North and South

North and South


Elizabeth Gaskell

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Themes and Colors
Nostalgia and Identity Theme Icon
Female Agency and Strength Theme Icon
Religious Diversity and Conscience Theme Icon
Class Antagonism Theme Icon
Personal Character, Environment, and Change Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in North and South, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Nostalgia and Identity

Throughout North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel set in a Northern England industrial city, protagonist Margaret Hale frequently reminisces about Helstone, her home village in Southern England. Through the upheaval of several moves—from London to Helstone, from Helstone to Milton, and from Milton to London again—Helstone is an emotional mainstay for Margaret. The nature of Margaret’s nostalgia for Helstone changes, however, depending on her circumstances. By portraying Helstone through Margaret’s changing perceptions, Gaskell argues…

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Female Agency and Strength

At the beginning of North and South, Margaret Hale’s first occasion for “usefulness” comes when she passively models some shawls for her Aunt Shaw’s company, an activity she finds amusing but “ludicrous.” While she and her friend Henry Lennox talk about it afterward, she reflects that she is caught up in a “never-ending commotion about trifles” as she helps cousin Edith prepare for her wedding. Upon her return to Helstone, however, Margaret…

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Religious Diversity and Conscience

A Unitarian descended from Dissenters (non-Anglican Protestants), Gaskell makes religion a recurrent theme in North and South. Throughout the novel, she highlights several characters—including Margaret Hale’s minister father, as well as Nicholas and Bessy Higgins, a working-class father and daughter Margaret befriends in Milton—who seek to live according to conscience in the matter of religion, despite disapprobation from those around them or of society at large. In fact, Margaret herself is the…

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Class Antagonism

Early in North and South, Margaret Hale expresses a dislike of “shoppy people,” protesting, “I’m sure you don’t want me to admire butchers and bakers, and candlestick-makers, do you, mamma?” Indeed, this type of class-based prejudice is pervasive throughout the book. However, as Margaret gets to know the Milton manufacturer, Thornton, and his downtrodden employee, Higgins, her preconceptions are challenged, and she wants “masters and men” to better understand one another, too…

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Personal Character, Environment, and Change

At the time Gaskell wrote North and South, the surroundings in which one spent one’s life were thought to bear a tremendous weight on one’s character, and indeed on one’s capacity for change. Gaskell allows for the importance of environment, but also shows people’s character—especially Thornton’s and Margaret’s—changing substantially in response to changed environments, personal challenges, and interactions with others. Through such transformations, Gaskell demonstrates that environment alone is not determinative for…

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Education occupies an important role in North and South. The Hales would not have left their native Helstone if Mr. Hale’s studies had not raised religious doubts; if Thornton, the manufacturer, had not desired tutelage to address his educational gaps, then the Hales wouldn’t likely have moved to Milton. Yet, throughout the story, tension exists as to the proper role of learning. While some dismiss learning as a self-indulgent distraction, others see…

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