North and South

North and South Summary and Analysis of Chapters XIII-XVI


Chapter XIII

Margaret hurried out to visit Bessy at her home. Bessy sat, content with touching Margaret's dress and gazing upon her face as she rested wearily. Bessy asked her to speak of Helstone, which Margaret had not done since she left. Later in this visit Bessy wished aloud that her father would not speak as he did; she worried for his soul. Margaret reassured her that there was indeed a Father in Heaven, and Bessy replied that she knew that to be the truth.

Bessy explained what had made her ill –the fluff of the cotton that created a white dust that got into her lungs. Many of the masters did not want to spend money to put in a great wheel to carry off the dust so it would not harm their employees. She said her father knew about the fluff but did not want to go elsewhere as the factory where they worked was actually a good one and he did not want to take her to a strange place.

Margaret learned Bessy was nineteen, the same age as she was. She marveled at the difference in their lives. She promised Bessy she would always be a friend to her sister Mary, even when Bessy was gone. She had to depart but promised to return sometime soon and told Bessy to let her know if she worsened.

Around that time Mrs. Hale became more and more of an invalid. It had been about a year since they came to Milton and Margaret could scarcely believe the changes in their lives. In regards to her mother, there was one positive development, however; "with the increase of serious and just complaint, a new kind of patience had sprung up in her mother's mind. She was gentle and quiet in intense bodily suffering..."

Margaret tried to talk to her father about her mother's sickness, but he dismissed her concerns as fanciful. He mused that his wife never informed him of being in ill health and certainly would have done so if she were truly ill. Margaret was dismayed as his dismissal of the situation, but heard him late at night pacing his room.

Chapter XIV

Mrs. Hale grew tenderer towards Margaret and the two were more intimate than they had been since the girl's childhood. One evening Mrs. Hale began to speak of Frederick, and Margaret took advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about her brother's past and current circumstances.

Frederick had taken the name of Dickenson now. Upon Margaret's inquiries her mother sent her to the cabinet where a bundle of Frederick's letters was stored. She was given permission to peruse their contents while her mother spoke. The letters made clear how Frederick disliked Captain Reid, the second lieutenant on the Orion with which he sailed, from the very start. Reid was impatient with his men, and Frederick noted the many small instances of cruelty and unfairness and the various altercations that occurred. Word reached the Hales of a mutiny onboard the ship, and they saw that their son's name was not on the list of the men, including Reid, who were found on a little boat after the mutineers took control of the ship. They knew what this meant for their son. Mrs. Hale went to meet her son when he came home, and watched him crumple up and cry in a strange, groaning voice. He had been deemed a traitor and a disgrace.

Mrs. Hale paused her tale and said she was glad of Frederick "standing up against injustice," and Margaret heartily agreed. Margaret wondered what would happen if Frederick tried to come home since nearly seven years had passed, but Mrs. Hale said it was likely he would be hung. Frederick was in South America for several years and was now in Spain. She feared she would never see his face again before she died. Margaret left the room, "oppressed with gloom, and seeing no promise of brightness on any side of the horizon."

Chapter XV

Mr. Hale told Margaret that the two of them must return Mrs. Thornton's call, and expressed his worry for his wife as they walked to the Thornton residence. Margaret was glad to see her father aware of the evident problem, but was shocked when he burst out that his bringing his wife to Milton may have killed her. Margaret calmed him and told him they would ask Mrs. Thornton for a good doctor.

They reached a "handsome, stone-coped house" that was "scrupulously clean" even though it was near an immense mill. When they were shown into the drawing-room Margaret felt it very unpleasant, as "wherever she looked there was evidence of care and labour, but not care and labour to procure ease; solely to ornament, and then to preserve ornament from dirt or destruction."

When Mrs. Thornton came in Margaret tried to explain why her mother was not there but bungled her account, causing the elder woman to wonder if Mrs. Hale was simply victim of "some temporary or fanciful fine-ladyish indisposition." Mrs. Thornton fell to the subject of the irrelevance of her son studying the classics, especially since he had attained the honorable position of merchant and men everywhere knew his name. She caught the expressions of her visitors and coldly announced that they had no doubt not heard his name, but Margaret quickly said while she had not heard of him before in the South, she had certainly heard a great deal of things about him here, which led to her admiration and respect. Mrs. Thornton pressed her on who might have given her such information as to procure her esteem, and Margaret replied that it was mostly because of what Mr. Thornton withheld from his life that Mr. Bell told them.

Mrs. Thornton was mollified, and slyly thanked Margaret for telling a mother that her son was well-thought of; Margaret wondered why this might be the case and Mrs. Thornton responded that such young ladies might have designs on the son's heart and wished to get to the mother first. Margaret laughed loudly and merrily, annoying Mrs. Thornton.

The elder woman stiffly explained moments later that her son was dealing with the threats of a strike. Margaret inquired what the strike was about, and her father asked if they wanted higher wages. Mrs. Thornton replied "that is the face of the thing. But the truth is, they want to be masters, and make the masters into slaves on their own ground."

Later that evening Mr. Thornton came to the Hale's home. He brought a note containing the name of a doctor his mother recommended, and Margaret was pleased that he understood her desire not to have her own mother hear of this. The strike became the topic of conversation. Mr. Thornton complained that the strikers should strike because it suited the masters well enough. He lamented that the laborers did not believe they were acting unreasonably just because the masters would not explain their reasons. Margaret responded that there was a human right to explain those reasons. She expressed her observation that the two classes were so dependent upon each other yet always so opposed up here in the North. Mr. Hale also commented that he was struck by the antagonism between the employed and the employer.

Mr. Thornton was piqued at Margaret's attitude but still desired to listen to her talk. He expounded upon his own beliefs, which centered on the need for a wise despotism and an autocracy to govern men. He and Margaret continued to disagree. Her last point as he rose to leave was that God made men mutually dependent and it was not prudent for masters to ignore that fact. Mr. Thornton responded that if he were a laborer he would care more about his master's honesty, punctuality, and quickness rather than his interference in his out-of-work hours. He believed "what the master is, that will be the men..." Margaret was frustrated, and coldly replied to him, "I am trying to reconcile your admiration of despotism with your respect for other men's independence of character." He said he cared what they did during work hours but after that he respected their independence.

On his way out he spoke to her quietly and asked her to forgive his uncouthness from earlier; she smiled and said certainly, but when she did not shake his hand he still believed her proud.

Chapter XVI

The next day Dr Donaldson came to visit, but Margaret was not allowed in the room –only Dixon. She was perturbed; she "was not a ready lover, but where she loved she loved passionately, and with no small degree of jealousy." When the doctor came down she boldly and assertively made him speak with her, despite the fact that her mother requested no one but Dixon be told the diagnosis. Dr. Donaldson was admiring of her strong will and tenacity. He spoke in a low voice, watching her pupils dilate and her skin pale as she heard the news. She asked if there would be much suffering but he did not know. As he left the house the doctor mused that she was a fine girl, noting that others in her situation would have gone into hysterics but that she had laudable self-possession.

Margaret was truly aggrieved, however, and rued that she lived at her aunt's house so long, away from her mother. She went in to her mother's room, and confessed that the doctor told her. She begged her mother to allow her to be her nurse and pressed upon her that it was her place, not Dixon's. She was "greedy" of the first place in her mother's affections. Her mother was affected by her daughter's grief and agreed. Her thoughts turned to her son, and she breathed out his name in a wild cry.

Dixon chastised Margaret when she left the room for upsetting Mrs. Hale, and told the young woman not to tell her father, a plan to which she agreed for fear that he could not bear it. The two women spoke for a few moments, Dixon speaking in the most admiring terms how much she loved Mrs. Hale and that she could not bear to see her brought so low. Margaret pitied Dixon that she had to bear the secret of Mrs. Hale's ill health for so long. Dixon commended her outburst of spirit, and Margaret even gave Dixon a quick kiss on the way out. Dixon reflected on how much she cared for Margaret too, and what a poor young lady she was.


Margaret makes her visits to Bessy a frequent part of her Milton existence. Both young women profit from these visits: Bessy has a caring friend and Margaret learns to not be so hasty in her judgments regarding social class and the North. The subject of female visitors was a ubiquitous one in the Victorian discourse; many people in nineteenth century were uneasy about it, since some visitors could antagonize the poor and make them act like they were worse off than they actually were to get more charitable donations. As scholar Dorice William Elliott writes in her article on female visitors and social class, "proper visitors, on the other hand, can foster much goodwill between classes." There was in fact an ideal female visitor, and Margaret is such a visitor.

In North and South, a lady who visited a working-class home "was embedded in a controversy on one level over whether and how the poor were to be reached, supervised, and taught proper values. On another level the question of ladies' visiting was a contest over who had access to and who would control a whole range of social spaces and practices." In Gaskell's version of society women did play a crucial role in the public sphere, but the novelist does not challenge the assumption that men rule over women legally, sexually, and emotionally in the domestic sphere. Gaskell uses the novel to base a "claim for women's mediation between classes on an analogy between marriage and class cooperation."

Elliott writes of the "social sphere" which was an ideological and material space that fell between public and private spheres. The material space included tenements, cottages of the poor, streets and sewers, country lanes, and the rooms of the middle class homes. The social realm was part of the public sphere since it was associated with middle-class male professionals. The private home was "a public space that was both political and apolitical, commercial, and anti-market." Middle-class women who left their home to go visit the poor were using their own expertise in domestic affairs to "authorize herself as an expert, masculinized observer of the social."

Women were not supposed to be merely moralizing to the lower classes –they were to investigate the working class condition. They were vital to this field. Margaret, however, is involved with industrial class relations, something few in society would have advocated. She is "advocating a type of social management, pioneered by women in the social space of the home and based on firsthand knowledge of and practical experience with the poor rather than on the principles of political economy or other theoretical abstractions." Gaskell's female visitor does not even need male supervision to function.

Margaret learns to modify her visiting practices to these industrial environs. She is not part of a religious or philanthropic organization. The fact that Mr. Hale resigns from his religious post leaves this space open for his daughter. Margaret is successful because she is open to new languages and is willing to learn new ways of reading and interpreting signs. Margaret eventually becomes a social mediator between Higgins and Thornton, laborer and master. She falters at reading signs in her own budding relationship with Thornton, but is successful when it comes to social class.