The narrator's tone in this book pretty much reflects the kind of spirit Gaskell would like her readers to apply to the real world. Gaskell obviously places a high value on education and reading, since she begins every single chapter of this book with a reference to some book or author she's read.
Sometimes, these epigraphs don't even add anything to the actual chapter, as we see with the first epigraph, which just reads, "Wooed and married and a" (1.1.E). To that we say, respectfully, "??!??!WTF???!?, Gaskell?"
But often, they're right on the money and super-smart. At the beginning of a chapter that deals with Margaret's opinion clashing with Mrs. Thornton's, Gaskell supplies the epigraph "Thought fights with thought;/out springs a spark of truth/ From the collision of the sword and shield" (1.15.1). Oh, we get it! Gaskell is wittily comparing Margaret and Mrs. Thornton's animosity to an actual battlefield, and saying that truth comes from conflict.
Way to go, Gaskell. One other reason why Gaskell would want to show off her quoting skillz is because, as a woman writer in the nineteenth-century, she would have needed to prove to her male readers that she had done enough reading of her own to write about serious subjects like labor rights. The quote above, by the super-intellectual poet W.S. Landor, makes the point that fighting with words is just as truth-producing as fighting with swords. This quote, in effect, tells anyone who suspects Gaskell of being a feeble woman that language is just as violent (and effective) as an actual weapon.
On top of her constant literary allusions, Gaskell makes an effort to portray her characters as sympathetically as possible, even when they're being annoying. For example, Gaskell writes of Mr. Hale that he "was utterly listless, and incapable of deciding on anything" (1.21.36) after his wife's death. She wants us to have sympathy for the guy; he's heartbroken.
Realism, Pastoral, Family Drama
The genre of North and South is probably one of the most interesting things about this novel. The book actually draws from several genres at once before settling into a type of realism known as "social realism." So let's do a genre breakdown.
The novel starts off with a lot of pastoral elements. In other words, the book idealizes Margaret's life in the country village of Helstone, which is totally heaven on Earth. The grass is green, the birdies are chirping, and it seems as if a little bow-legged fawn will walk up and eat an apple out of Margaret's hand. Sigh!
This fun-in-the-country-sun comes to a screeching halt when the Hales move to the northern town of Milton, though. This change of location brings Margaret into contact with a world she's never seen before. Instead of chirping birds and trickling streams, she encounters puffing smokestacks and workers who are dying from poor working conditions in the town's factories.
Without doubt, it's Gaskell's exploration of the hard lives led of workers that makes this book a work of Realism. Before Realism took off (like an ugly, ugly airplane) in the 19th-century, books tended to focus on idyllic villages like Helstone. Then the Realists, with their smack-you-in-the-face literary sensibilities, came on the scene. Why did this happen? The same reason Milton transformed from a shepherd's paradise with apple orchards to a gritty factory town: the Industrial Revolution.
Gaskell uses the transition from pastoral to realism to help alert her readers to the oppression and suffering that existed in the factories in the north of England. Margaret's dawning awareness of this other, grimier world is supposed to create a similar effect within the reader.
A discussion of the genre of North and South wouldn't be complete without a shout-out to what drives most of the living room dialogue in this novel: family drama. What's the sum of two dead parents, plus one exiled brother, plus one jealous overbearing mother, plus one shallow cousin, plus one benevolent fairy godfather? Yup, it's family drama. 356 pages of sweet, sweet family drama.
On the surface, the title of North and South isn't a tough one to figure out. The main character (Margaret Hale) travels with her family from the south of England to the north. Then she travels back down south after her parents kick their respective buckets. But the concept of north and south has a much deeper resonance than just one woman's travelling. It actually symbolizes the clash of different cultures that exists between the hub of England's aristocracy (South) and the industrial grit of the North.
Margaret's upbringing in the South has exposed her to traditional English values. You know: keep your pinky out when you drink tea, curtsey just so, and never talk about money. Manners are the ultimate expression of goodness for Margaret. But hey, it's easy not to talk about money when you have money, right?
John Thornton, on the other hand, represents the values of the North: Thornton has pulled himself and his family out of poverty through hard work and sheer will. For that reason, he cares an awful lot about money and is ready to measure the value of just about anything in life with money. After all, his money is a direct reflection of his hard work. But Johnny boy also doesn't have much compassion for the poor, whom he blames for being lazy and/or untalented.
Ultimately, the coming together of Margaret and Mr. Thornton represents a union between the northern and southern parts of England, which also means a union of modern and traditional values. Both have their merits, after all. And Gaskell's novel stresses this union between Margaret and John Thornton as a way of suggesting that an England unified in its beliefs would be a stronger England.
Don't get us wrong, though—North and South isn't just a political parable. It's also a super-cute love story.
'How shall I tell Aunt Shaw' she whispered, after some time of delicious silence.
'Let me speak to her.'
'Oh, no! I owe to her,—but what will she say?'
'I can guess. Her first exclamation will be, "That man!"'
'Hush!' said Margaret, 'or I shall try and show you your mother's indignant tones as she says, "That woman!"' (2.27.45-49)
The ending of this book gives us a rare show of humor from Margaret and Thornton, whose lives have been fairly miserable for most of this book. By the end though, they've decided that they'd like to marry one another, and now their talk turns to an awkward subject—the fact that their in-laws can't stand them.
Margaret's Aunt Shaw will be repulsed at the idea of Margaret marrying a manufacturer from the north, while Thornton's mother will blow a gasket when she hears her son is engaged to a snobby flake from the south. Oh well, though. Margaret and Thornton have been through much worse than in-law angst.
Holy smokes. We're open-mouthed with surprise here. Who would have thought that a novel named North and South would take place in the northern and southern regions of England?
But for realz, this entire book pretty much focuses on the cultural differences that you're bound to run into between southern England's high culture and the more commercial, gritty life of northern England. As Margaret Thornton tells us early in the novel, the southern village of Helstone is "like a village in a poem—in one of Tennyson's poems" (1.1.38).
In Milton, on the other hand, we find that "Here and there a great oblong many-windowed factory stood up, like a hen among her chickens, puffing out black 'unparliamentary' smoke" (1.7.4). It ain't exactly the nicest place in the world, yet it's totally necessary because that's where all of England's textiles and household goods get manufactured. It might not be pretty, but it's useful.
The settings of North and South are a really good way to learn not to judge a book by its cover. Sure, the South is pretty. But it also contains the kind of shallow society living that Margaret grows tired of. Beneath the pretty exterior of cousin Edith lies… uh, not too much, actually.
And sure, the North is grimy. But it contains genuine goodness. Nicholas Higgins seems like a drunken galoot, but he turns out to be a stand-up guy. John Thornton seems like a capitalist pig, but that was just the residue of a hardscrabble upbringing, and he proves himself to be a genuinely good (and class conscious) dude.
On its appearance in 'Household Words,' this tale was obliged to conform to the conditions imposed by the requirements of a weekly publication, and likewise to confine itself within certain advertised limits, in order that faith might be kept with the public. Although these conditions were made as light as they well could be, the author found it impossible to develope the story in the manner originally intended, and, more especially, was compelled to hurry on events with an improbable rapidity towards the close. In some degree to remedy this obvious defect, various short passages have been inserted, and several new chapters added. With this brief explanation, the tale is commended to the kindness of the reader;
'Beseking hym lowly, of mercy and pite,
Of its rude makyng to have compassion.'
This is a pretty hilarious epigraph, in our humble opinion.
Basically Gaskell is saying "Hey dudes. I wrote this novel under strict deadline. I couldn't make it quite as good as I wanted to, because I needed to hurry it along, because some people (like one editor guy whose name rhymes with Harles Pickens) made me work too fast. So I added some stuff to make it better. Don't judge me too harshly, guys. Here's a rhyme about how you should not judge me. Like, seriously. My novel could be way better."
Basically, this is the world's weirdest literary humblebrag.
When it comes to language, North and South isn't the most difficult book you'll ever read. Sure, it has the weird old-timey vibe to it, with a lot of long winding sentences and words like "heretofore." But it's easy to get into the swing of the language, and almost as easy to look up any antique-sounding words you might not know.
The content, on the other hand, can be a bit of a bear. The book's original editor, Charles Dickens (yup, that Charles Dickens) thought that the book was unnecessarily long. We repeat: Charles Dickens, who was paid by the word and has written some of the world's most beloved doorstops, thought that North and South was too long.
This is kind of like Rapunzel saying "Hey, not to be a jerk or anything? But you kinda need a haircut."
Reading this novel can be a slog, for sure. But it isn't like a trek through the Andes. It's more like a really long walk through a huge park. So pleasant, and so pretty, but just… long. And sometimes meandering. It can be tough at times to stay with Gaskell because some of the writing isn't relevant to the book's plot. She detours.
But even though your inner editor might want to take out a red marker or a pair of scissors and start chopping off blocks of text, this is an enjoyable book. You can really get immersed in the world of North and South, and that's half the fun of these kinds of 19th Century big ol' books. Just put aside your 21st century need for speed, grab a cup (or pot) of tea, and settle in.
Like many nineteenth-century writers, Elizabeth Gaskell is a pretty big fan of long, flowing sentences. In just the second paragraph in the book, she gives us this whopper:
"They had been talking about wedding dresses, and wedding ceremonies; and Captain Lennox, and what he had told Edith about her future life in Corfu, where his regiment was stationed; and the difficulty of keeping a piano in good tune (a difficulty which Edith seemed to consider as one of the most formidable that could befall her in married life), and what gowns she should want in the visits to Scotland, which would immediately succeed her marriage; but the whispered tone had latterly become more drowsy […]" (1.1.2)
And that's only the first half of the sentence. Whoa, Nelly. So is this just a lack of editing on Gaskell's part, or what?
Actually, it was a sound financial decision on Gaskell's part to be long-winded. The journal that first published North and South paid by the page. Gaskell was no dummy and knew that the more she wrote, the more she got paid. It was easiest, of course, to lengthen each individual sentence rather than to cram in more characters and plots… especially because North and South focused around the trials of one particular character: Margaret Hale.
Ahhhh, Helstone. Where the birds always sing and the brooks always babble. According to Margaret Hale, "Helstone is like a village in a poem—in one of Tennyson's poems" (1.1.38). And for those who haven't read Alfred Lord Tennyson, all you need to know here is that the dude was super sentimental when it came to describing the beauty of nature, like in his famous poem "The Lady of Shalott." So yeah, Helstone is kind of a utopia in this book. Of course the story has to force Margaret to leave this place if there is going to be conflict.
Whenever Margaret is not in Helstone, she spends her time thinking about how much she misses Helstone. When she's living in the dirty northern city of Milton, for example, she finds that "[Letters] had come, making her dwell on the thoughts of home with all the longing of love. Helstone, itself, was in the dim past" (1.21.36). Helstone is like a symbolic Garden of Eden for Margaret. Leaving the place is like falling from a perfect world into the dim, dark world of factories and greed. The majority of this book, in fact, focuses on how difficult it is for Margaret to make the transition.
And what is this transition but the classic loss of innocence. Yep. That thing, that growing-up thing that plagues 99.99% of literary characters under the age of forty. Helstone is so freaking perfect that it—like innocence—ain't built to last. By leaving Helstone not only do the wheels of plot start a-rolling, but Margaret starts growing up.
Helstone also has the honor of symbolizing not only innocence, but also the rural South of England. No wonder Margaret dislikes the North so much: anything compared to the picture-perfect landscape of Helstone is going to seem awful.
But let's recall the problems with Helstone, even as we talk about just how pretty and full of flowers it is. When everyone is in Helstone, they don't think of it as all that dandy. Mr. Hale doesn't like it, because he doesn't like his position there as a pastor. Mrs. Hale doesn't like it because it reminds her that she married for love and not for money. Sure, Margaret never had a problem with it, but that's because she never really lived there. She was in London for ten years and really only saw Helstone as a vacation house.
How each member of the Hale family reacts to Helstone is symbolic of major aspects of their character. The fact that Margaret lurves Helstone—despite the fact that it's been a glorified vacation home for her for the past ten years—is symbolic of her initial tendency to make snap judgments based on very little. Snap judgments like: "Thornton is bad, even though I don't know him that well."
That Mrs. Hale is resentful of Helstone until she leaves it is symbolic of her tendency to regret her decisions and to be really terrible at living in the moment. Mrs. Hale is all "Why did I marry for love? Poor me. Why do I live in Helstone? Poor me." And then, when she's gone from Helstone, and about to die and leave her husband, she remembers how awesomesauce Helstone was and sits holding her hubby's hand for hours.
The only one whose relationship to Helstone is symbolic of something good in their character is Mr. Hale. He thinks carefully and realizes he needs to leave Helstone, and he ultimately does not regret that decision. You know, the way he carefully thinks over everything and doesn't have many regrets in general.
Mrs. Thornton doesn't talk much about her dead husband. After all, the guy pretty much plunged her family into poverty with his drinking habit. But Mrs. Thornton still cherishes the embroidered napkins that she used on her wedding day. When she realizes that her son John is going to propose to Margaret Hale, she starts to pick off the embroidered initials in order to replace them with new ones.
As the book tells us, "Mrs. Thornton stood looking at them long—they had been her pride when she was first married. Then she knit her brows, and pinched and compressed her lips tight, and carefully unpicked the G.H. She went so far as to reach for the Turkey-red marking-thread to put in the new initials" (2.1.5).
Mrs. Thornton isn't happy to be doing this. She doesn't like Margaret and is heartbroken to be losing her son to another woman. Little does she know that her work will be in vain, since Margaret ends up turning John down (at least the first time). We can tell from the seriousness of the description that Mrs. Thornton's attempt to replace the initials on her wedding napkins is a symbolic passing of the torch to the younger generation.
It's also symbolic of Mrs. Thornton's jealousy toward Margaret. Not jealous-jealous, because she's not a weird reverse-Oedipus that's in love with her son or anything creepy like that. But she does feel as though she's being replaced. Her preoccupation with her wedding napkins shows that she feels as though she's both losing her son and losing her own identity as a bride.
This activity is also symbolic of Mrs. Thornton's tendency to totally jump the gun. Remember that she's preparing to embroider Margaret's name on these napkins before she even knows if Margaret has accepted John's proposal. But Mrs. Thornton is just like that. "Mrs. Thornton was not a woman much given to reasoning; her quick judgment and firm resolution served her in good stead of any long arguments and discussions with herself" (1.12.10).
Yep. We have "quick judgment" and "firm resolution" coming out in spades here. She's doing the embroidery equivalent of counting her chickens before they hatch.
Dolores Barbour is the name of the young woman in Spain that Frederick Hale plans on marrying. She's not mentioned much in the book, but you can tell that Frederick is in love with her by the way he cherishes a lock of her hair that he always keeps with him. We first see the hair when he holds up "a pocket-book, out of which fell a long lock of black hair, the sight of which caused Frederick's eyes to glow with pleasure" (2.6.72). Immediately, Frederick asks Margaret to tell him how beautiful the lock of hair is.
On second thought, Frederick dismisses the hair and says that it could never compare to Dolores herself. He says, "She is too perfect to be known by fragments. No mean brick shall be a specimen of the building of my palace" (2.6.73). In other words, he's not satisfied with judging Dolores by her different parts. Instead, he insists that you can only really know her true value if you meet her in person.
Huh. How about that. Frederick, having had a bit of a rough road, realizes that you can't "(know people) by fragments." Later, when Margaret's life has gotten way drama-filled and bumpy, she realizes as well that she can't know people by fragments. You know, like a certain John Thornton, who she believes she has known because of certain (jerky) fragments of his personality. Pride is dumb, Margaret.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a lock of hair is just a lock of hair. Ha! Fooled you. A cigar is never just a cigar, and this particular lock of hair symbolizes the moral of the entire novel.
At first it might seem like the narrator of this book is third-person omniscient, since it sticks pretty closely to Margaret Hale's point of view. But as the story gets going, the narrator seems to get more and more comfortable with bouncing around between different characters and perspectives. One of the first major breaks from Margaret's point of view occurs in Volume 1, Chapter 9, which tells us "[in] Mr. Thornton's house, at this very same time, a similar, yet different, scene was going on" (1.9.16). This sudden flash to a completely different house shows us that the narrator is totally capable of moving around.
One weird aspect about the point of view in North and South is that there are parts of this book where the narrator uses the word "I." This ain't third-person omniscient at all. But these incidents are so rare that you're better off calling this book third-person omniscient. One of these "I" cases happens at the end of Volume 2, Chapter 4, where the narrator says, "But [Mr. Thornton] was no great analyser of his own motives, and was mistaken, as I have said" (2.4.27).
What's going on? Well, you well know, North and South is a big fattie of a book. And when it was first published the editor was probably not able to catch all of the glitches: there was no "find and replace" in the Victorian publishing industry.
While these rogue "I's" might make you want to label this book's point of view as first-person, don't. Overall, it leans way more toward third-person omniscient.
While it might seem strange to call a novel with six deaths a comedy, that's exactly what North and South is. A comedy doesn't have to be ha-ha funny; it just has to end in a traditionally happy way, like a marriage. So let's take a look at why this is a comedy, shall we?
Margaret Hale's life has been thrown into total upheaval by her father's decision to quit his job as a clergyman and move his family to the northern English town of Milton. Margaret is a total fish out of water in this new town, mostly because she's really haughty and her traditional nicey-nice values clash with the values of people from Milton. Miltonites (Miltonians?) tend to measure the value of things with money. Margaret thinks this is way tacky.
One of these super-tacky Milton people is a dude named John Thornton, who owns a factory and is not-so-good to his employees. He proposes to Margaret and she says, "Thanks but no thanks."
Also, Margaret's brother Frederick has been exiled from England because of a mutiny he led while in the Navy. But when Margaret's mother gets super-deathly ill and calls for her baby boy to be at her deathbed, Frederick shows up in the dead of night. If the authorities catch him he'll be hanged. Mama Hale sees her son and dies (sorta) happy.
Things definitely aren't looking good.
After her mother's death, Margaret helps her brother Frederick safely escape England. She takes him to the train station. On the way to the train station they see John Thornton. Awk-ward.
While at the train station, Margaret and Frederick encounter a guy named Leonards who tries to arrest Frederick. Frederick pushes him, and escapes. Leonards dies later that night (not from getting pushed, though) and the police question Margaret about whether she was at the train station. Margaret lies and says she wasn't there, even though, yeah, she totally was.
Meanwhile John Thornton knows for a fact that she was at the train station, but keeps his mouth shut. He actually gets her off the hook.
Then Margaret's father dies a few months after her mother does. Frederick is back in Spain, living on a beach somewhere (probably). Margaret is put under the care of her godfather Mr. Bell, but she ends up living with her cousin.
She returns on a visit to her home village of Helstone, feeling totally beaten down by life.
After moving to London to live with her cousin's family, Margaret realizes that the one thing she needs to learn from her difficult experiences is to be humble. Pride has always been her greatest sin… especially when she turned down John Thornton's proposal because she thought she was too good for him. Hmm, it sounds like she hearts John Thornton.
John Thornton has had a little life lesson, too: he has seen the error of his ways and has become one of the kindest and most compassionate factory owners in all of northern England. Unfortunately, he makes a business misstep and is in danger of losing his factory. Oops.
Luckily (sort of) Margaret's fairy godfather Mr. Bell dies and she inherits all of his money. And it's a lot of money. Margaret offers to loan Thornton the funds he needs to keep his new worker-friendly factory afloat. Thornton professes his love to her once again, and she accepts. They've both changed a lot, and now they are meeting in the middle.
There you go, folks: a marriage. This is a comedy, even though the death toll is pretty dang high.
If you're feeling like griping, you could probably criticize the opening exposition of this novel for taking its sweet time. It's a full seven chapters before Gaskell introduces the central conflict of the story—namely, the Hale family's move from the peaceful southern village of Helstone to the smoky, industrial northern town of Milton.
In these early sections, we get to know our main character, Margaret Hale, through her reactions to the fancy-shmancy wedding of her cousin Edith and her love for the natural beauty of her home village of Helstone. Oh yeah, and she turns down an early marriage proposal from her cousin's brother-in-law, Henry Lennox. So we know she's strong-minded, loves nature, and can be pretty snarky about the wedding-industrial complex… stay tuned for Margret being snarky about all sorts of industrial complexes.
We can tell during these opening chapters that some sort of inner conflict is troubling Margaret's father, Mr. Hale. Margaret assumes that it's connected to her brother Frederick, who has been forced to leave England for reasons we don't fully understand yet.
We eventually find out that Mr. Hale's case of The Sads is due to the fact that the guy no longer believes in the teachings of the Church of England, even though he's a pastor. As a matter of conscience, he decides he can no longer keep his job. Instead, he uproots his family and finds work as a private tutor in the northern industrial town of Milton.
This move causes all kinds of problems for the family. Namely, both Mr. Hale and his wife Mrs. Hale die (along with three other characters), leaving Margaret very much alone. Well, almost alone. She is taken under the wing of her godfather, Mr. Bell. Margaret moves back to the south of England to live with relatives… not Mr. Bell, but her cousin Edith.
During her time in Milton, Margaret also makes the acquaintance of a Milton businessman named John Thornton. John asks Margaret to marry him, but she turns him down because 1) She thinks she's too well bred for him, and 2) She doesn't like his capitalist, selfish approach to running his factories.
It doesn't help either that John's mother can't stand Margaret's haughty attitude. As the plot unfolds, though, John tries to do a better job of treating his workers well. And Margaret (maybe because of all the freaking death in this middle chunk of the novel) becomes less haughty.
Out of nowhere, the fairy godfather Mr. Bell dies of a stroke. As we know by this point, he has made Margaret the sole beneficiary of his will, so Margaret is now a very wealthy woman. Ka-ching!
Not only that, but she's also the new landlord of Mr. Thornton, the man from Milton who once proposed to her. Oh, BTW, Thornton's business is failing. Margaret has no clue what to do with this new money, so she seeks out the advice of Henry Lennox, the other dude in the book who once proposed to her.
After learning that Mr. Thornton's business in Milton is going down the tubes, Margaret offers to loan him the money he needs to pay off his loans and keep his business going. Since leaving Milton, she has heard stories about how much more compassionate Mr. Thornton has become as a businessman. He has even constructed a dining hall at his factory so that he and his workers can eat side by side. This is the kind of thing that Margaret wants to support with her newfound wealth.
At first, Mr. Thornton is stunned at Margaret's generous offer of a loan. But then he realizes that the loan is also a way for Margaret to say that she has changed her mind about marrying him. The two of them decide to get married, even though each one says that she/he isn't good enough for the other. They know that their families won't know what to think of the marriage, but frankly, they don't really care.
Looks like it's North and South, together at last. Hooray!
We spend the early parts of the book learning about Margaret Hale's proud personality and her love for her home village of Helstone, which basically looks like a big garden. Her life gets turned upside down, though, when her father quits his job as a pastor and moves their family to the dirty northern factory town of Milton. Margaret has a very tough time adjusting to the business-minded town, where money seems to be the measure of all value.
Not long after moving to Milton, Margaret's mother falls ill. The doctor says she'll die, so Margaret writes to her brother Frederick, who is living in exile in Spain after heading a mutiny in the English Navy. Frederick returns to England at great risk to see his mother before she dies. After her death, Frederick makes a narrow escape at the Milton train station and eventually gets out of the country safely.
Meanwhile, a Milton businessman named John Thornton has fallen in love with Margaret and asks her to marry him. She refuses, though, thinking that he's not good enough for her because he doesn't aspire to anything in life other than money. He's also not really a supporter of the rights of his workers, which peeves Margaret.
Months later, Margaret's father also dies, leaving Margaret alone.
After her father's death, Margaret moves to London to live with her cousin's family. Following her father's death, a family friend named Mr. Bell has decided to look out for Margaret's best interests. To this end, he makes her the sole beneficiary of his will.
When he dies of a sudden stroke, Margaret finds herself very wealthy. She learns that since she left Milton, John Thornton has become a kind and compassionate boss. The problem is that he has also lost a lot of money and it doesn't seem like his factory will stay afloat. Oops.
When he visits London to talk about subletting his house, Margaret offers to loan him the money he needs to keep his factory going. Taking this as a profession of love, Thornton asks Margaret again if she'll marry him. This time, she says yes. D'awwww.