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In Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton, class inequality becomes a major theme from the beginning of the book, especially in light of the possibility of a marriage between Mary Barton and Harry Carson. While Mary saw Mr. Carson as an escape from her lower class life of squalor and disappointment, Harry found this partnership to be exciting for reasons other than love. Though the two believed that their nuptials involved only them, Elizabeth Gaskell exemplified how a cross class marriage was more complicated, largely on account of the diverse social classes included. Harry, being lucky in his birth family, does not understand the disparity between love and lust or, if he does, he chooses not to recognize his actions as those of lust and want. As Mary suffered through the physical loss of her mother, she also was forced to face a mentally absent father whose lack of attention and love may have pushed Mary into the arms of Harry. John, Mary’s father, is angered by this marriage prospect, but not because Carson wishes to possess his daughter; rather, John Barton feels as though his daughter will become the kind of upper class citizen that looks down upon him. This is mostly because “…the working man was made to feel…that the bourgeoisie treats him…as its property, and for this reason…he must come forward as its enemy” (220, Engels). This drives John Barton to not only have a hatred for the personality of Harry Carson, but also for his business practices and the practices of those like him. Though all characters exist in the same time period and general location, each has had a different experience based solely on income and finances. John Barton understood this fact because he knew “the working man lived in poverty and want…” even though it was “…he, who did more for society…” (221, Engels).
John Barton, however, was not the only one who was aware of the supposedly obscure class structure; those who resided within the elite class were also mindful of the social organization that sorted England and its citizens into their rightful places. Harry Carson first makes mention of it when speaking to the subject of his infatuation, Mary Barton, about the feelings his parents would have towards their supposed marriage. “I only want now to tell you how much I love you, by what I am ready to give up for you. You know (or perhaps you are not fully aware) how little my father and mother would like me to marry you. So angry would they be, and so much ridicule I should have to brave…I’ll marry you in defiance of the world…In a year or two my father will forgive me, and meanwhile you shall have every luxury money can purchase, every charm that love can devise to make your life happy…Now, Mary you see how willing I am to — to sacrifice a great deal for you; I can even offer you marriage, to satisfy your little ambitious heart…” He believes that winning Mary back entails “…purchas[ing] every charm that love can devise to make your life happy.” As Gaskell proves, Mary is not human to Harry: she is simply an opportunity to prove to himself he is capable of winning someone’s love. As Harry mentions how Mary is “…perhaps…not fully aware…” he is commenting on her lack of understanding of the politics of his lifestyle. He does this, however, by enlisting the power of wealth, a power he has grown up with since birth. The overwhelming privilege evident in Harry Carson only furthers the point that he does not understand the life of the lower class, especially not Mary’s. It’s entirely possible to see how Harry could believe Ms. Barton would respond positively to just the mention of expensive items; however, this further proves the differences between the classes. Whereas Mr. Carson charmed Mary with the simple mention of a monetary gain, Mary required Jem to proclaim his love multiple times before confessing her own for him. The previously mentioned differences are also evident when speaking about the ways Mary’s suitors confessed their affection for her; it was only after learning he was going to lose her that Harry Carson chose to tell Mary “…what I am ready to give up for you…” and how he would “…sacrifice a great deal for you.” When compared to Jem, who could not give Mary such expensive items, but instead could give her love that was not premised on the purchases he would make for her, Harry becomes a superficial suitor, and loses his “trophy.” Considering “…how little my father and mother would like me to marry you,” it seems that Carson sees his own matrimony as an opportunity not only to win back Mary, but also to depart from his parent’s wishes, giving him all the more reason to pursue Ms. Barton. This is partially due to the fact that the Carson’s, or rather Harry’s father, John Carson, in having enough money, no longer needs to stress himself with trivial matters such as romance. This is further exemplified when Harry offers Mary a marriage license “…to satisfy your little ambitious heart.” Harry has developed a sense of privilege and it is because of this same privilege that Harry finds no issue in ignoring the harsh and difficult lifestyle Mary faces each day. Mary should find it in herself to repulse a man who cannot understand or does not even try to understand the harsh challenges she has coped with. The physical death of a loved one is obviously heartbreaking; however, Mary also dealt with the mental loss of her father, a man who was so caught up in his own life he lost the drive to fight for the feelings of the daughter he loved. Though she ultimately flees from the arms of Harry Carson, Mary is also well aware that “…work and study alone were not enough to achieve the same level of comfort afforded by inherited wealth and the income derived from it” (241, Piketty). The class inequality in Mary Barton is found not only in the relationship between Mary Barton and Harry Carson, but also in the relationship between Harry Carson and Mary’s other suitor Jem Wilson, someone who shares Mary’s same social standing. The connection between both her suitors is, of course, Mary; however, that is also where they differ. Their treatment of Mary, whether good or bad, represents the way they live, or rather the outcome of their social standing.
Mary’s own social pressures only complicate this dynamic: “Women agreed with male speakers that a woman’s place is in the home; they also protested against the heavy taxes taken out of their own wages and the stress of laboring hard for a pittance inadequate to support their families.” (234, Clark) As Anna Clark explains in “The Struggle for the Breeches,” the amount of stress placed on female workers was quite incredible. Though Mary may not have worked in a factory, she faced similar emotions simply by having the responsibility of “…laboring hard for a pittance inadequate to support…” her family (234). Gaskell introduces the motivation behind Mary’s social-climbing ways or, as Harry Carson puts it, “ambitious” ways by illustrating the strained relationship between Mary and her father, and the lack of progress her paychecks seemed to make as they came in. “He came in with no word to Mary in return for her cheery and astonished greeting.” In the context of this quote it is not completely fair to say that John Barton’s mood is solely based on his relationship with his daughter, but his lack of even a simple acknowledgement exhibits how even Mary, who loves him so, cannot bring his spirits up, as she wishes to do. Obviously, it is not John Barton’s fault, at least not completely, that Mary found joy in the attention given by Harry Carson, but his neglect may have attributed to her need for Harry’s “love.” The fact that John Barton strongly believed in the Chartist movement also put a heavy burden on the already difficult father-daughter relationship. If Mary was already lacking in a motherly parental figure, her father’s absence only furthered her need for some sort of familial interest. As John Barton was pleading to parliament to pay attention to the needy lower class, Mary was making money for the family, an action Chartists found to be borderline offensive in nature because “…cheap female and immigrant labour was often used to undercut male workers…” (Hudson). Furthermore, it did not help John or Mary’s situation when Mary took over the role of breadwinner as her father fought against nearly impossible odds in facing the mill owners. Today it is widely believed that women in Mary’s position simply aided the household with childcare and housekeeping when “…in practice many households were dependent upon female earnings, especially those households run by widows” (Hudson); though Mary was an orphan rather than a widow, she performed the necessary duties to support her family. A mentally unstable father combined with the lifestyle she had grown up knowing pushed Mary to work, and though John’s chartist ideals stated that “…women working undermined male workers’ manhood and demoralized communities…” there was no other option in the Bartons’ situation. It is very possible Mary also wished to marry rich because she knew many chartists believed “…cheap female and immigrant labour was often used to undercut male workers…” (Hudson).
Whereas Mary Barton was subjected to neglect and forced into the supporting role within her family, Harry Carson was never made to lift a finger in his life. His luxurious upbringing allowed him opportunities unknown and unimaginable to those who worked for him and his father. “Mr. Carson tried to refuse his darling, but she coaxes him into acquiescence, saying she must have it.” Though this exchange occurs between Harry’s younger sister Amy and his father, John Carson, it projects the general attitude regarding money in the Carson household. Amy’s request for a new rose, though it costs “half-a-guinea”, is instantly fulfilled as Gaskell states “‘He knows his little daughter can’t live without flowers and scents.’” Gaskell reveals one of Harry’s motives for having a relationship with Mary in this exchange; it can be assumed Harry gets what he wants as quickly as Amy, so he may decide to chase something that will not easily come to him. Mary, being the daughter of a Chartist, is not easily conquered. Though she may flirt and ask for marriage, she is never fully convinced of her own feelings, making her a prime target for Harry’s predator-like actions. It’s also more than possible that Harry wished to be disobedient in an attempt to earn his father’s actual attention rather than the monetary attention given to all of his siblings. Harry’s unexpected bout with Mary may have been the result of absentee parenting and a son’s attempt to end such behavior through an unanticipated and unwanted love interest. Both Mary and Harry could be driven by the need for parental care and love, instead of the blatant ignorance seen in their fathers.
Although a sad truth, the social hierarchy that existed within nineteenth century England was exactly that, a truth. However, this reality was not silenced by the upper class, as many wished would happen; the lower class found it within themselves to continually protest against the treatment they received. Many in the top tier of the hierarchy found the protests of the workmen to be useless; despite this, workers continued to protest “…simply because they must protest against every reduction…because silence on their part would be a recognition of these social conditions…” (226, Engels). These luddites or “early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery in protest…”(Merriam Webster) found themselves a representative in this novel in John Barton, an enemy of those wealthy mill owners who felt no responsibility for the grievances of the working class. It was blatant class warfare between the rich and those who served “under” them; both classes strongly believed “…the injury of one party is the benefit of the other…” (230, Engels) and it seemed as if any sort of peace could not be reached. Where the lower class found their wages and working conditions to be vile, the bourgeois found that “…the coarse mule-spinners had misused their power beyond all endurance…” (230, Engels). These textile and factory workers harbored a “…bitter hatred of the workers against the property-holding class” (227, Engels). Whether one was upper or lower class, it seemed to impossible to avoid conflict, as was the case when multiple factories were stoned and shut down by their former workers. Specific examples include “…an explosion caused by a package of powder …in the sawmill of Bently & White…” which “…produced considerable damage…” (228, Engels) as well as “…an attempt…to blow up the saw-works of Padgin, in Howard Street, Sheffield” (227, Engels). The conditions of the working class had gone on long enough and they deemed violence the only option to assist them in making a point. The social inequality that was prevalent within Mary Barton was also very much a problem in nineteenth century England; unfortunately, it was usually the wealthier who won out, their monetary status allowing them leeway with the police and with workers who could not afford to go on strike.
In the eyes of the Catholic Church, the wealthy would apparently be in the wrong, especially after treating their workers they way they did; however, this may not be the entire case. As stated by Pope Leo XIII, “…authority of divine law adds its sanction forbidding us in severest terms even to covet that which is another’s…” (4, Rerum Novarum) which means that those in the lower class were in the wrong in coveting the lives of those in the classes above them. However, they are not alone here; Harry Carson is also seen as coveting something his neighbor, Jem Wilson, possesses in Mary Barton, whom he attempts to buy with “…every charm love can devise…” Furthermore, the Church recognizes the poverty the lower class suffered in every day; they saw this scarcity as “…no disgrace…” and believed “…that there is nothing to be ashamed of in earning their bread by labor…” (8, Rerum Novarum). Though the Jesuit ideals would have “…the respective classes…be united in the bonds of friendship…and in those of brotherly love…” the class system remains today, with the added security of a more obscure hierarchy. However, it seems current generations are not only aware of the issues surrounding class inequality, but are willing to do something about it. Mary Barton and Harry Carson came from two separate class spheres; while one sat in the lap of luxury, the other worked to support not only herself, but her family and their addictions. The motivation surrounding the would-be partnership varied in certain ways, such as each member’s monetary gain, but they found common ground in needing attention from mentally-absent parents. While Harry wished to shock his parents into noticing him and his extracurricular activities, Mary wished to marry the opposite of her father, someone who would not abandon her, at least not financially. While Harry recognized the consequences of his actions, which would basically be no consequences, Mary was unaware of the harm hers could bring to those she loved. Though both may have believed that getting married would solve their respective issues, they underestimated the consequences such a union would bring upon not only themselves, but also upon those involved in their lives.
Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1968. Print. Gaskell, Elizabeth. “The Project Gutenberg EBook, Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.” Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 10 Aug. 1999. Web. Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print. Clark, Anna. The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class. Berkeley: U of California, 1995. Print. Hudson, Pat. “Women’s Work.” BBC News. BBC, 29 Mar. 2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
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