English Literature
North and South

North and South

Shiken premium Upgrade Banner

Discover the Timeless Tale of Love and Change in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South

Published in 1855, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South is a compelling tale set against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution. Originally released in a weekly literary magazine edited by the renowned Charles Dickens, the novel was inspired by its very own editor's suggestion for its title.

A Look into the Genre and Synopsis

The novel follows the life of Margaret Hale, an eighteen-year-old girl who has led a sheltered life as a companion to her cousin Edith in wealthy London. When her cousin marries, Margaret is forced to move back to her family's rural home in Helstone, where her father, Richard Hale, serves as a vicar. But as Margaret enters adulthood, her life takes a dramatic turn when her father resigns from his position due to losing his faith, and the family moves to the bustling industrial town of Milton-Northern. This shift from the serene countryside of the South to the bustling North sets the stage for the central conflict in Gaskell's novel - North versus South. It depicts the rise of industrialization during the 19th century Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution, mainly in Great Britain from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, marked a significant shift from agricultural to mechanized industries. This revolutionary period paved the way for modern industries as we know them today.

The Characters and Themes

In the bustling town of Milton, Margaret faces challenges that challenge her beliefs, shaped by her sheltered life in the South. The character of John Thornton, a self-made factory owner representing industrialization, embodies these challenges. Despite their initial clash caused by their conflicting values, Margaret and John gradually evolve as she learns to broaden her narrow-minded views and accept others' perspectives. Similarly, John's character also develops under Margaret's influence. Symbolizing the North and South, respectively, Margaret and John's contrasting personalities strive to find a balance.

Despite their differences, John becomes Margaret's love interest in the novel, adding a touch of romance to the story. Their love grows gradually, mirroring the pace of the novel. A pivotal moment in their relationship is when John hires cheap Irish laborers to replace his striking workers, causing chaos and fury among them. Margaret, known for her liberal views, convinces John to appeal to his workers, and in a moment of danger, she even puts her own safety at risk to protect him. This act, considered unconventional in the 19th century, sparks speculation about Margaret's feelings for John, and to save her reputation, he proposes. However, still struggling to come to terms with her true emotions, Margaret rejects his proposal, much to the delight of his snobbish mother.

Tragedy and loss are recurring themes in Margaret's life in Milton, brought upon by the impact of industrialization. She befriends the Higgins family, led by union representative Nicholas, highlighting the growing influence of unions during that period. Margaret spends time with Bessy, Nicholas's daughter, who ultimately falls ill and succumbs to the inhalation of cotton dust from the local factories. Throughout the novel, Margaret also experiences the loss of her mother, who had been suffering from a long-term illness, and her father, catapulting her further into the adult world.

In the midst of these tumultuous events, Margaret's brother Frederick visits their ailing mother. The story of Margaret's growth, struggles, and triumphs amidst the ever-changing social and economic landscape during the Industrial Revolution remains a timeless and captivating tale that continues to enthrall readers to this day.

Elizabeth Gaskell: A Life and Literary Career

Born in London in 1810, Elizabeth Gaskell (née Stevenson) was the daughter of a Unitarian minister who resigned from his position due to personal reasons. Tragically, Gaskell's mother passed away during childbirth, and she was sent to live with her aunt. Her upbringing bears striking similarities to the plot of her novel, North and South, but Gaskell maintained that it was not an autobiography. Along with North and South, Gaskell is best known for her works Cranford (1851-53) and Wives and Daughters (1865). Her writing accurately captures Victorian society and often delves into the issues faced by women.

The Legacy of Elizabeth Gaskell and Her Timeless Novels

Elizabeth Gaskell may have passed away at a young age of 55, but her works continue to live on, especially through their adaptations for television. One of her most notable works, North and South, tells the story of Margaret Hale and her journey towards self-discovery and growth.

The Transformation of Margaret Hale

The novel follows Margaret's life as she copes with her father's death and explores her changing perceptions of the world. Her godfather, Mr. Bell, takes her back to her idyllic hometown of Helstone, but she realizes that it is no longer what she remembers. As she witnesses the changes in her town, she also experiences a personal evolution. Her inheritance from Mr. Bell, which includes John Thornton's house, leads her to offer financial help to Thornton during his time of need. This, coupled with the revelation that Thornton's enemy is actually her long-lost brother, brings the two characters closer together. This time, a more mature and introspective Margaret accepts Thornton's proposal of marriage.

A Realistic and Socially Relevant Novel

North and South is a prime example of Realism in literature, with believable characters and a relatable plot that deals with everyday issues. It also falls under the sub-genre of social realism, which addresses relevant social issues in a realistic setting. Gaskell used the characters of Margaret and John to explore the effects of industrialization in England. Margaret represents the traditional rural way of life, while John embodies the modern industrial north. Their relationship and personal growth reflect the clash and eventual reconciliation between these opposing ways of life.

A Coming of Age Tale: The Bildungsroman in North and South

In addition to its realism and social relevance, North and South can also be classified as a bildungsroman, a story of personal growth and development. At the start of the novel, Margaret is a sheltered and opinionated young woman. However, she gradually learns to embrace and respect different perspectives as she witnesses the social and economic changes around her. Her relationship with John Thornton plays a crucial role in her character development, as they learn from each other and ultimately find a balance between their differences.

Themes Explored in North and South

The title of the novel, North and South, is symbolic of the central conflict of the story. The north represents industrialization and modernization, while the south symbolizes tradition and rural life. During Gaskell's time, there was a struggle for dominance between these two ways of life, and the characters in the novel embody this conflict. Additionally, the relationship between Margaret and John is not just a love story, but also a representation of the reconciliation between the north and south. Margaret's influence on John inspires him to use his resources for philanthropy, while her interactions with him teach her to be open-minded and accepting of those from the north.

The Symbolic Union of North and South

The final scenes of North and South depict Margaret and John's marriage and the resolution of their differences. This union is often seen as a symbol of the coming together of the north and south. As the novel concludes, it is evident that Margaret and John have not only found love, but have also bridged the gap between their conflicting ways of life.

The Social Realities of the Industrial Revolution in "North and South"

Margaret, the protagonist of "North and South", offers readers a glimpse into the middle-class perspective of the North during the Industrial Revolution. As an outsider to the harsh realities of poverty, she is challenged by her interactions with the working-class Higgins family. Through her friendship with their daughter Bessy, her preconceived notions about the lower class are challenged. Bessy's father Nicholas, a factory worker, also represents the struggles faced by the working class during this time, as he becomes involved in a factory strike.

Throughout the novel, Margaret's influence leads to growth and understanding between two opposing sides: John, a factory owner, and Nicholas. She encourages John to treat his workers with respect and engage in negotiations, breaking down the initial class barrier between them.

"North and South" stands out in English literature for its accurate depiction of the social issues of the Industrial Revolution. The author, Elizabeth Gaskell, writes from her own experiences, capturing the realities of this time period such as poor working conditions, health hazards, and the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society. While the novel doesn't provide easy solutions, it portrays these complex issues with nuance and realism.

Ultimately, "North and South" is a coming-of-age story that sheds light on the cultural and social conflicts of the Industrial Revolution. It serves as a reminder that understanding and compromise are necessary for a functional society, and love has no boundaries when it comes to social class.

Join Shiken For FREE

Gumbo Study Buddy

Explore More Subject Explanations

Try Shiken Premium
for Free

14-day free trial. Cancel anytime.
Get Started
Join 20,000+ learners worldwide.
The first 14 days are on us
96% of learners report x2 faster learning
Free hands-on onboarding & support
Cancel Anytime