Study Guide

North and South Themes

  • Society and Class

    Margaret is poor, but she thinks she's too good to marry Mr. Thornton, who is rich. That's mostly because Margaret is educated and cultured and Thornton is not. Thornton's mother, though, doesn't want her son marrying a poor woman because Thornton's mom is a snob who thinks that poor people smell.

    So yeah, issues of society and class are at play in North and South. It's just not always easy to figure out what game they're playing. That's because people from the south of England live by very different values than people from the north, and questions of social class and status often get confusing in this clash of cultures. 

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Which set of social values do you sympathize with more, Margaret's or Thornton's? Why?
    2. Does one set of values "win" at the end of this book? Why or why not?
    3. How do Mr. Thornton's attitudes toward the working class change over the book? Why do they change?
    4. Who does Nicholas Higgins blame for the poor health of his daughter Bessy? What connection does it have to the issue of social class in this book?

    Chew on This

    In <em>North and South</em>, we learn that Margaret's views on social class are way too naïve and idealistic to apply to the real world.

    <em>North and South</em> is ultimately the story of the greedy Mr. Thornton learning to be more compassionate and understanding toward those who are less fortunate. 

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Even the epigraph to North and South suggests that Elizabeth Gaskell would like for the whole world to be a little more compassionate. The book's main character, Margaret Hale, would like the same thing, although she's more of a hypocrite than she might first realize.

    More specifically, she shows compassion toward the people you'd expect her to—the poor and the needy. But she has no compassion at all for members of England's new middle class, people who have built up their own businesses and who strive to make money. If anything, Margaret is extremely judgmental toward these people, and she doesn't really mature as an adult until she learns to extend compassion to them too. 

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Who gets the most compassion from Margaret Hale in the first half of this book? Why?
    2. How does Mr. Thornton's sense of compassion change in North and South? Is it for the better or for the worse? Why?
    3. What major lesson does Margaret need to learn about compassion in this book? What are the final effects of learning this lesson? Use evidence from the text to support your answer. 

    Chew on This

    <em>North and South</em> is ultimately the story of Margaret Hale learning to sympathize with bosses as much as she does with workers.

    In <em>North and South</em>, Elizabeth Gaskell shows us that compassion is the opposite of selfishness.

  • Family

    North and South is a book about values, and the source of values for every character in this book is their families. It's clear that Margaret Hale's values have been deeply influenced by her parents; the same goes for Mr. Thornton, especially when you see how much of a hold his mother has over him.

    Family provides these characters with a model of how we should treat the people around us. Mr. Thornton treats people a certain way because that's what's expected from his family, and the same goes for Margaret Hale. The problem for both these characters lies in how they relate to other people when their families have given them different versions of how to approach the world. 

    Questions About Family

    1. What is Margaret's relationship with her parents like? Why is there so much pressure on her to take care of the family's business?
    2. How does Mrs. Thornton tend to think of her son John? How much of an influence does she have over him and why?
    3. What are some scenes in this book where family pride tends to get in the way of compassion and understanding? Why does it get in the way?

    Chew on This

    In <em>North and South</em>, Gaskell sometimes criticizes the system of the family for making people unsympathetic to anyone outside their inner circle.

    In <em>North and South</em>, we learn that the purpose of family is to teach us to treat everyone we meet with compassion and respect… in other words, like family. 

  • Love

    Love is a funny thing in North and South. It's always hovering around, but it's never really fulfilled until the last half of the last page. Well, maybe that's not totally fair. Family love is definitely fulfilled at different times in the book. But romantic love is always frustrated, whether it's Henry Lennox's love for Margaret or John Thornton's love for her.

    One of the reasons this love takes so long to pan out is because Margaret Hale doesn't really know how to love in the romantic sense. So much of her attention has always been devoted to compassion for others and to love for her parents that she can't imagine the idea of ever being married. But luckily for John Thornton, that changes by the end. 

    Questions About Love

    1. What main thing does Margaret need to learn before she can allow herself to love a man like Mr. Thornton? Why?
    2. When does Mr. Thornton first realize that he's in love with Margaret? What provokes the realization?
    3. How would you describe the love that Mrs. Thornton has for her son John? Is it a positive or a negative thing? Use evidence from the text to support your answer. 

    Chew on This

    In <em>North and South</em>, we learn that love isn't something we're born knowing how to do. It's something we need to learn by getting over ourselves and being humble enough to admit we need someone else.

    In <em>North and South</em>, we learn that romantic love is great, but not as important as looking after your community.

  • The Home

    Home is where the heart is… and Margaret's heart is back in Helstone. Much of the plot of North and South centers around Margaret's inability to feel at home in her new town of Milton. The people of Milton don't share her values, the factories are noisy and the air is polluted. But the main reason Margaret doesn't like Milton is that it just isn't her hometown.

    Margaret realizes that she needs to do everything in her power to make the best of her situation, and that means making a home out of Milton. Once Milton becomes her home, she starts to overlook its shortcomings.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Why do Margaret and her family have to leave their home at the start of this novel? How does this affect the rest of the plot?
    2. What steps does Margaret take to make Milton into her new home?
    3. How does Mrs. Thornton feel about Milton? How does she tend to express these feelings when she hears people criticize her hometown?
    4. What are Margaret's feelings during her return trip to Helstone toward the end of the book? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    In <em>North and South</em>, we learn that home is wherever you are, as long as you're with loved ones.

    In <em>North and South</em>, we see the truth in the expression, "You can never go home again."

  • Pride

    In a lot of ways, the story of North and South is about Margaret Hale's journey from pride to humility. Along the way, all kinds of bad stuff happens to her, but she insists over and over again that her morals and education are too good for the town of Milton. It's only with time and thought that she can eventually see that her pride is holding her back from experiencing life to its fullest.

    Specifically, her pride has kept her from falling in love because she has always felt as though no one is good enough for her. Gaskell makes it pretty apparent that that's one thing that needs to change if Margaret's going to become the person she wants to be. 

    Questions About Pride

    1. In your opinion, where does Margaret's sense of pride come from? How early in the text can we identify it?
    2. How does Margaret's pride compare (and contrast) with Mrs. Thornton's? What is each of them specifically proud of?
    3. What causes Margaret to realize that she needs to start being more humble? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer. 

    Chew on This

    In <em>North and South</em>, we learn that pride can cause even the best of us to lose our way.

    In <em>North and South</em>, Gaskell suggests that pride is fine as long as it doesn't cause us to look down on others. 

  • Gender

    Margaret Hale is an independent and outspoken woman, especially when compared to what people would have found "normal" in Victorian England. In fact, when North and South first came out, a lot of critics criticized Elizabeth Gaskell for writing about political issues like labor relations when only men were supposed to write about that manly stuff.

    In any case, it's a good thing Gaskell created a character as strong and independent as Margaret, because it allowed her to push the boundaries of what was considered a woman's proper role in English society. 

    Questions About Gender

    1. In your opinion, how much does Margaret challenge traditional concepts of gender? How much does she reinforce them? Please usespecific evidence from the text to support your answer.
    2. How does the book portray male versus female pride? How are they different? How are they the same?
    3. Why isn't Margaret supposed to go to her mother's funeral? Is this fair in your mind?
    4. Do any characters ever try to tell Margaret to "know her place" as a woman? Who, and why?

    Chew on This

    In <em>North and South</em>, Elizabeth Gaskell shows us that the relationships between bosses and workers get a lot better once women are allowed to express their opinion on the issue of labor relations.

    In <em>North and South</em>, we learn that a strong female character can still be (and should be) flawed like anyone else. 

  • Man and the Natural World

    One major thing that marks Margaret Hale's transition from the south of England to the north is the move from nature to industry. The village of Helstone was like something out of a fairy tale, with squirrels playing and dogs barking and all that wonderful stuff. Milton, on the other hand, is an industrial wasteland of smokestacks and filthy urban streets. And with all of this modern dirt comes the moral "dirt" of people who only care about money. North and South suggests that Margaret needs to find a way to adapt to, and find beauty in, the North if she's going to make a home for herself.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Why does Margaret get offended when Henry Lennox tells her that her home village of Helstone sounds like something from a fairy tale? Whatdoes it tell us about her?
    2. Does Margaret ever get over leaving Helstone? Why or why not?
    3. What is Margaret's reaction to Helstone when she returns to it after her parents' deaths?
    4. What does the natural world symbolize to Margaret? Does its meaning change over the course of the book? Why?

    Chew on This

    In <em>North and South</em>, Elizabeth Gaskell shows us that modern industry and technology is going to ruin nature and make it impossible to enjoy living in this world.

    In <em>North and South</em>, we learn that even though industry might be messy and sometimes immoral, it is inevitable and we need to learn to live with it.