Although she is not going herself, Mrs. Hale has a young girl’s enthusiasm for the upcoming dinner party, fretting about what Margaret will wear. Margaret obligingly models all her dresses for her mother. Later, she visits Bessy, who is amazed to hear that the Hales have been invited to the Thorntons’, since the Thorntons visit with the “first folk in Milton,” and the Hales don’t have much money.
Bessy’s distinctively Northern understanding of the upper class is limited to manufacturers and their peers, which doesn’t include the Hales.
When Margaret describes the white silk dress she will wear to the party, Bessy reveals that she had a vision of Margaret before she ever saw her, “drest in shining raiment.” Margaret gently tells Bessy that the vision was only a dream. Bessy points out that many biblical characters had dreams and saw visions; even Higgins thinks highly of dreams. She begs to be allowed to visit Margaret to see her in her dress before the party, and Margaret finally relents.
Bessy’s and her father’s esteem for dreams, and Margaret’s skepticism, suggests a class distinction between folk expressions of religious faith and Margaret’s more restrained orthodoxy. Margaret also represents an angelic figure to Bessy.
They talk about the strike, and Margaret feels guilty about going to a fancy dinner when so many workers’ families are now hungry. Bessy says she shouldn’t feel bad—“some’s pre-elected to sumptuous feasts, and purple and fine linen—maybe yo’re one on ‘em…if yo’ ask me to cool yo’r tongue wi’ th’ tip of my finger, I’ll come across the great gulf to yo’ just for th’ thought o’ what yo’ve been to me here.”
Bessy refers—rather confusedly—to the story of the rich man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 16, in which “a great chasm” is fixed between the poor Lazarus, who is comforted after death, and the rich man, who is tormented. Moreover, the rich man in the parable didn’t show mercy to the poor, which Margaret does. This is another example of Bessy’s selective and inventive use of the Bible.
Margaret tells Bessy she is feverish. It won’t be riches or lack thereof that divide people at the last judgment, but “faithful following of Christ.” As Margaret puts a cool cloth on Bessy’s forehead and rubs her cold feet, Bessy says that workers keep dropping by to tell Higgins their woes, and it’s driving her out of her wits. She compares the continual conflict between masters and workers to the battle of Armageddon.
Margaret continues to correct Bessy’s class-driven interpretations. In referencing Armageddon from the Book of Revelation, Bessy casts class conflict in apocalyptic terms—as something that will bring about the last judgment and the end of the world.
When Higgins comes in, seeming drunk, he hears Bessy mention the dinner party and wishes he could attend, so he could have a captive audience of mill-owners and give them a piece of his mind. Margaret hastily leaves.
Class division is underlined by the fact that, by virtue of her station, Margaret has access to the manufacturers to a degree that their employee, Higgins, doesn’t.
At home, Mrs. Hale has responded well to Dr. Donaldson’s medications, raising the family’s hopes. In contrast, gloom has descended on Milton because of the strike. Mr. Hale often talks with Mr. Thornton about the underlying economic principles of the strike. When Margaret listens to these conversations, she is repelled by Thornton’s cool logic—her “whole soul rose up against him while he reasoned in this way—as if commerce were everything and humanity nothing.”
Margaret sees Thornton’s devotion to principle as an elevation of money over actual human beings, as he cares more for “commerce” than “humanity.”
Margaret is both grateful for Thornton’s compassion for her dying mother and resentful of his knowledge of Mrs. Hale’s condition. She doesn’t know how to reconcile his pitying expressions with the “hard-reasoning, dry, merciless way” he talks about trade: “the discord jarred upon her inexpressibly.”
Given her discomfort with Thornton, Margaret resents his admission to the inner circle of those who know about Mrs. Hale’s illness. She can’t make sense of his genuine concern for a specific person, alongside his abstracted way of discussing business.
From Bessy and Higgins, Margaret hears another perspective altogether. Higgins is a committee-man for the strike, and Margaret hears him arguing with his downtrodden neighbor, Boucher. Boucher is afraid that his wife will die before the strike concludes, and if she does, Boucher says, he will hate Higgins and the entire union. He weeps as he describes watching his infant son wasting away from hunger. Higgins tearfully promises to buy food for the family immediately, and urges Boucher to take heart; the union will win this fight before long.
Gaskell uses Margaret’s growing friendships across class boundaries to portray various perspectives on conditions in Milton. In addition, she shows that working-class perspectives aren’t all the same. Boucher shows the human cost of the strike, and Higgins’ reaction shows his tender-heartedness.
As the men leave, Boucher hopelessly calls the union “a worser tyrant than e’er th’ masters were.” He quotes the union, including Higgins, as having said, “Clem [starve] to death…ere yo’ dare go again th’ Union.” He tells Higgins, “Yo’ may be kind hearts, each separate; but once banded together, yo’ve no more pity for a man than a wild hunger-maddened wolf.” Higgins replies that he is doing the best he can for them all; if he’s doing wrong, it’s because the masters have driven him to this situation. In the meantime, he says, there’s no help for workers but to trust the union.
Boucher’s plight shows the dilemma that some workers faced: siding with a strike meant that his large family might go unfed. He suggests that Higgins and the other union leaders don’t care for individual people any better than the manufacturers do. Higgins, though moved, maintains that because of the masters’ behavior, there is no better alternative for workers than to band together against them.
After the men leave, Bessy comments that Boucher is weak and unwise, but she pities him for all that. She thinks that if the union had to deal with Boucher face-to-face, they would let him go back to work. But, she adds, the Higginses won’t let the Bouchers starve, because “if neighbors doesn’t see after neighbors, I dunno who will.”
In her father’s absence, Bessy agrees with Boucher about the union’s lack of humanity, but holds that it’s up to neighbors—not abstract bodies—to take care of one another.