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In order to highlight the underestimated value of women in Victorian society, Elizabeth Gaskell develops the character of Margaret: a powerful and independent woman who does not allow herself to adhere to patriarchal Victorian conventions. Through Margaret’s confident attitude, Gaskell proves that women can be successful and independent. However, the disabled and unhappy character of Bessy Higgins, who serves as the text’s representative woman worker of the Victorian period, contradicts this message. Throughout the novel, Bessy shows admiration and resentment for Margaret, as her driven and confident attitude seems to be exactly what Bessy lacks. However, Bessy’s low spirits and death prove her weakness and lack of perseverance. This further signifies that although Gaskell seems to promote and enforce women’s independence and self-sufficiency through the character of Margaret, she seems to believe that women like Bessy with inadequate financial status have little or no hope.
From the beginning of the novel, Margaret plays the authoritative role in her family, presumably in order to prevent her parents from suffering the hardships of life. As her parents’ only child living at home, Margaret takes charge of most of the practical aspects of her family and becomes the backbone of her parents, as she strives to keep them content. She demonstrates these qualities many times, especially when her father decides to leave the Church. For fear of her mother’s reaction and in anticipation of the grief she will likely feel, Margaret responds with a “bright strong look on her face” (39). Here, she attempts to shield her grief and put on a strong front in order to aid her father. Agreeing to speak to her mother highlights her ability to take responsibility for such harsh actions – a trait rarely found in women of the Victorian era. Although “Margaret did dislike it [and] did shrink from it more than anything she had to do in her life before” (39), she responds to her father nobly, expressing that “it was a painful thing, but it must be done, and [she] will do it as well as ever [she] can” (39). This further proves her devotion to her parents and her eagerness to keep her family stable. According to Victorian conventions, the responsibility of ensuring happiness and stability is the job of a man, while “the career for women was marriage and the home was a place of comfort for her husband and family from the stresses of Industrial Britain” (Thomas). However, Margaret does not succumb to the expectations of patriarchal society and does not allow herself to become weak or passive in the face of her dominating male counterparts. She also does not occupy herself with the matters of marriage, focusing more on the well being of her parents and her interests in industrialization. Equally powerful and indicative of Margaret’s devotion to her parents are her efforts at attempting to shield her mother’s sickness from her father. Margaret takes on Dixon’s position as primary caregiver of Mrs. Hale in order to take charge of her mother’s illness. Proving that men do not always possess more emotional and physical strength than women, Mr. Hale is unable to take an active role in helping his wife, just as he was unable to tell her about his loss of faith in the Church. However, instead of succumbing to helplessness, Margaret fulfills her duty as caretaker and does her best to re-create the happiness that has left her household at this painful point in their lives. Throughout the novel, Margaret continuously proves herself to be a strong, capable and resilient young woman, and I believe that Gaskell incorporates this particular character into her novel in order to highlight a woman’s worth. She is able to develop this message quite well through Margaret, who takes on the Victorian female stereotype characterized by passivity and submissiveness and, ironically enough, gallantly ensures the well being of those around her.
Margaret is very different from the average Victorian woman in that she asserts her opinions and proves to be very brave throughout the course of the novel. Gaskell describes Margaret as being “full of a soft feminine defiance, always giving strangers the impression of haughtiness” (34). In order to highlight how Margaret’s personality is much different from other women of the time, Gaskell includes Mr. Thorton’s impression of Margaret: “that while he looked on her [he felt] an admiration he could not repress.” During this particular time period it was uncommon for a man to admire a woman in this way, especially because “the qualities a young Victorian gentlewoman needed, were to be innocent, virtuous, biddable, dutiful and be ignorant of intellectual opinion” (Thomas). However, Margaret is strong in her personal opinions and so different from the other women in this novel that Mr. Thorton, a strong and successful man himself, cannot help but be infatuated with her strong-willed demeanor. In addition to her headstrong personality, Margaret exhibits many acts of bravery – even though “Victorian women were expected to be weak and helpless” (Thomas). The most notable is when she jumps into harms way in order to protect Mr. Thorton during the strike. This is particularly shocking in a society where men are expected to protect and care for women, who are viewed as weak, frail and sensitive. However, instead of being afraid, like Fanny and Mrs. Thorton, Margaret chooses to heroically defend Mr. Thorton while attempting to resolve the strike itself. It is clear in this situation that neither Fanny nor Mrs. Thorton would ever put themselves in harms way; however, Margaret, even though she is a stranger to the family, has a desire to protect and to help. She does not view herself as being submissive or subservient to men, and therefore feels that it is her duty as a powerful young woman to attempt to solve the problems occurring in her society.
Equally powerful in proving Margaret’s boldness is her response to her mother’s death. Margaret feels she “had no time to give way to regular crying. [Her] father and brother depended upon her; while they were giving way to grief she must be working, planning, considering” (275). Margaret appears less overcome by the loss of her mother than the men of the family, but this is solely because she does not allow the tragedy to keep her from maintaining family stability. She has allowed the other members of the family to rely on her to keep everything intact. This is uncommon in a society where women are seen to be “a fragile delicate flower incapable of making decisions” (Thomas). I believe that through these acts of bravery, Gaskell proves that although Victorian society regards women as fragile in comparison to men, women can be just as strong, or even stronger, than their male counterparts.
The other women in this novel do not show the bravery that Margaret demonstrates. For example, Margaret’s cousin Edith serves as a perfect contrast to Margaret’s strength. She alerts Margaret not to be strong-minded, to which Margaret replies: “Don’t be afraid, Edith. I’ll faint on your hands at the servant’s dinner-time, the very first opportunity; and then, what with Sholto playing with the fire, and the baby crying, you’ll begin to wish for a strong-minded woman, equal to any emergency” (509). Here, Gaskell makes the uselessness of a powerless woman apparent while at the same time highlighting the overwhelmingly distinctness between the two women. Mr. Thorton also notices the differences between his sister, Fanny, and Margaret when he says: “I see a great deal of difference between Miss Hale and Fanny. I can imagine that the one may have weighty reasons, which may and ought to make her overlook any seeming impropriety in her conduct. I never knew Fanny have weighty reasons for anything. Other people must guard her. I believe Miss Hale is a guardian to herself” (305). This further establishes Margaret as an accomplished young woman, unconcerned with the stereotypical image of a weak and powerless woman.
Bessy Higgins, an utterly weak character, seems to admire Margaret, but is also envious of Margaret’s independence and resilience. Bessy’s angry and unpredictable personality is rooted in her unhappiness with her personal socioeconomic reality, being the victim of unhealthy working conditions in the factory. However, Bessy’s state was not uncommon in an era where “children were expected to help towards the family budget [and] often worked long hours in dangerous jobs and in difficult situations for a very little wage” (Daniels). Because Bessy is the only representative of female labor workers, readers are given the impression that all female workers are as unhealthy and pain-stricken as she is. Furthermore, although Bessy seems to be quite fond of Margaret and enjoys her visits, it is evident through Gaskell’s writing that Bessy is unable to become the capable woman that Margaret is – presumably because she is of a lower class, considering that class status is the only major difference between the two women. Notably, “the economic differences between rich and poor became very noticeable [in the Victorian era]. The rich could afford elegant, well-built villas, while the poor had to tolerate the squalor of cramped, back-to-back housing surrounded by noise and filth” (WWMM). However, Margaret and Bessy share many commonalities aside from their evident differences in wealth. For example, Bessy shows how she is curious about the world, just as Margaret is, when she says: “I want to know so many things, and am so tossed about wi’ wonder” (133). Also like Margaret she longs for wider vistas: “I’ve always wanted to get high up and see far away, and take a deep breath o’ fullness in that air” (144). Furthermore, Bessy, having dutifully worked to support her family, is similar to Margaret, as she has made it her duty in life to serve and protect her parents. Both women have been forced into hardships, but I believe that Bessy realizes that her lack of wealth is perhaps the one thing preventing her from living the life she yearns for (or a life more similar to Margaret’s). Her family is clearly in need of money, and Bessy is forced to work in the cotton factories, causing drastic harm to her health. This realization causes Bessy to feel resentment towards Margaret, as she feels that Margaret has “never known want or care, or wickedness either, for that matter.” Her jealousy of Margaret is apparent when she lashes out at Margaret and says: “I could go mad and kill yo’ I could” (145). Although Bessy does care for Margaret and perceives her as a dear friend, she cannot come to terms with the fact that she is forced to live in poverty while Margaret has not a care for matters of wealth. Nicholas Higgins presents his financial status to Margaret when he questions her: “yo’re but a young wench, but don’t yo’ think I can keep three people — that’s Bessy, and Mary, and me — on sixteen shilling a week?” (480) Furthermore, with Bessy’s death and Margaret’s triumph by the end of the novel, readers are unsure of how to perceive the strength of women. With Bessy’s unhappiness, lack of good health and death, Gaskell implies that even with uncharacteristic strength, at least for the time period, women are still powerless in the face of economic inequalities. It is apparent throughout the novel that Bessy and Margaret come from two different social classes, and this class discrepancy seems to be the reason for Margaret’s success and Bessy’s failure.
Although Gaskell does a convincing job of portraying Margaret as a capable and successful young woman, quite different from those around her, she proves that the problem of gender inequalities cannot be solved within the low-class population. Gaskell seems to have to move to the middle-class sphere in order to create a vision of a window of opportunity for women. However, with Bessy’s illness and death, Gaskell implies that Bessy has no hope presumably because she has little or no income within her family. Gaskell’s message promotes female empowerment, but at the same time she seems to contradict this message by suggesting that only middle-class or high-class women have a chance to prove their self-worth. By the end of the novel, readers are left unsure of how to perceive Gaskell’s message, whether it be that women are stronger than society would like to think, or that low-class individuals are robbed of their ability to demonstrate their full value as women with independent thoughts and feelings.
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