Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskel
Elizabeth Gaskell's Nineteenth Century novel, Mary Barton, is an example of social realism in its depiction of the inhumanities suffered by the impoverished weavers of Manchester, England.
The main story in Mary Barton is that of the honest, proud and intelligent workingman so embittered by circumstances and lack of sympathy that he finally murders a mill owner's son as an act of representative vengeance. In growing embittered, he becomes as a natural consequence, more isolated in his community; both humanity and faith lose their power to guide him. Mary Barton, his daughter, really loves Jem Wilson, who is arrested after having threatened the murdered man for trying to seduce Mary, and it is her efforts that produce the melodramatic last minute evidence that saves him.
Against the novelistic background of this murder and the central love stories, Mrs. Gaskell outlines her main themes of life in Manchester during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution and of the conditions that initiated the Chartist Movement.
Thus, the historical background of Mary Barton is as much, if not more important than its strictly novelistic aspects. Manchester becomes a symbol of the outrageous conditions endured by the laborers, instead of a real city in itself. It is always grimy, oppressive, and ugly, just like the lives of its inhabitants.
The only detail the author gives us is with the individual homes, not with the city itself. It is almost as if she were afraid of impairing the city's inherent symbolism by describing any actual streets or shops. Even when wealth is shown, as with the Carsons, the setting is still ugly and drab; the only difference is that the drabness has been made comfor...
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... led up to the Chartist Movement. Despite the author's concentration on the social aspects of the situation, she has nonetheless succeeded in providing us with the main points of the new economy and its laws.
Mary Barton tells the story from the laborer's point of view, but we are not without knowledge of the mill owner's side of it either, especially through the philosophical wisdom of Job Legh. In her attempts to present the plight of the laborer in Manchester, Elizabeth Gaskell has not neglected to make us understand the importance and significance of the industrial movement, as well as the great possibilities it possessed.
It is, perhaps, a dated novel. However, it is important in its delineation of the social, political, and economic forces that were at work in England from 1835 -- 1850, and it is an attempt to bring them all into harmonious focus.