When Thornton arrives at the Hales’, he is struck by the fact that, although his own drawing-room is twenty times as fine as the Hales’ small one, it is not one quarter as comfortable—the Hales’ even contains books “not cared for on account of their binding solely,” but are lying about as if they’d just been read. Mr. Thornton feels that “all these graceful cares were habitual to the family; and especially of a piece with Margaret.” Thornton finds himself distracted by Margaret’s beauty as she pours the tea and jokes with Mr. Hale.
Again, it’s hinted that the Thorntons’ lifestyle is that of the nouveau riche—the recently affluent who tended more toward display of their wealth. The Thorntons’ home is coldly luxurious, but the Hales’ humble home feels lived-in and welcoming. Thornton sees the comfortable touches as an extension of Margaret herself.
Margaret, too, observes Thornton, and notices the difference in both appearance and character between him and Mr. Hale. Her father has dreamy, “almost feminine” eyes and an emotional face; Thornton has earnest, penetrating eyes, a rare but bright smile, and the “resolved expression of a man ready to do and dare everything.”
This is another example of Margaret’s father having stereotypically feminine features, especially in contrast to Thornton’s bold, confident characteristics. Margaret is drawn to the sincerity and daring she perceives in Thornton.
Mr. Hale and Mr. Thornton are discussing the steam-hammer. Thornton describes the advance of industry as “the war which compels, and shall compel, all material power to yield to science.” He further says that he would prefer to live a “toiling, suffering” life in Milton than to live the “slow days of careless ease” enjoyed by the aristocratic South.
For the first time, Thornton takes up the subject of industry using militaristic language, describing it as an unstoppable, almost automatic force. He harbors his own disdain for the Southern way of life.
At these words, Margaret is roused to an angry defense of the South. Even if there is less invention and progress in the South, she argues, there is less suffering, also. There may be poverty, but the South’s poor, she says, do not go around with such a “sullen sense of injustice” in their expression as Milton’s poor do. Mr. Thornton regrets having hurt her feelings, but suggests that, if he does not understand the South, she does not understand the North any better.
Margaret has formed sweeping judgments about the attitudes of the North’s lower classes. She also takes up her argument that the effects of progress are unequally distributed, and that while some advance, others are trodden underfoot.
Thornton goes on to admit that, in their early days, Milton’s manufacturers were dizzied by their power. The pioneer manufacturer’s sense of justice was “often utterly smothered under the glut of wealth” then raining upon him, and he did tyrannize his work-people. But today, he claims, “the battle is pretty fairly waged” between masters and workers.
Though Thornton admits that wealth can blind the powerful to injustices, he doesn’t see a contradiction when he casts the relationship between classes as a “battle.”
Mr. Hale inquires whether it is necessary to conceive of the relationship between classes as a “battle.” Thornton believes it to be “as much a necessity as that prudent wisdom and good conduct are always opposed to, and doing battle with ignorance and improvidence.”
Affirming his use of the word “battle,” Thornton sees class conflict as a conflict essentially between good and bad.
One of the benefits of the industrial system, Thornton explains, is that a worker can raise himself to the level of master through his own exertions; in fact, everyone who lives with decency and sobriety comes over to “our ranks.” Margaret replies coldly, “You consider all who are unsuccessful in raising themselves in the world, from whatever cause, as your enemies, then, if I understand you rightly.” “As their own enemies, certainly,” Thornton answers.
Thornton feels that the only way to explain his meaning is to tell the Hales something of his life story, despite his hesitation to speak of it to people he doesn’t know well. But finally, he begins, “I am not speaking without book.” He explains that when he was a boy, his father had died under miserable circumstances, forcing him to find work in a draper’s shop and to both support his family and save for the future out of his small earnings.
With his statement about “not speaking without book”—that is, not speaking of something he knows nothing about— Thornton acknowledges the importance of life experience in forming one’s character. His theories about success and failure are founded on his own boyhood struggles.
Thornton does not feel that his present fortune has come about through luck, merit, or talent, but “simply the habits of life which taught me to despise indulgences not thoroughly earned.” Therefore, he believes that the suffering of workers in Milton “is but the natural punishment of dishonestly-enjoyed pleasure” during some former period of life. He looks on such people not with hatred, but “with contempt for their poorness of character.”
Thornton looks on the suffering poor as those who haven’t learned the same lessons he has learned from difficult circumstances. One’s circumstances, to him, are a direct reflection of one’s character. It’s also worth asking whether Thornton harbors his own type of nostalgia as he looks back on formative experiences.
When Thornton leaves, he approaches Margaret to shake hands. She is not prepared for this and bows instead. Too late, she realizes his intention and is sorry; however, as Thornton leaves, he mutters, “A more proud, disagreeable girl I never saw.”
Thornton and Margaret continue to misread one another—shaking hands might be an overfamiliar gesture to Margaret, though more common in the North. Thornton interprets her formality as snobbishness.