North and South

This book is on the 19th Century Novel reading list this term and when reading it, I had mixed feelings about it. It discusses several relevant topics of the Nineteenth Century such as the role of women, industrialisation and the role of the class system. Although Gaskell considers and juxtaposes the reinterpreted role of women with the old societal one, I do not think that Gaskell has quite managed to achieve a complete suggestion of social reform and within this post I will attempt to explain why.

The novel starts quite slowly and talks of Mr Hale’s place in religion and his changing feelings towards it. Due to these, he decides to move the family to Milton, an industrial town, and they start a new life there. It is this move that allows Gaskell to begin instrumenting her ideas of this new role in society for women through the protagonist of Margaret Hale. She sets this character up for great things compared to some of the other female characters in this book and it is Margaret’s removal of her social status that begins the reinterpretation of how women could be viewed in society. By helping and befriending Nicholas and Bessie Higgins, Margaret is able to redefine her qualities, something that a character like Mrs Shaw is shown as being not able to do. It is fair to suggest that Margaret adopts several qualities that would be viewed as ‘masculine’ in this novel and maybe it is because she is forced to do so by the events that unfold. With the death of her mother and the position that her brother is in, Margaret has to protect her family, plan her Mother’s funeral and look after her Dad. By rejecting two marriage proposals and inheriting wealth, property and land the reader is able to begin to view Margaret differently to the rest of the female characters.

However, at the end of the book it appears that although Margaret sort of marries for love as the new role of women would do, she kind of reverts back to how women are seen as she gives in to the pressure of society because she does marry the man whose proposal that she rejects. Most people would argue that she does marry for love entirely and so Gaskell’s closing statement reinforces her idea of this new, reinterpreted view of women but to me it seems as if here, the book takes a backward step. For those of you who prefer the happy ending like my friend on my English course, then you probably view the ending rather differently than how I do. For me, if she had chosen to leave Margaret as Thornton’s landlady then Margaret would appear to have greater control over him and more authority herself, presenting this new woman as powerful, strong and equal. By allowing Margaret and Thornton to confess their love for each other, it seems that Gaskell is letting Margaret give away all that she has been building through the novel and it is this that frustrates me with the ending of this novel. Rather than reforming the whole function of how women are viewed, Gaskell just takes a small step in creating a new way of visioning women in society.

This book has the potential for great change however it would seem to halt its own progress. Therefore this book scores an average 6/10 as aspects of the book, particularly the relations between the classes are very well constructed and the style of some elements of the writing is also particularly pleasing for the reader. If you are interested in the developing industry and the role of women in the 19th Century then it is worth a read so enjoy!




  1. I like how Margaret and John Thornton evolved in this book. I’ve often thought that if Margaret was a real-life person, she would be a very capable and young office manager, despite the fact that she’s only about 19.

    As for Thornton, he is stubborn but is open to reason. In the movie, Brendan Coyle (Nicholas Higgins) and Richard Armitage (Thornton) did a brilliant job of portraying two good men who just happened to have opposing viewpoints on what was right and what was wrong.

  2. You’ve captured we’ll the power relationships that exist in the novel. I read the end a little differently though. She might marry for love but she is now the wealthy one and his business can on,y continue with her money.

    • Yeah, I know my reading of the ending is slightly different from most but I just think it would have been more powerful about the role of women if she had left them separate from each other. I think the two endings that we are discussing is this whole idea of taking a small step towards reform or completely rewriting how women are seen! 🙂

  3. Wow, I don’t see the ending as limiting for Margaret at all. Quite the contrary! As Thornton’s wife she will find countless opportunities to make a difference in Milton. Not only will she continue to help her husband expand his thought to the possibilities in helping humanity through redefining the purpose of his work, she can be a role model for other masters’ wives and begin all sorts of charity endeavors with her/his wealth and success. I see these two as a great team. There is great power in a woman marrying precisely who she wants to in those days, and that’s exactly what Margaret did. She held off on all marriage proposals until SHE was prepared to commit herself body and soul to the arrangement. I think their marriage would be rather modern in some respects as Thornton has from the very beginning shown an interest in her intellect and moral reasonings. He has always listened to her, even when no one else was really paying attention to her. She will have a voice in the world and be able to do things. She will have power and purpose at Thornton’s side. And they truly love and admire each other. What more could a woman want?! She was unhappy doing her charitable bits as the unmarried heiress in London.

  4. I appreciate this review. I can see what you are saying about the gender-role issue, but I feel like most of the commentary on gender in general in this novel is secondary to the commentary on self-actualization. Margaret develops as a person and as a female in society. The stronger themes in the novel seem to be social reform and individual character development. Gaskell may have made “one small step” for women with this book, but she made a moderately larger step towards self-actualization and truth. Margaret’s character could only represent women as far as she care about gender roles. From what I remember of the text, there was very little evidence of her inter turmoil coming form her status as a “woman trapped by society” and more from her state of a person trapped by her circumstances who happened to be female. That’s just my opinion. I also recognize that my comment is a year or so late.

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