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Margaret Hale in Gaskell’s condition of England novel; North and South enters the public sphere of industrialised Milton. As a form of Bildungsroman, this ‘Manchester’ novel illustrates the representation of industrial life and their purchase on the relations of workers and masters, labour and capital, while depicting Margaret’s first encounters with this world. It is suggested that middle-class women upon entering the public sphere, in this case only one woman; Margaret entering Milton, face some form of danger.
In North and South the greatest danger Margaret confronts, is the potential threat to her own personal livelihood, both physically, morally and physiologically, exemplified in Chapter XXII A Blow and its Consequences, where she is struck by a stone meant for Mr. John Thornton. Margaret’s sheltered and somewhat passive childhood at Helstone undoubtedly juxtaposes her existence and coming into the public sphere in Milton. The “idyllic Helstone” represented Margaret’s feminine lifestyle of discussions concerning fine silks and reading novels, and the reader infers a great sense of gender role-reversal upon entering and residing in Milton. Margaret arguably adopts a more traditionally masculine role in Milton, first noted in the fact it is she who must arrangements for the choosing and purchasing of her new home, not her father Mr. Hale. This gender fluidity from the one perspective enables Margaret to live a life challenging the status quo of what she believes is an unjust society, where “masters and men” and the treatment of “hands” as cash nexuses represent social inequality.
There are alternative interpretations as to what inspired Margaret’s desire to question this injustice. Margaret debatably is a product of her father who finds the strength to challenge The Articles of the Anglican Church, which is the most pertinent reasoning for her coming to Milton originally. Alternatively, it is through Margaret’s affections towards Mr. Thornton that she enforces her opinion of social injustice, made abundantly clear where upon she stands, firstly alongside and then ahead of Thornton to face the strike. Margaret denies her feelings for Thornton on many occasions, perhaps so as to not appear weakened by emotion, and one example of this strong exterior is where her character fiercely denying that it was “a personal act between you and me”. This exterior strength is juxtaposed in this chapter when Margaret is struck by a stone “meant for [Thornton]” which produces a “thread of dark-red blood”. This one bold act of courage from Margaret not only implies her assertion of her opinion, but also of her place in society, and upon realizing a more masculine character is required, exemplified in her emasculating language when she tells Thornton to “Go down and face them like a man” she is able to physically place herself within the “masters and men” politics of Milton. Margaret therefore uses the refashioning of gender boundaries as a means to overcome the physical danger she places herself in during the “turn-out”. Margaret’s entering into the public sphere of Milton brings her out of her interiority. This coming into the ‘real world’ is positive for her character, as if not, an interiority can distort one’s sense of reality and identity.
In order to represent the psychic consequences of overwhelming experience, Gaskell draws on the language of dream and trance. Through this she implies that the experience of emotional upheaval, which Margaret faces often, can be tantamount to entering an altered state of consciousness, for example Margaret likens the news of her father’s decision to leave the Church as “a night-mare – a horrid dream – not the real waking truth!” Gaskell’s recourse to the language of dreams allows her to suggest the jolt that Margaret’s perception of reality has suffered as a result of her mother’s illness. Margaret’s expulsion of interiority somewhat allows the friendship between her character and the Higgins’ family to be born. The relationship she builds with fellow nineteen year-old Bessy Higgins, illustrates the dangers of emotional distress which a middle-class woman can face upon entering the public sphere. Bessy, like Margaret, is a young lady who necessitates to find a purpose in the entrepreneurial climate of Milton. Bessy is presented to be an extremely sick young girl, who as a result of working in a cotton mill, has inhaled a treacherously large amount of “fluff” into her lungs. Bessy is therefore too ill to even consider leaving her own home, and as the novel progresses, becomes increasingly immobile.
Gaskell presents the interactions between her and Margaret in order to show the reader the protagonist’s ability to interact compassionately with the public sphere, and Margaret’s apparent mothering of Bessy, resultant of their family’s lack of a mother figure, illustrates Miss. Hale’s feminine role in the novel. Margaret’s discontentment with the social injustice of Milton is amplified when Bessy dies, and this outpouring of emotion arguably contributes to Margaret’s impulsive public actions – saving Thornton from the mob and secondly lying to a policeman to save her brother, which are from a part of the self that is not under conscious control. The implication of Margaret’s lie depicts her characters willingness to purge herself for those who she cares for; and on entering the public sphere, these people become more than her closest family.
Gaskell regularly reminds the reader of Margaret’s beautiful physical form, most notably her facial features, which is debatably why Mr. Thornton’s initially enamors himself with Margaret. Gaskell portrays the protagonist as delicate and serene in her appearance, which is antagonistic to the impression of her rebelliousness which we see in Chapter’s including XXXIV False and True. Margaret’s beauty once more caught a character – the police-inspector, off-guard by her haughtiness and steely, quiet reserve. Mr. Bell, Margaret’s godfather, rationalises the lie to Miss. Hale by referring to the “temptation” as “strong, instinctive motive”. The self-forgotten or possessed is invoked both here in Margaret’s lie but also to explain her impulsive actions at the strike: Margaret wonders “what possessed” her to defend Thornton. And after lying to defend Frederick, she tried to recall that “she has lied to save him”. Each of these occasions on which Margaret feels possessed or cannot recall what prompted her action is also accompanied by a scene of swooning or loss of consciousness. Margaret’s loss of consciousness and stunned faculties, where she “fell prone on the floor in a dead swoon”, make her seem a conventional “fainting Victorian heroine”, which juxtaposes her supposed masculine qualities of strength and rebellion. On entering the industrialised public sphere of Milton, Margaret both confronts and refashions the challenging dangers. Margaret’s ability to stand up for what she believes in has the capability to inspire the likes of Higgins and the striking “hands” to search for a greater social justice. Gaskell presents Margaret to be somewhat oblivious to the dangers which encircle her in Milton, as in consequence, Margaret is rewarded with the power to be able to refashion the society, which as a woman growing up, is placed to live and flourish in.
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