North and South

North and South

by

Elizabeth Gaskell

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North and South: Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mr. Thornton returns, after securing a good meal and a priest to help pacify the Irish workers. He is shocked to find Margaret gone. He tells Mrs. Thornton that he doesn’t know where he would be if not for Margaret. “Are you become so helpless as to have to be defended by a girl?” his mother asks. Thornton says that not many girls would have acted as Margaret did. “A girl in love will do a great deal,” retorts Mrs. Thornton. She doesn’t know how to read the impassioned look Thornton gives her in response.
Mrs. Thornton, too, interprets Margaret’s defensive act as the impulse of a lovesick girl—further suggesting that, by taking initiative in such a public way, Margaret exposes herself to public shame. She’s like Frederick in her initiative, but unlike her brother, she challenges gender norms in doing so, and faces the resulting “disgrace.”
Themes
Female Agency and Strength Theme Icon
Mrs. Thornton successfully dissuades Thornton from going to see Margaret that night. Later that night, however, Thornton asks her, “You know what I have got to say to Miss Hale, tomorrow?” She says that she does, and that he is bound in honor to do so, after Margaret had displayed her own feelings for him in such a public way. Thornton scorns this, saying he dares not hope that Margaret actually cares for him.
Like Fanny, Mrs. Thornton thinks that Margaret has compromised her virtue with a public display of affection. Unable to consider (or be grateful) that Margaret was just selflessly saving Thornton’s life, Mrs. Thornton believes that her son must respond to Margaret’s “indecency” by proposing marriage, to cover Margaret’s shame.
Themes
Female Agency and Strength Theme Icon
Mrs. Thornton says that Margaret obviously does care for Thornton, and admits that she likes Margaret better for having finally come to her senses about him. She wants Thornton all to herself this evening, knowing that after Thornton proposes, she will stand second in his life.
Mrs. Thornton’s single-minded devotion to her son temporarily overrides everything else—including her fierce dislike of Margaret and classism.
Themes
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
When Margaret gets home, she tells her parents nothing of what’s just happened. There is a note from Bessy, but Margaret is too tired to go to her. She feels ashamed for “disgracing” herself by defending Thornton as she did. She thinks that she could not have shown such courage for anyone else, except that Thornton is so indifferent to her—“it made me the more anxious that there should be fair play on each side… If I saved one blow…I did a woman’s work. Let them insult my maiden pride as they will—I walk pure before God!”
Margaret continues to fill the role of her parents’ protector, this time by sparing them the violent and perhaps humiliating details of the events that have just unfolded. She does feel shame for having acted in such a public way, yet she believes that forestalling violence is appropriate, God-given work for a woman, and that even shame is a sacrifice worth making for the sake of fulfilling that calling.
Themes
Female Agency and Strength Theme Icon
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Thornton sends the water-bed for Mrs. Hale, as well as a message specifically asking how Margaret is doing. Margaret reports that she’s doing perfectly well. After bidding Mr. Hale goodnight, Margaret finally “[releases] her strong will from its laborious task.” She retreats to bed and spends a miserable night haunted by “a deep sense of shame.”
Margaret is still haunted by the “shame” of Fanny’s and the maid’s words about her while she appeared to be unconscious. Gaskell also refers to the strain involved in Margaret’s immense, ongoing exertion of will—a further part of what “women’s work” entails.
Themes
Female Agency and Strength Theme Icon