Things are gloomy in Milton. Due to speculative financial ventures, some Milton businesses face the prospect of failure. Even Thornton is “hard pressed.” He has aspired to make a name for himself internationally, but like many who do so, he is “alive to distant, and dead to near things.”
Thornton’s lofty aspirations for his business have gotten away from him and blinded him to actual circumstances in Milton.
Until Thornton got to know Higgins, he and his fellow townsmen and factory workers have led parallel lives, “very close, but never touching.” But “once brought face to face, man to man, with an individual of the masses around him, and…out of the character of master and workman…they had each begun to recognize” their shared humanity. He has begun to value his position as manufacturer because of the contact it affords him with his people.
Thornton has begun to think much as Margaret argued that he should—valuing the chance to influence the human beings around him, paying attention to their individual needs rather than regarding them in the abstract.
Thornton’s business has been damaged by the strike and by the fact that much of his capital is in new, expensive machinery. Thornton at first is inclined to resent Higgins for his role in the strike, but the more they, along with Thornton’s other men, get to know one another, the more they’re able “to look upon each other with far more charity and sympathy.” Soon Thornton is in real trouble, as his stocks fall to nearly half their value, and no new orders come in, and he has to borrow at high interest.
Whereas once Thornton would have been inclined to look on Higgins as simply a trouble-maker, he is now coming to genuinely understand his perspective, and Higgins no longer wishes ill on Thornton in his struggles. There is no longer active antagonism between master and workers.
One day Higgins asks Thornton whether he’s heard anything of Margaret recently and notices how Thornton’s face lights up at the mention of her. Then, with a confidential air, Higgins asks whether Frederick’s name has been cleared, having heard the details from Mary while she was working temporarily in the Hale house. Thornton is relieved to know the truth of the young man’s identity.
Margaret’s newly cleared name in Thornton’s eyes comes about not through Mr. Bell’s formal intercession, but through an unlooked-for source, helped by Higgins’ friendship with Margaret and now with Thornton.
One morning, after a sleepless night poring over his books, Thornton unburdens himself to Mrs. Thornton, explaining that he no longer dreads any outcome for his struggling business, because he now knows “that no man will suffer by me.” He must give up his business, but he will be able to pay everyone what they are owed. A risky speculation has been offered to him by Fanny’s husband, Watson, which could make him rich but would destroy his conscience. Mrs. Thornton is grieved at the thought that her son might lose his name, but he explains that he will “be always the same John Thornton in whatever circumstances; endeavoring to do right,” though it is hard to have discovered “new powers…too late.” He tries to help Mrs. Thornton reconcile herself to his failure and the loss of his “rightful place.”
Thornton’s good character is fully revealed here, as he cares not primarily for his own reputation, but for the fates of those who work alongside and beneath him. He will not be like his father, indulging in wild speculations to save his own skin (and ultimately coming to disgrace for it). Mrs. Thornton is far less reconciled to her son’s newfound priorities, but for him, his character—his “manliness”—is more important than aspiring to a certain class status (a “gentleman”).
Thornton at last has to give up his business. His brother-in-law Watson’s speculation succeeds spectacularly, and Watson is widely admired for his foresight.
Thornton is humbled in the eyes of the world, while his brother-in-law—for now—seems much the wiser one.