Modernity vs. tradition
The change in title of Gaskell's fourth novel from the original, Margaret Hale, (Ingham, 1995, p xii) to Dickens's suggestion, North and South, underscores the theme of modernity vs. tradition.
Until the end of the 18th century, power in England was in the hands of the aristocracy and landed gentry—based in the sprawling landscapes of the south. The industrial revolution unsettled the centuries-old class structure and shifted wealth and power to manufacturers who mass-produced goods in the rugged landscapes of the north. Vast towns such as Manchester, on which Gaskell modelled her fictional "Milton," were hastily constructed to house workers who moved from the semi-feudal countryside to work for wages in the new factories. The south represents the past (tradition): the aristocratic ways of landowners who inherited their property, gathered rents from farmers and peasants, and assumed a certain obligation for their tenants' welfare. The north, represents the future (modernity): its leaders were 'self-made' men—like Gaskell's hero, John Thornton—who accumulated wealth as working, middle-class entrepreneurs. In their view, philanthropy or charity—giving something for nothing—was a dangerous imbalance to the relation between employers and employees, based on the exchange of cash for labour.
Authority and rebellion
Rebellion against authority, seen as unfair, is woven through the story. Established institutions are seen as inhumane or selfish and therefore fallible (Stoneman, 1987): For instance, Mr. Hale breaks with the Church on a matter of conscience, Frederick Hale participates in a mutiny against the Navy and is forced into exile because the Law would hang him for what he considered a just cause. His rebellion parallels that of the strike by workers who take up the cause to feed their children (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 17). Both are impotent and engaged in a struggle (a war, in the eyes of the workers) whose terms are dictated by those who maintain their power by force: the law and the mill masters (Stoneman, 1987, pp 122–126). Margaret rebels in many ways that expresses her personal liberty—ignoring social proprieties; challenging authority by lying to the police to protect her brother from whom she learns that power, when arbitrary, unjust, and cruel, can be defied not so much for oneself but on behalf of those most unfortunate. Even Mrs. Hale rebels in her own way: "prouder of Frederick standing up against injustice, than if he had been simply a good officer" (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 14).
The theme of power is likewise central. Thornton represents three aspects of power and the authority of the ruling class: a manufacturer respected by his peers (economic power), a magistrate (judicial), and someone able to summon the army (political power) to quell the strike (Stoneman, 1987, pp. 124–126). There is energy, power, and courage in the struggle for a better life by Milton residents. Margaret demonstrates her power in her verbal jousting with Thornton, forcing him to reflect on the validity of his beliefs (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 15) and eventually change his views of workers as mere providers of labour to individuals capable of intelligent thinking. When she reaches 21, Margaret takes control of her life, resolves to live as she chooses and, finally, upon inheriting wealth from Mr. Bell, learns how to manage it.
Feminine role vs. masculine role
The notion of separate spheres dominates beliefs in the Victorian era about gender roles. It assumes that the roles of men and women are clearly delineated and everything public including work lies within the domain of the man while everything domestic (private sphere) within that of the woman. The expression of feelings is considered reserved for women, aggression is seen as male; resolving conflict with words is feminine and conflict as war is masculine. The mistress of the ideal home is the guardian of morality and religion and the angel in the house, while the public sphere is considered dangerously amoral so that in the works of authors such as Dickens, disasters occur when the characters do not conform to current standards. In North and South, this notion is questioned.
In Gaskell's heroine, Margaret Hale, this separation is blurred and she is forced by circumstances to take on a masculine role: She organises the family's departure from Helstone and, in Milton, assumes much of the responsibility for taking charge of the family, including giving courage to her father. She carries the load all alone, behaving like a "Roman Girl" because her father, Mr. Hale, while benevolent, is also weak and irresolute as well as "feminine" and "delicate" in behaviour. When Higgins slips away and her father trembles with horror at Boucher's death, she goes to Mrs. Boucher, announces the death of her husband and takes care of the entire family with dedication and efficiency. She takes the initiative to summon her brother Frederick, a naval officer, who is crushed with grief at the death of his mother. Later, to protect her brother, Margaret lies about their presence at the train station on the day of his departure. When she inherits a fortune, she learns to manage it (Stoneman, 1987, p. 127).
Thornton and Higgins, while not denying their masculinity, show they have hearts. Higgins, in particular, who Thornton considers among "mere demagogues, lovers of power, at whatever costs to others,"(Gaskell, 1855, chapter 38) assumes the responsibility for raising the Boucher children and embodies the values of maternal tenderness ( lacking in Mrs. Thornton) and strength (not possessed by Mrs. Hale) with great dignity. Gaskell endows John Thornton with tenderness in his heart, a soft spot according to Nicholas Higgins. Thornton's pride hides this capacity from public view but shows it in his affection for his mother and his quiet attention towards the Hales . He expresses it later more obviously when he develops good relations with his workers beyond the usual "cash nexus" and builds a canteen for factory workers (meal preparation, a domestic sphere), where he sometimes shares meals with them. Margaret's and Thornton's individual evolution eventually converges and, learning humility, they are partly freed from the shackles of separate spheres: he has known friendly relations at the mill and she asserts her independence from the kind of life that her cousin leads. She initiates their business meeting which he chooses to interpret as a declaration of love (Stoneman, 1987, pp 137–138). In the final scene, it is she who has control of the financial situation and he who reacts emotionally. They now meet as just man and woman and no longer the manufacturer from the North and the lady from the South (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 52). The blurring of roles is also evident among the workers where many like Bessy are women.
Special and changing relationships
Certain familial relationships are emphasised: Margaret and her father, Higgins and Bessy, Mrs. Hale and Frederick, but they are all interrupted by death. The tie between Thornton and his mother is particularly deep and, on Mrs. Thornton's side, exclusive and boundless (Pollard 1967, p 129): "her son, her pride, her property." She, ordinarily cold in manner, tells him "Mother's love is Given by God, John. It holds fast for ever and ever" (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 26). The parent-child relationships often serve as metaphors for relations between employers and workers in Victorian literature (Stoneman 1987, p 119). But Chapter XV, Men and Master, shows Margaret rejecting this paternalistic view—expressed by Thornton—as infantilising the worker. She favours, instead, an attitude that helps the worker grow and become emancipated. Thus, the friendships that develop between people of different social classes, education, and cultural backgrounds—between Mr. Hale and Thornton, Margaret and Bessy, and finally, Thornton and Higgins—prefigure the kind of human relations that Gaskell desires, one that blurs class distinctions. Along the same vein, Margaret assumes "lowly" tasks, and Dixon is treated as a confidante by Mrs. Hale who builds a relationship of respect, affection and understanding with the maid (Nash 2007, p 108).
Daughter and wife of a Pastor, Elizabeth Gaskell does not write a religious novel although religion plays an important role in her work. The Unitarians did not take biblical texts literally but symbolically (Tousszint-Thiriet, 2007, in French). They believed neither in original sin nor in the notion of women as more guilty or weaker than men and were more liberal than other communities (e.g., methodists, Anglicans or Dissenters). North and South presents a typical picture of Unitarian tolerance in one evening scene (Matus, 2007): "Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together" (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 28). The Thorntons do not invoke religion the same way the Hales do although Mrs. Thornton may read Matthew Henry's Comments on the Bible ("Exposition of the Old and New Testaments"). While the reinstitution in 1850 by Pope Pius IX of a Roman Catholic hierarchy in England was generally strongly condemned, Gaskell assumes an open mind about Catholicism and has Frederick Hale converting to his Spanish wife's Catholic religion (Matus, 2007, p 174).
The scriptures appear in several forms: citations in Chapter VI: (the Book of Job, ii. 13); implicit or explicit references as in the allusion to the "Elder Brother" from the Parable of the Prodigal Son; interpretations as in Margaret's paraphrasing of the definition of charity ("that spirit which suffereth long and is kind and seeketh not her own") (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 15) from the First Epistle to the Corinthians. But Gaskell warns against misuse: Bessy Higgins reads the Apocalypse to cope with her condition, and gives an interpretation of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, so simplistic that Margaret counters vigorously : "It won't be division enough, in that awful day, that some of us have been beggars here, and some of us have been rich—we shall not be judged by that poor accident, but by our faithful following of Christ" (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 19). Margaret and John follow a path of conversion that leads to reconciliation, acknowledging their "unworthiness" (Pollard, 1967). Margaret, who has the longest way to go, is first crushed by guilt from her lie and by shame from being debased in Thornton's eyes (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 39). A page from Saint Francis de Sales encourages her to seek "the way of humility" (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 41) despite Mr. Bell's attempts to minimise and rationalise her lie as instinctively committed under the grip of panic. Thornton, on the brink of ruin, like Job, strives not to be outraged, while his mother rebels against the injustice of his situation: "Not for you, John! God has seen fit to be very hard on you, very." before giving fervent thanks for the "great blessing" his very existence gives her (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 50).