Examine the representation of social and economic divisions in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.
Considered a significant piece of Victorian literature, North and South features a strong female protagonist, an exploration of a mature love story, and relevant social and political insight on industrialisation and class issues during the mid-19th Century.
During the 19th Century, a new way of thinking came to light that challenged the creativity and mystery of the Romantic genre. Instead, this new wave of thinking was shaped by the political, social, scientific and industrial advances of the day. The realist movement instead was used to accurately depict real life and focus on individuals in their social environment. The Industrial Revolution, which predominantly took place in Northern England, provided inspiration for a numerous amount of texts, which aimed to portray how the new advances impacted the traditional way of living, the social structure and the divide this created. In doing so, Gaskell among others, gave a voice and exposure to the poorer and working classes that they otherwise would have struggled to achieve. North and South was inspired by the author’s own experiences of industrialisation and seeks to represent the conditions faces by the working class labourers with the aim of depicting the changing society and increasing awareness of these issues through it’s audience. In doing so, Gaskell achieves the realist goal of depicting every day life and conveying a socially responsible message.
Dickens requested that Gaskell change the title of the work from ‘Margaret Hale’ to ‘North and South’, a difference that permeates the entire text, stating that it “implies more and is expressive of the opposite people brought face to face by the story.”
Margaret and her parents, the Hales, represent the South whilst the Higgins and the Thornton families represent the North. The South is initially shown to be quiet and idyllic. There are no strikes, no class dissension, and no downtrodden masses of hard done-by workers. Education is valued and business is considered oafish. Those from the South view the North as dirty, soulless, and hard, full of men men suffering from injustice and incessant work. Those who uphold the eminence and calibre of the North believe it to be a place of prosperity and economic autarchy. The workers there do not submissively accept their fate but are driven and push back when they are treated unethically. Those in the North view the South as filled with workers who are too resigned to stand up for their rights. After vicious cycles of generations ending up in workhouses and various other forms of manual labour, education is not held to the same prestige but is viewed as ultimately useless and that Southern life is too slow and dull.
Thornton and Margaret continue to argue these points throughout the novel. Thornton exclaims that he “would rather be a man toiling, suffering—nay, failing and successless—here, than lead a...