North and South

North and South

by

Elizabeth Gaskell

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North and South: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After Margaret comes home with news of the Bouchers’ plight, Mrs. Hale sends them a basket, and Mr. Hale goes to visit the family the next day. Returning home, Mr. Hale says that he doesn’t know how to compare the Milton workers’ situation with that of Helstone’s poor, since their ideas of luxury and want are so different—“One has need to learn a different language, and measure by a different standard, up here in Milton.”
Mr. Hale resumes a semblance of his former religious duties in caring for the Bouchers. He highlights the shifting social structure in Britain—poverty looks different, ostensibly less impoverished, in Milton than it did in the South, but it’s perhaps even more filled with suffering, because of the way the industrial revolution had weakened traditional social structures.
Themes
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
Mr. Hale and Margaret go to the Thorntons’ dinner party. Margaret is struck by the excessive ornament, “a weariness to the eye,” and the elaborate meal, both different from her more restrained, London-cultivated taste. As they look outside at the adjacent mill, Mr. Hale asks whether the noise and smoke are not annoying. Mrs. Thornton says that she likes the reminder of the source of her son’s wealth and that the noise is no more disturbing to her than “the humming of a hive of bees.”
Margaret continues to find the Milton nouveau riche style irritating in its excess and showiness. Mrs. Thornton claims not to mind the proximity of the mill—her daily life and identity are of a piece with it—and makes a rather dehumanizing reference to the workpeople, suggesting that she doesn’t see them as a factor in her wealth.
Themes
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
Personal Character, Environment, and Change Theme Icon
When Mr. Thornton comes in, he is struck anew by Margaret’s dignified beauty. During the dinner, Margaret, too, is struck by Thornton’s assured manner, confident in the respect of his peers. Margaret silently follows the mill-owners’ discussion, by now knowledgeable enough to form her own opinion. She finds their “desperate earnest” refreshing compared to the wearisome, “used-up style” of London parties.
Margaret appreciates seeing Thornton is his own element. Even though she doesn’t voice her opinion at the moment, she is also growing in her ability to understand and respond to the Milton environment. She even finds positive things about the manufacturers’ sense of purpose, compared to the superficiality of the Southern aristocracy. Industrial innovation, Gaskell suggests, isn’t all bad.
Themes
Female Agency and Strength Theme Icon
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
Personal Character, Environment, and Change Theme Icon
As the men talk, Margaret can’t help admiring the Milton men’s “exultation in the sense of power…a kind of fine intoxication, caused by the recollection of what had been achieved, and what yet should be.”
Now that she’s interacted with them firsthand, Margaret appreciates the manufacturers’ ingenuity and potential, showing that she has grown substantially from the early days of dismissing “tradesman” out of hand.
Themes
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
Personal Character, Environment, and Change Theme Icon
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After dinner, Thornton approaches Margaret. They begin to discuss the question of what constitutes a “gentleman.” Thornton thinks that there is a distinction between a “gentleman” and a “true man.” A man, he says, is “a higher and a completer being than a gentleman.” The term “gentleman” describes a person in relation to others, while “manliness” is a quality considered in relation to one’s self, to life, and to eternity. Margaret does not have time to form a response, as Thornton is called aside to discuss strike business with the other mill-owners.
Thornton shows his respect for Margaret by seeking out her company and perspective. He seems to see “manliness” as a higher form of masculinity, while the term “gentleman” is perhaps limited to one’s interactions with other men, often filtered through class.
Themes
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
Personal Character, Environment, and Change Theme Icon