North and South

North and South

by

Elizabeth Gaskell

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on North and South can help.

North and South: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Margaret is slightly cheered when she takes a walk and decides to visit Bessy Higgins. Nicholas Higgins is also at home. He tells Margaret that although Bessy is disheartened by the upheaval of the strike—the third strike she has seen in her life—he’s optimistic that this one will be effective. “Why do you strike?” Margaret asks, explaining that she had never heard of strikes before she moved to Milton.
Having heard Thornton’s perspective, Margaret now has the opportunity to hear about the strike from the perspective of a working family—in the context of one of the inter-class relationships she’s challenged Thornton to seek out.
Themes
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
Bessy interjects that before this strike is over, she will be in the Holy Jerusalem. Higgins retorts that Bessy is “so full of th’ life to come, [she] cannot think of th’ present,” whereas he feels bound to do the best he can here and now.
Higgins’ objection to Bessy’s heavenly mindedness comes up again. Of course, Bessy might argue that she has been so full of suffering in the present that she can’t help but think of the life to come if she is to remain hopeful.
Themes
Religious Diversity and Conscience Theme Icon
Margaret questions Higgins further about the strike as he puffs on his pipe. Finally, he says he doesn’t know what life is like down South, but he’s heard “they’re a pack of spiritless, down-trodden men…too much dazed wi’ [starving] to know when they’re put upon.” Northerners, however, are acutely aware of “when they’re put upon.”
Higgins argues that Southern culture creates a docile working class that doesn’t know how to stand up for its rights, whereas working-class people in the North refuse to be mistreated and “put upon.”
Themes
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
Personal Character, Environment, and Change Theme Icon
Bessy says that she’d prefer to live in the South. Margaret points out that there are sorrows to be borne everywhere. She also thinks that Southerners “have too much sense” to strike, though Higgins thinks they have “too little spirit.” Bessy argues that previous strikes didn’t gain them anything, and that they nearly starved. Higgins says that that strike was foolishly managed, and that it will be different this time.
Margaret pushes back against simplistic characterizations of either region, emphasizing that no place is without its sorrows, but she also can’t help defending her native South in a prejudiced way.
Themes
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
Personal Character, Environment, and Change Theme Icon
Get the entire North and South LitChart as a printable PDF.
North and South PDF
Margaret wants to understand the reason for the strike. Higgins explains that five or six masters are trying to pay their workers less than the wages they’ve paid for the past two years. He would sooner starve than yield to them—“that’s what folk call fine and honorable in a soldier, and why not in a poor weaver-chap?” Margaret protests that a soldier dies in the cause of others.
Margaret seeks greater understanding from her friends’ perspective, but she still sees Higgins’ reasoning as self-serving.
Themes
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
Higgins argues that striking is “just as much in the cause of others as yon soldier”—and the cause is more immediate, since he seeks justice not on behalf of distant strangers, but on behalf of neighbors. Margaret asks why workers don’t try to reason with masters; Higgins reacts to this with contempt, saying that Margaret is a foreigner who can’t understand. The masters’ talk about the “state of trade,” he claims, is simply a “bug-a-boo” brought forth to frighten the workers.
Higgins responds to Margaret’s criticism with a nuanced comparison of the goals of the soldier and those of the striking laborer. He also shares Thornton’s antagonistic view of the classes and the fruitlessness of trying to overcome those barriers.
Themes
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
When Higgins goes outside to finish his pipe, Bessy frets over the possibility that her father will go to the gin-shop; he’s not a drunkard, she says, but the discouragements of a strike sometimes bring ugly things out of people.
Bessy’s comments suggest Gaskell’s compassion for those who give in to vices in the midst of discouraging circumstances. While drunkenness is wicked, the events of people’s lives might make them more vulnerable to it.
Themes
Personal Character, Environment, and Change Theme Icon
When Bessy says that Margaret has always lived in pleasant, green places and never known want or care, Margaret warns her not to judge. She confides in Bessy about Mrs. Hale’s deathly illness, Mr. Hale’s ignorance of the dire situation, and Frederick’s exile. She asks Bessy, “Do I not know anxiety, though I go about well-dressed, and have food enough?” She adds that God portions out each person’s lot in life.
Bessy has made sweeping assumptions about Margaret based on her external appearance and class. In response, Margaret wisely argues that suffering is universal.
Themes
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
Personal Character, Environment, and Change Theme Icon
Bessy asks Margaret’s pardon, explaining that she has often imagined herself to be one of those doomed to die by a certain prophecy in Revelation. “One can bear pain and sorrow better,” she adds, “if one thinks it has been prophesied long before for one; somehow, then it seems as if my pain was needed for the fulfillment; otherways it seems all sent for nothing.”
Bessy interprets her personal suffering in light of the biblical Book of Revelation. She even sees it as needed for the “fulfillment”—the circumstances that will bring about the end of the world and God’s restorative judgment—because this is better than seeing her suffering as meaningless. In this way, Bessy’s suffering has communal implications, as she doesn’t want it to be just about her. This forms an interesting comparison to her father’s view of the union’s striving.
Themes
Religious Diversity and Conscience Theme Icon
Personal Character, Environment, and Change Theme Icon
Margaret rejects Bessy’s interpretation, since she believes that God doesn’t willingly afflict people. She adds that Bessy should not dwell so much on these prophecies, “but read the clearer parts of the Bible.”
Margaret sees Bessy’s interpretation as naïve and out of keeping with her own understanding of God’s character. She thinks Bessy should focus on the parts of the Bible that Margaret herself finds more relevant.
Themes
Religious Diversity and Conscience Theme Icon
While Bessy agrees that this might be wiser, she argues that in Revelation, she hears promises “so far different fro’ this dreary world…It’s as good as an organ, and as different from every day, too.” She says she finds the Book of Revelation to be far more encouraging than any other part of the Bible.
While Gaskell herself likely agreed more with Margaret’s attitude toward Scripture, she does have Bessy resist Margaret’s well-meaning advice. Bessy clings to specific, thoughtful reasons for favoring Revelation; it lifts her out of the circumstances all around her and helps her to find strength and meaning in them.
Themes
Female Agency and Strength Theme Icon
Religious Diversity and Conscience Theme Icon
Margaret offers to come back and read Bessy some of her favorite Bible chapters. She thanks Bessy for doing her so much good—she has realized that her own grief isn’t the only grief in the world. Bessy marvels at this; she “thought a’ the good-doing was on the side of gentlefolk.” As Margaret leaves, Bessy muses, “I wonder if there are many folk like her down South. She’s like a breath of country air, somehow.”
Seeing Bessy’s endurance of suffering, though different from how she does so herself, seems to strengthen Margaret for what faces her at home and helps her not to dwell on her own problems. Bessy, meanwhile, assumes that the poor are always on the receiving end of goodness, suggesting that she’s imbibed some paternalistic attitudes herself.
Themes
Female Agency and Strength Theme Icon
Class Antagonism Theme Icon