At the beginning of the novel, the Hales look down on anyone associated with trade, such as the Thorntons (20). As the novel progresses these preconceptions are subtly extinguished, and only with the late introduction of Margaret’s brother does the reader recall that in society in general, these prejudices are still the norm (252).
From the beginning, religion plays a significant role in the Hale family’s lives. The Hales leave Helstone because Mr. Hale has decided to leave his position of pastor in the Church of England due to doubts of faith in the system, but the reason is never fully explained. Margaret does not outwardly question her father’s decision, but Mrs. Hale expresses her disagreement. Further on, the Higgins family is influenced by religion, as well. Bessy Higgins struggles with the idea of God because her father, Nicholas, has strong doubts, but Margaret strengthens her beliefs through frequent visits and sharing her strong belief in God. During one of these visits, Margaret upsets Nicholas with her strong faith in God, which, at first, she is sharing with Bessy:
‘Bessy, don’t be impatient with your life, whatever it is---or may have been. Remember who gave it to you, and made it what it is!’ … ’Now,I’ll not have my wench preached to. She’s bad enough as it is, with her dreams and her methodee fancies, and her visions of cities with goulden gates and precious stones’...’But surely…you believe in what I said, that God gave her life, and ordered what kind of life it was to be?’ ‘I believe what I see, and no more (91, Chapter 11, Vol. 1).
Bessy is quite ill during this time from working in the cotton mills, so Margaret’s intention is to bring hope to Bessy in a seemingly hopeless time. However, Nicholas sees it as false hope. He does not have the same faith in God as Margaret does, but for good reason. He has had a much harder life and has not been raised in a religious home, like Margaret. However, Margaret does not back down from her faith throughout the novel, and it only makes sense that it is the underlying force that gets her through the many hard times she endures.
The traditional gender roles are manipulated throughout the novel. For example, in the strike scene, Margaret is the protector of the man, Mr. Thornton, from the angry mob: “She only thought how she could save him. She threw her arms around him; she made her body into a shield from the fierce people beyond. Still, with his arms folded, he shook her off” (179, Chapter 22, Vol. 1). If this situation were to abide by traditional gender roles, then it would be Mr. Thornton shielding Margaret from the mob; however, the gender roles are reversed. Instead, Margaret uses her femininity with the thought that the mob is less likely to hurt a woman, to literally shield Mr. Thornton from any harm. Not only is this a selfless act, but a courageous one. Mr. Thornton’s initial reaction is to shake her off and in a way reclaim his manhood, but later on, he visits Margaret to thank her for her bravery. She truly believes she did the right thing; but under the terms of traditional gender roles, it was inappropriate.
Another example is after the dinner party when everyone is conversing, but not together. The men converse with the men and the women converse with the women, which abides by the traditional gender roles. However, Margaret finds the women's conversation boring, which is exemplified in the following quote: "She was glad when the gentlemen came, not merely because she caught her father's eye to brighten her sleepiness up; but because she could listen to something larger and grander than the petty interests which the ladies had been talking about. She liked the exultation in the sense of power which these Milton men had" (163, Chapter 20, Vol. 1). Again, the reader finds Margaret shying away from the woman's traditional role. She wants to be freed from the limitations which are brought upon her simply by being a woman. Unfortunately for Margaret, the idea of a woman engaging in meaningful conversation with a group of men such as the Milton men, especially at a dinner party, was unheard of at the time of the novel. Despite traditional gender roles, Margaret tests the boundaries, which is wonderfully audacious; and if it wasn't for women like Margaret, then women would not have the rights they have today.
Secrets and Lies:
Gaskell explores the use of miscommunications and disinformation to move her plot forward in a variety of ways. The initial move up to Milton is done promptly, with little reason given by the head of house, Mr. Hale. He is very reserved on the subject of why he left the Church of England (35). The entire character of Frederick is shrouded in secrecy and mystery, due to unfortunate circumstances that occurred years prior (22). Another character who takes advantage of her family’s willingness to uphold secrets is Mrs. Hale, who hopes no one will find out about the truth of her condition, and only when pressured by her daughter does she confirm the truth of the matter (167). Margaret lies to herself and others repeatedly throughout the novel. Most obviously, Margaret blatantly lies to a police inspector to save her brother and ruin her own reputation (267). She deceives herself about loving Mr. Thornton (192).The masters of the mills use deception to bait their workers (135). All of these secrets and lies create turbulence for the characters and move the plot forward. Frederick himself was a mere plot device used to illuminate some internal characteristics of Margaret that would have otherwise not been seen.