In the novel North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, the rivalry between the workers and the masters of the factories begin from the unwillingness of both sides to communicated with each other, and therefore, resulting in their ignorance of the motives and views of the other and from that, the social divide becomes deeper, especially the upper classes looked down upon the lower classes and considered them worthless. However, this was also a period of time where there were general sentiments that something should be done about the situation of the poverty and misery of the working classes and also the environment. Gaskell often offers the reader an opportunity to sympathise with the poor and comprehend with the powerful and thus, unite the two social classes, hence the distinct purpose of the novel.
The objective of Chapter 15 is to inform the reader about Thornton’s view from the perspective of a master, and also Margaret’s Southern view and certain ignorance regarding the “battle” between the workers and factory owners in the industrial part of England. Also, in this chapter, the reader is presented with there being a strike in the plot. The manner which Thornton speaks about the strike is somewhat cool, collected and abrupt, by using short sentences. The language that he utilises when referring to the workers is significant in the way it allows the reader to develop his point of views as a factory owner and Thornton also resembles the typical factory owner and their views, adding to Gaskell’s picture to develop in the reader’s mind of the whole situation.
The vocabulary that is used by Thornton in regards to the workers is somewhat resentful and spiteful towards them, for example: “fools” and “conceit”. These words are very sharp and harsh sounding and this adds to the opposition of Thornton in regards to the workers’ attitudes. His prejudices towards them is also relevant, because he too refers to them as mere “hands” when he declares them in the same level as the “servants” in the South (in order for Margaret to understand his view).
This being the reason why he and the rest of the masters in the North do not give them the right to higher wages and calls the workers’ salaries as “our money”. Sentences such as “our money” and “we Milton men” are devices by Gaskell to demonstrate the one-sided opinions of the employers of the North (using Thornton to symbolise the common employer). Also this makes it evident that he is oblivious and over looks the fact that the worker and owner linked and cannot survive without each other. It is ironic that Thornton preaches of how the ignorance of the workers annoy him and he uses his argument to support why he does not tell them that trade is supposedly not “flourishing”. Yet it seems that it is exactly this ignorance, on the part of Thornton, that he condemns them for.
Gaskell uses the character of Margaret to show the oblivion of the high classes in the South to the reality of the North; therefore, her views are contradictory of that of Thornton’s. Margaret’s biases and disgust of the manufacturers is a reflection of how the factory owners feel of the workers, creating a whole social chain. She describes to her father that Thornton is:
Not quite a gentleman
This portrays an element of prejudism and snobbery on the part of Margaret. Although she does look down on the manufacturers, she does have a genuine sympathy for the lower classes and especially the workers rather than the employers. It can be argued that in this situation, that Gaskell uses the character of Margaret to express her opinions, for it is a fact that Gaskell was very sympathetic to the working classes and the poor.
It is interesting how Margaret’s southern pro-worker opinions then change slightly in the meeting she has in chapter 17 with Bessy and Higgins, when she inquires:
What will happen with the farmers? (if there is no strike).
Ironically, this contradicts her arguments she conveyed to Thornton when she passionately expressed her dissatisfaction with the manner, which the masters treat their workers and subject them to “depotism” rather than equality, but now the author makes Margaret somewhat of a hypocrite over time (between meetings of different characters) which adds emphasis to the structure and Margaret’s practical education. Although Margaret is portrayed to be rather hypocritical, chapter 17 is used to show Margaret’s growth and awareness of the other social classes and their struggles, as her attitude towards manufacturers is beginning to differ from the scornful prejudice views she conveyed before her move to Milton.
What in the world do manufacturers want with classics, or literature, or the accomplishment of a gentleman?
Margaret still does not fully comprehend the relationship between “masters and men” and ignorantly she suggests to Higgins that she might simply ask the masters as to why the workers must take a lower wage. What she must come to learn is that the working life is nor idyllic, and that individuals do not negotiate (forgetting Mr. Thonton’s argument on depotism), but she is correct in regards to how she sees both:
…classes dependent on each other in every way.
At this period in the novel, the reader gains an insight into the views of the workers and Gaskell uses this in terms of structure. Since north and south was first serialised, it was used as a method of informing people of Southern England of the life of the industrial worker and the owners. Higgins, who informs Margaret (and consequently the reader) of the meaning of a strike and why they happen. It is also important to notice how he expresses his views with genuine conviction and appears to be well informed. Therefore, on the part of Gaskell, Higgins is a character used to demonstrate to the reader how the workers are not as ignorant as Thornton portrays them to be.
We know when we’re put down, and we’en too much blood in us stand it…Yo may clem us, but yo’ll never put upon us my masters!
The words “clem” and “blood” are words that give off and very sharp and vivid mental picture, which adds to the behaviour and way of being of the workmen. Higgins’ character seems optimistic about the strike and that the workers will finally succeed and it must be noted that in the historical perspective, strikes were a relatively new thing at the time the novel or series was published. It is interesting to see how these nouns are not abstract, like used with the other classes, they are rather ominous and this adds emphasis to the shocking reality of the strike.
Bessy and Margaret’s interaction, relationship and friendship, in chapter 17, is rather significant, because even though they come from completely different backgrounds and classes they still are able to develop and connection and usually do so with religion. Margaret is not afraid to show what she defines as “weaknesses” to Bessy and opens up to her about her dying mother and says “only you, Bessy” suggesting that she is the only person she trusts with these emotions and insecurities.
Bessy often speaking in a “wild excited tone” also reveals to Margaret her inner feelings and her fear of her father’s drinking habit. Hence, it can be seen that both characters use each other as outlets and have unconditional trust with one another. Also a method from Gaskell to show how the workers (represented by Bessy) are fully capable of connecting with someone of a higher class and that they aren’t as disconnected as often perceived.
Chapters 15 to 17 are used by Gaskell in order to provide the reader with background of the various typical views of both the “masters and men” of Milton. With this, Gaskell is able to take the reader a step further in the rest of the novel in order to fully comprehend the situations and also at the same time, to inform the readers of the events and reality of the industrial north. North and South deals with opinions from all across society in England, yet the reader in the present must be aware that the class divisions are not solely through literature. Yet some literature (such as this novel) can help the reader understand and be aware of certain realities and therefore, can be seen as a provocation of people to get up and do something about it.