North and South

North and South Summary and Analysis of Chapters XVII-XX


Chapter VII

Margaret stepped outside and found that the air of a busy street put a bit of lightness in her step and cheer in her young heart. She decided to visit Bessy. Nicholas was there and he and Margaret began talking about the strike. Margaret explained that she was ignorant because there were no strikes in the South. Nicholas was rather prickly but answered her questions. He said people in the South may not strike but they were "spiritless, down-trodden men" and that the men in the North knew when they had had enough. Margaret said the South had its own problems, but that the men there had too much sense to strike. Bessy was against striking, but her father said they were doing it because five or six masters decided against paying the wages they had been paying even though they were getting rich. Margaret wondered why the laborers did not ask the masters why they did it, and Nicholas laughed contemptuously. He replied that masters simply used the excuse of laborers not knowing anything about the state of trade to do what they wanted.

Nicholas mentioned the name Thornton and Margaret started, asking if it was the same Mr. Thornton that she knew. Nicholas said that he was stubborn and worth fighting. Bessy sighed over this conversation and wished that this fighting would cease in her last days. Nicholas went outside to smoke his pipe and Bessy worried about her father, especially as he and the other men were always so hopeful at the beginning of strikes but then became morose and irrational as they failed. Bessy went so far as to say Margaret knew nothing of want or care, but Margaret hotly responded that her own personal life was not easy –she had an ill mother and a brother who could never come home for fear of death. Bessy humbly begged her pardon. Margaret rose to leave and told Bessy that the young sick girl did her good. Bessy was surprised, for she thought "the good-doing was on the side of gentlefolk." After Margaret left, Bessy thought about her friend, musing, "I wonder if there are many folks like her down in the South. She's like a breath of country air, somehow. She freshens me up above a bit."

Chapter VIII

Margaret returned home to find her father nervous about her mother, and did her best to allay his fears. He visited his wife upstairs and was cheered by her smile and appearance, and felt better about the situation.

A formal invitation arrived from Mrs. Thornton for the three Hales inviting them to dinner. Mrs. Hale could not go but fervently wished her husband and daughter to attend.

That evening Mr. Thornton sat with his mother and sister and inquired who had responded to their invitation. Several invitees were mentioned, including the Hales (but excepting Mrs. Hale). Fanny, Mr. Thornton's sister, laughed in her "weak, nervous way" that she could not understand how her brother professed to understand the Hales. Mrs. Thornton put in her opinion, commenting that the mother was a "bit of a fine lady" and the father a worthy man, but that she was puzzled by the girl and did not know why she gave herself airs. Mr. Thornton was quiet, but then abruptly told his mother he wished she would try and like Miss Hale. Taken aback, Mrs. Thornton wondered if he was thinking of marrying her, especially since she was penniless. He laughed that she would never have him, to which his mother responded that she did not think Margaret would, given her merry laugh when she brought it up at the Hale residence. Mrs. Thornton said she would befriend the girl since John asked, although she could not decide if she liked or disliked her.

The conversation turned to the strike. Mr. Thornton said his men were still working that week, "through fear of being prosecuted for breach of contract." He spoke of the pressures of the Americans getting into the general market and the need for British goods to be reduced in price. He planned on getting hands from Ireland if his fellows left.

Later, while alone, Mr. Thornton scoffed at these ignorant men who "thought themselves fitted to direct the masters in the disposal of their capital!" He had worked so diligently for his position that he feared a threat to it through the ignorance and folly of others. He firmly decided that he would give the men a fortnight until he would seek hands from Ireland. They would know who they were dealing with when that happened.

Chapter XIX

Mrs. Hale was amused and excited in an almost-childlike fashion about the dinner party. She spoke with Margaret incessantly about what she might wear, and had her try on various dresses to help her decide. When Margaret tried to poke fun at the situation, her mother's seriousness made her leave off her merrymaking.

Margaret went to visit Bessy some days before the dinner party. Bessy was surprised when she heard Margaret was dining at the Thornton's, for that family was very wealthy and had esteemed visitors from Parliament and other important bodies dine there. Margaret was amused and explained that her family was very educated and thus considered at the same level. Bessy was perturbed that Margaret might not have something nice enough to wear but Margaret laughed and put her at ease by telling her about the white satin she would wear.

Bessy told Margaret that she had dreamed of Margaret before ever seeing her, and knew she would eventually come to her. Margaret said this was simply a fancy of the sick girl's, but she persisted. Margaret then asked Bessy if her father had turned out for the strike and Bessy replied yes in a heavy and dejected manner. Many people were coming to speak with her father and spoke in deadly, hateful tones that made her blood run cold. Margaret asked if the strike would end this and Bessy said that people said so, but that "the masters has getten th' upper hand somehow and I'm feared they'll keep it now and evermore."

Nicholas came in, excited and somewhat intoxicated by drink. Margaret rose to leave and mentioned she would come by tomorrow before the Thornton party. Mention of the Thorntons roused Nicholas and he spoke of how Mr. Thornton would soon be trying to figure out what to do with his orders coming in. Nicholas's own master was loud and coarse but "his bark's waur than his bite," unlike Mr. Thornton. Nicholas boasted that he would speak his mind if he had the opportunity to dine with all those men.

Margaret hastily left and returned home. The medicines Dr. Donaldson had given her mother were proving so helpful that Margaret hoped against hope that his diagnosis was incorrect and that she would improve after all.

Mr. Hale heard many stories from working folk at this time. He brought his questions to Mr. Thornton, who patiently and thoroughly explained what was going on, using "sound economical principles; showing that, as trade was conducted, there must always be a waxing and waning of commercial prosperity...he spoke as if this consequence were so entirely logical, that neither employers nor employed had any right to complain if it became their fate..."

Margaret hated listening to him speak as if commerce were everything and "humanity nothing." This was also vexing because Mr. Thornton was only the third person besides herself and Dixon who knew of her mother's condition, as he provided what he could from his own house for Mrs. Hale. She could not reconcile this generous and compassionate man with the one who had a "hard-reasoning, dry, merciless way [in which] he laid down axioms of trade..."

The day before the dinner party Margaret was at Bessy's home when a neighbor of the Higginses came in –a Mr. Boucher, of whom Margaret had heard much. He was disconsolate, crying to Nicholas that it was no use. His family was starving and they could not go on much longer. Nicholas begged him to go on a bit longer and that he would help him if he could. Margaret and Bessy silently wept at the man's profound anguish. Nicholas left, and Margaret, overcome, set aside some money for Bessy to make sure the man received, with the knowledge that it be from Nicholas. She was struck by this episode; "how was she ever to go away into comfort and forget that man's voice, with the tone of unutterable agony, telling more by far than his words of what he had to suffer?"

Bessy looked faint and weary but consoled Margaret that she was not ready to die yet. Death was not far off, but not today.

Chapter XX

Margaret came home and was so distressed that she could barely keep up with her mother’s desire for chatter. She eventually told her mother what she had heard at Higgins’s cottage. Mrs. Hale immediately told her daughter to pack up a basket for the Boucher family. She referred the question of whether or not this was to be delivered to Mr. Hale when he returned home; he agreed that his wife and daughter had done right, but that it was difficult for, if the laborers held out, Mr. Thornton would need to bring in outside laborers. Mr. Hale visited the Boucher house the next day, however, and spoke with his wife and made sure the family had provisions.

Margaret dressed for the party, her heart heavy with anxiety. She compared this dressing with the one a year ago for Edith’s wedding, with its “old, merry girlish toilettes.” Mrs. Hale complimented her daughter, but Margaret sighed that she would much rather stay home with her mother.

At the Thorntons’ house the spread was ample to the point of extravagance. Mrs. Thornton was abstemious in her personal life but prided herself on large and sumptuous feasts for parties. Her son was the same in this. The Hales were first to arrive. Mr. Hale and Mrs. Thornton entered into conversation, the former asking the latter if she did not “find such close neighborhood to the mill rather unpleasant at times?” Mrs. Thornton huffed up and replied that she did not as it was a reminder of her son’s wealth and success. Mr. Hale said he only meant the people coming and going, but still the proud mother defended the house’s proximity.

Mr. Thornton came in; his and Margaret’s hands met in greeting for the first time, although he was aware of it and she was not. He was struck with her remarkable beauty, admiring her unselfconscious way of holding herself and her frank, open mannerisms. He barely interacted with her at the party but always knew what she was doing.

Margaret’s attention was drawn to him when he spoke with the men at the party, who clearly respected and admired the mill owner. Margaret was surprised how much she was enjoying this dinner. She wondered why the men did not talk about the strike, not yet knowing “how coolly such things were taken by the masters, as having only one possible end.” She admired the way the men talked, full of exultation, spirit, and their glory in the triumphs of the future.

Mr. Thornton came to speak to her quietly, inquiring whether or not she was on their side at dinner. She replied that she was, and their conversation turned to a Mr. Horsfall, another guest, and what the differences between a “man” and a “gentleman” were. Mr. Thornton was called away from her before they could conclude, and she heard him talking about how arrangements had been made and that he was not afraid of violence

Mr. Horsfall privately asked Mr. Thornton who Margaret was, although she did not hear the inquiry. This question was also asked of Fanny by a Mrs. Slickson, who was surprised to hear that the mill owner visited a private tutor for lessons in reading.


The question of the relative merits and flaws of the North and the South is discussed in these chapters, especially in regard to the strike. Margaret speaks with Higgins about the strike and asks him what it is all about, as she is ignorant of such things. He mentions that the men in the South were probably just as put upon but endured their suffering without speaking up; the men in the North, however, "[know] when we're put upon; and we'en too much blood in us to stand it" (132-33). Margaret replies that there is still hard work and toil in the South, and cold weather and heavy rain as well. Nevertheless, the men in the South "have too much sense to strike" (133) in her opinion. Higgins thinks they actually have "too little spirit" (133). At the end of the chapter, though, Bessy is taken with her new friend from the South and refers to her as "a breath of country air, somehow" (138).

Mr. Thornton's views on capitalism and the imminent strike are further elucidated here. He is in the fullness of his antipathy toward the workingmen and the conviction that his own way of doing things is right and just. He tells his mother that he make his workers finish off the rest of their contracts for fear of being punished for breach of contract, and that he was determined to show them how he would keep his word and how they ought to keep theirs. He complained that things in America were changing the market and that the workingmen ought to understand that their wages could not be what they used to be. He explained that it he would rather hire hands from Ireland than give in to his men.

As he perambulated the house alone later in the evening, he ruminated on how ridiculous it was that these men, who were so foolhardy in their strike plans, wanted to "direct the masters in the disposal of their capital!" (145) Thornton did not much care about revenge for revenge's sake, but he was mostly concerned with the business that he had built for himself from the ground up. He was irate that people were threatening that through their ignorance and folly. These men must know who they were dealing with. Here Thornton is presented as a man who will not compromise; he sees no validity in the workers' strike and refuses to work with them on any particular. He would rather hire hands from Ireland than budge an inch. This, of course, is one of the reasons why his business ultimately fails. He learns a valuable lesson, but it is achieved through struggle and much mental perturbation.

Mr. Hale, similarly uneducated about strikes, spoke with Thornton about them. The mill owner believed "there must always be a waxing and waning of commercial prosperity" (151). This was a common assumption of masters in the late 19th century; the latter phrase came from the third chapter of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). John Stuart Mill derisively addressed this belief in his Principles of Political Economy: "I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on...trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels'..."

Social class is dealt with in the discussion of the Hales attending the Thornton dinner. Bessy voices a thought that many people in Milton would have: "Dear! and are you going to dine at Thornton's at Marlborough Mills?...they visit wi' a' th' first folk in Milton" (147). She says that even the mayor and members of Parliament dine there. Margaret, of course, assumes that she and her family are part of that "first folk" because they are "educated people, and have lived amongst educated people" (147). Bessy continues to fret about what Margaret might wear to such a dinner. This conversation is a challenge to Margaret, in that she assumed her family was part of the upper class, especially in Milton. Her prejudice against manufacturers and capitalists does not hold sway in Milton itself, where Mr. Thornton and his fellow businessmen are not only rich, but are well-regarded and influential. They may not have studied the classics or come from the more aristocratic South, but here in the industrial North they are in the highest social echelon.