After Henry leaves, Margaret sits upstairs thinking over the day, but must rally herself to deal with her mother’s petty complaints and her father’s abstracted silence during tea. Afterward, she is just resigning herself to another long evening, when Mr. Hale asks her if she can join him in his study to discuss “something very serious to us all.” Margaret is startled at first, thinking he is displeased with her refusal of Henry, then realizes he can’t possibly know about that. To her surprise, her father suddenly bursts out with, “Margaret! I am going to leave Helstone.”
The sudden piling of one shock upon another sets the tone and pace for the novel’s action. Margaret has been briefly consumed in her own world, but from now on, she won’t often have the luxury of doing that.
When Margaret asks why, Mr. Hale fidgets for another moment, then finally says, “Because I must no longer be a minister in the Church of England.” Margaret, who had been expecting her father to say that he had finally been offered a different preferment at last, could not be more shocked by his words or by the look of imploring distress on his face. She asks if it has anything to do with Frederick.
Margaret had envisioned no greater change in her life than a move to another Church of England parish, and the only cause she can imagine for this unforeseen development is her brother’s mysterious crisis—the only tragedy she’s really known, to this point.
It has nothing to do with Frederick, Mr. Hale explains, and he will answer her questions, but after tonight, they must never speak of his agonizing doubts again. Shocked again, Margaret asks, “Doubts, papa! Doubts as to religion?” “No! not doubts as to religion,” he replies, “not the slightest injury to that.”
When Mr. Hale says there hasn’t been “the slightest injury to [religion],” he means that he is still a Christian believer, implying that there is an intact faith standing above and beyond his doubts. Still, the idea of departing from Anglicanism—the home of his career, and England’s official and numerically dominant church for centuries—is shocking enough.
Mr. Hale finally explains that, for years now, he’s been harboring “smoldering doubts” that the authority of the Church cannot quench, though he dearly loves the Church from which he is about to be shut out. Margaret finds his words “as terribly mysterious as if her father were about to turn Mahometan.”
As a priest of the Church of England, Mr. Hale would be expected to uphold specific theological teachings, but his conscience will no longer allow him to do so, no matter what the Church’s authority says. The term “Mahometan”—an archaic term for “Muslim”—shows just how foreign the idea of theological “doubts” is to Margaret; even limited dissent from the church of her upbringing and social circle is as strange as converting to a different religion entirely.
Margaret weeps, as “the one staid foundation of her home, of her idea of her beloved father, seemed reeling and rocking.” Mr. Hale tries to comfort her and to strengthen his own resolve by reading her a soliloquy by John Oldfield. He encourages Margaret to think of the early martyrs. But Margaret answers, “The early martyrs suffered for the truth, while you—”
Margaret’s view of her father is inseparable from that of a priest. The “Oldfield” Hale quotes was a seventeenth-century clergyman who’d been removed from his position for rejecting Anglican teachings. This suggests something of the isolation Hale has experienced—turning to archaic texts to bolster him in his doubts. His reference to the “early martyrs” is to Christians who were persecuted under the Roman Empire for putting their allegiance to the Church first. The connection in his mind seems to be that, like the martyrs, Hale resists submitting his conscience to an authority he disagrees with—while Margaret thinks of the martyrs primarily for their association with mainstream Christian teaching, which she fears her rather is rejecting.
Mr. Hale explains, “I suffer for conscience’s sake, my child,” and that he has attempted to stifle his doubts for too long; the bishop’s offer of a new preferment has brought things to a crisis. He admits that he has been too much a coward to tell Mrs. Hale the news. He explains that they will be moving to the manufacturing town of Milton-Northern, in Darkshire, because he can earn a living there, and because there are no Helstone connections there.
Gaskell emphasizes the importance of acting according to conscience. By making Margaret his confidant instead of his wife, Mr. Hale anticipates the leadership role that Margaret will soon come to occupy within the household. Milton, the primary setting of the story, will be a place entirely different from what the Hales have known.
Mr. Hale asks Margaret if she will mind breaking the news to Mrs. Hale. Margaret “[shrinks] from it more than from anything she had ever had to do in her life before,” but she “conquers” herself and agrees. Mr. Hale explains that his old Oxford tutor, Mr. Bell, a Milton native who owns property there, has heard of an opening for a private tutor in that city.
This is the first example of Margaret having to undertake a duty that would seem to fall more naturally upon her father, steeling herself against her natural inclinations in order to do what’s required of her. The cost of dissent is evident in the fact that Mr. Hale’s job as a tutor, while respectable, is a substantial step down from the position of Anglican priest.
Margaret wonders scornfully what need manufacturers have of classic literature or gentlemanly pursuits. Mr. Hale says that some manufacturers “really seem to be fine fellows, conscious of their own deficiencies, which is more than many a man at Oxford is.” In particular, Mr. Bell has recommended his tenant Mr. Thornton, who seems to be an intelligent man. Mr. Hale hopes that his life will be busy, even if it is not happy, and free from painful reminders of Helstone.
Margaret is prejudiced against the manufacturing class, assuming that they wouldn’t be interested in the kinds of things her own class values. Mr. Hale points out that awareness of one’s weaknesses is an underappreciated part of being educated.
Margaret agrees that the contrast between Helstone and Milton will be a relief, though she has “almost a detestation for all she had ever heard of the North of England, the manufacturers, the people, the wild and bleak country.”
Margaret sees a complete contrast between Northern and Southern England, though her disdain for the former is based entirely on rumor, not personal experience.
They agree that leaving within a fortnight will be best, and that Margaret must tell Mrs. Hale by the following evening. Though resigned, Margaret can’t help another passionate outcry: “You cannot mean…to be for ever separate from me, from mamma—led away by some delusion—some temptation!” Mr. Hale affirms it, but offers his daughter God’s blessing, and they embrace.
Margaret understands religious doubt as something that would be produced by weakness. By placing himself outside the Church, Mr. Hale does separate himself from the family in a way, as they can’t receive the Church’s sacraments (like Communion) together as they’ve always done. Mr. Hale’s decision creates a tangible crisis for the family, not simply a matter for his private intellect, as they are uprooted from all they’ve known.