Mary Barton

Mary Barton Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does the death of John Barton's wife affect his political beliefs?

    When John Barton's wife, Mary, dies in childbirth - weakened by the shock of Esther leaving, he loses the strongest positive influence on his life. He blames her death and his subsequent suffering on the upper class' lack of interest in the welfare of factory workers. After the loss of his wife and young children and with Mary's growing independence, John Barton focuses his energy on the Trades' Union. However, he becomes increasingly disillusioned after losing his job after Carson's mill burns down. The unions are unable to make any effective changes, either on a local level or in Parliament. John Barton's growing anger and disillusionment take him down a path of sin - he feels as though he has no other choice.

  2. 2

    What sets Job Legh apart from the other members of his social class? What does he represent in Mary Barton?

    Job Legh is a self-taught naturalist who is interested in scientific discovery and the intricacies of botany. Most working class individuals in Mary Barton are uneducated and uninformed workers, which the mill owners and upper class prefer. An ignorant working class is easier to control and take advantage of. While Job Legh serves as the voice of reason throughout the novel, he dislikes Union violence and prefers to focus on the acquisition of knowledge. Through the character of Job Legh, Mary Gaskell is able to show her upper class readers the many facets of the working class. She attempts to humanize the working class so that perhaps society will be able to better understand their struggles. Many of Gaskell's characterizations were based on real-life encounters she had during her time as a social worker.

  3. 3

    What purpose does Esther serve in the novel from a symbolic standpoint? What does her trajectory say about her character, and how Gaskell sees her?

    Ester exists as a physical manifestation of the danger that awaits Mary, a motherless beauty, as she enters adulthood. It is clear that Gaskell sees Esther as beyond redemption, although she does portray her in a more sympathetic way than other Victorian writers might have. Meanwhile, Esther herself does not seem to believe that she can be redeemed either, so in the novel, she just keeps trying to warn Mary rather than attempting to better her own situation. During Mary's affair with Harry Carson, Esther fears that Mary's desire to become a lady is going to take her down a dangerous path. However, after realizing her love for Jem, Mary gets back on a righteous path. Esther, meanwhile, dies at the end of the novel, having outlived her usefulness. Esther embodies the Victorian view that a fallen woman can never redeem herself. She also seems to indict women who want to marry out of poverty.

  4. 4

    Why did Elizabeth Gaskell write Mary Barton? Do you think she was effective in her goals - why or why not?

    Gaskell wrote the novel at the suggestion of her husband in order to sooth her grief over losing their young son. However, the author's main purpose lay in her desire to create understanding between the rich and the poor in England. She believed that if communication existed between the upper and lower class, then it could help alleviate many of the social struggles the country faced. Since Gaskell had a lot of experience with social work as a minister's wife, she attempted to create multi-faceted characters that would show the working class in a humanizing light. Additionally, the characters in Gaskell's novel make many of the same discoveries that she wanted her readers to make. By the end, they all understand one another across class divides, especially Mr. Carson.

  5. 5

    How does Gaskell use the theme of drug addiction in the novel? What does this say about Victorian society?

    During Victorian times, society vilified drug addicts as opposed to treating them as sick or diseased. In Mary Barton, Gaskell casts a more sympathetic light on the circumstances that drive people into drug addiction. John Barton only starts taking opium after losing all his hope - he uses the drug to stave off hunger pangs. Esther becomes addicted to gin to numb her senses because of all the pain she experiences as a prostitute. Gaskell portrays drug addiction as a desperate means of escape - similar to Mary's attempts to marry Harry Carson simply to lift herself out of poverty. Ultimately, Gaskell promotes the idea of living truthfully. Mary gets back on a good path when she recognizes that she never loved Harry and that her heart belongs to Jem, while Esther and John beg for forgiveness.

  6. 6

    What is the relationship between Mary Barton and her Aunt Esther? How does Mary look at her Aunt later in life - and avoid becoming like her?

    As a young teenager, Mary only had fond memories of her Aunt Esther - she wants to grow up and be a lady just like her. Mary realizes her beauty and sees it as her currency, the way that she will pull herself out of poverty. She focuses on superficial things. However, it is Jem Wilson who helps Mary realize that love and truth are more important than money and material goods. Esther serves as a symbol of how the pursuit of materialism can throw off one's moral compass. Ultimately, Mary just ends up feeling sorry for her aunt, even though she once wanted to be like her. The lesson in this relationship is that pursuit of wealth and materialism can only result in moral degradation - this is also echoed in the characters of Mr. Carson and Harry Carson. Meanwhile, Mary finds happiness and satisfaction in her ordinary but love-filled life with Jem Wilson.

  7. 7

    Esther won't let Mary kiss her - what does this say about Esther, and why is it an important gesture on her part?

    Like drug addicts, prostitutes were not seen as victims in Victorian England. Esther would have died of hunger had she not become a prostitute - she sold the only thing she had to sell in order to survive. Esther understands this and accepts her place in society. She does not try to defend her actions, but rather, bears the weight of them. In this scene, she feels unworthy of her niece's love and affection. She feels like she will sully the wholesome girl if they have physical contact. Like leprosy, prostitution was regarded as a disease that the virtuous could catch if they were not careful. This gesture on Esther's part is her way of keeping Mary safe from her Aunt's unredeemable sins.

  8. 8

    Why does John Barton murder Harry Carson? What does his extreme action represent?

    John Barton becomes slowly more and more disillusioned over the course of Mary Barton. He involves himself in unions, strikes, and even travels with a delegation to London in order to address Parliament. However, with many of his former co-workers starving to death and the mill owners refusing to budge on their low wages, John Barton finally snaps. He feels as though he has no other choice than to send a violent message to the mill owners. At the beginning of the novel, Barton is pious and honest. However, he becomes frustrated trying to follow a path of morality when he feels that none of his masters are doing so, and yet - they are successful and wealthy. Barton develops strong feelings of alienation and detachment that allow him to view his corrupt employers through a dehumanizing lens. This is what makes it possible for Barton to take extreme actions and kill Harry Carson. John Barton's descent into sin is Gaskell's warning about how miscommunication and a lack of understanding between classes can lead to tragic results.

  9. 9

    Describe how Jem Wilson proves his undying love to Mary. What does this say about Gaskell's perspective on love and marriage?

    Jem Wilson and Mary Barton's love is at the center of Mary Barton, but they are not together until the very end of the novel. However, it is through this pairing that Gaskell shows her readers the real meaning of true love. Jem makes sacrifices for Mary, even when she does not know it. He is willing to risk his own freedom so that she can be happy, even if it means that they can never be together. Jem warns Harry Carson about toying with Mary - only because Jem loves Mary and wants to protect her reputation. Meanwhile, Mary realizes early on that Jem did not kill Harry Carson, but maintains her sense of morality by trying to protect her father while also proving Jem's innocence. Similarly, Jem refuses to give up John Barton because of what it will do to Mary. They both struggle to expose the truth without hurting anyone, and this is what unites them in the end. In Gaskell's novel, true love is about sacrifice, endurance, trust, and loyalty. In contrast, Harry Carson never wants to marry Mary (who is far below his class), but only wants to use her in whichever way suits him and his needs. He ends up alone and dead.

  10. 10

    Why must the Wilsons move to Canada at the conclusion of the novel? What does this say about them?

    Despite his proven innocence, the murder trial still hangs over Jem's head. The accusation of murder was enough to tarnish his reputation in Manchester. However, Jem refuses to save his own reputation by offering up John Barton, the real murderer. Instead, he takes the opportunity to start anew. Mary and Jem must leave Manchester because their world there is filled with sad memories and difficulties. Their move to Canada is a new start, where they can be together without the complications of their pasts. All of the characters in Mary Barton end up starting their lives anew - even though some of them are not on Earth. John Barton and Esther die, but seek forgiveness for their sins. Mr. Carson becomes a champion of the poor and disaffected. Margaret gets her eyesight back. All these transitions are like baptisms - as each of these characters learn to accept Christ and distance themselves from their sins.