“…a treatment…is needed to bring such bewildered thinkers into an acknowledgement of the universality of some kind of suffering, and the consequent necessity of its existence for some good end.” -Letter written by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1849, on Mary Barton
“Why are they so separate, so distinct, when God has made them all?” -Narrator in Mary Barton
“Rich and poor have this in common:
the Lord is Maker of them all.” Proverbs 22:2
Working Class Bodies
Victorian Christians (and here I mean the middle class) have often been noted for their charity. Knitting and embroidering for the poor, giving alms, visiting the sick, opening orphanages, etc. were common endeavours of both individuals and churches. William Booth established the Salvation Army in 1878; countless other examples could be mentioned, including Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister. Her sympathy for the working class and their sufferings pours out of Mary Barton.
Yet critics point out that, though they meant well, middle-class Victorians (Gaskell included) condescendingly understood and represented the lower class. The middle-class always exerted a “downward” sympathy toward the poor, and portrayed them in newspapers and in novels (such as Mary Barton) emotionally and physically (what critics term “pathologically”), rather than intellectually. They always suffer bodily: they hunger, they become ill, they weep, their work is by primarily physical labour and they are unable to articulate the cause of or the remedy for their trials. This makes them seem primal and animal-like, rather than human. They are not presented as rational, thinking creatures, but rather as children in need of parental guidance, and, sometimes, even discipline.
For example, in Mary Barton, the trade unionists never discuss any political ideas, philosophies or goals. The novel never mentions the landmark chartist agenda put forth at that time in history; the unionists name only suffering as their reason for striking. They cannot articulate any rational, political or economic explanation for their plight. Time after time the novel presents the mill workers as entirely ignorant of politics and economics altogether.
John Barton personifies the bodily suffering of the poor. He is starved, depressed and addicted to opium. He is accused of murder (murder being the only idea the trade unionists can come up with to remedy their problems) and the narrator often describes him as emotionally disconnected. He is a picture of the lower class, deaf and dumb and besieged by visceral ills.
Visceral ills run rampant in the novel. The narrator colours the pages grey with images of the dirt and grime of poverty, and the poor blur into their surroundings: “the streets were wet and dirty, the drippings from the houses were wet and dirty, and the people were wet and dirty.” The poor are ailing, dying, starving, filthy, angry, weeping and always, always suffering. Often the story alleviates these problems with a visit from a caring neighbour who brings much needed food or a hot cup of tea. The poor are bound up in their bodily problems in Mary Barton. Gaskell’s sympathy for them is touching, but the major consensus is that her pathological portrayal of them only further infantilizes and isolates them.
Middle Class Bodies
But there’s always another layer with Gaskell. What critics of Gaskell have failed to notice is that the narrator of Mary Barton does not present the middle class as an intellectual elite in contrast to the irrational, visceral working class. In fact, the middle class’s actions can rarely be described as rational, they fall ill to the same passions of the heart, and they too suffer – certainly not from financial lack, but still from bodily and emotional ailments.
The labour unionists may be unable to articulate the reasons for their sufferings, but their middle class employers offer no reasons for their rejection of the unionists’ requests. Indeed, the employers’ rage and distrust of their workers has little grounding in reason at all. The punishments, jeers and insults they inflict on their workers make them seem more like bullies than educated gentlemen.
Henry Carson and his father both let emotions and passionate desires rule their thoughts and actions. Henry’s infatuation with Mary is purely physical and he has no intentions of marrying her. Just as John Barton is depicted as having a “diseased” mind, Mr. Carson is portrayed as having a “disease” in his heart. His refusal to forgive John makes him “feverish and ill,” and he struggles against “the fierce pulses which throbbed in his head” and tries to “recall his balance of mind.” His final change of attitude is manifested in the tears that stream down his face.
Another visceral resemblance drawn between the two classes is the fact that both Mr. Carson and John Barton are motivated by revenge to kill, although of course Mr. Carson has a change of heart in time. “True, his vengeance was sanctioned by law,” the narrator says of Mr. Carson, “but was it the less revenge?” These parallel character motivations show employee and employer tempted by the same passions, motivated by the same line of thinking, and unrestrained by the same moral code.
The novel also makes clear that it is John Barton’s lack of sympathy towards his employers that is the root of his sin. Barton complains that the rich never suffer for the poor, only the reverse, and he notices “the contrast between the well-filled, well-lighted shops and the dim gloomy cellar [of the Davenports].” But the narrator questions his reading of the people and places he sees:
he could not, you cannot, read the lot of those who daily pass you by in the street. How do you know the wild romances of their lives; the trials, the temptations they are now enduring, resisting, sinking under? You may be elbowed one instant by the girl desperate in her abandonment, laughing in mad merriment with her outward gesture, while her soul is longing for the rest of the dead….You may pass the criminal, meditating crimes at which you will to-morrow shudder with horror as you read them.
The narrator criticizes Barton’s judgment of people he does not know, and writes that “the thoughts of his heart were touched by sin, by bitter hatred of the happy, whom, he for the time, confounded with the selfish.” Wilson chides Barton for not seeing that “th’masters suffer too.” Barton’s sin, then, is his lack of upward sympathy for his employers, and it is not until he has a change of heart and realizes that “Rich and poor, masters and men, were then brothers in the deep suffering of the heart” can reconciliation between the classes occur.
The Unified Body of Christ
Gaskell, then, calls for mutual sympathy between the classes as the solution (or the beginning of a solution) to the evils of class division. As a Christian (albeit Unitarian, but nevertheless her theology in this book is Biblical), Gaskell, I argue, understands and expresses the trials of class division through the metaphor of the body of Christ, which is the Christian church:
…that a perfect understanding, and complete confidence and love, might exist between masters and men that the truth might be recognized that the interests of one were the interests of all, and, as such, required the consideration and deliberation of all; that hence it was most desirable to have educated workers, capable of judging, not mere machines of ignorant men; and to have them bound to their employers by the ties of respect and affection, not by mere money bargains alone; in short, to acknowledge the Spirit of Christ as the regulating law between both parties.
Compare this with 1 Cor. 12:12-26:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.
If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body….But as it is, God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose….As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
….the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honourable we bestow the greater honor…. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
The heart of the problem with the workers and their employers, according to Gaskell, is that the body of Christ has become divided, as members scorn the usefulness of other parts of the body, and neglect to care for each other and suffer together. (Interestingly, factory workers were often referred to as “hands,” and Gaskell does as well in Mary Barton). In the letter I quoted at the beginning of this post, Gaskell states, “…a treatment…is needed to bring such bewildered thinkers into an acknowledgement of the universality of some kind of suffering, and the consequent necessity of its existence for some good end.”
Gaskell’s “body of Christ” approach to class conflict presents a new take on the patronizing nature of Christian Victorian middle class charity. Actually, Gaskell does not call for charitable actions at all in this novel. Furthermore, she offers almost no practical solutions or remedies for class conflict. She does not plot out economic or political policies or agendas that might assuage the division of the classes. And for this, Mary Barton is dismissed by literary critics as emotional, sentimental and domestic – a nice story (and one too much dominated by a love plot), but not super helpful.
From a Marxist or feminist literary critic’s point of view, the novel falls short, because at the heart of either ideology is the faith that a human-created economic or political earthly utopia is possible. But consider when Jesus tells his disciples, who complain that an amount of money could have been better spent on the poor: “The poor you will always have with you.” This is a tough doctrine to swallow, and one that those who have no hope for any kind of paradise except one they can create themselves on earth simply cannot accept.
This is not to say that Christians should reject economic and political reform. Human policies can positively affect the economic status of particular groups of people, certainly. But Christians understand a different root of the problem than Marxists and feminists, though all three worldviews are characterized by compassion. Only Christianity identifies the evil in humans’ hearts as the source of conflict, and this is the malaise that divides the classes in Mary Barton. As Vincent Poythress puts it in Inerrancy and Worldview: Answering Modern Challenges to the Bible:
Marxism and feminism represent counterfeits for the Christian redemption set forth in the Bible. Like any counterfeit, they would not be attractive unless they mimicked the truth and contained elements of truth. Human beings do indeed need redemption. Sin is the root problem. Sin resides in individual human beings. But it also has social, political, and economic ramifications. Sin has effects not only on individuals but on whole social systems.
You can introduce economic and political reform, and you will likely see some alleviation of the problem. But it will not get at the heart of the problem, and class divisions will fluctuate and relocate from the local neighbourhood to the span of the globe. The poor will always exist on this Earth. Gaskell’s approach to the great class divide is to frame it as a matter of the heart. Each class suffers because it fails to recognize the necessity of the other; they have lost their identity as members of the same body of Christ. The final reconciliation between John Barton and Mr. Carson shows a healed body, and a picture of the what the church should and will look like in the kingdom of Christ. For a secular literary critic, such a picture holds little value. For Christians, there is no higher value than the restoration of humans into the body of Christ where they can live and move in the roles and identities they were created for.