Saturday, 1 December 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (Part Two)

Please see here for my thoughts on Part One

Rumours of a possible strike circulate around Milton and Margaret is the perfect vehicle for Elizabeth Gaskell to explore both the mill owners', and the workers' perspectives. Through Mr. Thornton, Margaret learns the hard stance of those in authority, and through Nicholas Higgins we hear the arguments of the workers.  In her novel Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell was criticised for favouring the workers' perspective and excluding that of the owners.  In North and South, she puts this right, giving full voice to each economic class.

But even within each group there is not always full accord.  Mr. Thornton is not in line with some of the fast moves pulled by Mr. Slickson, another mill owner, when he intentionally tricks his workers by promising them a raise of pay, and then renegging.  We also see Boucher's opposition to the union as a cruel tyrant for insisting that he not break the strike even though his children are starving.  The strike is a complicated matter, and the sides are not clearly delineated as wholely right and wholely wrong.  Each side, and indeed each individual bears responsibility to industrial progress.

Defiance against authority is a strong theme in this section of the story.  We already know the story of Frederick's refusal to accept the authority of his cruel naval captain, and Mr. Hale's rejection of church dogma.  Both of these instances of defiance lead to loss of liberty, and ostracism from familiar and well-ordered society.  So too are the punishments for defiance against the economic authority (in the form of the mill owners).  These authority figures are collective rather than individual forces, and the behaviour we can expect from groups, Elizabeth Gaskell seems to be saying tends to be less benevolent and often far from humane than we might expect from individuals, even from the same individuals that together make up the group.  It is only the individual that can save society through individual action.

Is assisting the strikers by providing them with sustenance prolonging the strike, as the mill owners believe?  Margaret believes it is the right thing to do, and her action supports Elizabeth Gaskell's assertion that it is our moral imperative to help the helpless.  There is no clear-cut villan in this strike.  It is a stalemate, with both sides having powers and responsibilities, and neither willing to budge in its position. The real victims are Boucher's starving children and Bessy Higgins, dying at nineteen from a workplace-caused disease. Although we cannot absolve Boucher from his share of the poverty faced by his family, his children are "colateral damage"- metaphorically those innocent bystanders caught under the hooves of the triumphal emperor's horse

As the danger of a strike increases, the sound that Mrs. Thornton had bragged to Mr. Hale that she loved to hear only one chapter previous - the buzzing of the hive full of worker bees - has turned into a swarm and is gathering power. As the power of the crowd grows, it morphs from a swarm to a storm, with a "low distant roar" that develops into a "rolling tempest" with "slow-surging waves," to its "threatening crest."  And from a storm of emotion, the crowd transforms again into a ferocious animal.  When they hear Thornton, his voice is "like the taste of blood to the infuriated multitude" and when they see Thornton, "it was as the demoniac desire of some terrible wild beast for the food that is withheld from his ravening." (161).  A thousand angry eyes greet Mr. Thornton as he faces them, "men, gaunt as wolves and mad for prey."

Margaret, acting as an individual but also as a representative of her gender positions herself as a barrier between the two opposing forces during the riot.  Her womanhood tames the wild beast enough that the violence is curtailed.  She was brave enough to try to right the wrongs of the situation and to take action where she could to ease suffering.  Trying to communicate to both sides, Margaret is able to peel away the collective power of the crowd, and as individuals they respond by retreating.  But the irony is rife: Margaret speaks to the crowd as individuals whilst defending one man, yet caring less for that one man than for any of the men in the crowd.

The aftermath of the riot is all about the release of passion by those who have most valiantly been able to keep self-control throughout the events of the afternoon.  Thormton, a master of stern resolve collapses in romantic passion for Margaret and general agitation at her return home:
[Mrs. Thornton] was a little startled at the evident force [Mr. Thornton] used to keep himself calm.  She was not sure of the nature of the emotions she had provoked.  It was only their violence that was clear.  Was it anger?  His eyes glowed, his figure was dilated, his breath came thick and fast.  It was a mixture of joy, of anger, of pride, of glad surprise, of panting doubt; but she could not read it.  Still it made her uneasy, - as the presence of all strong feeling, of which the cause is not fully understood or sympathised in, always has this effect.  (164)
 Margaret too is in a passion, but her's is an overwhelming sense of shame at having exposed herself in public in such a manner:
I, who hate scenes - I, who have despised people for showing emotion - who have thought them wanting in self-control - I went down and must needs throw myself into the melee, like a romantic fool! (172)
 Both Mr. Thornton and Margaret have already been well established as characters who are fully in control of their own emotions and actions.  Mr. Thornton scorns those who lose their self-control, while Margaret fears, or shys away from any evidence of indigence or slovenly behaviour.  After their greatest triumphs of bravery, they each give way to their emotions.  When Margaret goes to bed, "she releases her strong will from its laborious task.  Till morning she might feel ill and weary."

The day after the riot, passions are still running high.  Mr. Thornton is filled with romantic passion for Margaret, and with encouragement, ironically from his mother, he proposes.  Margaret's anger is enflamed, and when she strikes out, they both try with difficulty to conceal their powerful emotions.  He succeeds in keeping control of himself until he expresses his love for Margaret and then he lays claim to the emotional side of his character, a part he has too long repressed; "I am a man.  I claim the right of expressing my feelings."  For almost any other man this would be a statement of fact.  For Mr. Thornton, it is a manifesto for the new manner in which he is going to live his life.  "Now I love, and will love." (178)  Now that his emotions have taken their rightful place in his life, he will have to work even harder to keep them below the surface, as he promises Margaret he will do.

At the conclusion of Part One, we are left with the Victorian equivalent of a Hardy boy trapped in a breached submarine with one inch of air and a snagged pant leg.  We have a rejected marriage proposal, two dying invalids and a potentially life threatening visit from an exiled son.

Tune in next time...

Please see here for my thoughts on Part Three.

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