Patterns and Contrasts in Vocabulary

Patterns and Contrasts in Vocabulary

  • Passage: Chapter 3, Pg. 20

“The doctor stumbled upstairs by the fire light and met the awestruck look of the neighbour, which at once told him the state of things. The room was till, as he, with habitual tiptoe step, approached the poor frail body, that nothing now could more disturb. Her daughter knelt by the bed-side, her face buried in the clothes, which were almost crammed into her mouth, to keep down the choking sobs. The husband stood like one stupefied. The doctor questioned the neighbour in whispers, and then approaching Barton, said, “You must go down stairs. This is a great shock, but bear it like a man. Go down.” He went mechanically and sat down on the first chair. He had no hope.”


In the passage before my focused reading, John Barton frantically calls for the doctor to help his sick wife who is dying fast. The doctor doesn’t answer right away, so the tone of the passage before and during my selected paragraph is very chaotic, clumsy, and frantic as john is racing against time to help his wife. The frantic nature in which Gaskell writes about the movement of the people in the scene is important in the portrayal of sadness and drama in the scene. Gaskell uses a variety of words like “stumbled, mechanically and tiptoe,” to describe the movement of John, and the doctor in the scene. The contrast of the franticness at the beginning of the scene when the doctor is clumsily stumbling up the steps to help John’s wife, to the end of the paragraph when John sees his dead wife and “walks mechanically” emotionless, like a robot downstairs to grieve. I also made note of a series of repetitions within this passage, particularly with the word “down.” The somber tone, setting, and reality of the scene seems to link well with the word “down” and how it is used to describe the daughter trying to “keep down the choking sobs” by cramming her mother’s clothes in her mouth. In addition to this, the doctor urges John to go downstairs and “bear it like a man” away from the daughter and his deceased wife. The word down is used to describe the grief in this scene and is also attached to death in the burial sense, as one moves the body down into the earth. Lastly, I feel the word “down” can be understood as feeling, (“I’m feeling down in the dumps.”) What I am really trying to say here is that I think there are several sections of lines that work in tandem with one another, particularly from the beginning of the passage where there is still hope that Mary’s life can be saved, to the end of the paragraph when she dies, grief sets in, and John walks away “mechanically” and emotionless to sit down and grieve downstairs by himself. The ending of the passage gives an image of John sitting downstairs alone with “no hope.” Overall, Gaskell’s use of different words to describe the movement of characters in the scene as they try and help Mary, and the use of the word “down” to describe the grieving process after her death, enhances the emotion and sadness in this passage from chapter 3 and sets the tone for the rest of the section.

One thought on “Patterns and Contrasts in Vocabulary”

  1. I think this passage also speaks well to the images and perceptions of masculinity across the novel. As you pointed out, John is deeply upset, as expected, by the urgent illness of his wife, yet is also expected to bear that weight “like a man.” In this novel, there is no space for men to grieve in the same way that a woman would, as women are the only ones ever seen to pay visits to mourning households for extended periods of time. It is expected of the women to take on that duty to appease the emotions that come along with death, as if in a way to create a space that is suitable for the man to move on easier without the aid of traditional mourning rituals. In the same way, when Mary is ill toward the end of the novel, Jem is caught up in emotions and scolds himself for his inability to conduct himself in the way that a man “should” in those circumstances when he is confronted by Job. This instance supports the conclusion of a pervasive, inheritance based conception of masculinity, even within the confines of the grieving process.

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