North and South

North and South Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How do Mr. Thornton's views on the preferred relationship between masters and men evolve?

    When the reader first hears Mr. Thornton's views on the relationship between masters and men, it is apparent that Thornton is stubborn and unwilling to compromise or countenance any desire for change on the part of the men. He refers to them as fools and excoriates their ignorance and what he views as their desire to make themselves into the masters. He tells the Hales that he is under no obligation to tell the men about the larger economic reasons why their wages might be lower; only the men of capital have the right to do what they want with money. He did not believe that masters should socialize with their men, or take any interest in what the men's lives were outside of their working relationship. As the strike progressed, Thornton refused to negotiate and hired outside Irish hands to run his factory. Unfortunately for him, while the strike fails, he loses almost everything in the process. His relationship with Higgins as well as his attempts to save his flailing business lead him to embrace a more humanitarian way of doing business. He respects Higgins and listens to his suggestions, and even dines with the men in their own dining room. He is preparing to build a larger dining room when he learns he must sell his business. He has finally discovered the human element of business and is no longer focused solely on the "cash nexus."

  2. 2

    How does Margaret evolve as a character?

    Margaret is an independent, intelligent, and capable young woman, but she is also prideful and possesses strong opinions regarding the merits of the South and the perfection of Helstone, the village where she spent her earliest years. She brokers no criticism of the South and upholds its aristocratic, slower mode of living. She excoriates the North, calling attention to its rampant class struggles and emphasis on business rather than the "human interest." She is prickly when Henry Lennox seems to mock Helstone, and angry when Thornton challenges her misconceptions of the North. She does not seem to allow for the fact that manufacturers/masters are people of import in the North, and that merely because she is educated does not mean she is part of the elite. However, by the end of the novel Margaret has evolved as a character. She begins to see some of the good things about Milton and finds herself admiring the businessmen who are so self-possessed. She returns to Helstone and finds it changed, realizing that it is not a pastoral idyll. She is also able to concede that Southern living as a whole is not necessarily better than that of the North, and that it has its own shortcomings. Finally, she sloughs off her old prejudices and allows herself to fall in love with Thornton, who is an appropriate partner in life, love, and business.

  3. 3

    Why does the strike fail?

    Bessy explained to Margaret that while the men who commence strikes always start off optimistic and full of pledges that they will sustain their efforts even in the face of privation and suffering, they always come to realize the masters will always win and their efforts are in vain. Her words are prescient, for the strike does indeed fail. Higgins gives an account of its failure to Mr. and Miss Hale. He explains that the workers based their calculations off of false premises, which included believing that the men would not allow their passion to cloud their capacity to reason. They also did not expect the hiring of Irish hands. The worst problem was Boucher and the violent mob, however, who turned a neat and orderly strike into a roiling mob that lacked order and conviction. In this novel the failed strike does not result in complete failure for some of the participants, though. Higgins is able to find employment with Thornton and help that man develop a more humane approach to capitalism. Thornton learns a lesson and nearly loses his business in the process.

  4. 4

    How are Margaret and Edith compared and contrasted?

    Not only are Edith and Margaret different in appearance, they are markedly different in personality. Victorian literature often contrasted two very different types of women to call attention to the merits of one of them. Edith is objectively beautiful in a blonde, sweet, and angelic way. She possesses traditional feminine virtues of domesticity, dependence, and concern with her looks. She does not have a particularly deep intellect nor does she have the emotional capacity to deal with difficult events. She is altogether superficial, frivolous, flippant, and lacking in self-awareness. Margaret, in contrast, has a darker beauty that is informed by her keen intellect, wit, and grace. She is concerned with social, political, and religious issues. She is analytical and capable of handling weighty emotional burdens. Both of her parents rely on her to make decisions and manage the other. By the end of the novel she has embraced autonomy and the right to order her own life (which is completely shocking to Edith, who adheres to the Victorian notion of femininity which dictates that women must remain in the private sphere and rely upon men). Even Margaret's marriage to Mr. Thornton will be nothing like Edith's and Captain Lennox's, which Gaskell paints as rather vapid.

  5. 5

    Why does Mrs. Thornton dislike Margaret so intensely?

    Mrs. Thornton is one of the most interesting characters in North and South, especially as the reader constantly vacillates between disliking and admiring her. What is most compelling about her is that she is not entirely different from Margaret –both women are autonomous, hardworking, capable of repressing their emotions, prideful, and nearly unmovable in their opinions and perceptions. Mrs. Thornton was responsible for keeping her young family afloat when her husband took his own life. She spurred her son on to financial independence and nobility of character, and is fiercely jealous of any criticism of his business and/or his character. She views Milton as the place that nurtured her son and allowed him to become the man he is. She loves him immensely and is jealous of his affection. These are thus all reasons why she does not care for Margaret: she worries that her son will marry her and make her a new mistress of the house, and she is annoyed by the girl's criticism of Milton and manufacturing. Later she assumes Margaret has a moral failing in her "secret lover," which is of course actually her brother Frederick. However, despite all of these reasons she has to dislike Miss Hale, she has a grudging respect for the girl's tenacity, boldness, spirit, and intellect.

  6. 6

    How does the concept of justice figure into the novel?

    Gaskell raises several interesting questions about justice. She first demonstrates Mr. Hale's rigid and unyielding adherence to his own conscience in his refusal to adhere to the "Thirty Nine Articles" of the Church of England. Frederick also faces the issue of justice. Even though he was technically a participant in the mutiny, he was really trying to rectify a terrible situation in which his captain was endangering the men's lives. For this he was unfairly condemned. Scholar Anthony Grasso writes about this mutiny and the problem with Leonards at the train station: "Gaskell questions how our flawed and often prejudicial human judgment affects the way in which laws are carried out, the role of conscience, and the importance of civil disobedience in opposing unjust laws." Gaskell does not promote hastily formed judgments but makes a case for rational, well-thought-out decisions and opinions. She advocates just treatment of everyone, regardless of their education, social class, or profession.

  7. 7

    What are the varieties of religious belief and expression in the novel?

    Although religion is not the main focus of the novel -albeit the catalyst for the Hale family moving to Milton -there are several varieties of religious belief present. Mr. Hale is the Vicar of Helstone, but certain pervasive doubts regarding the Church of England lead him to renounce his post. He explains to Margaret that his doubts are not theological, but he can certainly be deemed a dissenter. His religion is soft and meek just like his personality; although outside the Church, he is still a paragon of justice, benevolence, and spirituality. Margaret is referred to as a "churchwoman." She is still part of the Church and does not stray far from its teachings, though she experiences one minor episode of doubt following her father's startling announcement. She espouses a traditional biblical perspective regarding suffering and the afterlife, which she imparts to Bessy Higgins. Bessy in turn draws most of her religious inspiration from the Book of Revelation, preferring to dwell on the themes of judgment and the afterlife. She has a very millenarian perspective. Frederick Hale converts to Roman Catholicism, further cementing his renunciation of England. Higgins is an atheist, though he tends to embrace religion more as the novel progresses. All in all, there are several examples of religious belief and practice.

  8. 8

    Why is Higgins often considered one of the most sympathetic characters?

    Higgins is by no means perfect: he is prickly, indignant, gruff, and somewhat depressive. However, he is also one of Gaskell's most admirable characters. As one of the leaders of the Union, he advocates a peaceful, rational strike. He is aware of the injustice faced by himself and his fellow workers and uses that righteous anger to demand change. He fervently loves his daughter and is very protective of her. He possesses a conspicuous personal dignity; he objects to Margaret's haughtiness, refuses charity, does not allow Margaret and her father to curry favor with Mr. Thornton in his name, and takes responsibility for the failed strike even though it was not his fault. In an incredible example of duty and selflessness, Higgins decides to provide for Boucher's wife and family after Boucher commits suicide. Finally, Higgins's upstanding and dignified mien helps influence Thornton's new regard for the rights and interests of his workers.

  9. 9

    What is Gaskell's style?

    Gaskell is fond of explanatory passages that focus on detail to illuminate the scene in the reader's mind. She also likes dialogue and includes many lengthy conversations between characters. Sometimes these passages of dialogue are very long, however, and take up nearly half a page. Gaskell is also a very sympathetic and non-judgmental writer; almost all of her characters exist without her censure. She writes about Higgins, Margaret, Mr. Thornton, and Mr. Hale with the same gentle touch. Only minor characters such as Fanny Thornton and Edith seem to bear a bit of her condemnation. She preferred to use regional dialects for her characters; all of the Higgineses speak in a Lancashire dialect that is somewhat difficult for the reader to follow. Overall Gaskell combines a superficial and delicate style of writing with the addressing of weighty, serious themes and concerns.

  10. 10

    What role do Mr. Hale and Frederick Hale play in the novel?

    Mr. Hale and Frederick are interesting characters in that they are not really important for their own merits, but serve an important function for the plot and the development of the main characters in the novel. It is Mr. Hale's religious doubts that propel the family to Milton in the first place; it is there that both the social and romantic aspects of the novel come to the fore. It seems like Mr. Hale will be a central character given the weight of his revelation, but he proves to be relatively unimportant except as a burden for Margaret to bear and a representative of the South. As for Frederick, most of his action takes place off of the narrative stage. He exists in the minds and words of the characters long before he ever shows up. When he does, the problematic nature of his situation leads to a dangerous encounter at the train station and a police inquiry for Margaret. This in turn leads her to lie, the guilt surrounding which occupies her mind unceasingly. It also leads to further problems between her and Mr. Thornton, which occupy the latter portion of the novel. Long after Frederick is gone his presence reverberates through the lives of the characters.