Monday, June 11, 2007

Review: North and South

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, 2005, W. W. Norton & Company, 585 pages, Softcover, A Norton Critical Edition edited by Alan Shelston, ISBN 0-393-97908-3

Although North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell is a novel that deals with a complexity of social issues related to the industrialization of Victorian England, it is the development of Margaret and Mr. Thornton’s relationship that carries the day. At nineteen, Margaret Hale is forced to deal with a series of dramatic changes that effect her life, eventually transforming her into a young woman who can think and reason for herself regardless of social mores.

Having spent her whole life in the south of England, Margaret is devastated when she hears the news that she will have to leave her beloved home. After wrestling with his conscience, her father feels compelled to leave his small, pastoral parish in the south for a job tutoring in the industrial north.

The book, however, is not really about the two contrasting cultures of the north and south, so much as a coming-of-age story about a young Victorian woman, against the backdrop of rebelling mill workers, and how she must also wrestle with her conscience in the many conflicting situations that arise.

The story hinges on the word “change.” Margaret deals with the changing religious beliefs of her father and brother, the changing relationships between master/owner and worker/servant, and the changing expectations of family roles, among many other issues.

The story is also about changes that happen to Margaret. She is transplanted to a new home, city, and environment with different societal attitudes and mores; in fact, a radically different world, society is changing (the world is becoming more industrial), and those around her are changing and leaving.

From the story’s opening, Margaret deals with a series of changes that impact her life. Her cousin, who she grew up intimately with as a sister, marries and moves away. Soon after, Margaret receives a proposal of marriage, which she is unprepared for and takes her by surprise. Then her father announces they are to move. When she arrives in Milton, the changes seem to intensify and multiply, piling one on top of the other, overwhelming her and crushing her spirit until she collapses, her conscience shattered. It is only at this point, when she recognizes her esteem of Mr. Thornton’s good opinion, that she begins to let down her self-righteous facade and opens herself up for love.

North and South is a most remarkable book in that it generates discussion. It is a book of class distinctions, social mores, workers’ rights vs. owners’ rights, a woman struggling to live out Christian principles in a secular world, pride vs. humility, and much more.

It is about a woman who bucks the system, but not because of self-centered reasons, so much as striving to put Christian principles into action. While the backdrop is the workers rebelling against the “masters,” Margaret is rebelling against the social mores of class and gender, especially concerning the relationships between men and women and in particular regarding marriage. At nineteen, she is unsure of her feelings and thoughts and is struggling to make sense of it all. These multiple layers allow the reader to probe beyond the love story. While the social issues and especially the conflict between the owners and the workers may seem to take precedence; North and South is primarily a love story. It has been compared to Pride and Prejudice with greater depth because of the social issues.

Although North and South is a romantic tale, it mimics reality. As Margaret and Mr. Thornton’s relationship unfolds, it is filled with misunderstandings and frustrating circumstances that are not resolved until the end. As the tension builds between the mill workers and the owners, their relationship also seems to grow. Just when Margaret begins to see Mr. Thornton for the truly good person that he is, their relationship blows up along with the strikers festering discontent. Similar to the conflict between the owners and the workers, Margaret and Mr. Thornton’s relationship is likewise stalemated because they refuse to see the other side’s perspective. Impeded by their own human weaknesses, they seem blind to the goodness in the other and unable to rise above their human faults. It is their continual striving to do the right thing that sets things aright in the end.

Unlike the original Pride and Prejudice, Margaret is the one with both the pride and the prejudice. She has preconceived notions of Mr. Thornton and Milton even before she meets him or lives in Milton. Only after she lives there some time and is removed to the south again does she come to love and fully appreciate Milton and Mr. Thornton.

What adds greatly to the development of the story is how Gaskell deftly moves from one point of view to the other. She seems to know intuitively when to switch the point of view, so that just when we think we begin to understand a situation from one character’s point of view, we realize that from another’s, there is a totally different perspective. By doing so, Gaskell sheds light on the foundation of much conflict: misunderstanding.

There are also moments of tenderness and sweetness in the story, primarily on Mr. Thornton’s part. At the end of the story, his act of thoughtfulness is quite romantically touching.

Although I viewed the DVD first, inspiring me to read the book, I recommend reading the book first, since there are some major changes to the book, some are improvements and some are not. The character of Mr. Thornton has been altered. After I read the book, I went back and saw the movie again. There are many nuances related to what the characters are thinking and social mores that are not fully understood by watching the movie alone.

Gaskell does not offer pat answers to the complex problems of labor and management issues. She displays a definite understanding of both sides of the issues and proposes Christian ideals as solutions to the many problems.

Likewise, because of the constraints of the Victorian age, many of the misunderstandings between Margaret and Mr. Thornton are exacerbated. It is only through a Christian understanding of love that their relationship begins to blossom.

North and South is a book to read and reread again, because of the depth of the story and the many themes Gaskell addresses. Thoroughly entertaining and engaging, it is easy to immerse yourself in the lives of the characters. After many heart-wrenching struggles, Margaret emerges in the end a transformed and better person.

Although this story was written for an adult audience, it would be appropriate for high school age students. Edited for college use, The Norton Critical edition includes annotations, reviews written by her contemporaries, correspondence related to the novel, her short story “Lizzie Leigh,” recent critical essays, and more.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Yank.

Available from your local bookstore.

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