Mr. Hale announced to his wife and daughter that he had invited Mr. Thornton to tea that evening. Mrs. Hale was displeased with this information, and wondered why that man would even want to come to their house. Margaret was also peeved at this news; she had planned to do many other things that day and was irritated at her mother's incessant complaining.
In Mr. Thornton's home a similar scene was occurring. His mother, a "firm, severe, dignified woman" was mending a long tablecloth of fine material when her son returned home. She called him in and sniffed haughtily when he said he needed to dress. She warned him against getting caught by a "penniless girl," to which Mr. Thornton laughed and replied that Margaret treated him with prideful civility flavored with contempt and there was no danger of her angling for a rich husband. Mrs. Thornton was aghast and criticized such a girl that would turn her nose up at a man of her son's quality. She muttered to herself "Despise him. I hate her!"
Mr. Thornton arrived at the Hale's home, inwardly reflecting on the differences between the room he just left and the one he was now in. The latter may have been smaller but was more comfortable and Margaret's light touch and care were apparent. Mr. Thornton could not help but watch her set the tea-cups, transfixed by the way her bracelet kept falling down and how she kept pushing it back up.
Despite Margaret's headache she knew she had to be pleasant to this friend, pupil, and guest of her father's. While the men talked after dinner she noted the differences between the two of them. While her father was slight of build and had eyes of a "languid beauty that was almost feminine," Mr. Thornton had straight brows that fell over deep-set and earnest eyes, few but firm lines on his face, and a remarkable smile that Margaret had to admire.
Mr. Thornton was telling Mr. Hale about the "might of the steam hammer" when the conversation turned to the differences between the North and the South. Mr. Thornton said that he would rather "be a man toiling, suffering –nay, failing and successless –here, than lead a dull prosperous life in the old worn grooves of what you call more aristocratic society down in the South, with their slow days of careless ease." This speech roused Margaret, and she retorted that even if there was less excitement in the South, there was certainly less suffering. She ended her angry response by saying Mr. Thornton did not understand the South, to which he gently replied that maybe she did not understand the North. She remained silent.
Mrs. Hale remarked that the North was certainly dirtier, to which Mr. Thornton agreed. There was then a discussion of politics, and Mr. Hale noted that Mr. Thornton did not seem to appreciate the legislation of Parliament affecting his management down in Milton. Mr. Thornton spoke of how men of equal station and level suddenly took "different positions of masters and men" and that these early masters had "enormous powers of wealth and command." He resented people saying when and what he could and could not sell. He saw the power of the early masters abating when more men were needed and that the battle was now fairly waged; there was no need for an umpire meddling in affairs it did not know the facts of, even if it was Parliament. Mr. Thornton also praised the system that allowed "a working man [to] raise himself into the position and power of a master."
Margaret asked him if he perceived all those who could not raise themselves up as his enemies. He responded that he saw them as their own enemies, and wondered how he could explain to her his point without reverting to a personal story. He decided on this course, however, and began to relate his own history.
He explained that at sixteen his father had died and his mother raised him and his sister. A strong and determined woman, she guided his finances, making him put aside three out of the fifteen shillings he earned at his draper's job. These habits of life, not luck or merit or talent, contributed to his economic success. The suffering on the faces of those in Milton was thus due to "the natural punishment of dishonestly-enjoyed pleasure, at some former period of their lives." Mr. Hale observed that Mr. Thornton had a good education as he could read Homer so well, but Mr. Thornton, while agreeing, saw these skills as being irrelevant for his current life.
When it was time to leave Mr. Thornton stood up to shake hands with Margaret, the custom of the place, but as she was not prepared for it (but meaning no insult) she simply bowed her head. Mr. Thornton was upset at her putative rudeness, muttering to himself that she was proud and disagreeable.
Mr. Hale asked his daughter if she was offended by Mr. Thornton having been a shop boy but she replied that his story was the best thing he said that night, especially in comparison with his despising people without considering it his duty to make them different. Mr. Hale provided more information on the man's background, explaining that the elder Thornton speculated, failed, and killed himself. No one helped them and the mother could not pay the debts. Years later when the younger Thornton had money, he quietly went about and paid off all the debts. Margaret thought this fine, but said "what a pity such a nature should be tainted by his position as a Milton manufacturer." She did not like his testing everything by a standard of wealth.
Margaret noticed that Mrs. Hale looked very tired. She had been observing this with growing fear for some time now, and saw Mrs. Hale and her trusted servant and friend Dixon whispering together mysteriously. She believed a secret was being kept from her.
One day she met Bessy Higgins in the street and asked her how she was. The girl was not well. Margaret asked her quietly if she wished to die, and Bessy replied that it would be better than this difficult life. Margaret asked more, but Bessy said that she would not answer because Margaret never came to see her and her father like she said she would. Margaret realized the girl was right and apologized, asking if she could come now. Bessy agreed and the two walked to a poor, squalid street.
In the home a tall, slatternly girl a bit younger but much heartier than Bessy was working at the wash-tub, and Nicholas was not home. Bessy could barely breathe, exhausted by her exertions. She asked Margaret sadly, "do you think such a life as this is worth caring for?" Margaret started to speak of God and how he created Bessy's life, but Nicholas appeared behind her and chastised her for preaching to his daughter. He said he only believed in what he could see and nothing more, and resented Margaret talking to Bessy about this, especially as she had lied about coming to see them when she said she would.
Bessy pleaded with Margaret to not heed her father, as he was a good man. Margaret noticed her fatigue and held her in her bosom, and kindly and softly lifted the girl's hair from her temples and bathed them with water. On her way out, after observing her tenderhearted care for his daughter, Nicholas struggled to say, "I could wish there was a God, if it were only to ask him to bless thee."
When she returned home her father informed her Mrs. Thornton, Mr. Thornton's mother, was to call the next day on Mrs. and Miss Hale. Margaret did not want to stay because she had promised Bessy she would return, but she could not do so.
Mrs. Thornton complained to her son about visiting the Hales, although she planned to go regardless of her desire not to. Mr. Thornton's response about it being good for her and his sister led her to contemplate how her daughter was quite weak, and that she much preferred her son's boldness and intellect.
She asked Fanny if she planned to go see the nurse, but Fanny said she was too tired to do so. Mr. Thornton entered and told his sister that he wanted her to visit the Hales with their mother. After he left, Fanny complained about his commanding attitude with her.
Mrs. Thornton was not favorably disposed toward the Hales, and she did not enjoy venturing much into society anyway. When she arrived at their home, Margaret was stitching up a bit of dress for Edith's baby. Margaret tried to find something to talk to Fanny about, while her mother and Mrs. Thornton discussed servants.
Margaret and Fanny spoke of music a bit, each girl not quite understanding the other's viewpoint. Fanny confided how she always wanted to go to London and how her mother was too proud of Milton. Upon realizing she was being discussed, Mrs. Thornton sniffed that she was fond of the place where she was raised. She asked if Margaret had ever seen any of the city's magnificent warehouses, and Margaret replied that she had not. Mrs. Hale added that for her part she did not like looking at factories very much.
Mrs. Thornton was offended, and stated that she was surprised they were not more curious about the goings-on in Milton. After she and Fanny left, she warned her daughter not to befriend Margaret too intimately, for she did not seem like a good sort. Fanny pouted that she was only obeying her brother's wishes and had no plans to be Margaret's close friend.
There is rarely a way to discuss Victorian literature without focusing on the question of gender. The societal structure of gender roles was all pervasive; women and men had very distinct and very rigidly adhered-to roles in their public and private lives. The expectations upon women in terms of following these pervasive norms were particularly intense. One relevant critical article on North and South and gender roles is Barbara Leah Harman's work on female public appearance in the novel.
She begins by discussing how women were not supposed to appear in public alone, as it was akin to making a spectacle of oneself. As women sought access to the public sphere in terms of voting, education, and professions as the eighteen hundreds progress, the anxiety over their presence in that sphere escalated. North and South "explores the significance of female public appearance, and it examines at the same time the meanings associated with female privacy, secrecy, and concealment...[and] reflects a sense both of its new and its potentially explosive possibilities."
The prevailing Victorian notion was that a woman's sphere must be separated from a man's for fear it would be corrupted. A woman participating in public life is compromising her role as a neutral analyst and observer and the person to whom a man can turn when he needs moral guidance. Harman looks at the legal writing of William Blackstone –the coverture laws in particular –and sees that women are not neutral but are actually nonexistent, and have no self-definition in the legal bonds of marriage. When a husband marries his wife he incorporates her and essentially eliminates his wife, "improving his own self-representation at the cost of hers." He is truly "covering" her. These laws also bled into social, cultural, and psychological realism as well: women could not move about freely, appear unincorporated, or conduct their own intercourse with the public world. Liberated women were dangerous because they would bring the public world into the private realm. This had implications of dangerous, wanton sexuality.
In terms of Gaskell's novel, it was written in a time when female reformers were seeking to "redefine female identity and to gain for women access to the public sphere, while opponents continued to define public life as a realm prohibited to women, inevitably associated with indecorous self-display and frequently with illicit sexuality and infidelity." In North and South it is clear that it is not actually possible to completely separate public and private meanings in the Victorian era. Harman mentions another critic who said the novel took a public problem and turned it into a private one by taking the industrial chaos and fashioning it into a love story. Harman agrees that her novel diverts attention from the class conflict but turns it into a gender conflict instead.
When Gaskell introduces Margaret she is a figure on which to model shawls. She is also, however, "acutely conscious and thus more appropriately an agent than a mere body emptied of power." She is positioned between Edith, the paragon of Victorian femininity, and Mr. Henry Lennox, the avatar of the public sphere. Margaret is not Edith and not a proxy for her, but she has no business of her own. In her time spent in Helstone, which is rendered almost a Garden of Eden, Margaret defines home as a place of harmonious relations. All "social relations are personal" and she wants no part of the industrial world of men, or what Friedrich Engels called "public industry." Helstone is, as Harman points out, "also, and most crucially, bound up with Margaret's maiden innocence." Her home has no class strife, no physical suffering, no chaos, no commercialism, and no sexuality. Margaret's entry into the Milton world brings her face-to-face with her sexuality.