Mary Barton

Mary Barton Summary and Analysis of Chapters XXXVI-XXXVIII


Mary's family and friends make funeral arrangements without bothering Mary, who is comforted by Margaret, Job, Mrs. Wilson and Jem. Jem tells his mother that Barton is dead, but keeps the older man's confession a secret. Jem finds his former master, Mr. Duncombe, who believes in Jem’s innocence and secures him a job in Canada as an instrument maker at an agricultural college. Meanwhile, Job receives a note from Mr. Carson asking Job and Jem to come see him. Jane Wilson visits Mary and consoles the poor girl, just as Mary had done for Jane. Mary confesses her father’s guilt, although Jane does not let Jem know this until several years later.

Mr. Carson forgets his vengeful plans, although he attempts to remain haughty and aloof during Jem and Job’s visit. However, his emotion soon overcomes him and the two men cannot help but feel for him. Jem explains that the gun did belong to him, but Barton borrowed it and his admission convinces Carson that Jem is wholly innocent. Carson is struck by the desire to know what prompted Barton’s crime.

He asks Job and Jem, who reply that Barton was trying to assuage the pain of the poor. Job offers the advice that man should care for his fellow man, but Carson responds that he feels it is better for men to be self-reliant. They cannot come to an agreement about this and part ways. However, this conversation changes Carson, who decides to devote his energy to solving the social unrest that led to his son’s death. His suggestions lead to the implementation of several improvements in Manchester's employment system.

After John Barton’s funeral, Jem and Mary tell Jane Wilson about Jem’s appointment in Toronto and she heartily agrees to the family’s emigration to Canada. A few days before they leave, Mary asks Jem how he knew of Harry Carson’s attentions to her. Jem reveals that it was her Aunt Esther, and also reveals the truth that Esther is a prostitute. They resolve to find her, looking all over Manchester. Jem goes to the police and learns that Esther goes by the name 'the Butterfly'. He leaves several messages for Esther in the disreputable parts of town and returns home. A few hours later, Esther stumbles to Mary and Jem's door. They lay her in a bed and a few hours later, she dies. They bury her in the same grave as John Barton.

A few years later, Jane Wilson, Jem, Mary and their son Johnnie are living happily in a beautiful wooden house in Canada. Jem returns home from work with letters from England. Job writes that Margaret has received an operation and can see again. She and Will are to be married shortly and the three of them will visit Canada someday soon. Job jokes that his main purpose in life is to collect insects and Mary laughs and calls the old man a dear.


In Carson’s conversation with Job and Jem, he discovers that he has been wrong. He understands now that employers have a responsibility to look after their employees, to see them as fellow men and not capital. His transformation testifies to Gaskell’s belief in the power of forgiveness, and his character's transformation is representative of her belief that understanding and communication can build bridges across class divides.

Esther’s death provides closure for Jem and Mary. Gaskell used her character as a literary device - a manifestation of the dangers that awaited young Mary if she were to continue on with her wanton ways. However, from the moment that Mary realizes the purity of her love for Jem, she finds her way back onto a path of righteousness, and from then on, pursues the truth. After Jem's acquittal and John Barton's death, Mary is safely engaged to be married and about to move to Canada with Jem. Therefore, Esther has played her part, and she dies quickly after her return into the story. Mary can continue with her life, and any danger of her becoming like Esther has passed.

Esther's inevitable demise also represents the Victorian belief that woman cannot be redeemed after losing her virtue. Despite the fact that Esther regretted her desperate decision to become a prostitute, and really had no other choice - she cannot ever go back to living a normal life. Esther understands this, and considers herself a lost soul - committed to saving her niece from making the same mistakes. Similarly, John Barton not only committed murder in cold blood, another man was nearly sentenced for his crime. Both Esther and John are buried in the same grave to save money, but this also symbolizes the fact that they will both require forgiveness in the afterlife for the weak choices they made on Earth.

Meanwhile, the characters who survive in Mary Barton all continue on a path of redemption. Jem is able to escape from his past and the murder trial, finding happiness with Mary in Canada. Margaret even undergoes a miraculous operation so that she can see again (although this is a bit far-fetched) and marries Will, who also served as a purveyor of truth throughout the novel. Even Mr. Carson learns how to empathize with his employees. All of these surviving characters made difficult, selfless decisions, and are thusly rewarded. Mary could have easily accepted Harry Carson's overtures, but she fought to be with her true love. Carson forgave the man who killed his son. Jem was willing to be convicted of a murder he did not commit so that he could keep his beloved's father out of jail.

In this way, Gaskell shows that redemption is possible but difficult. Esther could not rehabilitate herself, nor could John Barton. However, life for Jem in Manchester, as an acquitted convict, would be unpleasant and difficult. The entire Wilson family must move to Canada and make a fresh start of their lives. The end of the novel testifies to the strength of life and the powerful ties of love and family.