Title page: What is the effect of the novel’s subtitle?
Why might Gaskell have chosen to place a quotation from Carlyle on the title page?
What does the epigraph mean, and why do you think she chooses it to preface her book? Is there any relation between the German quotation which precedes the “Preface” and the novel’s subject matter?
Preface: According to Gaskell, what were her aims in writing this novel? What does she believe will be new about its manner or content? What social statement(s) does she intend the novel to make?
Do you find any contradictions in her opinions or narrative voice, and if so, what may have caused these?
Chapter 1, “A Mysterious Disappearance”: Who has disappeared? Why do you think Gaskell chose to begin her novel with the memory of Esther’s departure?
What do we learn about the Barton and Wilson families in this opening chapter? How are the characters of John Barton and George Wilson contrasted?
Is there any symbolic significance to the “Green Heys Fields” setting?
How is John Barton described? What views are attributed to him?
Chapter 2, “A Manchester Tea-Party”: What do we learn about the living quarters and habits of the Barton and Wilson families? What happens at the “tea-party”?
Why may the narrator focus so much on the purchases and eating habits of this group? (46)
Why do you think Gaskell included this chapter so early in the novel?
Does the emphasis of the story seem to be on Mary rather than on John Barton, and if so, what effect does this have?
What do we learn of the forms of medicine offered to the poor? (quackery)
Chapter 3, “John Barton’s Great Trouble”: What is his “great trouble,” and what event allegedly causes it?
What effect are we led to believe the elder Mary Barton’s death will have on those around her? On Mary?
What effect will the fact that Mary has no mother have on the narrative? What other novels with orphaned protagonists were published in the 1840s?
What are Barton’s political views? To what degree are they presented sympathetically by the narrator? Does Gaskell qualify what she presents as John's condemnation of the rich?
What is her view of the proximate causes of political resistance? (those who stir up discontent)
Why does Mary chose her occupation? What are the circumstances of her apprenticeship as a seamstress?
On page 55 in the Broadview edition, the author notes that the poor suffer more because they believe their difficulties are not understood by the rich, then adds, "I know that this is not really the case." Does she know this? Why was this qualifier inserted?
Chapter 4, “Old Alice’s History”: What does the reader learn from the scene in Alice’s home?
What are features of her story and character? How has her emotional life been affected by lack of money and leisure?
In particular, what difficulties has Alice suffered during her life as a servant? (65-66, arbitrarily dismissed, unable to visit home, forced to conceal her emotions) Why do you think Gaskell included these memories?
What purpose is served by the novel’s interspersed songs? (people speak through their songs)
Please read “The Oldham Weaver” aloud: What is its meter? How does its message reinforce the novel’s themes?
What hints does this chapter provide about the state of workers’ education?
Chapter 5, “The Mill on Fire--Jem Wilson to the Rescue”: How do the different characters respond to the burning of Mr. Carson’s mill?
Does the narrator view the populace sympathetically? How is the fire described?
Is the scene melodramatic or realistic, in your opinion?
What do Jem’s acts reveal about his character?
Are there symbolic or typological elements to this scene?
What is revealed by Mary's response to Jem's precarious position during the fire? (faints)
What are Job Legh’s private interests, and why do you think Gaskell included these in the novel?
What has caused Margaret’s blindness? What views does the narrative offer on Victorian funeral and mourning conventions? On the quality of medical aid offered to the poor?
Chapter 6, “Poverty and Death”: How does the initial poem express the chapter’s content?
What effects has the burning of the mill had on its owner?
What are some of the effects of unemployment on Barton and the Davenport family, and how do these trials reveal Barton’s character?
Why can't the starving Davenports benefit from poor relief? (1911 unemployment insurance instituted)
Is the novel unusual in mentioning the use of opium, and its effects? Of the widespread recourse to alcohol?
What contrasts are shown in the scene in which Barton visits the Carson family to ask for a hospital permit for his dying friend?
What quality of medical care and burial arrangements are offered the poor? (quack medicine, burial in common hole)
What is the effect on the reader of so many instances of death?
Chapter 7, “Jem Wilson’s Repulse”: Why does Jem choose the moment of his brothers’ death to declare his affection for Mary?
What is the effect on the reader of Mary’s rejection of him?
What motivates her rejection, and what does the narrator think of her romantic ambitions?
Would hers have been a common working girl’s fantasy? Do you think that Gaskell punctures these expectations for a reason? (warning of pitfalls for those who falsely trust a wealthier seducer)
In what ways is Mary shown to be a "lady" here and elsewhere in the novel? How is this consistent with/necessary for Gaskell's intentions?
Chapter 8, “Margaret’s Debut as a Public Singer”
How are the characters of Sally Leadbitter and Margaret Legh contrasted? What functions do each serve in the novel?
What emotions does Mary feel after rejecting Jem’s proposal? Why isn’t she able/willing to speak directly to him? (Victorian ideals for young “lady”)
How would the plot have been altered had she told him of her regrets?
Chapter 9: “Barton’s London Experiences”
What had John Barton hoped for from his London trip, and how are these hopes disappointed? Which aspects of rejection of the Charter are especially galling to him?
In what context is Samuel Bamford’s poem introduced, and what seems to be its symbolic importance?
What is significant about the fact that Job Legh, Jem Wilson, and John, Mary and Esther Barton are all associated with the poem/Valentine/gun/murder through the agency of this poem? In what way does this symbology unite (or fail to unite) the novel's political and romantic plots?
Chapter 10, “Return of the Prodigal”
What causes Esther’s “return,” and what are her motivations? How has she changed since her first appearance in the novel?
What is her appeal to John Barton, and why does he cast her off? How will this lack of compassion affect the rest of the novel?
Why doesn't Esther speak directly to Mary of her fears? (fears Mary wouldn't listen; accepts notion that male family members have responsibility for, and are able to dissuade her)
How is the plot affected by her estrangement from the Barton family?
Chapter 11, “Mr. Carson’s Intentions Revealed”
What do we learn of Harry Carson’s intentions toward Mary?
On what grounds does she reject him? What does this scene reveal about his character and hers?
Chapters 12-14: “Old Alice’s Bairn”; “A Traveller’s Tales”; “Jem’s Interview with Poor Esther”
How do the events of these chapters advance (or hinder) the story?
Chapter 12: "Old Alice's Bairn"
What advice does Margaret give Mary, and on what grounds? Is this consistent with Victorian ideals of ladylike gentility? Are there other ways Mary might have communicated with Jem, and had she done so, how might this have affected the plot?
Chapter 13: "A Traveller's Tales"
Who returns from abroad, and with what tales? What do we learn about Will and his auditors from his account of the mermaid?
What do we glean from this chapter about the level of education provided to the lower classes?
Chapter 14: "Jem's Interview with Poor Esther"
What brings Jem and Esther together, and what narrative of her past does she give?
What in the event dangerous and misleading piece of information does she give Jem?
What emotions must Jem conquer before deciding on a course of action? (221) What does he finally resolve to do in response? (watch over Mary to help ensure her happiness if possible)
What does Jem offer Esther, and why does she reject this prospect? (218, dependent on drink)
Should he have tried harder, as he later thinks he might have done? Had Esther returned to the Wilsons/Bartons, how would the plot have been altered?
Would the reclamation of a prostitute have been an unusual plot element at this time? (would have caused controversy; no prior instances in mainstream fiction)
Chapters 15-17: “A Violent Meeting between the Rivals”; “Meeting Between Masters and Workmen”; “Barton’s Night Errand”
Chapter 15: "A Violent Meeting Between the Rivals"
Under what circumstances do Harry Carson and Jem Wilson fight, and who witnesses their quarrel? Who is responsible for initiating it, and who is blamed?
Chapter 16: "Meeting Between Masters and Workmen"
What significant exchanges occur in the meeting of the employers and their starving workmen?
How does the narrator present the merits of the strike itself? How might it have been prevented, according to her? Does this seem plausible? In what context does she use the word "insane"? (240)
Who draws the satirical picture, and what does this reveal about his character? How do the men respond?
How do the masters respond to the workmen's second demand? (lock-out) What consequences result?
Chapter 17: "Barton's Night Errand"
According to Gaskell, who stirs up the local delegates to action? (246, a London agitator, who buys them food and proposes plans) Would this have been the case in 1830s and 1840s Manchester?
In general, are her portrayals of union and Chartist activity favorable? Why or why not?
What is Barton’s “night errand,” and why does he engage in it?
Chapters 18-20: “Murder”; “Jem Wilson Arrested on Suspicion”; “Mary’s Dream—and the Awakening”
What are some features of the scene in which the Carsons learn of Harry Carson's death? What role is played by the servant in this scene?
What do we learn from Mr. Carson’s interactions with the police? Is any attempt made to protect the accused?
What are the last words by Mr. Carson spoken at the end of volume one, and what is the narrator’s response? (213)
What is the significance of the allusions to Orestes and Alecto (a fury)? Why does Gaskell assert that he would have made a good Christian of the nineteenth century?
What methods are used by the police to find evidence of Jem’s guilt?
What is Mary's response to the news of Harry Carson's death?
How does Jem's mother react to the news, and how does Mary respond to her reproaches?
Chapters 21-23: “Esther’s Motive in Seeking Mary”; “Mary’s Efforts to Prove An Alibi”; “The Sub-Poena”
Why does Esther seek out Mary, and why does she dissimulate her own situation? What gift does she give Mary?
Why hadn’t Esther destroyed the evidence herself? What does Mary learn from this intervention?
What motivates Mary's destruction of the evidence which could have incriminated her father and (possibly) helped Jem? What are some of her motivations for action on his behalf? (chapter 22, comfort of exertion)
Chapters 24-26: “With the Dying,” “Mrs. Wilson’s Determination,” “The Journey to Liverpool”
What are some narrative interventions surrounding Mary's efforts to save Jem and the trial scene? (339, author intrudes directly)
Why doesn't Mary involve Jem in the search for an alibi or other testimony on his behalf? (wants to be liberator, 325)
How do her efforts enhance the plot? Do they seem wise from a practical viewpoint?
How does Mrs. Wilson respond to the news of her son’s arrest? Why do others try to convince her not to attend the trial, and why does she resist?
What tactless interventions are made by Sally Leadbitter?
How would the early Victorian audience have responded to such legal concepts or documents such as "alibi" and "subpoena"?
Chapters 27-29: “In the Liverpool Docks,” “`John Cropper,’ Ahoy!”; “A True Bill Against Jem”
What are some unusual features of the chase? How is Mary treated on her journey? (kindness of strangers—Charlie, boatmen, old couple)
What views does the boatman’s wife give on why one must help those who have erred?
Why is the charge against Jem described as a “true bill”? What opinion are we supposed to have of the motives and judgments of the lawyers?
Chapters 30-32: “Job Legh’s Deception”; “How Mary Passed the Night”; “The Trial and Verdict—‘Not Guilty’!”
Chapter 30: "Job Legh's Deception"
What prompts Job to tell a rare lie to Mrs. Wilson? How is Mrs. Wilson viewed throughout this entire episode?
Chapter 31: "How Mary Passed the Night"
What views does the boatman's wife give on why one must help those who have erred?
What may be Gaskell's intention in presenting the Sturgises as closely involved in Mary's fate over a period of time? (in addition to one's family, the wider community is also important) (Gaskell portrays anxiety and grief well)
Chapter 32: "The Trial and Verdict--Not Guilty!"
What last letter does Jem send, and what does this reveal about his character and motives? (doesn't want Mary told until Job is near his death; assumes she sees him as murderer of a preferred lover)
Why hasn’t he told what he knew about the loan of his gun? (397)
What intervention is made by the narrator, and what effect does this have? (404) What elements of the court scene create suspense?
What is Mrs. Wilson’s role in the trial? What do we learn from her appeal to Jem, and his response?
What is significant about Mary’s testimony? Was it well considered as a means to help Jem’s defense? (405-407, shouldn't have stated that she had rejected him, thus providing a motive)
Who band together to help resist Jem’s fate?
What are some melodramatic elements of the court scene? (Will’s arrival, 409, Mary’s collapse)
How effective are the lawyers, and is this significant? (408, vain, wish to display their eloquence)
What role does Job Legh assume during the crisis?
Why does the jury ultimately refuse to convict? Does this seem a likely outcome, given Mr. Carson's status and the fact that only one friend had been able to testify?
Chapters 33-35: “Requiescat in Pace”; “The Return Home”; “Forgive Us Our Trespasses”
Chapter 33: “Requiescat in Pace”
Why is the chapter given this title? What effect does Alice's peaceful if unaware death have on this portion of the novel? (counterpoint to anxieties of younger characters)
What seems the function of Mary’s illness? (symbolic purgation, result of stress and repression)
What purpose is served in the novel by the fact that Mary is separated from her father at this point?
Under what circumstances does Jem see John Barton, and why does he not speak to him? (428-29)
Why do you think Gaskell has avoided presenting the murder itself, and John's immediate reflections afterwards? (lessens sympathy, since he might well have felt fear and ambivalence)
Does it seem in character that John Barton would have thrown away Jem's gun without thought of consequences?
Chapter 34: "The Return Home"
What purpose is served in the novel by Mary's returning home to her father? How has John Barton changed? At this point can we imagine an improved fate for him?
How does Jem make peace with his mother over the matter of his impending marriage? On what grounds have the two women also reconciled? (447, shared efforts to help Jem--crisis brings people together)
How is the reconciliation of Jem's future wife and his mother important to the novel's closure?
Chapter 35: Forgive Us Our Trespasses"
What is Mr. Carson’s response to the news that Barton had confessed to the murder of his son? (448) Is he disturbed to think that he had almost caused the death of an innocent man? (still suspicious of Jem; makes no apology)
When Carson visits the dying Barton, what does he threaten? What does John Barton ask for, and is it given? (forgiveness denied)
Does Barton attempt any defense of his earlier motives and anger? (448-49, loathes his crime; makes no defense except that he wasn't properly educated and had been an orphan, 455-56)
How has the balance of blame and sympathy shifted from the opening chapters of the novel? (death of Mr. Carson's son assumes more importance than earlier deaths, such as those of Barton's and Devenport's children) Why do you think Gaskell presents John Barton as entirely repentant?
What is symbolic in the manner of Barton’s death? (dies in Mr. Carson's arms)
What is gained by the fact that John Barton dies before being arrested or punished? (Gaskell believes that justice should occur outside a formal legal system)
What appeal does the narrator make on behalf of the poor? (they lack education)
Chapters 36-38: “Jem’s Interview with Mr. Duncombe,” “Details Connected with the Murder,” “Conclusion”
Chapter 36: "Jem's Interview with Mr. Duncombe"
In the end, what makes it necessary for Jem to leave his workplace? Do his fellow workers stand by him?
What seems the implication of the fact that Jem's employer respects his character when his fellow workmates do not? (path to success is through individual effort, not banding into a union)
How does Mrs. Wilson learn that Mary's father had committed murder? (Mary tells her, 465)
What indication does the narrator give of the dates when these events have occurred? Does the knowledge that they transpired "six or seven years ago" make them seem more immediate? (465)
Chapter 37: "Details Connected with the Murder"
When Jem and Job visit Carson, what religious/political discussion ensures? Does Job make an accurate statement of his friend's former views? (471-72, the poor most want sympathy--not practical relief or the right to the fruits of their labor)
Gaskell's publisher had desired that this scene be added later; do you think it improves the ending? Weakens it?
How has the balance of blame and sympathy shifted from the opening chapters of the novel? (death of Mr. Carson's son assumes more importance than earlier deaths, such as those of Barton's and Davenport's children)
What do you make of the fact that Carson learns from his son’s murder to be more compassionate?
How do you interpret the fact that the narrator notes that his reformed attitudes are not apparent to others? (allows us to hope for reform in the face of contrary evidence, and suggests that her readers too may adopt new attitudes slowly in the interests of better outcomes)
Do you think this is likely? If not, why would Gaskell have included this outcome in her story? In what way may the latter-day Mr. Carson be seen as a role model for Gaskell's readers? (475-76, suggests that her readers too may adopt new attitudes slowly in the interests of a more harmonious society)
Chapter 38: "Conclusion"
How would you describe the account of Esther’s death? (pathos, appeal to forgiveness) What is significance of her burial with John Barton? Of the biblical verse inscribed on their joint grave? (481)
What important events bring the novel to closure? Is it fitting that Old Alice, Esther and John Barton should have died at this point?
What changes in his circumstances make it desirable for Jem to emigrate? What would likely have been Jem and Mary Wilson’s life had they remained in England?
What feature of the British economy enables Jem to prosper? (need for better machinery)
Why do you think Gaskell chose Canada as their destination, rather than, say, the United States or Australia? How is life in the new country different for them?
Is it significant that Mary and Jem's eldest son is named John? (usually eldest son was named after father's father)
What happens to Margaret's sight? Is this a realistic touch? (perhaps; advent of cataract surgery directly prior to Gaskell's novel)
What is the significance of their friends’ departure to join them? (reunion of community on new shore)
Do you think the novel ends well? Why or why not?
Which of the problems addressed by the novel have been resolved by the emigration of several protagonists?
How are the following important to the novel’s plot and themes: Alice; Mrs. Wilson; Harry Carson; Harry Carson’s sisters; Job Legh and Margaret Legh?
Where in the novel does the author intervene, and do you think her interventions are appropriate? (246, 311, 313, 339)
Are any of the characters stereotyped? If so, does this detract from the book? Which characters develop or change in course of the novel?
What do you think may have been some highly unusual features of Gaskell’s work for a novel published in 1848? What seems unusual about its presentation of the lives of poor, unemployed workers?
What seem conventional or stereotypical aspects of its portrayals of character?
Does Gaskell’s novel reflect assumptions about the nature of the rich and poor? What social purpose is served by these assumptions and stereotypes?
Does the novel seem to have a single or a compound protagonist? (the people of Manchester) If the latter, is this important?
What effect is created by the repeated presence of little-known poems in the text?
How might this novel have been different if set in the present? (e. g., instant communication)
Which themes introduced by the novel retain contemporary relevance?
Some recurrent themes: codes of female behavior and respectability, need to resist sexual temptation; need for social cohesion; need for forgiveness and charity
What are some of Elizabeth Gaskell's merits as a novelist? (has power of making us care about her characters; less satire than attempt to understand and forgive)
Page numbers refer to the Penguin edition, 1996 and Broadview Edition, 2000.