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 a person’s character; experiences and relationships are vital, and these can exert formative influence at any time in a person’s life.
Gaskell shows that the environment into which one is born, and the experiences of early life, certainly bear a significant shaping influence on a person’s character. When discussing the relative merits of city and country life, Margaret observes that city life “[induces] depression and worry of spirits,” but Mr. Hale points out that country life can promote stagnation and fatalism. Margaret concludes that “each mode of life produces its own trials and its own temptations.”
While arguing with Margaret about the differences between classes, Thornton interjects that he is not “speaking without book” (that is, without firsthand knowledge). After his father’s early death, he explains, he was forced to find work as a shop assistant and to provide for the family out of his limited earnings. He feels, therefore, that his current position is not the result of “good luck, nor merit, nor talent—but simply the habits of life which taught me to despise indulgences not thoroughly earned.” He further believes that the suffering of Milton’s poor is “the natural punishment of dishonestly-enjoyed pleasure, at some former period of their lives”—that is, reflective of poorness of character. The irony is that, just as Thornton is piqued by Margaret’s assumptions about his background, he also makes assumptions about people (his poor workers) whose full stories he doesn’t know. He also assumes that, once “habits of life” are formed, they set the course for the rest of one’s life.
However, character is not preordained by one’s environment or set in stone in one’s youth. Margaret observes the change which suffering has produced in her mother’s character. In Helstone, Margaret had been troubled by Mrs. Hale’s “querulousness,” but a year later, her mother has acquired new patience through illness—she is “gentle and quiet in intense bodily suffering, almost in proportion as she had been restless and depressed” when she had little reason to be.
Upon their first acquaintance, Mrs. Thornton had told Margaret, “If you live in Milton, you must learn to have a brave heart.” At that early point in the story, Margaret had been intimidated by the crowds of workers in the streets. After a year in Milton, however, she feels able to walk home in the dark, telling her brother Frederick, “I am getting very brave and hard.” By the end of the story, cousin Edith complains that Margaret is constantly “[poking] herself into” “wretched places … not fit for ladies” after she moves back to London. Over time, Margaret has learned how to adapt to and even feel at home in environments very different from those in which she had been raised. Once she is back in London, in fact, Margaret finds that her relatives’ insulated lifestyle no longer suits her: “She found herself at once an inmate of a luxurious house, where the bare knowledge of the existence of every trouble or care seemed scarcely to have penetrated.” Her childhood environment no longer fits the kind of person that Milton has helped her become.
During one of their arguments, Margaret tells Thornton that “the most proudly independent man depends on those around him for their insensible influence on his character.” Thornton counters that, even if this is true, influence best occurs indirectly, through example, “without a thought of how [one’s] actions were to make this man industrious, that man saving.” Both their perspectives are vindicated, as Thornton does become more humbly dependent, but is arguably more responsive to Margaret’s actions (especially her defense of him at the millyard) and his personal interactions with Higgins than to argument alone. But Thornton is just one of Gaskell’s examples of the variety of ways that personal connections, and even crises, can refine people’s character throughout their lives.
Personal Character, Environment, and Change ThemeTracker
Personal Character, Environment, and Change 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…
“I think, Margaret,” she continued, after a pause, in a weak, trembling, exhausted voice, “I am glad of it—I am prouder of Frederick standing up against injustice, than if he had been simply a good officer.”
“I am sure I am,” said Margaret, in a firm, decided tone. “Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine; but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used—not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless.”
“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.”
“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?”
“Oh, how unhappy this last year has been! I have passed out of childhood into old age. I have had no youth—no womanhood; the hopes of womanhood have closed for me—for I shall never marry; and I anticipate cares and sorrows just as if I were an old woman, and with the same fearful spirit. I am weary of this continual call upon me for strength.”
When her father had driven off on his way to the railroad, Margaret felt 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; no one depending on her for cheering care, if not for positive happiness; no invalid to plan and think for; she might be idle, and silent, and forgetful,—and what seemed worth more than all the other privileges—she might be unhappy if she liked.
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.
“After all it is right,” said she, hearing the voices of children at play while she was dressing. “If the world stood still, it would retrograde and become corrupt, if that is not Irish. Looking out of myself, and my own painful sense of change, the progress all around me is right and necessary. I must not think so much of how circumstances affect me myself, but how they affect others, if I wish to have a right judgment, or a hopeful trustful heart.” And with a smile ready in her eyes to quiver down to her lips, she went into the parlour and greeted Mr. Bell.
“They are from Helstone, are they not? I know the deep indentations round the leaves. Oh! Have you been there? When were you there?”
“I wanted to see the place where Margaret grew to what she is, even at the worst time of all, when I had no hope of ever calling her mine. I went there on my return from Havre.”
“You must give them to me,” she said, trying to take them out of his hand with gentle violence.
“Very well. Only you must pay me for them!”