Mary Barton By Elizabeth Gaskell Essay, Research Paper
Mary Barton by Elizabeth GaskellMary 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.