Particularly in the early chapters of North and South, smoke, fog, and the associated color gray symbolize industry’s overwhelming presence in the North, as well as the adverse impact industry can have on human flourishing. When the Hales arrive in the seaside town of Heston en route to Milton, they immediately notice that “the colors looked grayer—more enduring, not so gay and pretty,” a description which is associated with the townsfolks’ utilitarian clothing and ceaseless busywork in their shops. People’s lives appear less vibrant and more consumed with work than in the South.
Miles before reaching Milton for the first time, Margaret and Mr. Hale see “a deep lead-colored cloud” hanging over the city in the distance, and they soon notice “a faint taste and smell of smoke”—an experience that engulfs their senses long before they see the dull, unvarying rows of houses and dodge cotton-laden lorries in the streets. Industry is inescapable, even if one doesn’t work in a mill. Likewise, as the Hales settle into their Milton home, “a thick fog crept up to the very windows, and was driven into every open door in choking white wreaths of unwholesome mist.” Dixon predicts the fog will be the death of Mrs. Hale before long. Indeed, Dixon’s prediction turns out to be true; Mrs. Hale’s health soon suffers, in part because of heavier domestic responsibilities, but largely because “the air itself was so different, deprived of all revivifying principle” compared to Helstone. The change in their lives has been too devastating for Mrs. Hale to recover from, and none of them can escape the encroachment of industry physically, psychologically, or in their relationships.