After Thornton leaves, Margaret remarks that she liked Thornton’s account of being a shop-boy better than anything else he had said. She scorns his attitude toward the poor of Milton, as he does not seem to think it “his duty to try to make them different,” or to give them any of the advantages he had enjoyed in boyhood. Mrs. Hale is surprised at Margaret’s comments, given Margaret’s earlier attitude about “shoppy people,” and thinks that Mr. Hale shouldn’t have brought such a person into the house “without telling us what he had been.”
Margaret admires Thornton’s character in raising himself from humble circumstances, but argues that certain privileges helped him get where he is, and that he should feel responsible for affording the same to the poor under his authority. Mrs. Hale seems to miss what Margaret’s arguing, though she rightly perceives that her daughter’s attitudes have changed since Helstone. Humorously, she is also rather shocked at having let a former shopworker into their home for tea—underlining just how deeply ingrained class-based assumptions are, even when one’s environment changes.
Mr. Hale fills in some of what Thornton had declined to share—namely, that his father had committed suicide after engaging in wild financial speculations and failing. No one came forward to help the family. Much later, after years of hard work and self-denial, Thornton returned and quietly paid back all of his father’s creditors.
These aspects of Thornton’s experiences weigh heavily on him, as will be seen later in the story. The fact that the Thorntons struggled alone likely also shaped Thornton’s attitudes about pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.
Margaret says it is a pity that “such a nature should be tainted by his position as a Milton manufacturer.” When Mr. Hale asks what she means, Margaret says that Thornton measures everything by the standard of wealth, judging others because they lack his own character and capabilities. She concedes that Thornton is a remarkable man, but declares that she personally dislikes him.
Margaret sees the strengths of Thornton’s character, but feels they’re not shown to best advantage in his current role, and that his own success blinds him from seeing others with clarity and compassion.
Margaret goes to bed worrying about Mrs. Hale, whose health appears to be suffering from the smoky air and heavier domestic strain of life in Milton. Once, Margaret overheard her mother praying for endurance in bodily suffering. But Mrs. Hale doesn’t confide in Margaret about her illness. Margaret decides to redouble her search for a servant to take more of the household burden off her mother.
The drastic adjustment to Milton life exacts a physical toll, and though Margaret feels shut out from her mother’s situation, she assumes responsibility for improving Mrs. Hale’s situation.
One day, when she has been out interviewing servants, Margaret runs into Bessy Higgins in the street. Bessy’s health is not much better, and she tells Margaret that she is “longing to get away to the land o’ Beulah.” When Margaret asks Bessy if she wishes to die, Bessy explains that if Margaret had had a life like hers, she might be glad enough to die. She adds that if Margaret had come to visit as she’d promised, she might understand something more of Bessy’s life. Margaret asks if she may visit now, and Bessy, though hurt, is won over by Margaret’s sincerity.
Bessy’s matter-of-factness about death and her longing for heaven (“Beulah” is a reference to the Bible’s heavenly Jerusalem) are surprising to Margaret, likely used to less vivid metaphors and more euphemisms surrounding death. Gaskell also hints at the ways that one’s experience can shape one’s expressions of religious faith, a theme that will recur often in the two women’s conversations.
When they arrive at the Higginses’ house, Bessy is exhausted and feverish, asking Margaret, “Do you think such a life as this is worth caring for?” Margaret urges her not to be impatient with her life and to remember that God has granted it to her and planned its course.
Margaret’s response sounds like a somewhat rote response she’s given when making house calls in the past, suggesting that she doesn’t yet grasp much of Bessy’s story on a personal level.
At this moment, Nicholas Higgins enters. Higgins tells Margaret he doesn’t want Bessy preached to— “she’s bad enough as it is, with her dreams and her methodee fancies, and her visions.” It’s fine if such things amuse her, he says, but he doesn’t want her hearing more than she has to.
Bessy’s father reduces her “fancies” to something that might distract her in the present, but aren’t meaningful in themselves. “Methodee” refers to the Methodist movement that was particularly popular among the working classes of mill towns in the ninteenth century. Whether or not Bessy attended a Methodist church, she would likely have come into contact with Methodist (and other Dissenting) spirituality around Milton.
When Margaret asks Higgins if he doesn’t agree with her about God, he replies, “I believe what I see, and no more…when I see the world…bothering itself wi’ things it knows nought about, and leaving undone all the things that lie in disorder close at its hand—why, I say, leave a’ this talk about religion alone, and set to work on what yo’ see and know.” Margaret soothes the ailing Bessy further and goes home feeling sad and thoughtful.