The next day Mr. Hale and Margaret walk to the Thorntons’ to return Mrs. Thornton’s call. When they arrive at Marlborough Mills, they must walk past the immense mill, from which issues a deafening “clank of machinery and long groaning roar of the steam-engine,” in order to reach the Thorntons’ house. Margaret wonders why the Thorntons do not prefer to live in the country or suburbs, away from such terrible noise. Inside the Thorntons’ house, she sees that the furniture is carefully bagged up and the house kept meticulously clean, so as to avoid a dusty buildup from the mill. All this effort has been taken not to “help on habits of tranquil home employment, [but] solely to ornament, and then to preserve ornament from dirt or destruction.”
The cotton-mill dominates the Thorntons’ home life, to the extent that their belongings must be protectively bagged against pollution from the very machinery that has helped to secure their wealth. The “new rich” preoccupation with “ornament” is portrayed as pointless, as it doesn’t promote peace or comfort within the home. Gaskell is making an implied critique of wealth for wealth’s sake.
When Mrs. Thornton comes in, Margaret gives a halting account of Mrs. Hale’s illness, not wanting to distress Mr. Hale. From this Mrs. Thornton gathers that Mrs. Hale has some “fanciful fine-ladyish indisposition” and that she could still have come if she’d chosen to; Mrs. Thornton is accordingly offended and unsympathetic.
Mrs. Thornton insinuates that Mrs. Hale is a pretentious Southern aristocrat. The behavior she critiques, though, is actually more characteristic of her daughter Fanny, suggesting that class alone isn’t determinative of people’s character.
The three discuss Mr. Thornton’s love of his studies with Mr. Hale. Mrs. Thornton says that study of the classics is fine for people of leisure, but she doesn’t think her son’s time is wisely spent in this pursuit. “Classics,” she says pointedly, “may do very well for men who loiter away their lives in the country or in colleges; but Milton men ought to have their thoughts and powers absorbed in the work of today.”
Mrs. Thornton’s forthrightness to the Hales is quite rude, dismissing Mr. Hale’s background out of hand. Her prejudice against education also points to the way that the rise of manufacturing disrupted traditional class expectations: a man didn’t need to be classically educated in order to be professionally successful.
When Margaret suggests that a variety of interests helps to avoid rigidity of mind, Mrs. Thornton says that Thornton only needs to pursue one interest: “to hold and maintain a high, honorable place among the merchants of his country.” His name is respected not only in England but across Europe—though “idle gentlemen and ladies” are unlikely to know of him, she adds scornfully.
Mrs. Thornton seems to be more invested in her son’s prominent social standing and international name recognition than in scientific ingenuity and advancement, which seem to be bigger motivations for Thornton himself. She also doubles down on her class/regional prejudice against people like the Hales.
Mr. Hale and Margaret are aware that they had never heard of Mr. Thornton until Mr. Bell had mentioned his name, and that Mrs. Thornton’s world “was not their world of Harley Street gentilities on the one hand, or country clergymen and Hampshire squires on the other.” Mrs. Thornton reads Margaret’s expression and infers that Margaret sees her as a closed-minded old woman. Margaret denies this and explains that they had heard of Mr. Thornton through Mr. Bell.
The class difference is transparently obvious to the Hales; their past social world didn’t have room for people like the Thorntons.
Mrs. Thornton retorts that Bell can know little of Thornton, since he lives “a lazy life in a drowsy college.” But she expresses appreciation for Margaret’s frankness, since many young women would have shrunk from giving an impression of flattery by speaking positively of her son. Margaret laughs heartily at the implication that she has any romantic designs on Thornton. Her laughter does not endear her to Mrs. Thornton.
Not content to disparage Mr. Hale, Mrs. Thornton also mocks Hale’s friend and mentor. However, she’s met her match in Margaret, who doesn’t hide her feelings about Mrs. Thornton’s presumption.
Mrs. Thornton mentions that a strike has been threatened in Milton. Margaret asks what the people are going to strike for, and Mrs. Thornton snorts that they are out to gain other people’s property. They might claim that they want higher wages, she says, but they really want to become masters themselves and to make the masters their slaves: “They are always trying at it; they always have it in their minds; and every five or six years, there comes a struggle between masters and men.”
Mrs. Thornton’s view of the workers is, if anything, even more antagonistic than her son’s view, and more paranoid. To her, the relationship between masters and workers is a perpetual struggle based on greed and resentment.
Margaret asks whether this environment of struggle does not make Milton very rough. Mrs. Thornton says that of course it does, and she describes a time that she was forced to seek refuge on the roof of a factory, with only a pile of stones to defend her against an angry crowd trying to force its way inside. She tells Margaret, “If you live in Milton, you must learn to have a brave heart, Miss Hale…South country people are often frightened by what our Darkshire men and women only call living and struggling.” Margaret is afraid that she might prove to be a coward.
That evening, Mr. Thornton visits the Hales, bringing the address of a doctor Mrs. Thornton has recommended. Mr. Hale asks about the strike, and Mr. Thornton immediately “assumed a likeness to his mother’s worst expression,” repelling Margaret. He says that the “fools” may strike if they want to, but “because [the manufacturers] don’t explain our reasons [that trade isn’t flourishing, and so the Milton masters can’t afford to raise wages], they won’t believe we’re acting reasonably. We must give them line and letter for the way we choose to spend or save our money.”
Thornton believes that the manufacturers must proceed in business in the way they see fit, without including their workers in the discussion, and resents workers’ “foolish” pretensions to the contrary.
Margaret mentions that she finds Milton “strange.” When Thornton asks why, she explains that she has never seen “a place before where there were two sets of people always running each other down.” Margaret continues that, from what she has heard, it seems that the masters would prefer that their workers remain ignorant, “be merely tall, large children…with a blind unreasoning kind of obedience.” Mr. Thornton is offended, considering this a slanderous statement.
Margaret doesn’t argue with Thornton on the basis of economic theory, but of observations about human nature—a tactic that recurs in their discussions.
Mr. Hale speaks up to add that he has been “struck by the antagonism between the employer and the employed” that he has observed, and even inferred from Thornton’s own statements. Mr. Thornton considers this and responds that he considers his interests to be identical with those of his workers. Perhaps in some utopia, he adds, unity between the classes might be possible.
Thornton’s position, that the interests of the “head” and “hands” are identical, and that no other approach is possible given current social conditions, is a paternalistic one common at the time.
Thornton says that he does consider the workers to be like children, though he does not believe the masters have anything to do with making or keeping them in that state, and that a “wise despotism” is the best government for them. Mr. Hale says it seems to him that the “children” are becoming adolescents, for whom friendship and advice are more appropriate than absolute rule. Margaret tells a story about a man who kept his child hidden away for decades, in hopes of protecting him from error, until the father died, at which time the sheltered child, turned loose in the world, did not have the ability to discern good from evil.
Mr. Hale and Margaret both object to the paternalistic point of view. Both argue that treating workers like children will backfire, inciting rebellion or infantilizing people.
Mr. Thornton argues that he would not feel justified in taking too great an interest in the lives of his men outside of working hours, as he values his own independence too highly to imagine directing others’ lives in this way: “I imagine this is a stronger feeling in the North of England than in the South.” Mr. Hale suggests that this fear of interference stems from too little “equality of friendship between the adviser and advised classes,” and too much unchristian isolation among brothers.
Thornton sees his “paternal” influence ceasing outside the factory gates and attributes this to his Northern independent streak. Mr. Hale suggests that the class divide has more to do with insufficient mixing among different classes, and the unhealthy suspicion this creates.
Thornton continues to argue that he has no right to press his views on independent Darkshire men merely because he is their employer. Margaret agrees with this, but says that as a human being, who happens to wield immense power over a group of other human beings, he does have a responsibility. This is because God has made people interdependent, their welfare interwoven.
Thornton asks whether Margaret is ever conscious of being influenced by others, and whether that influence occurs directly or indirectly. In other words, which is more effective—moral exhortation or personal example? He argues that honest behavior before his men communicates more than a lecture ever could; “what the master is, that will the men be, without over-much taking thought on his part.”
Thornton argues that exhorting workers to improve themselves wouldn’t be that effective anyway, and that quietly modeling virtue and good behavior is more likely to influence people—what will become an off-and-on argument for him and Margaret.
Margaret, laughing, points out that when she sees “men violent and obstinate in pursuit of their rights, I may safely infer that the master is the same.” Thornton, miffed, replies that she is just like everyone else who fails to understand the industrial system—“You suppose that our men are puppets of dough, ready to be molded into any amiable form we please.” Moreover, Milton masters are busy with many responsibilities that go beyond those of an employer; they are among “the great pioneers of civilization.”
Margaret, albeit in a joking tone, argues that if Thornton’s approach were foolproof, then there wouldn’t be strikes. Thornton is offended by her comments; he thinks her understanding of human nature is wanting. Moreover, masters of industry occupy an exalted position that doesn’t leave them much time for mingling with workers.
Margaret remarks coldly, “I am trying to reconcile your admiration of despotism with your respect for other men’s independence of character.” Irritated by her tone, Thornton reiterates that he chooses to be “the unquestioned…master” of his men during working hours, and then their relationship ceases, at which point he respects their independence of character. Before leaving, he apologizes to Margaret for speaking to her hastily that evening, given that he is “but an uncouth Milton manufacturer.” She smilingly forgives him, but does not offer him her hand, which Thornton chalks up to pride.
Margaret and Thornton are at an standoff at this point. While there are no hard feelings between them, Margaret’s failure to shake hands like a Northerner leads to misunderstanding again.