1. What are some ways in which the novel develops character? What are some important cases of contrast (e. g. Mary, Margaret, and Sally), and what do these reveal?
2. Do any of the characters mature or change during the book? (John deteriorates under effects of satrvation and drug use; Mary learns from circumstances)
3. How are the Chartists represented? Does the author have sympathy for the causes of trade unionism, for trade unionism itself, or for national organization of union activity?
4. How are the masters and members of the upper classes represented? Does the narrator favor their parallel attempts to organize?
5. What does she represent as working-class political goals? What is the novel’s attitude towards the attempted presentation of the Great Charter to Parliament?
6. How does the novel frame country-city contrasts? How do such differences underlie the novel's social themes?
7. What are some events/coincidences that cause the unravelling of the plot? Are some of these symbolic? (e. g. what do you make of the fact that Esther finds the Valentine on which Mary had copied Samuel Bamford’s poem, and which John Barton had used to stuff his gun?) Do these interlocking events add or detract from the plot’s effectiveness?
8. What seem to be Victorian views about women’s roles in genteel courtship? How do these inflence the plot? Does it seem inconsistent or appropriate that Mary first declares her love in court?
9. Do you agree that the novel’s romance is irrelevant to its major social purposes, as some critics have claimed? If not, what are its important social/emotional qualities?
10. What relationship can be found between the novel's romantic and political plots?
11. Does the narrator hold strong views about the lives of upper-middle-class women such as Mrs. Carson and her daughters?
12. What are some important features of the novel’s style? Is the authorical narrative voice used effectively?
13. What concerns and values are embedded in the prostitute plot? Why is Esther permitted to play a significant role in the novel?
14. How does the novel treat issues of alcoholism, opium addiction, and domestic violence?
15 Would the presence of the metropolitan police have been fairly new to Gaskell's audience? How do the characters respond to such terms as "alibi" and "subpoena," or the notion of undercover policemen?
16. How does the novel portray the interventions of the police and justice system? Are they always fair, and if not, what is needed to counterbalance them?
17. What effect do you think the novel's publication in two volumes may have had on the plot? Are the closing words at the end of chapter 18 a fitting and suspenseful conclusion to the first section?
18. What effects does the narrator believe would be brought about by further education of all classes? How does she represent the state of knowledge in the various social classes?
19. What combination of forces/alliances finally saves Jem’s life? (solidarity of group, quick wittedness of Mary, Esther's intervention) What are some moral assumptions that underlie the pattern of the novel? Does the ending provide adequate closure?
20. What is the novel’s prescription for mitigating social ills? How appropriate a message do you believe this was within its social context?
21. Which issues raised by Mary Barton do you think have present-day analogues?