The winter continues drearily; Margaret’s “mind had lost its elasticity,” and she finds no heartfelt joy in anything but caring for Mr. Hale. In March they receive word of Frederick’s marriage to Dolores; he has settled in an excellent position working in Dolores’ family’s trading-house in Spain. Henry Lennox has investigated Frederick’s case and found little hope of clearing his name in the absence of witnesses, upon which Frederick declares to Margaret that England is no longer his country.
Margaret is depressed from the trauma of the past year. Frederick has essentially defected—an example, like Mr. Hale’s abandonment of his living, of the cost of abiding by conscience—which leaves Margaret ever lonelier, as her family continues to unravel.
Mr. Bell invites both Mr. Hale and Margaret for a visit to Oxford. Mr. Hale, whose health has faltered from stress and too little company, goes, but Margaret insists on staying at home, wanting to enjoy rest and freedom from responsibilities for the first time in two years. As soon as her father leaves, Margaret feels “how great and long had been the pressure on her time and her spirits. It was astonishing, almost stunning, to feel herself so much at liberty…she might be unhappy if she liked.” She uses the time to go over the griefs of recent months at leisure, “[appointing] to each of them its right work in her life.”
Margaret finally enjoys a break from the relentless responsibilities of her role within the household. Gaskell again underlines the personal cost of Margaret’s work; she has continually sacrificed her own emotions to the wellbeing of others. Now, at last, she has the luxury of examining her grief—but even now, she doesn’t wallow in it, but considers how it might serve her development as a person.
Margaret feels most keenly the lie she told, especially in light of the dashing of her hopes for Frederick’s exoneration, and the events to which her lie gave rise. She reads a passage from St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life encouraging the repentant heart to take courage on the path of humility. She tries to become less absorbed in her own problems, beginning by chatting with Martha, her serving-maid, who reports that Fanny Thornton is soon to be married to a rich manufacturer.
Margaret’s character has always been marked by pride, but she begins to emphasize the cultivation of humility as well. Her experiences with Thornton have made her increasingly mindful of her weaknesses.
Margaret visits Higgins next, who reports that his new master, Thornton, is “good enough to fight wi’, but too good…to be cheated.” He has one of the Boucher boys recite some Methodist hymns for Margaret, “oddly and unconsciously [taking] an interest in the sacred things which he had formerly scouted [rejected with scorn].”
Higgins has come to respect Thornton, especially in the stubborn devotion to principle they share. Also, in contrast to his former scorn of “methodee fancies,” he encourages his adoptive sons to memorize sacred Methodist music—perhaps touched by those things that had meant so much to Bessy.
That night, Margaret is strangely preoccupied with thoughts of her father. Mr. Hale is thinking of Margaret as well. The renewal of old acquaintances in Oxford has wearied him. With sudden earnestness, he tells Bell that, even if he could have foreseen what would come of his changed opinion—including Mrs. Hale’s death—he could not have done otherwise. He might have acted more wisely in the aftermath; but, he concludes, “I don’t think God endued me with over-much wisdom or strength.”
Mr. Hale continues to maintain that he did the right thing by acting according to his conscience. Even though Mr. Hale has displayed weakness on plenty of occasions in the story—something he acknowledges himself—he remains steadfast in his conviction, despite the hardships he thrust himself and his family into. Gaskell upholds this devotion to conscience as something to be respected.
Mr. Bell replies, “[God] gave you strength to do what your conscience told you was right; and I don’t see that we need any higher or holier strength than that; or wisdom either.” He adds, “The veriest idiot who obeys his own simple law of right, if it be but in wiping his shoes on a door-mat, is wiser and stronger than I.”
Mr. Bell reaffirms the sanctity of conscience that is so important to Gaskell. He also upholds the wisdom of the common man as potentially superior to the education of a man like himself.
Before going to bed that night, Mr. Hale commends Margaret to Mr. Bell’s care, and Bell promises all possible help to his beloved goddaughter. That night, Mr. Hale dies peacefully in his sleep. Shocked, Bell laments that his friend “wore out that tender heart of [his] before its time,” and hurriedly departs for Milton to tell Margaret.
Mr. Hale’s death severs Margaret’s last link with her family. While she’s felt increasingly isolated over the years, now she is truly alone and must fend for herself.
On the train, Bell unexpectedly sees Thornton. Thornton is silent with shock at the news of Mr. Hale’s death and wonders, trembling, what will become of Margaret. Mr. Bell assumes that the Lennoxes, especially Henry, will take an interest in Margaret. Thornton hides behind his newspaper again. In Milton, as soon as Margaret sees Mr. Bell getting out of a carriage alone, she knows “with an instinctive flash” that her father has died.
Thornton is unhappy at the thought that Hale’s death might mean Margaret’s renewed intimacy with another man. Margaret realizes that she is truly alone.