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Contrasts and Reconciliation

“I know you despise me; allow me to say, it is because you don’t understand me.”  –North and South

North and South begins as a novel of contrasts, as its title portends. The North is the new, progressive industrial sector of society, while the South is the old, aristocratic, land-based gentry. The North is urban, bustling, grimy and noisy with the grinding of machinery, while the South is rural, slow-paced, cultured, pristine and quiet. John Thornton, a successful factory owner in the busy manufacturing town of Milton, represents the North, and Margaret Hale, a parson’s daughter from the naturally beautiful village of Helston, symbolizes the cultured, intellectual South. Other characters fall on either side of this North and South divide, and some straddle the middle. Each side has its pathetic and shallow characters (Fanny from the North and Esther from the South) and its noble ones (Higgins from the North and Mr. Bell from the South), Thornton and Margaret being the most admirable of all, as the hero and heroine. The divisions arise from many factors (economic, social, technological) which would take a proper history lesson to explain, but suffice it to say that England’s societal fabric at this time was changing and Gaskell was seeking to dramatize and perhaps reconcile the above hostile segments of society in her novel.

The hope of the classes reconciling, in North and South, depends on the hero and heroine’s ability to resolve their differences and fall in love, and to fall in love Thornton and Margaret need to overcome their prejudice and learn to understand each other – likewise with the clashing classes, North and South and master and hand. If only they really understood each other, if only they took the time to get to know each other, the rift could turn into a bridgeable gap.

Thornton and Margaret’s acquaintance begins by completely misunderstanding each other, only able to view each other through preconceived notions of the other “class” of people. When Thornton begins to see and understand the sympathy for the working class behind Margaret’s proud scorn of the masters, and Margaret learns the sense and intelligence behind why Thornton makes the decisions he does, and how they have led him to his current success and capacity to employ – and thus feed and clothe – the many workers that he does, only then do they see each other for who they really are. Thornton and Higgins reconcile in a similar way; Thornton visits Higgins’ home and sees the orphans he cares for, and gives Higgins the opportunity to speak to him face to face. Elsewhere, upon meeting Thornton and actually hearing what he has to say, many from the South (such as Henry lennox) change their minds about him. The final picture of Thornton and Margaret’s reconciliation is when she offers to collaborate with him financially in order to save his mill. At this point Thornton realizes Margaret has come to understand him and returns his affections.

However, Gaskell is a masterful, intelligent writer and a closer reflection on the novel reveals that Thornton and Margaret’s characters are not fully or neatly explained by “North” and “South.” For, we get the sense that Margaret is somewhat atypical of the South, and Thornton likewise of the North, in that they are exceptionally noble people, who represent the best of their worlds. Additionally, by the end of the novel, neither Helstone (the South) nor Milton (the North) themselves seem the same. The former has gained some vices and the latter has lost some. The novel North and South reflects the complicated reality of life, where issues are never simple; there is both good and bad in the mill workers and the mill owners, and there is suffering in both the North and the South. The contrast between the North and the South, then, blurs and erodes as the protagonist lives new experiences and grows and matures in her thinking.

Faith and Suffering

“I wish I could tell you how lonely I am. How cold and harsh it is here. Everywhere there is conflict and unkindness. I think God has forsaken this place. I believe I have seen hell and it’s white, it’s snow-white.” -North and South

The narrative of North and South contains many scenes of disappointment or grief. Very little positive or uplifting happens to Margaret, except her friendship with the Higgins and the sense of community it provides. Even the dreamlike entrance of Frederick is cut very short. He never returns, never overturns his death sentence, and four close family members or friends of Margaret die.

Sometimes it can be tempting to think that “back then” people dealt with tragedy and grief better because death occurred more often, but Gaskell’s characters still experience significant despair and depression upon the loss of a love one. Gaskell’s novel shows, contrary to the timeworn sentiment that faith is a kind of “crutch” to cope with hard times, that Christians can feel the farthest from God in the midst of suffering. Even so-called “applicable” scriptural comforts can seem trite at this time of mental numbness. Consider Mr. Hale a few days after his wife’s death. A former parson whose strong religious convictions compelled him to give up his career and home, he finds little solace in his faith upon the death of his wife, with what faith he yet clings to, as he admits God’s will in this matter appears entirely obscure to him. His daughter mechanically repeats Bible verses to comfort him, and in the familiar repetition he finds only a modicum of comfort. Mr. Hale knows God exists, but in this time of loss he staggers under the weight of his emotions and grief, and, like any child undergoing discipline, has difficulty feeling the love of his heavenly Father. For Mr. Hale, God’s will has become as hazy, obscure and impenetrable as the masters’, from the viewpoint of the hands. Again, this is not a moment of atheism for Hale. Rather, he is experiencing the natural and “right” effects of death. We would not long for that place where there are no more tears or suffering if such experiences were not awful. These periods of weakness prove the Hales’ faith to be all the more authentic and believable, firstly, because they are relatable, and secondly, because they are natural and true.

As humans we can’t help being subject to our emotions, to a degree, to feel despair in our suffering (not to be confused with despairing of salvation itself). Jesus himself felt the real agonies of suffering, forsakenness, loneliness and depression on (and preceding) the cross, crying out to his Father and questioning his will. To suffer is to feel forsaken, because we cannot see the face of God at that moment; not that he is not working (and working at his best – again I think of the cross) but perhaps his work at this time is so profound and holy so that we cannot look upon it with earthly comprehension. As for Margaret, although she walks through the valley of the shadow of death, the deep imprint of God’s law on her heart keeps her faith anchored.  Her greatest mental anguish arises from not only regretting lying to the police inspector about having been on the train platform the night Leonards dies, but from discovering that Thornton knows about her lying, which fills her with shame. Even though God’s will may at times be obscure, his laws (the part of his will that he has revealed to us) prove his goodness, Margaret knows full well, and it is right for people to obey them. For Thornton to think that she had abandoned her faith is more than Margaret can bear, and it is at this point that she realizes her love for him.