Rachel's blog

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.

02 The Society from North and South

Filed under: Sin categoría — Raquel Sanchez Sogorb at 11:41 pm on miércoles, mayo 22, 2013

We are faced with a novel of Victorian manners, nothing escapes from this novel, which the central theme is love and all that entails. Although, as the majority of the classical romantic novels, the main characters are used to be from the high classes, but Gaskell also gives the point of view of the workers headed by Higgins, and that let us see how the aristocratic class, reflected in her main characters, is seeking to maintain their status to keep looking over their shoulders at the next social stratum as they evolve from their archaic customs.

This novel examines the nature of social authority and obedience and provides an insightful description of the role of middle class women in nineteenth century society. Through the story of Margaret Hale, a southerner who moves to the northern industrial town of Milton, Gaskell skillfully explores issues of class and gender, as Margaret’s sympathy for the town mill workers conflicts with her growing attraction to the mill owner, John Thornton.

Her characters from Margaret Hale to Nicholas Higgins, regardless of situation, are paid the same meticulous attention by Gaskell in her portrayal of an intricate story which encompasses a range of social issues such as the role of women in Victorian Britain industrialization and its effects on class divisions, as well as the changing landscape of Britain through such changes brought on by advancement in trade in urban areas depicted in the contrasts between Helstone and Milton.

In 18th century, the power in England was in the hands of the aristocracy and landed gentry, the industrial revolution didn’t change the old class structure, vast towns such as Manchester, the model of fictional “Milton”, were constructed to house workers who moved from the semi-feudal countryside to work for wages in the new factories.

The emergence of the industry resulted in an increase of workers who moved from the countryside to the city; the lower classes of the countryside looked for a job opportunity in the factories to improve their lives. But although companies offered jobs, working conditions were deplorable: low wages, dangerous workplaces,  the accidents were common, burns and inhalation of other toxic gases caused serious illness and even death; the example in the novel of this is, when Mr. Thornton fires a worker because he is smoking, and the last year the factory was burned by a cigarette end and some of the workers died in the fire. And also, it was common to see children working in factories, in Milton a worker woman has to send home a child because he is ill and change it by another to follow working; child labor in that era represented the twenty-five percent of the active workforce.

In the industrial cities were houses built for factory workers, cheap and unhealthy, where families, usually very numerous, lived held into one room. This, joined to the infamous labor conditions, brought a struggle for social reforms, which enact workers’ rights, improved living conditions, education, and political participation.

The industrial revolution brought technology and employed thousands of people, but this change didn’t pass to relations between owners and workers, that were already in bad working conditions. So, workers formed Trade Unions to share opinions and interests, and sometimes these unions struck to get better treatments and situations from their masters; we can see that in the Milton’s strike led by Mr. Higgins against the masters as Mr. Thornton; or in limit conditions, make pressure measurements to get strikes.

The main reason of the conflicts between the principal holders and workers can be the desire for making money, the capital holders or the bosses want to give low wages to the workers to increase their profit, while the workers want to get satisfactory or high wages without considering the financial crisis and without giving any thought to whether the employers could afford high wages at the time of financial crisis. Nicholas Higgin’s words to Margaret in the novel reveals this conflict:

“Why, you see, there is five or six masters who have set themselves again paying the wages they have been paying these two years past, and flourishing upon, and getting richer upon. And now they come to us, and say we are to take less, and we won’t. We will just clem them to death first, and see who will work for them then. They will have killed the goose that laid them the golden eggs, I reckon.”

According to Jill L. Matus, “this led to protest and other demands and appeals for reform from the workers and in turn, increased fear of social unrest, and also contends that Gaskell’s writing represents a consciousness and its alterations under turbulent social and personal conditions.”

Later in the novel Mr. Thornton changes after being influenced by Margaret. He learns that these men are not different from him. Gaskell said: “Once brought face to face, man to man, with an individual of the masses around him, and (take notice) out of the character of master and workman, in the first instance they had each begun to recognize that we have all of us one human heart.”

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