Margaret and Mr. Hale return the next day to check on the Bouchers. Margaret befriends and comforts some of the children, but Mr. Hale’s efforts to console the widowed Mrs. Boucher are too “abstract” to be of comfort; she doesn’t empathize with Boucher’s misery and is fixated on how his death has affected her.
Though Mr. Hale makes an effort to relate to Mrs. Boucher, he struggles to relate to a working-class Milton woman, which seems to underscore his distance from his former role as a priest, as well as the fact that he has never acclimated to Milton as Margaret has.
As they return home, Margaret tries to encourage her father, saying that town life tends to depress people’s spirits. Mr. Hale points out that the country, on the other hand, can itself have a stagnating effect on people’s character. Margaret acknowledges that “each mode of life produces its own trials and its own temptations.”
Margaret now has a more nuanced view of North versus South than she did at the beginning of the story, when she felt nothing but disgust for what she knew secondhand. Firsthand knowledge has broadened her view and tempered her nostalgia.
Margaret’s thoughts return to Thornton and her disgrace in his eyes. She feels strangely disappointed when Thornton doesn’t appear for an expected lesson that evening. Instead, a subdued Higgins shows up, to Dixon’s disgust: “Why master and you must always be asking the lower classes upstairs, since we came to Milton, I cannot understand.”
Dixon’s annoyance points to the fact that the Hales’ social circle has changed dramatically since they moved to Milton. They’re still members of the gentility, but they extend hospitality to a broader array of people; Mr. Hale and Margaret both used to be much more particular about the background and profession of those they associated with.
Higgins explains to Mr. Hale that he’s been seeking work for the sake of Boucher’s widow and children. “I reckon,” he explains, “I would ha guided Boucher to a better end; but I set him off o’ th’ road, and so I mun answer for him.” Higgins asks Mr. Hale if he might help him find work in the South.
Higgins believes he’s failed in his duty to influence Boucher in a better direction; the union’s force didn’t work, and he wants to take responsibility for the consequences. This is another example of personal relationship shifting one’s perspective.
Margaret interjects that Higgins would be miserable in the agricultural South—the labor would be too much for a man in his mid-forties, and he couldn’t get manufacturing wages. Moreover, a man like Higgins couldn’t bear the stagnant lifestyle of the South, Mr. Hale tells him—“The hard spade-work robs their brain of life; the sameness of their toil deadens their imagination; they don’t care to meet to talk over thoughts and speculations…they go home brutishly tired, poor creatures!”
The differences the Hales describe between North and South underscore the changes that industrialization has brought to England. And their view of the South is less biased now; they acknowledge that it’s not ideal for everyone, and in fact, its working poor lack the vitality and active minds of a man like Higgins.
Higgins realizes the Hales are right that the South isn’t a utopia—“North an’ South have each getten their own troubles…For sure, th’ world is in a confusion that passes me or any other man to understand; it needs fettling, and who’s to fettle it, if it’s as yon folks say, and there’s nought but what we see?”
Margaret asks Higgins if he would consider asking Thornton for work. Higgins says it would “tax [his] pride,” and he wouldn’t do it for just anyone’s sake, but he’ll do it for Margaret’s. He will stand guard at the entrance of Marlborough Mills all day until Thornton talks with him. After Higgins leaves, Mr. Hale observes that Higgins admires the part of Thornton that is most like himself—his stubbornness.
Higgins’ willingness to sacrifice his pride for the sake of providing for the Boucher children shows his good heart, and the degree to which his interaction with Margaret has softened him toward Boucher’s suffering.
Margaret says that if only Higgins would speak to Thornton as he does to them, and if only Thornton would listen “with his human heart, not with his master’s ears,” the two might come to an understanding. Mr. Hale teases Margaret that she’s finally doing justice to Thornton, which gives Margaret a pang of conscience. She thinks, “I wish I were a man, that I could go and force him to express his disapprobation…It seems hard to lose him as a friend just when I had begun to feel his value.”
As before, Margaret is sure that face-to-face interaction would break down many of the barriers that prevent members of different classes from understanding each other. Also, because of Victorian views of propriety, even forthright Margaret doesn’t feel comfortable seeking out a private conversation with Thornton to defend her own virtue.