North and South

North and South

by

Elizabeth Gaskell

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North and South: Chapter 40 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mr. Bell comes to Milton for a visit, and Margaret easily renews a warm and teasing friendship with her godfather—when Margaret teases him about his musty old opinions, he declares that Milton has turned her into “a red republican, a member of the Peace Society, a socialist…”
The term “red republican” is likely a reference to a British socialist newspaper of the 1850s, and the Peace Society was a pacifist organization that overlapped with the same era. Though he’s teasing, Bell observes that Margaret’s new environment has genuinely impacted her outlook.
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Comparing the leisured study of Oxford with the bustle of Milton, Mr. Bell says that he doesn’t believe “there’s a man in Milton who knows how to sit still; and it is a great art.” Mr. Hale returns that Milton folks don’t think that Oxford men know how to move; “it would be a very good thing if they mixed a little more.”
Now that the Hales have befriended Milton folks of various class backgrounds, they have a more realistic view of the strengths and weaknesses of various modes of life, and what can be gained by learning from others. Much prejudice, Mr. Hale implies, comes of not mixing enough.
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Thornton procrastinates about coming to the Hales’ and conducting business with his landlord, Bell, because he’s reluctant to see Margaret. Finally, however, Thornton and Bell join the Hales, where Mr. Hale renews that morning’s discussion of Oxford versus Milton. Mr. Bell jumps in by asking Thornton “when you Milton men intend to live. All your lives seem to be spent in gathering together the materials for life”—that is, money. Thornton responds that money is not what he strives for, but is uncomfortable when Bell presses him to elaborate; Thornton calls it “a home question.”
Bell, from the perspective of one who’s led a sheltered Oxford life, suggests that Milton life lends itself to commercial success but not to actual enjoyment of life. By “a home question” Thornton means that Bell’s line of questioning is too personal for comfort.
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Thornton is irritated by Bell’s playful tone. He argues that “we are a different race from the Greeks, to whom beauty was everything…I belong to Teutonic blood…we do not look upon life as a time for enjoyment, but as a time for action and exertion. Our glory and our beauty arise out of our inward strength, which makes us victorious over material resistance, and over greater difficulties still.”
While Bell is interested in amusing give-and-take, Thornton takes the discussion with utmost seriousness—a good reflection of their respective personalities. Here, Thornton draws on his classical studies with Hale to engage with Bell. He argues that life is ultimately about conquering obstacles and not about enjoying one’s surroundings at leisure, attributing this bias to his Anglo-Saxon roots.
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In response, Bell jokes that Milton men do, in fact, reverence the past; they are “regular worshippers of Thor.” Thornton replies that Milton men think differently about the past than Oxford scholars do: “to men groping in new circumstances, it would be finer if the words of experience [from history] could direct us how to act in what concerns us most intimately and immediately…People can speak of Utopia much more easily than of the next day’s duty; and yet when that duty is all done by others, who so ready to cry, ‘Fie, for shame!’”
With his joke about Thor, a pagan Germanic god who wielded a hammer, Bell refers to the Milton manufacturer’s obsession with conquering the material world by his own strength. Thornton doesn’t rise to this bait, but argues that the insights of history should serve the problems of the present day; it’s easy to theorize about an imagined future, he argues, and much harder to work to bring about the future; people who limit themselves to the former are all too ready to judge those who venture the latter.
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Related Quotes
Later that evening, when Bell comments on Thornton’s irritability and lack of humor, Margaret comes to his defense, saying Thornton wasn’t himself. Later, Bell asks Mr. Hale if Margaret and Thornton have feelings for each other. Mr. Hale is flustered by the thought.
Bell, seeing their interaction with fresh eyes, picks up on the dynamic between Thornton and Margaret more easily than the somewhat oblivious Hale.
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The winter passes monotonously after Bell’s visit. Higgins works steadily for Thornton, commenting to the Hales that Thornton is like “two chaps”—one the master of industry, the other not the least master-like, and Higgins can’t reconcile the two. But Thornton visits Higgins often and listens to him—“sits and listens and stares, as if I were some strange beast newly caught…Sometimes  he says a rough thing or two, which is not agreeable to look at at first, but has a queer smack o’ truth in it when yo’ come to chew it.”
Like Margaret, Higgins struggles to make sense of the harsh and tender sides of Thornton’s personality. The two men are genuinely seeking to learn from one another, despite Higgins’ “strangeness” to Thornton and Thornton’s disagreeable flavor to Higgins.
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Thornton, meanwhile, seldom visits the Hales anymore, to Mr. Hale’s regret. One evening he abruptly asks Margaret if she has ever thought that Thornton cared for her. Margaret admits the truth, but quickly changes the subject to mask her emotion.
Margaret finds it difficult to confide in her father nowadays, especially on a matter as complicated and sensitive as her relationship with Thornton.
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