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Mary Barton


by Elizabeth Gaskell
Mary Barton, a historical novel written by Elizabeth
Gaskell, focuses on the trials and tribulations of the 19th
century working class. Mary, a hardworking yet dainty young
woman, serves as a looking glass by which the pain and
pathos of her time is magnified tenfold. Through Mary, the
reader gains an unsurmounted knowledge of social problems
which presided over everyday life in 19th century England.
Although the twisted love story and murder plot sometimes
take center stage, the underlying issues are quite evident.
Perhaps the most important issue, which sparks interest not
only in the average individual but in the historian as
well, is the lack of communication between the working and
middle classes.
This lack of communication surfaces throughout the entirety
of the novel. In Chapter 6, George Wilson arrives at
mill-owner Carson's house in search of an Infirmary order
for his dying friend, Ben Davenport. While standing in the
kitchen, he overhears the servants complaining of the
caprices of the idle rich, and becomes nauseous from the
sight of breakfast since he has not eaten. Gaskell asserts
that, 'If the servants had known this, they would have
willingly given him meat and bread in abundance; but they
were like the rest of us, and not feeling hunger
themselves, forgot it was possible another might.' Carson
presents him with an out-patient note that can be redeemed
the following Monday. As Wilson leaves, young Carson
secretly hands him five shillings. Of course Davenport is
dead before the Infirmary order takes effect. The ignorance
in this passage is remarkable. The servants are oblivious
to Wilson's hunger, while Mr. Carson has never witnessed a
man dying of typhus. 

 Although Mary Barton is an excellent example of historical
literature, it is not without faults. The greatest weakness
relates to the author's inability to completely overcome
her middle class attitudes. Perhaps the most profound
evidence of this can be found in Chapter 3. The passage
begins with a vivid description of the differences between
the employers and the employed. Gaskell comments on how
bewildering it is for a poor weaver to see the masters
moving from one house to another which is larger and more
magnificent, while he is 'struggling on for bread for his
children'. And when business is slow, 'large houses are
still occupied, while spinners' and weavers' cottages stand
empty, because the families that once occupied them are
obliged to live in rooms or cellars. Carriages still roll
along the streets...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.' While the weaver
adopts a 'poor me' attitude, Gaskell asserts her feelings
towards the working class. 'I know that this is not really
the case; and I know what is the truth in such matters: but
what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and
thinks. True, that with child-like improvidence, good times
will often dissipate his grumbling, and make him forget all
prudence and foresight.' This passage is followed by a
disheartening change of events. After losing his job,
Barton struggles to survive. It is during this time period
that John's pride and joy, his only son, develops scarlet
fever. The doctor tells him that proper nourishment is the
only possible remedy. With this awareness, John sets out in
search of credit, but is turned down. After witnessing Mrs.
Hunter leave a shop with purchases for a party, John
returns home to find his only son dead. This event fills
John with extreme vengeance against the employers. Gaskell
is forced to take a closer look at the hardships of the
poor while setting aside what her middle-class upbringing
has taught her. Nevertheless, Gaskell is at least somewhat
critical of John Barton, and she continues to pass judgment
on him for lacking 'prudence' and 'foresight'.
 While reading this novel, one may wonder how 19th century
legislation may have improved social conditions. Perhaps
the 'People's Charter' a legislative program submitted to
Parliament in 1837 by the London Workingmen's Association,
would have made a great impact on the lives of the working
class. The Chartist movement, which the association
sponsored, resulted from widespread dissatisfaction with
the Reform Bill of 1832 and the Poor Law of 1834,
legislation that workingmen considered discriminatory. The
'People's Charter' contained six specific demands,
including suffrage for all male citizens twenty-one years
of age and over, elections by secret ballot, and annual
Parliamentary elections. When these demands were rejected
by the House of Commons, the association launched a
nationwide campaign for its program, and about 1,250,000
individuals signed a petition to Parliament requesting that
the charter be enacted into law. When Parliament again
rejected the charter, the Chartists planned direct action
in the form of a strike. The strike failed, but a riot
broke out in Monmouthshire in November, 1839, and many
Chartist leaders were arrested and imprisoned. Chartism was
in a period of decline until 1848, when another petition
was sent to Parliament. Despite a large public
demonstration, the charter was again rejected because of
insufficient and fictitious signatures. The Chartist
movement gradually disintegrated thereafter, but all of the
program, except the demand for annual Parliamentary
elections, eventually became law.
In conclusion, Mary Barton successfully represents the
'hungry forties' in a manner that is both entertaining and
informative. Although Gaskell struggles with her
middle-class attitudes, she gives the working class a very
strong voice which stirs sympathy in the heart of the
reader. From this novel, one gains a first-hand
understanding of 19th century social conditions and the
legislation that surrounded them. 


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