Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Is class conflict central to the novel?

There are a number of important themes throughout the novel Mary Barton. Sickness and loss through death are prominently mentioned. Ways women can earn a living or survive are dealt with and given particular colouring. As an example the fallen woman in the form of Esther, the sister of Mary, John Barton’s wife, is shown as someone pitiable but possibly beneath redemption. Late in the story however, a social and economic explanation is given of her situation.[1] Mary, John’s daughter, who is a seamstress, is shown as earning her living in an acceptable though slavish way, having to work two years without pay, and often stay till midnight. Margaret as a singer however, is the star of the working class in the coloration given in the book.

Although class conflict is certainly the most central theme, this must be defined more fully to do the book justice.             John Barton’s grouse isn’t so much that there is a class system, as that those in the class with more available income are more mean with it than the poor. As he says to Wilson at one point:

Han they ever seen a child o’ their’n die for want o’ food?[2]

This scene of watching a child or member of family die is repeated in various ways throughout the book. Along with starvation, it is one of the main arguments given in connection with the working man and woman’s pain and suffering. There is not a plea for equality in society, only equality as a person, only call for recognition of basic human needs. The suggestion in the quote above is that with enough food, a decent place to live, and money enough for simple needs, the working class will be happy. Job makes this very clear late in the book when answering the senior Mr. Carson’s questions about John Barton. He says:

John Barton was no fool. No need to tell him that were all men equal tonight, some would get the start by rising an hour earlier to-morrow. Nor yet did he care for goods, nor wealth; no man less, so that he could get bread for him and his; but what hurt him sore, and rankled in him as long as I knew him … was that those who wore finer clothes, and eat better food, and had some money in their pockets, kept him at arms length, and cared not whether his heart was sorry or glad; whether he lived or died.[3]

This passage sums up many other statements and conversations made throughout the book. It gives a clear image of Barton/the working class, in his wisdom, knowing people could not be equal. By saying that Barton was no fool, the intimation is that if we the reader are wise, we will see this too. Such a stand is seen by some critics, MacDonald Daly for instance, as a sign that Gaskell did not in the end stand with the working class, that she used the Christian ethic to suggest the working class should remain in their place. Daly says that Gaskell’s comparison of the unhappiness of the working class with the often mentioned happiness of the moneyed class, is an attempt to align the reader with the ruling class. He quotes Chris Baldrick over the passage:

The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with mute reproach. Why have we made them what they are, a powerful monster, yet without the inner means for peace and happiness?[4]

Daly points out that by the use of comparisons with Barton/us, labour/capital, poor/rich, bewildered/wise, suffering/happy, ignorant/knowledgeable, defeated/triumphant, in the above passage and the paragraphs preceding it, “Gaskell is washing” her hands. “She is inviting her readers to testify that ours are clean too, and offering us various inducements to ensure that they are, such as self-identification with the creative, wise and articulate.”[5]

While it can be read in that way, one can also see Gaskell as being a diplomatic and cautious apologist for the working class. Considering that Gaskell was a member of an elite circle in Manchester, and faced manufacturers and the wealthy in her everyday life, it would have been foolish of her to write as if she were a member of the working class. Also, if the book was not to be rejected by the very people who would be its readers – the middle and upper classes – then she must at least make it seem not to be an enemy to them.

In connection with this Daly has made much of certain sentences. There is a particular paragraph in which the art of apologist is being exercised:

Large houses are still occupied, while spinners’ and weavers’ cottages stand empty, because the families that once filled them are obliged to live in room or cellars. …the shops for expensive luxuries still find daily customers, while the workman loiters away his unemployed time in watching these things, and thinking of the pale, uncomplaining wife at home, and the wailing children asking in vain for enough food, – of the sinking health, of the dying life, of those near and dear to him. The contrast is too great. Why should he alone suffer from bad times?

I know this is not really the case; and I know what is the truth really in such matters…[6]

Daly remarks on this saying “There is an extraordinary inscrutability about ‘I know that this is not really the case; and I know what is the truth in such matters’.[7] He suggest the interpretation of this is that the “proletariat perspective on this is a deluded one: the affluent also suffer during slumps.”[8] If one could imagine Gaskell in front of the group of people she had daily to deal with however, one could equally argue that such statements were simply a means of making her argument more acceptable, and not a taking sides.

This becomes particularly clear in another passage, part of which has already been quoted above – “The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us”. This is followed immediately by the words:

John Barton becomes a Chartist, a Communist, all that is commonly called wild and visionary. Ay! But being visionary is something. It shows a soul, a being not altogether sensual; a creature who looks forward for others, if not for oneself.[9]

Here Gaskell is presenting John Barton as a man who dares to be a member of organisations opposed to what are considered middle and upper class interests. She associates this directly with being a visionary and forward looking. Although it has been pointed out that the word ‘creature’ can have the meaning of subservient, it also has the meaning of equality, as when used in all God’s creatures. Taking it in context with what has gone before, and as part of an argument for the working class, I take it as a suggestion of equality. If she was standing before her peers, her direct support for John Barton, even in his most dangerous aspect as a Chartist and Communist, puts her fair and square with Barton as a member of the working class.

So although class is certainly a major theme in the novel, it is not necessarily altogether class conflict that is being presented. If conflict means opposition and hostilities, there are times of this, but the text does not make this a major theme. Rather the major theme is one of presenting the needs of the working class, and showing how they are often abused and misunderstood. Whether Gaskell present a reasonable solution to the difficulties of the working class is another matter.


Elizabeth Gaskell. Mary Barton. Penguin Books. London. 1996. ISBN: 0-14-043464-X.


[1] Mary Barton. Penguin Books Page 160.

[2] Mary Barton. Penguin Books. Page 66.

[3] Mary Barton. Penguin Books. Page 384.

[4] Mary Barton. Penguin Books. Page 170.

[5] Mary Barton. Penguin Books. Page xxvi/xxvii.

[6] Mary Barton. Penguin Books. Page 24.

[7]Mary Barton. Penguin Books. Page xix.

[8] Mary Barton. Penguin Books. Page xix.

[9] Mary Barton. Penguin Books. Page 170.

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