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. By using transplanted Southerner Margaret as a mediating figure, Gaskell argues that the antagonistic relationship between the classes can only be overcome through personal relationships.
From the beginning of Margaret’s acquaintance with the Thorntons and with Higgins, she hears antagonistic, abstracted, and even dehumanizing language directed toward and used about the respective classes. One day Margaret hears Thornton extolling industry as “the war which compels, and shall compel, all material power to yield to science.” This martial language carries over into his characterization of the relationship between masters of industry and their men. He argues that, nowadays, “the battle is pretty fairly waged between” the two classes. He explains that any hardworking man of decency and sobriety can join the ranks of the masters. Margaret is repelled by Thornton’s implication that those who fail to raise themselves in this fashion are his “enemies.”
Mrs. Thornton shares her son’s antagonistic view of things in Milton, describing the striking millworkers as “a pack of ungrateful hounds” who want to defeat and enslave their masters, resulting in a perennial “struggle between masters and men.” She also describes the “continual murmur of the work-people” as “the humming of a hive of bees.” She doesn’t readily think of them as human beings, much less as individuals, whose interests should be taken into consideration by their employers.
When Margaret hears Thornton discussing market theories “as if commerce were everything and humanity nothing,” her “whole soul rose up against him.” She can’t reconcile Thornton’s compassionate attentions to her dying mother with his “hard-reasoning, dry, merciless” approach to business; “the discord jarred upon her inexpressibly.” To Margaret, commerce should account for human sufferings in a manner akin to everyday neighborly concern. Even the millworkers’ union, in its efforts to secure justice for the masses, can run roughshod over the sufferings of its individual members, as Margaret learns when she hears the struggling John Boucher confronting union leader Higgins. “‘[Starve] to death… ere yo’ dare go again th’ Union.’… Yo’ may be kind hearts, each separate; but once banded together, yo’ve no more pity for a man than a wild hunger-maddened wolf.” When Margaret responds with horror to the ostracism experienced by workers who defy the union, Higgins defends this practice on the grounds that the union’s work “may be like war; along wi’ it come crimes; but I think it were a greater crime to let [injustice] alone.” Though couched in earthier language, the union’s view of the masters is as antagonistic as its opposite, and as apt to gloss over individual relationships.
In her conversations with various characters, especially master Thornton and worker Higgins, Margaret repeatedly encourages personal relationship as the only bridge across the antagonistic class divide. Margaret argues with Thornton that masters treat their workers like oversized children. As her father points out, the constant antagonism between classes exists because there has been no “equality of friendship between the adviser and advised classes,” with each side “constantly afraid of his rights being trenched upon.” In contrast, Margaret says, God has created all people to be mutually dependent.
During the confrontation at Marlborough Mills, Thornton says that bringing in soldiers is the only means of reasoning with “men that make themselves into wild beasts.” Nevertheless, Margaret begs him to “face them like a man … speak to your workmen as if they were human beings.” Though frightened herself by the “demoniac desire” of the crowd, she perceives that a humanizing approach is the only way through the violent impasse. After the beleaguered Boucher commits suicide, Higgins comes around to Margaret’s view that the union had driven Boucher to despair, and he takes personal responsibility for the feeding and schooling of the orphaned children. Thornton eventually sets up a dining room for his workers, and, though initially “riled” by Higgins’ interfering advice, agrees to cooperate with him in carrying out the plan, even dining with the workers occasionally. Later, he reflects that his acquaintance with Higgins has changed his attitudes, and vice versa: “Once brought face to face, man to man, with an individual of the masses around him … they had each begun to recognize that ‘we have all of us one human heart.’” Thornton’s conversations with Margaret have borne fruit in tangible relationships and changed policy.
After the failure of Marlborough Mills, Thornton wants his next industrial venture to be based on relationship with the workers “beyond the mere ‘cash nexus,’” having become convinced that “no mere institutions … can attach class to class as they should be attached, unless the working out of such institutions bring the individuals of the different classes into actual personal contact.” While he expects that strikes will still occur, such personal contact “may render strikes not the bitter, venomous sources of hatred they have hitherto been.” Thornton’s attitude toward his workers is no longer relentlessly antagonistic, and he has modified his abstract economic theories to make room for insights gained through personal attachment.
Though Thornton’s newly progressive theories triumph at the end of the novel, Gaskell doesn’t get into great detail about what they are. She likely wanted to avoid greater controversy—and hoped that Margaret’s and Thornton’s long-delayed union provided a satisfying enough ending. In any case, Margaret’s willingness to actively support, even join forces, with Thornton’s new venture shows just how far she has come from her early prejudice against “shoppy people.”
Class Antagonism ThemeTracker
Class Antagonism Quotes in North and South
“Gormans,” said Margaret. “Are those the Gormans who made their fortunes in trade at Southampton? Oh! I’m glad we don’t visit them. I don’t like shoppy people. I think we are far better off knowing only cottagers and labourers, and people without pretence…I’m sure you don’t want me to admire butchers and bakers, and candlestick-makers, do you, mamma?”
“It is one of the great beauties of our system, that a working-man may raise himself into the power and position of a master by his own exertions and behavior; that, in fact, every one who rules himself to decency and sobriety of conduct, and attention to his duties, comes over to our ranks; it may not be always as a master, but as an overlooker, a cashier, a book-keeper, a clerk, one on the side of authority and order.”
“You consider all who are unsuccessful in raising themselves in the world, from whatever cause, as your enemies, then, if I understand you rightly,” said Margaret in a clear, cold voice.
“As their own enemies, certainly,” said he…
“If you live in Milton, you must learn to have a brave heart, Miss Hale.”
“I would do my best,” said Margaret rather pale. “I do not know whether I am brave or not till I am tried; but I am afraid I should be a coward.”
“South country people are often frightened by what our Darkshire men and women call only living and struggling. But when you’ve been ten years among a people who are always owing their betters a grudge, and only waiting for an opportunity to pay it off, you’ll know whether you are a coward or not; take my word for it.”
“Given a strong feeling of independence in every Darkshire man, have I any right to obtrude my views, of the manner in which he shall act, upon another…merely because he has labor to sell, and I capital to buy?”
“Not in the least,” said Margaret, determined just to say this one thing; “not in the least because of your labor and capital positions, whatever they are, but because you are a man, dealing with a set of men over whom you have, whether you reject the use of it or not, immense power; just because your lives and your welfare are so constantly and intimately interwoven. God has made us so that we must be mutually dependent. We may ignore our own dependence, or refuse to acknowledge that others depend upon us in more respects than the payment of weekly wages; but the thing must be, nevertheless.”
“Yo’ know well, that a worser tyrant than e’er th’ masters were says. ‘Clem to death, and see ‘em a’ clem to death, ere yo’ dare go again th’ Union.’ Yo’ know it well, Nicholas, for a’ yo’re one on ‘em. Yo’ may be kind hearts, each separate; but once banded together, yo’ve no more pity for a man than a wild hunger-maddened wolf.”
“Mr. Thornton,” said Margaret, shaking all over with her passion, “go down and face them like a man. Save these poor strangers, whom you have decoyed here. Speak to your workmen as if they were human beings. Speak to them kindly. Don’t let the soldiers come in and cut down poor creatures who are driven mad. I see one there who is. If you have any courage or noble quality in you, go out and speak to them, man to man.”
If she thought her sex would be a protection,—if, with shrinking eyes she had turned away from the terrible anger of these men, in any hope that ere she looked again they would have paused and reflected, and slunk away, and vanished, she was wrong. Their reckless passion had carried them too far to stop—at least had carried some of them too far; for it is always the savage lads, with their love of cruel excitement, who head the riot—reckless to what bloodshed it may lead…
“For God’s sake! Do not damage your cause by this violence. You do not know what you are doing.”
“As I was a-saying, sir, I reckon yo’d not ha’ much belief in yo’ if yo’ lived here,—if you’d been bred here. I ax your pardon if I use wrong words; but what I mean by belief just now, is a-thinking on sayings and maxims and promises made by folk yo’ never saw, about the things and the life yo’ never saw, nor no one else…There’s many and many a one wiser, and scores better learned than I am around me,—folk who’ve had time to think on these things,—while my time has had to be gi’en up to getting my bread.”
“But, Margaret, don’t get to use these horrid Milton words. ‘Slack of work:’ it is a provincialism. What will your aunt Shaw say, if she hears you use it on her return?”
“Oh, mamma! Don’t try and make a bugbear out of aunt Shaw,” said Margaret, laughing. “Edith picked up all sorts of military slang from Captain Lennox, and aunt Shaw never took any notice of it.”
“But yours is factory slang.”
“And if I live in a factory town, I must speak factory language when I want it.”
“North an’ South have each getten their own troubles. If work’s sure and steady theer, labor’s paid at starvation prices; while here we’n rucks o’ money coming in one quarter, and ne’er a farthing th’ next. For sure, th’ world is in a confusion that passes me or any other man to understand; it needs fettling, and who’s to fettle it, if it’s as yon folks say, and there’s nought but what we see?”
“Yo’ve called me impudent, and a liar, and a mischief-maker, and yo’ might ha’ said wi’ some truth, as I were now and then given to drink. An’ I ha’ called you a tyrant, an’ an oud bull-dog, and a hard, cruel master; that’s where it stands. But for th’ childer. Measter, do yo’ think we can e’er get on together?”
“Well!” said Mr. Thornton, half-laughing, “it was not my proposal that we should go together. But there’s one comfort, on your own showing. We neither of us can think much worse of the other than we do now.”
“If we do not reverence the past as you do in Oxford, it is because we want something which can apply to the present more directly. It is fine when the study of the past leads to a prophecy of the future. But 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; which is full of difficulties that must be encountered; and upon the mode in which they are met and conquered—not merely pushed aside for the time—depends our future. Out of the wisdom of the past, help us over the present. But no! 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!’”
Then her thoughts went back to Milton, with a strange sense of the contrast between the life there, and here. She was getting surfeited of the eventless ease in which no struggle or endeavor was required. She was afraid lest she should even become sleepily deadened into forgetfulness of anything beyond the life which was lapping her round with luxury. There might be toilers and moilers there in London, but she never saw them; the very servants lived in an underground world of their own, of which she knew neither the hopes nor the fears…There was a strange unfinished vacuum in Margaret’s heart and mode of life.
“I have arrived at the conviction that no mere institutions, however wise…can attach class to class as they should be attached, unless the working out of such institutions bring the individuals of the different classes into actual personal contact. Such intercourse is the very breath of life…I would take an idea, the working out of which would necessitate personal intercourse; it might not go well at first, but at every hitch interest would be felt by an increasing number of men, and at last its success in working come to be desired by all, as all had borne a part in the formation of the plan; and even then I am sure that it would lose its vitality, cease to be living, as soon as it was no longer carried on by that sort of common interest which invariably makes people find means and ways of seeing each other, and becoming acquainted with each other’s characters and persons…We should understand each other better, and I’ll venture to say we should like each other more.”