Dickens requested that Gaskell change the title of the work from Margaret Hale to North and South, and that difference permeates the entire text. Margaret and her parents represent the South while the Higgineses and the Thorntons represent the North. The South is initially shown to be quiet, pastoral, aristocratic, and idyllic. There are no strikes, no class antagonisms, and no downtrodden masses. Education is valued and business is considered uncouth. Those from the South view the North as dirty, soulless, and hard, filled with men suffering from injustice and interminable work. Those who uphold the merits of the North believe it to be a place of buzzing prosperity and economic autonomy. The workers do not glumly accept their fate but push back when they are unfairly treated. They view the South as filled with men too meek to stand up for their rights. Education is fine but ultimately useless, and Southern life is too slow and dull.
Thornton and Margaret continue to argue these points throughout the novel. Margaret eventually concedes that the South is not perfect, highlighting its cold weather and unlively, toiling farmers. She realizes Helstone in particular is primitive in some ways. Thornton gives up his view that capitalism is unflawed; he learns better business practices and becomes a better specimen of a Northern man, as influenced by a Southern woman. Both the characters are able to finally accept that neither region is perfect.
Margaret very quickly transitions from woman to girl. Sexuality is a very subtle but ubiquitous theme running throughout the novel. At the beginning of the novel Margaret is embarrassed at being thought a nubile young woman; Henry's proposal makes her exceedingly uncomfortable because he clearly was thinking about her in sexual terms. Her fear of the midnight poacher demonstrates her fear of this unknown, latent sexuality. This sexuality is most vividly shown in her violent protective embrace of Mr. Thornton before the mob. Even though she tries to convince herself and others that any woman would have done the same, it was clearly an act of pent-up force. Also, the interplay between Thornton and Margaret verbally smacks of sexual tension. His sexual attraction to her is quite obvious in Gaskell's writing as well; his description of watching her push her bracelet up her attractive arm is an apposite example. By the end of the novel Margaret is more comfortable with her sexuality and is able to accept the powerful and passionate Mr. Thornton as her partner.
The danger of pride
Many of the characters in North and South experience wounded pride. Henry Lennox suffers a blow to his immense pride when Margaret refuses him in marriage. Margaret, like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, can barely stomach Milton and Mr. Thornton. She believes that her Southern, educated, and genteel upbringing make her better than the shopkeepers, laborers, and manufacturers of Milton. She wonders at Bessy's incredulity that the Hales would be invited to a Thornton dinner party because she feels so certain of her superiority. Margaret assumes that she can call on the Higgineses whenever she wants because it is a privilege that she will visit them, but Higgins makes her stand accountable for her erroneous assumption. Thornton also possesses a great deal of pride. He has worked his way up the ladder of success and refuses to negotiate or compromise with the workingmen. He chooses not to understand anything regarding their position and touts his own superiority as a master. Both Margaret and Thornton are prideful about their political and social beliefs, and it is a long time before either of them concede the other's points have merit.
Female self-determination and autonomy
Margaret is an extraordinary Victorian female protagonist. She evinces a heightened level of independence and self-reliance. First, she rejects a proposal by an eligible suitor and does not consult her parents. She does not want a "whirlwind" of a wedding at all, unlike her traditionally feminine cousin Edith. She rejects another suitor. Later in the novel she decides she will not marry or have children (although her ultimate embrace of Thornton negates those pronouncements). Margaret does not accept the assumption that women are inferior in any particular. She is educated and socially conscious, and just as eloquent and impassioned in her opinions as the men in her life. She rejects frivolity, flippancy, and superficiality. She revels in her intelligence and personal strength. She keeps the family together during their many trials. Hardship has shaped Margaret and made her stronger. At the end of the novel she chooses to be with Thornton of her own accord and takes the unprecedented step of saving his business.
Class struggle is one of the most important themes in the novel. Gaskell explores the question of whether masters and men can truly work together or whether they are to be at fundamental odds throughout their existence. It seems for the first half of the novel that they are to be forever opposed. The striking workmen feel taken advantage of and despise their inhumane masters, whereas the masters scoff at their workmen and deride them for not understanding the marketplace. The strike even leads to violence and further intransigence and inability to compromise on the part of the masters. It is the relationship between Margaret and Thornton, and Thornton and Higgins, that finally demonstrate that it is possible for these two warring classes to work together. Both men respect each other. Thornton takes the workers' needs into account and Higgins keeps his master aware of what the workmen are thinking and doing. The dining room that Thornton plans to build is a symbol of this new relationship. Thornton points out that there will still probably be strikes in the future, but that they will be less acrimonious and probably will result in compromise. Gaskell is thus sympathetic to the working class but not entirely hostile to the the masters; she believes that equanimity is possible.
The reality of death
Death haunts the pages of North and South. Margaret's patience, fortitude, and emotions are tested by the many deaths she has to endure throughout the novel. She often has little time to grieve before the next death presents itself. The first death of note takes place off the narrative stage -Mr. Thornton's father commits suicide and leaves his wife to raise their two young children. Arguably his death paves the way for Mr. Thornton's character traits of diligence, pride, and ambition. Bessy Higgins's death saddens Margaret greatly; their friendship helped both girls through a trying time. Mr. and Mrs. Hale both die, leaving Margaret alone. She then is ostensibly under her godfather's care, but Mr. Bell dies not long after Mr. Hale. All of the people closest to Margaret pass away. These deaths make her aware of the transience of life and the need to be autonomous and self-reliant.
The value of all classes
Margaret possesses deep prejudice against members of the manufacturing/business/capitalist class. She also feels superior to the lower classes, both in the North and the South. When she arrives in Milton and begins her intercourse with the Higginses and the Thorntons, however, her opinions begin to change. Nicholas and Bessy teach her that simply because she is "above" them in the class structure does not mean she is better than them and can condescend to them. She cannot treat them like charity cases, and Nicholas will not accept money or favors from the Hales. He also turns out to be perhaps the noblest and most selfless character in the book. Margaret also learns that the manufacturing classes are held in high esteem in the North, and that simply because she is educated does not mean she is better than them. She learns to appreciate the businessmen of the town for their charisma, intelligence, and sense of living in the moment. She sees Thornton learn humane business practices and do his best to resolve class antagonisms. And, at the end of the novel, she embraces business by saving Thornton's mill. Overall, Gaskell has her main character learn the value of individuals in all social classes.
North and South Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for North and South is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.