Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (1854)
What are some events and social distinctions which form the context for this novel? (industrial and Chartist unrest, regional differences, religious differences) In particular, what are some events which occurred in the ten years prior to its publication?
How may Gaskell’s choices for her novel have been affected by the fact that it was published in a family magazine?
Also, how has the novel’s structure been designed to take advantage of its later publication in a two volume format?
Can you discern aspects of the novel which seem quasi-autobiographical? (Gaskell was raised in the south and moved to Manchester on the occasion of her marriage)
What themes are initiated in the novel’s opening chapters? Whose fortunes are we expected to follow with greatest sympathy?
What are some basic social contrasts which organize Margaret’s life? (Margaret and her frivolous and wealthy cousin and aunt; Margaret and her invalid mother and timid father; Margaret and the status-seeking Henry Lockwood; Margaret and Mrs. Thornton)
The novel was first intended to be titled Margaret Hale, a title similar to that of Mary Barton, Gaskell’s first novel. How would this change have influenced its reception and readers’ responses at the time and later?
To what extent is this novel allegorical, with the characters representing different social positions and choices? Is this mode of characterization effective? Are there instances in which it borders on stereotype?
What role is played by the narrator throughout? Is she/it an important part of the novel’s tone and effect? How would the novel have been altered by the excision of authorial comments?
What transpires at the first social visit between Mr. Thornton and the Hales? What positions does each maintain? Are there flaws in Mr. Thornton’s arguments, and if so, to what extent are these noticed by his auditors and the narrator?
What role is served by Mrs. Hale in the novel? To what extent are we expected to sympathize with her? Does she seem an entirely plausible mother for Margaret?
What traits does Margaret show in her attitude and responses to her mother?
What roles are played by Dixon the servant? Why is she called “Dixon,” rather than, say, Nancy? How does Margaret respond to her closeness with Mrs. Hale? Are we expected to see this as unnatural?
More broadly, what seems the role of servants in the novel? What attitudes are expressed toward them, and how is their presence used to further the novel's themes or plot?
How is Mr. Hale portrayed? At what points does he fail to perform difficult tasks? Are there any occasions on which he seems to act decisively or courteously?
What motivates Mr. Hale’s departure from the Anglican clergy? Are the actual grounds for his reservations given? Why do you think Gaskell is so cautious in presenting his views?
Is Mr. Hale’s decision presented favorably? Since Gaskell was a Unitarian, would she have naturally sympathized with the choice to dissent?
Under what circumstances does Margaret feel self-conscious shame? (that she should be regarded as a woman to be sought in marriage, chap. 23)
Who helps the Hale family adjust to their new situation? What is added to the plot by the cordial relations between Mr. Hale and Mr. Thornton? Do these develop with time? (Mr. Hale is able to confide his religious doubts and perturbations to Mr. Thornton, who responds with preternatural sympathy and understanding)
What is added to the plot by the presence of Mrs. Thornton? What has been her relationship with her son? Are some of his traits explicable by his upbringing as her son?
How is the Thornon home described? What does it lack?
What are traits of Fanny’s character? What contrasts does she provide to her brother? Does it seem plausible that she should be the daughter of Mrs. Thornton?
Under what circumstances does Mr. Thornton confront the strikers? Who urges him to do so, and on what grounds? (Gaskell believes in communication) Was this wise?
How does Margaret attempt to save Mr. Thornton’s life, and with what result? Can you think of other similar scenes in Victorian literature in which a woman rushes in to help a threatened man? (Shirley, Aurora Leigh)
How is Mr. Thornton’s love for Margaret characterized? On what grounds does she reject his proposal? Is her refusal reasonable? (she doesn’t know him very well, and disagrees with his methods of running his business)
How does he respond to her rejection? (continues to love her and gradually alters his behavior to improve his relationship with his employees; visits her previous home at Helstone)
What is the effect of centering much of the plot on the issue of personal truthfulness? (a false equivalence, since her lie is an attempt to save her brother and his actions may have shortened or harmed the lives of many)
What request does Mrs. Hale make of Mrs. Thornton shortly before her death? Does their prior relationship seem to suggest such a personal request? What results will this plea eventually have? (Mrs. Thornton chides Margaret in a painful scene)
What role in the plot is served by Frederick? Does the novel present his act of mutiny favorably? What traits does he exhibit on his return home? (chapter 30)
If Frederick had been able to return to England, how might his presence have affected the plot?
What do you make of the physical descriptions of him as dark and delicate of manner? What seems to be Gaskell's view of Spain?
How are other ethnic or national groups represented? Do any of these representations follow stereotypes? (Irish Higgins drinks)
How is the reader expected to respond to his self-defense when attacked? To what extent is he responsible for the death of Leonards?
What allegiances does Frederick form in Spain, and how do these affect his relationship with his British family?
Are there instances in which the behavior of characters seems unrealistically presented?
Under what circumstances does Margaret become acquainted with a poor family? How are Higgins and his daughter represented? (daughter apolitical; adores Margaret)
How is dialect employed throughout the novel, and what purposes does it serve?
What has caused Bessy’s ill health? Is this clearly presented in the novel? (death of consumption, caused by factory pollution) What is her relationship with Margaret?
What points of view does Mr. Higgins represent? According to the narrator, what has apparently caused his religious infidelity? (chapter 28)
What are Mr. Higgins’s views of factory labor, and how are these eventually softened? What rejoinder to his complaints is made by Mr. Thornton? Are their possible flaws in his arguments? (issue of living wage raised; both masters and men assume that wages must follow the market cycle, ignoring issue of equally shared profits and loss; narrator seems to accept that the employers will set rates in accord with a fair profit margin, chapters 17 and 18)
How does the novel represent the motives and likelihood of success of the strike?
What are Higgins’s personal responses to Mr. Thornton? (admires his persistence, 184) Does this seem likely?
What part in this strike had been played by Mr. Higgins, and what reasons does he give for its failure? (bad behavior by the more violent strikers such as Boucher; replicates physical force vs. moral force divisions of the time)
What lessons does Gaskell feel should be learned from Boucher’s death? How do others respond to the problems of the widow and her children? (Margaret, Higgins, and Mr. Thornton help)
How does Margaret’s view of Manchester alter over time? Do her and Mr. Hale’s advice that Higgins not emigrate southwards reflect a realistic assessment of the flaws of rural life in the south? (chapter 37)
Is this a change from the earlier emphasis on the Hales’ family’s beneficient relationship with the local villagers?
What is added to the plot by the introduction of Adam Bell and the account of his views of society? Would Gaskell’s portrayal of the life of an Oxford don have been somewhat accurate at the time of the novel’s publication? (not until 1856 were non-Anglicans permitted to attend or take degrees at Oxford, and even certain members of the Church of England were unable to sign their accordance with the 39 articles, as was needed for graduation; non-teaching sinecures or “livings” were common)
What relief does Margaret feel when her father leaves for a brief visit to his friend? (has the rare luxury of being alone, able to sort out her thoughts and emotions)
What important conversation takes place between Mr. Hale and Mr. Bell before the former's death? (chapter 41) Does the fact that Mr. Hale dies in Oxford rather than at home with his daughter affect the novel in any way? (spares Margaret and the reader from details, increases Mr. Bell's closeness to the Hale family)
What purpose is served by the account of Margaret’s return to Helstone with her godfather? What changes does she notice in her former home, and how does she respond to these? (is overwhelmed by a sense of impermanence of all things, saddened, also realizes how much she has changed in the intervening months)
Who else has visited Helstone in the meantime? How is the reader enable to guess this? (landlady suggests that a gentleman has visited; we see him returning to Oxford with Mr. Bell)
What misinformation does Mr. Bell inadvertently give John Thornton? Who will later relate a more accurate account to him? (he learns from servants that Frederick had visited at the time of Mrs. Hale's death)
What is significant about the scene in which Margaret and her godfather interview a woman who has just boiled a cat alive? (need for education, horror at superstitions; deflates nostalgia for rural simplicity)
To whom does Margaret confess her shame at having told an untruth? What serious resolutions does she make directly before and after Mr. Bell's death? (will always follow truth)
Does it seem plausible that Margaret’s mother, father, and godfather should all die relatively young, suddenly, and within a couple years of one another? Why do you think these deaths were added to the plot?
What changes occur with Margaret's new acquisition of wealth? Does this seem rather a bit of a deus ex machina?
What new facts about Mr. Thornton's economic situation come to light? (didn't have savings to overcome trade loss) What gamble does he refuse to take, and with what motive? (won't risk others' property) What new (or changed) light does this shed on his character?
In forfeiting his business, what new enterprises does he regret? (has started a communal kitchen--a form of coop--with his employees)
What has happened to Fanny Thornton? Is this convenient for plot purposes? (her prosperous marriage avoids issue of how she would have responded to his financial losses)
What kind deed does her servant relate that Mrs. Thornton had performed? Does this seem in character? What is the effect of introducing this detail so late in the plot? (Mrs. Thornton destined to be Margaret's mother-in-law)
How does his mother respond to his business losses? On which issues are they seen to disagree? (she disapproves of his charitable interests, feels he should have risked the money of others for his own gain) What does he ask of her? (that she pray with and for him, as when he had been a child)
What new issues arise as Margaret returns to live with her aunt and cousin? In what ways does she assert her independence? (chooses own clothes, decides when to travel, refuses Henry Lennox as suitor) Does it seem likely that she would be content to live permanently with them?
What does the narrator believe is a special problem for women? (to determine how much is owed to convention and how much may be claimed for private action)
On what basis are Margaret and John Thornton eventually reconciled? What changes has he made in order to accede to her views of cross-class relationships?
Do you think these changes will be sufficient to alter the circumstances at his mill? To provide a model of good labor relationships?
What part is played by inheritance/fortune in the plot? Is it appropriate that the rents of an Oxford don should provide for industrial production in Manchester?
How does the fact that it is she, and not he, who inherits a fortune unexpectedly, alter their respective positions and their marriage?
Can you think of other Victorian literary works which present the romantic relationship between a chastened hero and newly prosperous female character? (Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Aurora Leigh)
What humorous touch ends the book? (both her aunt and his mother will be scandalized) Do you predict a happy marriage for this couple?
How is the novel affected by its concentration on the emotional ties between a fixed number of characters? By the choice of a manufacturer and two poor families to represent the points of view/interests of a capitalist and factory workers respectively?