"The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don't know, they ought to know. We're their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay as Dives and Lazarus."
Elizabeth Gaskell believed that if wealthy people did not help the poor, it was because they were ignorant. She made it her purpose to inform the upper classes of the wretched living conditions that factory workers faced. John Barton's speech has tinges of Communist ideology, although Communism was not developed in England during Gaskell's time. John Barton and Gaskell both believe in improving the working class life and each strives to attain this, he through unionizing, she through writing. Gaskell falls back on Christian principles with the Dives and Lazarus parable, which tells the story of a happy poor man in heaven and a cursed rich man in hell. Here, Gaskell separates her own opinions from John Barton's by promising a better afterlife following earthly struggles. Barton, meanwhile, is present, fighting the injustices that have suppressed him and his colleagues - with little mention of a comeuppance in the afterlife.
"She had early determined that her beauty should make her a lady; the rank she coveted the more for her father's abuse; the rank to which she firmly believed her lost Aunt Esther had arrived."
While Gaskell strives for improved living conditions, she is also realistic about the impermeability of Victorian class-structure. Characters who strive to overreach their appropriate social position come to bad ends. Esther provides a striking warning against this behavior, but Mary is also tempted to use her beauty to attain social status - thinking it her only option. However, Gaskell makes a point that wealth and beauty do not necessarily result in happiness. Instead, virtue and a kind heart make a woman a true lady, regardless of her financial status. Through Mary Barton, the titular heroine learns to be content with the she position is born into and she eventually finds happiness and stability, which is enough for her.
"Once, when she asked him as he sat, grimed, unshaven, and gaunt after a day's fasting, over the fire, why he did not get relief from the town, he turned around, with grim wrath, and said, 'I don't want money, child! Damn their charity and their money! I want work, and it is my right. I want work.'"
John Barton's insistent desire to earn his living coincides with a respectable Victorian work ethic, although his language becomes improper. In most areas, local parish boards had some money to allocate to families who desperately needed funds. Mrs. Davenport is one of these recipients. However, John Barton shows his pride in not wanting to accept charity. He also knows that others who are truly unable to work should get the money because they lack an alternative. Moreover, Barton declares that working is his right. This notion of the right to work stems from a basic Trades' Union philosophy. Workers believed that their labor was their bargaining chip and they could exercise or withdraw that power as they saw fit. Barton is a living embodiment of early union ideals.
"'What shall I do? How can I keep her from being such a one as I am; such a wretched, loathsome creature! She was listening just as I listened, and loving just as I loved, and the end will be just like my end…God keep her from harm! And yet I won't pray for her; sinner that I am! Can my prayers be heard? No! they'll only do harm. How shall I save her?'"
As a friendless prostitute, Esther has few options. Her profession limits her agency and voice, which are already limited because of her gender. She hardly dares believe that God will even listen the prayers of a sinner like her. In Gaskell's England, there were downtrodden members of society who were outright rejected from any kindness - especially women with loose morals. However, this lack of communication creates more strife and disregards the Christian principles that Gaskell believes will remedy all social ills. However, Gaskell cannot separate Esther from her status as a fallen woman. She has gone too far and all she can do is serve as a warning to other women, like Mary, against a life of sin, no matter how desperate they become.
"But before you blame too harshly this use, or rather abuse, try a hopeless life, with daily cravings of the body for food. Try, not along being without hope yourself, but seeing all around you reduced to the same despair, arising from the same circumstances; all around you telling…that they are suffering and sinking under the pressure of want. Would you not be glad to forget life, and its burdens? And opium gives forgetfulness for a time."
Drug addiction, including alcoholism and opium use, ran rampant in Victorian England. Opium became especially popular in the working class because it was cheaper than food and had the effect of numbing fatigue and hunger pangs. However, these addictive opiates deteriorated the users' health at an alarming rate. Gaskell enters her authorial opinion onto the page and asks the reader to empathize with John Barton instead of judging him. This aligns with her larger goal in Mary Barton, which is to inform readers of a shared human experience across classes.
"I'm an old friend of hers and her father's; and I just wished to know if you mean to marry the girl. Spite of what you said of her lightness, I ha' known her long enough to be sure she'll make a noble wife for any one, let him be what he may; and I mean to stand by her like a brother; and if you mean rightly, you'll not think the worse on me for what I've now said; and if--but no, I'll not say what I'll do to the man who wrongs a hair of her head. He shall rue it to the longest day he lives, that's all. Now, sir, what I ask of you is this. If you mean fair and honorable by her, well and good: but if not, for your own sake as well as hers, leave her alone, and never speak to her more."
Jem's desire to protect Mary Barton's reputation from Harry Carson relates back to the code of chivalry and maidenly modesty which were important to Victorian moralists. Most of all, Jem wants to save Mary from shame and disgrace by making sure she maintains her feminine virtue before getting married. Jem's selfless actions epitomize true love - he is willing sacrifice his own happiness for Mary's. Carson's disregard for Mary's virtue is a symptom of his general disregard for the working class. Gaskell, meanwhile, upholds standards of morality in both upper and lower classes and celebrates those who protect this standard.
"They forgot that the strike was in this instance the consequence of want and need, suffered unjustly, as the endurers believed; for, however insane, and without ground of reason, such was their belief, and such was the cause of their violence. It is a great truth that you cannot extinguish violence by violence."
Gaskell believed that the primary conflict between industrial employers and employees stemmed from misunderstanding. Industrial strikes were desperate measures brought about by starving children and crying wives, not because working men simply wanted to prove a point. The masters often saw only the anger that the workers' frustration begot. Gaskell encourages the employers and employees to understand each other. She knew that the cycle of violence could only end when this schism was bridged.
"'I told him, and told him to leave off thinking on thee; but he wouldn't be led by me. Thee! Wench! Thou wert not good enough to wipe the dust off his feet. A vile, flirting quean as thou art…Thou sets what comes of light conduct, Mary! It's thy doing that suspicion has lighted on him, who is as innocent the babe unborn. Thou'lt have much to answer for if he's hung. Thou'lt have my death too at they door."
At first, Mary Barton and Jane Wilson have an uncomfortable relationship as opposed to the Bible's Ruth-and-Naomi ideal. Jane's impatience causes Mary a great deal of grief and frustration. This scene also testifies to the fragility of a woman's reputation. Light flirting and pretty smiles were seen as almost tantamount to prostitution. Mary receives the blame for Harry's death and Jem's arrest simply because she is a woman. Women were often wrongly blamed for causing men to do wrong, an enduring result of the Adam and Eve tale. Jane does not blame Harry Carson or Jem for the murder rap - but sees Mary's "vile" flirtation as the root of the evil.
"Oh, why did she ever listen to the tempter? Why did she ever give ear to her own suggestions, and cravings after wealth and grander? Why had she though it was a fine thing to have a rich lover?"
Mary's punishes herself harshly for her flirtation with Harry Carson. At this point, Mary has realized the errors of her behavior and made actions to correct the wrong she has done. Her development into adulthood hinges upon these realizations. Mary sees now that virtue and goodness are worth more than riches and rank.
'…when God gives a blessing to be enjoyed, He gives it with a duty to be done; and the duty of the happy is to help the suffering bear their woe.'
In Job Legh's final conversation with Mr. Carson, he explains why John Barton was driven to murder Carson's son, Harry. Job tells the wealthy man about the deleterious living conditions of the working class and the pain of seeing loved ones struggle against sickness and hunger. Job is finally able to communicate what the workers were unable to tell their employers - and they had no bargaining chip other than withdrawing their labor. Gaskell believed in fraternity and a shared humanity. Her goal in writing Mary Barton was to inform the upper classes that they have a responsibility to alleviate the suffering of those people who are less fortunate than they are.
Mary Barton Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Mary Barton is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Esther's role is that of a mentor. Her purpose in returning to Manchester is one of experience and love. She is determined to save Mary from her own mistakes..... to guide her on a happy path and reveal the effects of her own choices. Esther,...