When Margaret sees the restful smile on the deceased Bessy’s face, she is glad to have come to the Higgins’. Soon Higgins arrives home, in shock from hearing the news on the street, and weeps violently. When he starts to leave, Mary is distressed; Bessy’s last words had been to keep her father from drink. Margaret stands defiantly in the doorway.
As Margaret had defied angry crowds just a day earlier, today she defies Higgins when he appears to be bent on going to the local gin-shop to drown his sorrows in alcohol. This seems to confirm that Margaret’s instinct is to place herself in harm’s way even where isn’t a romantic attachment.
Though Higgins looks as though he will strike her, Margaret doesn’t stir an inch. They remain in a long standoff, until Higgins, grumbling, relents; Margaret feels “that he acknowledged her power.” Soon, in a “bold venture,” she proposes that Higgins accompany her home for tea.
Just as Margaret earlier asserted power over Thornton by her unconscious dignity, and over the angry crowds through her vulnerability, here she forces Higgins to submit to her power, too. She crowns her victory by taking the feminine prerogative—itself a “bold” step—to cross class boundaries once again, protecting Higgins and his family by bringing him home with her, away from the temptation of alcohol.
When Margaret and Higgins arrive at the Hales’, Margaret runs ahead to warn her father about the surprise guest. When she notices the slight “repugnance” on Mr. Hale’s face, Margaret urges him that “he really is a man you will not dislike—if you won’t be shocked to begin with,” then adds, “you must not wonder at what he says; he’s an—I mean he does not believe in much of what we do.” Mr. Hale thinks, “Oh dear! A drunken infidel weaver!” but gamely does as Margaret asks.
Margaret’s action of bringing a working-class man in for tea is a crossing of boundaries, as evidenced by Mr. Hale’s reaction. But Margaret prevails upon her father to set aside his preconceptions for the sake of the occasion. Apparently, though, the word “atheist” or “infidel” is so unheard of as to be unsuitable for polite conversation.
When Margaret checks on the two men a short time later, she finds that Mr. Hale’s courteousness has “called out…all the latent courtesy in” Higgins—who is, after all, neither “an habitual drunkard nor a thorough infidel,” simply never having found “any form of faith to which he could attach himself, heart and soul.”
Mr. Hale’s hospitality makes Higgins at home in unaccustomed surroundings. Gaskell portrays Higgins as spiritually homeless, but not as devoid of spirituality—a bold presentation for the time, influenced by Gaskell’s Unitarian outlook.
Higgins and Mr. Hale are discussing religion. Higgins says that if Mr. Hale had been born and bred in Milton, he wouldn’t have strong belief, either. Milton folk, he explains, are too preoccupied with earning their bread to worry about unproven teachings about things they’ve never seen. Furthermore, if Christian teachings were true “in men’s heart’s core,” the masters would be as insistent upon those teachings as they are about political economy.
Higgins makes an insightful argument that the strain of life in Milton stunts people’s capacity for religious faith, because everyday concern for survival smothers concern for anything else. He also makes the claim that if masters really believed in Christianity, then they would be pressing belief on their workers just as they trumpet their economic theories.
Higgins ultimately admits that, after seeing the life Bessy has lived, he must believe “that there is a God, and that He set her her life…There’s but one thing steady and quiet i’ all this reeling world, and, reason or no reason, I’ll cling to that.” In a muttered aside, an emotional Mr. Hale tells Margaret that Higgins is no “infidel.”
Mr. Hale, having been plagued by his own questions and doubts, seems to find a certain unexpected kinship with the “drunken infidel weaver’s” own simple faith. Gaskell presents Higgins as a man of dignified convictions, even if they don’t fit within a recognizable mold.
Mr. Hale and Margaret change the subject to the strike. As they listen to Higgins, they gather that the workers, like the masters, tend to think of their fellow men “as if they possessed the calculable powers of machines” and make “no allowance for human passions getting the better of reason.” The workers are also contemptuous toward “them Irishers.” Higgins explains that because certain workers defied orders to keep the peace, the strike is now at an end, and the mills will reopen tomorrow; but he doesn’t know where he will find work himself.
As outsiders, the Hales are able to observe that workers have their blind spots just like the masters do—neither side fully accounts for the humanity of the other side (or, in the case of the “Irishers,” for the humanity of meddling strikebreakers).
Mr. Hale thinks the strikers have made some mistakes in their understanding of wage levels, and he offers to read Higgins some passages from a relevant book. Higgins tells him there’s no point, as he’s tried reading a book of economic theory before and found it meaningless. Mr. Hale says that, regardless, the book would have told him the truth by arguing that even a successful strike can only artificially inflate wages for a brief time.
Mr. Hale, like Thornton and other manufacturers, naively assumes that if only workers come to an understanding of the correct economic theories, they will alter their view of striking accordingly—and presumably stop striking.
Higgins stubbornly replies that, while that argument may or may not be true, such books are still gibberish to him. Even if he should come to understand one, he adds, “I’ll not be bound to say I shall end in thinking the same as any man. And I’m not one who [thinks] truth can be shaped out in words…Folk who sets up to doctor th’ world wi’ their truth, [must] suit [differently] for different minds.”
Higgins maintains that economic theory just doesn’t make sense to him, but even so, opinions aren’t formed in such a mechanical way; ideas must be presented in a way that hearers can receive them, if they’re to take hold and shape hearers’ minds. It’s actually a progressive way of thinking about education.
Mr. Hale wishes that the masters and men might be brought together to discuss such things, so that they might better understand one another’s point of view. Margaret doubts that Thornton could be persuaded. Hearing Thornton’s name, Higgins complains that Thornton ought to have made sure Boucher was punished for instigating violence. Margaret comments that the union doesn’t seem to have done Boucher much good.
Mr. Hale, like Margaret, holds that face-to-face conversation is key to overcoming class conflict. Higgins resents Thornton’s mercy to Boucher because of Boucher’s role in rendering the strike ineffectual.
Higgins explains to Margaret that the union shuns and ostracizes any worker who won’t join it. Margaret is shocked by this “tyranny.” Higgins, though, maintains that if this approach is sinful, it’s only what generations of unjust masters have driven them to; it’s a necessary “withstanding of injustice,” even if it causes harm to others in the process.
Margaret sees the union approach as dehumanizing, but Higgins sees ostracized workers as collateral damage in the larger fight for justice; their suffering, like all workers’, must finally be laid at the feet of the masters.
As the conversation ends, Higgins quietly promises Margaret that he will go straight home and not to the gin-shop. Mr. Hale invites Higgins to remain for family prayer, and Higgins wordlessly agrees. Thus “Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm.”
This prayer, comprised of three people of diverse faith, is no doubt a moment shaped by Gaskell’s religious convictions—that people can pray together despite disagreement over belief. Both class and religious boundaries have thus been breached in the course of a single tea.