Mrs. Thornton ceased her visits and Mr. Thornton came rarely, and only spent time in the study with Mr. Hale. It was a dreary, depressing time. Margaret worked with the Boucher children but took little pleasure from it. In March they learned of Frederick's marriage. Henry Lennox felt there was nothing to do for Frederick, and Frederick vehemently denounced his own country and wished to "unnative" himself. He wrote often, as did Dolores, and her letters were interesting, charming, and ingratiating.
Mr. Hale experienced some trouble breathing, which bothered him. It was suggested that he visit Mr. Bell in Oxford and he agreed. Margaret was flabbergasted by the sense of lightness she felt after her father departed –"it was astonishing, almost stunning, to feel herself so much at liberty; no one depending on her for cheering care if not for positive happiness." She had stuffed her own cares away for so long and could now study their nature and find a way to turn them into peace.
She learned from her servant Martha that Fanny Thornton was to be married to a rich gentleman who had mills near Hayleigh. She visited the Higgins and spoke with Nicholas for a bit; he said Thornton was not as bad a master as he had thought.
Margaret also read several letters, some from Henry Lennox on Frederick. She felt refreshed in her solitude but wondered about fixing her friendship with Mr. Thornton.
Out in Oxford, Mr. Hale was thinking of his daughter and trying to regain his health. He spoke with Mr. Bell on his church resignation and Margaret. He wondered what would become of her if he died, and assumed she would go live with the Lennoxes. Mr. Bell asked who they were, and after receiving the answer, explained to Mr. Hale that everything he had would be at Margaret's service, that "your daughter shall be the principal charge in my life."
The next morning a servant found Mr. Hale deceased in his bed; his face was beautiful and beatific in death. Mr. Bell was shocked and immensely saddened and tried to process this stunning event. He immediately took a train back towards Milton.
Mr. Thornton happened to be on the same train and the men sat together. Mr. Bell told Mr. Thornton the news, and the latter was horrified. He asked what might become of Margaret. Mr. Bell spoke of how he wanted to take care of her but there were "those Lennoxes!" Mr. Thornton asked about them, and Mr. Bell gave a short summary and mentioned Henry Lennox, a brother of the Captain's who might pursue Margaret. Both men were quiet in their thoughts. Mr. Bell asked Mr. Thornton where he had been, and he said he was in Havre trying to figure out why cotton prices were so high.
When Mr. Bell arrived at the Hale house, Margaret guessed instinctively what had happened and burst out, "Oh! Don't tell me! I know it from your face! You would have sent for me –you would not have left him –if he were alive! Oh papa, papa!"
Margaret's grief did not manifest itself in tears or hysterics; she lay down prostrate and would not move or cry or eat or reply in anything other than a whisper. Mr. Bell could not leave her alone and asked Dixon if Edith could come, but Edith was nearing her confinement for pregnancy. Mr. Bell asked about Mrs. Shaw, but Dixon said she would not want to leave Edith. Mr. Bell wrote Mrs. Shaw a stern letter telling her she had to come, and it was the severity of the tone that made Mrs. Shaw respect its writer and decide to come to Milton.
Edith reminded her mother that Margaret must come back to live with them. Mrs. Shaw arrived, derisively looking at these environs in which her niece lived. As soon as Margaret saw her aunt the tears began to fall –she saw her mother's face in her aunt's.
Mr. Thornton stopped by the house and spoke with Mr. Bell for a brief time. He invited Mr. Bell to stay in one of his many empty rooms rather than get a hotel. The two men walked toward the Thornton house, and Mr. Bell spoke of Margaret's intention to leave a place "where she had suffered so much." Hearing this depressed Mr. Thornton. Of course Margaret had reasons to dislike Milton but Mr. Thornton found every moment of the last two years with her here a "royal time of luxury, with all its stings and contumelies."
Mrs. Thornton was exceedingly formal and polite to her son's guest; she was always gracious to his friends in his own house. Mr. Bell spoke a bit bitterly of the Lennoxes and their claim on Margaret and claimed that things would be different if Frederick was not abroad. Mr. Thornton asked who Frederick was, startled at this new name. Mr. Bell looked a tad surprised that he had never been mentioned, but explained that Frederick was the Hales' son and lived in Spain on account of the mutiny. Mr. Thornton asked if he had not been in Milton at the time of his mother's death but Mr. Bell said that was impossible. Mr. Thornton mentioned the young man he saw Margaret with and Mr. Bell surmised that that was Henry Lennox.
Mr. Bell slyly asked Mr. Thornton if he did not have feelings for Margaret, but the mill owner would not admit them to the other man, even though the feelings were there. They began speaking of landlord and tenant issues, and Mr. Thornton mentioned how he was building a dining room for his laboring men. He said his new hand, Higgins, approved of this scheme and was a helpful man to have about. One day Thornton had even dined with his men, and it was a pleasurable experience for all.
Mrs. Shaw detested Milton and encouraged her niece to get ready to leave as soon as possible. Margaret received a letter from Mr. Bell that apologized for his having to return to Oxford to take care of some business. He explained to her that she would be receiving his goods and money when he died (not that he planned to do that any time soon). He provided a few details on the money and then said she might "wonder what right the old man has to settle your affairs for you so cavalierly? I make no doubt you have. Yet the old man has a right. He has loved your father for five and thirty years; he stood beside him on his wedding-day; eh closed his eyes in death. Moreover, he is your godfather...and the old man has not a known relation on earth...and his whole heart is set and bent upon this one thing, and Margaret Hale is not the girl to say nay. Write by return, if only two lines, to tell me your answer." Margaret weakly responded "Margaret Hale is not the girl to say him nay."
The next day, although Mrs. Shaw was reluctant, she accompanied Margaret on her two goodbye visits. She did not get out of the carriage when Margaret went to the Higgins home. She said goodbye to Mary, who was disconsolate at her leaving. Margaret asked for a trinket or something to remember Bessy by, and chose a simple drinking cup. Nicholas was not there.
The aunt and niece then went to Mrs. Thornton's house, where Mrs. Shaw did get out. Margaret was nervous at this goodbye. Mrs. Thornton was a bit softened towards Margaret now that she was going away. She was even further ingratiated toward her when the girl said she apologized for her manner last time they spoke and thanked her for her kindness. She added that although she could not explain anything she hoped Mrs. Thornton would not continue believing her conduct was unbecoming. Her manner caused Mrs. Thornton to finally believe her and she said they would no longer speak of it.
Mr. Thornton came in. His thoughts so occupied him that he barely noticed when Margaret and Mrs. Shaw were ready to depart. On that same doorstep where Margaret threw her arms around him to protect him, the two bid goodbye. His voice betrayed no tone of sadness or emotion, but "none in his household saw Mr. Thornton again that day."
That evening Higgins came by to bid farewell. She said that he, more than anyone else, would remember her and her father. She gave him her father's bible because she knew he would have wanted Higgins to have it. She also pressed some money for Boucher's children in his hand, and the goodbye was said.
Margaret now had time, in the “extreme quiet” of life on Harley Street, to think about the events of the last two months. Life was simple and well-oiled. She almost felt a little guilty at thinking about how her Helstone life, and even Milton, was more of home than this. She fell into her old habit of “watching, and admiring, and ministering” to Edith. Her thoughts often returned to Milton and she was surprised at how she compared the two locales. She felt unsatisfied and lazy here. Her days were not packed with anything significant. Edith tried to tell her that she would feel better when the dinner parties resumed, but Margaret secretly knew she would not.
She enjoyed spending time with Captain Lennox but wondered at his fastidious obsession with his wife’s dress and appearance. She looked forward to Dixon’s return from the old home in Milton where she had been wrapping up their affairs, for “it had appeared a sudden famine to her heart, this entire cessation of any news respecting the people amongst whom she had lived for so long.”
One morning when she was alone reading letters, thinking about her old life, Mr. Bell was announced. She jumped up, startled and pleased. He mentioned that he had come up on the train from Milton and Mr. Henry Lennox was on it. She asked her godfather what he thought of the barrister. He asked her why she did not ask about Mr. Thornton since “he has proved himself a very active friend of yours.” She asked about him and his mother and Mr. Bell said they were well but Mr. Thornton was annoyed with all the preparation for Fanny’s wedding.
After tea Henry Lennox came. Margaret and he were both flummoxed by the other but Margaret recovered her composure first. She asked about Frederick and they spoke of his case for a few minutes. Mr. Bell was surprised when it was mentioned Frederick was in London, remembering how he denied that to Mr. Thornton.
Mr. Lennox said he would return tomorrow to speak with Mr. Bell and Margaret about the particulars of Frederick’s case. Mr. Bell stood up to leave but Margaret grew apprehensive about being alone with Henry and implored her godfather to stay and meet Edith, who was like a sister to her. He noticed her look and agreed to do so.
Mr. Bell walked out into the street with Henry Lennox when the meeting with the Lennoxes was over. Mr. Bell remembered Margaret’s look and asked Lennox how he thought Margaret was looking, as they had known each other for some time. He replied “remarkably well” and said he was sorry to hear of the “annoyance” her father had caused her. Mr. Bell objected to this term, saying Mr. Hale “behaved in the most conscientious manner.” Mr. Lennox spoke of how he did not truly need to leave his post but country clergymen were so isolated and “they are very apt to disturb themselves with imaginary doubts as to the articles of faith…their lives are such as very often to produce either inordinate self-sufficiency, or a morbid state of conscience.”
Mr. Bell grew more and more annoyed and Mr. Lennox tried to mollify him by speaking well of Mr. Hale.
One of the most ubiquitous questions in the criticism of North and South is the degree to which Gaskell created a "love story" or a "social-problem novel," or if she successfully fused both. Rosemarie Bodenheimer, one of the most esteemed Gaskell critics, believes that the novel is not only one or the other, but is truly a novel about change and the confusion and processes of responses and accommodation that go along with it. Social change is personal change and the novel is neither completely concerned with social problems or with the love story component. It is not a formally perfect novel but it does possess a remarkable coherence and structural strength.
Some critics were not fond of the quick succession of opening scenes and environments –Harley Street, Helstone, the removal to Milton –but Bodenheimer sees this as establishing the consistency of the narrative and emphasis on change. The idea of change is evident in the perception of the North and South. Margaret alters her views on the merits of the South and develops a much more realistic assessment of life in that region. Absorbing change is demonstrated through the initial arrival in Milton, which is done through the "adjustment of vision" and the "scenes...recorded in fluid terms which stress the mental activity of confronting and absorbing something new." Margaret is trying to come to terms with something and someplace new, and Gaskell "renders the condition of intelligent openness without judgment."
Bodenheimer also discusses class. Margaret's encounter with the masses of Milton laborers and her discomfort with the way the men looked at her results in defensiveness against class fears and are linked to fears about sex and violence. Margaret is challenged in her class assumptions when Higgins invites her to his house because she is lonely and friendly. Personal and social concerns are conflated in the chapter "Masters and Men" where the Hales and Mr. Thornton argue about the relationship between laborers and their master; "the social dialogues are dramatic –that is, truly novelistic –scenes in which the pressures of personal history can be heard, and the contradictions inherent in positions felt." Margaret and Mr. Hale argue their points from a very person perspective rooted in their own recent experiences.
Gaskell's desire for openness in industrial relations is embodied in the character of Higgins, who possesses a "genuine intelligence and autonomy" and "is always represented with the respect warranted by his ability to think, learn, and change." He is a political spokesman just like Mr. Thornton is. The novel does not espouse the idea that labor and capital are two diametrically opposed interests that must be expressed in class struggle. Gaskell does not support violent strikes, and depicts the Union as "admirable and intelligently directed, and the strike is justified by the despotism of the masters." Unfortunately, some workers like Boucher cannot afford to strike, and Higgins's union can also oppress the very poor. Overall, Gaskell's views on ideal industrial relations are symbolized in the dining room idea of Thornton's. The boundaries between masters and men are made more permeable, and truth, respect, and openness become hallmarks of Marlborough Mills.
Thus, personal and social vision are equally weighted. The love story of Margaret and Thornton "is an account of deep confusion in a time of personal change and revision. Moreover, the issues in Margaret's emotional economy are closely related to those of the social plot." She deals with authority, autonomy, and gender role issues. She is a "fully responsible human being" and is continually forced to make important decisions, often under pressure. When she embraces Mr. Thornton and his love at the end, she has also saved his business and his new humanitarian way of running that business.