Gender And Identity In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North And South
“But she had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought, that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.”1
North and South was written in installments and published in the Household Words 1854 and 1855, the weekly newspaper of Charles Dickens. North and South is most famous for its stress upon industrialization. Raymond Williams said that Gaskell’s novels are important because they enhance our understanding of industrialization.2
Recent critics seem to have focused on how Gaskell challenges gender norms in the North and south, either through the transgression of spheres or the portrayal of passive men and active wo-men by Gaskell. Gaskell’s heroine embodies both the conventional female virtues of nurturing and selflessness whilst transgressing the Victorian gender norms together with her historically masculine traits of action, independence and self-reliance. In this light, we can assess how Margaret keeps within her gender role and simultaneously tries to break free, and through this Gaskell tries to limit the current gender norms for women and calls for a change. When North and South came out, it was subjected to a lot of criticism because, in that society, women were not to write about labour relations and other concerns of industrialization. Nevertheless Gaskell, through the protagonist of the novel, Margret Hale tries to push the boundaries of what could and could not be appreciated of a common Victorian woman.
Margaret is a remarkable Victorian lady protagonist. She evinces a heightened level of independence and self-reliance. First, she rejects an offer through an eligible suitor and does no longer seek advice from her parents. She does now not want a ‘whirlwind’ of a wedding at all, unlike her historically feminine cousin Edith. She is knowledgeable and socially conscious, and simply as eloquent and impassioned in her evaluations as men in her existence. She rejects levity, giddiness, and superficiality. She revels in her intelligence and private strength.
In traditional Victorian families, the male members assume the role of authority figure who undertakes much of the responsibilities of the house. However, in this novel, Margaret’s father fails to contain the house with his own hands and thus Margaret assumes responsibility profoundly. One of Gaskell’s methods for improving Margaret’s solid, women’s activist side is through making her stand out her from her frail dad. A case of this is the point at which he enlightens her concerning the move, where he is depicted as ‘nervous and confused’ and coming up short on ‘the courage to utter a word’ without Margaret’s consolation. Patricia Ingham thinks of him as ‘almost wholly feminized’ and proceeds by saying that the storyteller treats him practically like a kid to demonstrate how unfortunate vulnerability and shortcomings are in any individual, regardless of which sex.3 Gaskell’s method for ‘feminizing’ the regular specialist of ‘man of the house’, Mr Hale, not exclusively is a method for upgrading Margaret’s capacities, yet additionally an approach to demonstrate an option in contrast to the tyrant man and reclassify the Victorian sexual orientation standards. Gilbert and Gubar argue that nineteenth-century women’s education in femininity aimed at making them “desire to be beautiful and ‘frail’” and that the ideals of the time seem to have actually “admonished women to be ill.”4 This is exemplified by Margaret’s mother who continued to be represented as frail throughout the novel until her death. Unlike her mother, Margaret assumes the responsibilities of a confident young woman who is totally unafraid to put her views forward and assume authority as and when required.
Later, Margaret and her dad go to an evening gathering at the Thorntons’ to which the majority of Milton’s upper class, mostly plant proprietors, have been welcomed. At supper, the men’s exchanges normally spin around items for worry inside their calling, for example, the economy, wages, specialists and strikes. Margaret finds their discussions captivating and “listened attentively”. The ladies are even described as “dull” and are treated with much irony by the narrator as they sit in silence “taking notes of the dinner and criticising each other’s dresses” instead of listening or joining in the men’s conversation. Plainly Margaret’s inclination for the men’s talks and interests over ladies’ places her outside her conventional gender role. In Chapter XII of Volume II of the novel, Margaret talks about the forthcoming hit with Higgins, this time attempting to advance the employer’s perspective, thinking that raising wages may be outlandish for the experts in light of ‘the state of trade’. Margaret continues with this sort of talking about and intervening between the two men, Higgins and Thornton, therefore truly among laborers and bosses. After the strike, when Higgins is out of work since he won’t leave the Union, Margaret sends him to Thornton and after an underlying refusal the two men shake hands and Higgins is employed. This is one more confirmation of Margaret’s untraditional cooperation in men’s issues. Gaskell needs to pass on the need of open correspondence among experts and laborers and Margaret helps this procedure by moving ‘into the manly domain’ and accommodating them.
Towards the finish of the novel, Margaret increases monetary freedom through an inheritance from her godfather. Incidentally, with this inheritance comes the job of landowner to Mr. Thornton. With her budgetary future verified, Margaret chooses to take ‘her life into her own hands’. She demonstrates an interest in the organization and investment of her cash and she counsels a legal counselor to assist her with this. At last when Mr. Thornton is compelled to close down his plant, Margaret offers to put resources into his organization, disclosing to him that ‘you could pay me much better interest’. Without a doubt Margaret is affected by her adoration for Mr. Thornton yet it is likewise a sound investment. Thusly she demonstrates her budgetary mindfulness in a manner which isn’t customarily associated with her sexual orientation.
Her ethical mettle makes her interpretation of ‘men’s discussions’, that is difficult discussions that men should indulge in, but they shy from them. We see this right off the bat in the novel when Mr. Hale asks Margaret to tell his wife about the move to Milton in Chapter IV, of Volume I of the novel. On this occasion, his weakness is obvious when he exclaims ‘I dare not tell her!” Instead Margaret has to summon up her valor and tell her mother. A later situation in the novel, in Chapter XI of Volume II, where Margaret takes on a difficult conversation is the point at which the poor working-class father, Boucher, has been discovered dead and someone must tell his wife. As a friend and neighbor, Higgins is the first choice; however he refuses. Individuals at that point swing to the previous minister Mr. Hale, yet he is ‘trembling from head to foot’ and plainly unfit. Again Margaret accepts the necessity and declares ‘I will go’. Here, the two men are obviously more qualified for the task than Margaret, however they lack good valor. By contrasting Margaret’s boldness with the men’s weakness, Gaskell further emphasizes Margaret’s strength of character and willingness to acknowledge responsibility.
Apart from moral responsibilities, Margaret also shows men like physical strength and vigour in Volume I, Chapter XXII when she goes outside the Thorton house to reason with the agitating mob of workers and ends up saving Thorton from the fatal stone pelting, injuring herself on the contrary.
To look from yet another perspective, the expression ‘the angel of the house’ alludes to two parts of the perfect Victorian lady: her conduct ought to be that of a heavenly attendant, and besides she ought to be physically focused to the domain of her home. The term itself originates from the title of a ballad by Coventry Patmore that lauds the prudent yet conventional lady whose one point in life is to satisfy her better half. Margaret is the Victorian angel from various perspectives: she runs the family unit and she is benevolent and minding. She additionally plays out the angel’s handy errand of dealing with the family unit which involves both dealing with the hirelings and taking on overwhelming family tasks. She nurtures her debilitated mother and when her mom has passed away, she is depicted as a ‘strong angel of comfort’ for her dad and her brother. This instance proves her to be tender and nursing on one hand, and as mentioned earlier, to break free from societal norms and emerge headstrong and independent on the other hand. There is enough evidence to show that Margaret chose to shape her own identity, very boldly asserting what she believes in. Margaret never feared to talk to men, interfering in their matters, as is seen in her talks with Mr. Lennox, regarding her brother Frederick. Contrary to her father, who can be looked at as the authority figure, is very passive in the novel, when it comes to working out plans to save his own son. On the other hand, Margaret shares Frederick’s pain and works a lot to save him, including her discussion with Mr. Lennox on legal matters. She continuously gave her own opinions to matters which are of central importance to the plot of the novel. Her incessant support to the ailing girl Bessy Higgins, her support for the girl’s father, the constant meddling in labour affairs by her, all these instances prove that Margaret reflected a unique identity, amidst the stereotypical attitude of the Victorian society towards women.
To conclude, Margaret’s open activities are seen by numerous scholars, as Gaskell testing society’s division of isolated circles. Gaskell demonstrates the requirement for changing sexual orientation jobs by having her courageous woman break the sex jobs of need, yet exceeding expectations in the manly domain. This unequivocally infers that ladies’ abilities are equivalent to those of men which not just inquiries the detachment of circles and the Victorian sex standards yet in addition the idea of sexual orientation and the identity of women in general.
- Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. 1855. London: Penguin Books, 1994.
- Williams, Raymond. “The Industrial Novels: Mary Barton and North and South, Mrs. Gaskell; Hard Times. Dickens; Sybil, Disraeli; Alton Locke, Kingsley; Felix Holt, George Eliot”. The Victorian Novel: Modern Essays in Criticism. Ed. Ian Watt. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971.
- Ingham, Patricia. The Language of Gender and Class: Transformation in the Victorian Novel. New York: London: Routledge, 1996.
- Gilbert, Sandra M. & Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and The Nineteenth-Century Litrary Imagination. 2nd edition. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.