One evening in early May, crowds of factory workers and their families walk home after a holiday in the quiet and serene Green Heys Fields, just outside of Manchester. Among the groups of people, two men and their wives meet and exchange greetings of old friendship. The first man, John Barton, accompanies his tearful pregnant wife, Mrs. Mary Barton, and the second man, George Wilson, is joined by his wife, Jane Wilson, and their twin baby sons. George inquires after Mary sister's Esther, who has recently disappeared. This query upsets Mrs. Barton, so John instructs the women to take a seat on the grass and walks off with Wilson to chat.
John believes that Esther, who is extremely pretty, hopelessly vain, and spoiled by her older sister, ran off with an admirer after John harshly criticized her wayward values. Barton vows that his daughter Mary will not work in a factory because financial independence is dangerous for young women. George questions whether or not John should still call his daughter "little Mary," even though she is a teenager. John claims that his daughter will never be a self-involved gentlewoman because he cannot accept an upper class that does nothing to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Barton angrily reflects on the disparity of wealth in their community. The men return the subject of Esther, for whom Barton has searched for in vain only to learn that after a final Sunday night visit to her family, she left town in a hackney coach. Barton worries for his wife, who is distraught over Esther's disappearance.
Wilson and Barton soon move to rejoin their wives and Wilson laments that the two men's families are no longer neighbors. Recognizing Barton's troubles, George offers the help of his sister, Alice Wilson, who still resides in the court where the Bartons live. Suddenly, a thirteen year old Mary Barton runs by and seventeen year old Jem Wilson (George's eldest son) snatches a kiss. Mary indignantly slaps his face. George ends the quarrel by asking each teenager to take one of the twin babies and lovingly complains about the trials of having children and being poor.
The men and their respective children approach their chatting wives and begin their homeward walk, planning to take tea at the Bartons' house. As they approach the house, two boys tease Jem about having a sweetheart (meaning Mary) and she angrily refuses to speak to him. Back at the Bartons' house, John stokes the fire while Mrs. Barton prepares tea in the modest yet comfortably appointed dwelling. Mrs. Barton sends Mary to fetch supplies for the tea, which reflects that the present time is relatively prosperous for factory workers. Her mother also tells Mary to invite Alice Wilson to tea. Alice joins the gathering after picking herbs in the fields all day. While everyone enjoys the meal, Alice raises a toast to absent friends, which reminds Mrs. Barton of her absent sister, bringing her to tears. The Wilsons awkwardly leave the house, but not before Alice begs Mrs. Barton's pardon. The older Mary graciously forgives Alice because she knows no harm was intended.
Much later that night, John Barton implores a neighbor to help him because his wife has gone into labor. Barton goes to fetch the doctor who comes promptly only to find that both mother and unborn child are dead. The doctor blames the death on a shock to Mary's system and John Barton stores away this knowledge for another time. A flood of grief consumes young Mary and John Barton, but John wisely sends Mary to bed while he thinks of funeral arrangements. John's nature changes that night as he dwells on his hate for Esther - whom he blames for his wife's death. He grows more stern and hard, but not to Mary, with whom he maintains a loving bond.
Two years elapse and Mary grows headstrong due to her father's indulgence of her self-willed, independent spirit. She takes charge of household arrangements. Meanwhile, Barton occupies himself as an active member of the Trades' Union, growing more embittered towards the upper classes who all but ignore the working man's plight. To make matters worse, Barton's employer, Mr. Hunter, dies and all the hands in the mill lose their jobs. Barton cannot find work anywhere else, nor can he buy food on store credit. As Barton contemplates stealing to feed his young son Tom, who is dying of scarlet fever, he sees Mrs. Hunter leave the shop laden with luxury foods. Angrily, Barton returns home to find his son dead. He channels this anger into his participation in the Trades' Unions and Chartism. A year later, Barton pays for 16-year-old Mary to be an apprentice dress-maker to Miss Simmonds for two years. Meanwhile, Mary has grown very beautiful and decides that her beauty will make her a lady, like she imagines her Aunt Esther to be.
Another year passes, and Mary laments the absence of her mother’s guidance as she becomes a young woman. Jem Wilson, now a young man, works in one of the great foundries as an engineer. One evening, Mary runs into Alice Wilson, who invites the girl to tea. There, Mary meets a fellow seamstress, Margaret Jennings, who lives with her grandfather, old Job Legh, in the rooms above Alice's cellar-home. Mary's youthful beauty stuns the plain and careworn Margaret, and the two girls become friends. Meanwhile, Alice recounts her story of leaving home to work as a domestic servant in Manchester, and, as a result, missing the death of her mother. Alice expresses her wish to see the home of her youth once more. She mentions her nephew, Will, the son of her dead brother Tom, who is now a sailor. Finally, Alice asks Margaret, to sing for Mary - who is struck by Margaret's angelic voice. When Margaret hears her grandfather come home, she hurries upstairs, bringing Mary to meet the old man. Job Legh greets them warmly. After an agreeable evening with the odd pair, Mary returns home and tells her father about her visit.
As time goes by, Mary and Margaret become close friends, as do John Barton and Job Legh. Mary trusts Margaret and tells her all of her secrets, except one. Mary has a handsome and gallant lover whom she wishes to marry, but does not love. Meanwhile, Mary treats Jem with cold contempt, even though her father approves of him as a match for his daughter. One evening, Mary and Margaret finish some extra sewing work for a greengrocer’s widow, Mrs. Ogden. They discuss the purpose of mourning wear to distract a widow from her grief and Alice's innate goodness. Margaret promises to tell Mary a secret of her own, remembering Alice’s advice that an anxious mind is not a holy one. Margaret tearfully tells Mary that she is going blind. A doctor has told her not to sew anymore, but Margaret must continue in order to earn a living. There is a chance that she could be paid to sing, though, and she has been taking singing lessons from Jacob Butterworth, a local weaver turned singer.
Commotion outside interrupts the girls' conversation and they learn that Carson’s mill is ablaze. They run to join the crowd gathering around the burning building and learn that two men, including George Wilson, are trapped inside. Jem Wilson crosses a rickety ladder between the burning factory and an adjacent building. He returns carrying his father over his shoulder and then reenters the building to save the other man. Meanwhile, Mary has fainted from the heat and anxiety. She awakens and the girls return home, meeting George along the way. He recounts the adventure and begs Mary to be kind to Jem. Mary tells her father of the events and he declares that if Jem wanted to marry Mary tomorrow, he could. Mary and Margaret spend the rest of the evening working on their sewing.
The novel begins in a pastoral setting - an image that Gaskell associates with prosperity and wholesomeness. However, the setting quickly shifts to the booming industrial town of Manchester, where there is a long and brutal history of class division - including the bloody Peterloo massacre of 1819. Gaskell introduces this contrast with her in-depth descriptions of the calm and beautiful scenery in the Green Heys fields, followed by the gradual return to town and into the the Bartons' modest abode. This marked contrast between field and factory emphasizes the misery of the lower classes who spent their days in dusty cotton mills.
In these opening chapters, Gaskell provides a prelude to several of the events that will occur within the novel. John Barton is the protagonist - serious, intelligent and thoughtful, although the status of hero cannot be conferred upon him unreservedly. The playful slap that Mary gives Jem alludes to their future relationship, which will be uncertain for several years. Most importantly, Gaskell introduces the early comparison between Esther and young Mary. Esther, who attempts to rise above her station in life and pays dearly for it, is the shadowy warning of what Mary might become if she, too, dreams of becoming a lady. This is one of the many contradictions that is common in Gaskell’s writing. Gaskell bemoans the disparity between social classes, and yet, poor characters who strive to enter a higher class meet unfortunate fates. However, this was a realistic opinion that many working-class people held during Gaskell's time, and she aims to present the society as honestly as possible, with all its inherent inconsistencies.
The tea party at the Barton house illustrates the warmth between working- class friends and families and their mutual hospitality, although there is often little to share. Gaskell uses this scene of domestic happiness, partly as a contrast to the misery that awaits the Barton family, but also to show her readers that working class people can be kind, generous and respectable. By revealing the humanity in working- class families, Gaskell furthered her socio-political agenda - to garner sympathy amongst her wealthier readers for those who are less fortunate.
The death of Mary’s mother introduces the theme of the fragility of life, which is common in Gaskell's work. Without his wife's guiding influence, John Barton is left to make decisions based on hunger and desperation rather than morality. Furthermore, young Mary becomes sexually vulnerable because she has no feminine mentor during formative years. Her apprenticeship to a dress-maker provides another example of Barton’s, and perhaps Gaskell’s, contradicting beliefs about class. John refuses to let his daughter work in a factory, because he wants a better life for her. Yet his bitter hatred of the upper classes prevents any chance for Mary to rise in society.
Finally, Mary finds a feminine mentor in Margaret Jennings, who is a sensible and sweet seamstress who is going blind. Through Job Legh, Gaskell presents yet another uncommon working class archetype. Legh is an intellectual, despite his poverty. Alice Wilson is yet another example of Gaskell's efforts to show how goodness can thrive in the lower classes - she is caring and humble, and quite knowledgable about her own particular vocation.
The fire at the end of Chapter 5 provides an opportunity for Jem to be heroic and adds another facet to his relationship with Mary, which will be one of the driving narrative forces throughout the rest of the novel. In addition, the fire as reveals a negative side of the mill-owners and plays into Gaskell's social critique of the class divide. She emphasizes the collective power of the millworkers through the character of John Barton, who wants to change the situation of all millworkers, not just improve his own lot in life. In contrast, Mrs. Hunter, the millowner's widow, continues to benefit from the mill, purchasing expensive food items for a party while all the newly unemployed workers struggle to feed their children.