Throughout North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell portrays the relationships between various characters on either sides of the evident class dichotomy that exists all through the novel. Gaskell uses various individuals to portray different opinions and perspectives of this divide. Thereby presenting similarities and differences through common ground and differing views on the many issues on display within the novel itself. Elizabeth uses the individuals to transmute one another’s perceptions or indeed misconceptions of each other in ways that shall be explained.
One can initially point to Margaret as an individual who is used to negotiate the class divide throughout the opening chapters of North and South. The title itself and the change of title from “Margaret Hale” to “North and South” shows the importance of the heroine, Margaret in breaking the divide between “North and South”. In Chapter One Margaret begins as a member of Shaw household, an upper middle-class family then progresses to the Hales, her true parents who are lower in social status and wealth.
This shows the nature of Margaret’s character early on and how she shall in time progress further and negotiate between classes in greater depth. This continues immediately with her new life in Milton, upon where she sees a mill worker “savagely beaten for little conceivable reason. ” This highlights Gaskell’s aim in using Elizabeth to create a degree of sympathy for the demonised “militant working-classes” of the industrial era. This can be seen to an even greater extent with the relationship struck up by Margaret with Higgins’ and her resultant friendship with Bessy.
Indeed, this is a relationship stuck up by Margaret; showing her empathetic roots and wish to cross the evident class divide. We see that Margaret asks Bessy “May I go with you” and truly cares about “what kind of life have you [Bessy] led? ” This all occurs during the opening chapters, creating a perception of Margaret as a character who wishes to find common ground between classes through relationships forged; thus crossing class boundaries. Mr Thornton is another individual who’s relationships with others and those of other classes are telling and in many ways cross the divide more inherently than Margaret.
The reason for this lies within Mr Thornton’s working-class background and his rather meteoric rise to wealth, thus climbing the ladder of social status. Whilst he may be seen by many as a typical mill owner, “treating his workers with a fist of iron”, the importance of his character is evident. He has shown that money can allow one to transcend all notions of class as Mr Thornton now “entertains the Mayor and important officials from London”.
Indeed later in the book Bessy was surprised that the educated and sophisticated Hale’s had been invited to the Thornton’s household as she states to Margaret, “beggin yo’ pardon, yo’ not got much money”. However this may be an attitude more prevalent in the north of England and Milton, where money seemed to be valued above all. Thus highlighting the inherent split explained by the title itself, between North and South. This contrast can also be seen in the way in which servants are treated in the North and South.
Indeed, the Hale’s have a perceived “southern” perspective and treat Dixon with respect and allow her freedom to choose her own staff and run the household. This relationship was greatly frowned upon by Mrs Thornton who observed “your servant isn’t busy enough Mrs Hale”. This highlights the difference between classes and the way in which these differences are approached by different people. Whilst the Hale’s whose reputation was established through right of birth, the Thornton’s worked for their money and rose from humble beginnings to a newly created class of the “neauvou-riche”.
This phenomenon was far more prevalent in the industrial town and mills of the North rather than the more established industries of the south where class was a much more fixed and deep seated issue. However it appears that Mrs Thornton’s humble beginnings have led her to be more disdainful of those socially “below” her than the Hale’s. She “snapped at her maid and gave a scornful look”. Mr Hale too can be seen to treat the mill workers in a similar fashion, “I need to work them hard, they deserve to more”.
It is consequently clear that whilst the class divide is acknowledged and largely adhered to by both the Hale’s and the Thornton’s (with the exception of Margaret), the Thornton’s appear much more rigid in their beliefs. In conclusion it is apparent that Gaskell negotiates the relationships between classes and individuals in the opening chapters of the novel by addressing the key dichotomy and the different attitudes to it. The opening chapters can be seen to show a plethora of contrasting beliefs and actions, serving to highlight the evident class dichotomy.
It is also evident that Margaret as a character is being used to find similarities and develop positive relationships between classes as she does with the Higgins’. Quite contrary to this is the attitude of Mr Thornton and his mother for the opening chapters and this relationship shows the difference between attitudes of the North and South. Indeed, one may argue that whilst the Thornton’s have wealth and social status, they do not have class, thus they can never truly fit into the aristocratic society they evidently crave.