Character Depth in Mary Barton

“‘Oh! Jem, I charge you with the care of her! I suppose it would be murder to kill her, but it would be better for her to die than to live to lead such a life as I do. Do you hear me, Jem?’

‘Yes! I hear you. It would be better. Better we were all dead.’ This was said as if thinking aloud; but he immediately changed his tone, and continued,

‘Esther, you may trust to my doing all I can for Mary. That I have determined on. And now listen to me! you loathe the life you lead, else you would not speak of it as you do. Come home with me. Come to my mother. She and my aunt Alice live together. I will see that they give you a welcome. And to-morrow I will see if some honest way of living cannot be found for you. Come home with me.’

She was silent for a minute, and he hoped he had gained his point. Then she said,

‘God bless you, Jem, for the words you have just spoken. Some years ago you might have saved me, as I hope and trust you will yet save Mary. But it is too late now;—too late,’ she added, with accents of deep despair.

Still he did not relax his hold. ‘Come home,’ he said.”

Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell, page 163

Mary Barton is a very topical novel. Every chapter, every conflict, and every character ties back the exploitation of the working class in 19th century England. For some characters, this includes exploration of direct political ramifications and activism. In others, constant personal loss exemplifies the darkness surrounding these characters’ lives. The narration wavers between these two modes, sometimes explicitly pondering the methods and reasons behind their suffering (Gaskell 84-85). Famine, disability, and ultimately death are all facets that Gaskell does not shy away from. However, in addition to the direct championing of awareness and sympathy to the working-class struggle, Gaskell also never neglects the emotional and spiritual consequences on the characters.

Small moments reveal the depth of this toll. A prime example of this is a conversation between Jem and Esther on page 163 shown above. Ostensibly, the passage shows Esther’s desire to save Mary, while Jem also encourages Esther to come “home” with him.  Throughout this passage, key repetition devastatingly reflects the everyday emotional states of these characters. For example, the idea of life, death, religion, and determinism are spread throughout this passage. Esther starts this paragraph by exclaiming, and then “charging” Jem with a task. The use of the word “charge” carries a much heavier connotation that synonyms like “ask” or “request,” and invokes an idea of duty. However, Esther displays her deep commitment to Mary’s salvation and her own equal sense of self-loathing in other ways. Esther also invokes God, before expressing the idea that she fundamentally cannot be saved. Conversely, Jem’s own repetitions also show the full seriousness of what Esther has given up on. Three times Jem utters the phrase “Come home.” Home is not only a place of living, but also has at least some sort of community and safety. Jem’s repetition and Esther rejects him every time says volumes about the toll of her life, and how the circumstances of her poverty has destroyed her from feeling worth the blessing of home.

However, Jem also displays the individual impact of this extended exploitation. Jem’s own reactions on Esther’s charges reveal a great deal about him, as both a character and representative of the male working class to Esther’s female. The narrative thus far has presented Jem as a solid, decent person, which remains true. Nevertheless, Jem’s response reveals something quite dark. Instead of being perturbed that Esther talks of murder and death ideation, Jem actually agrees with it, and offhandedly mentions that “it would be better if we were all dead.” Then, as the narration notes, he returns to the task at hand of convincing Esther to come home. Still, as it is his first reaction and he says it “as if thinking aloud,” the effect does not lessen.

Both Jem and Esther are in unique positions within this conversation as male and female members of the working class, yet could likely stand in for many who could see no way out of their economic situation. In the end, Esther and Jem’s positive qualities are not enough to save them from the fundamental misery of a life of exploitation and degradation. Thus, an important facet of Gaskell’s work is revealed. Although Gaskell’s work might not be awash with symbolism and metaphors and other literary devices, realized characters is not one she forgets. To fully and deeply portray the plight of suffering people, it is important to portray them as actual people with actual emotions. In the case of Esther and Jem’s conversation, Gaskell illustrates the individual impact on two characters, highlighting her broader point in conjunction with more specific arguments.

2 thoughts on “Character Depth in Mary Barton”

  1. I think your point about how by communicating the tangible difficulties of the lower class through character dialogue, Gaskell is also able to offer a representation of the emotional effects of these difficulties on the characters. I discussed something similar in my post, how Mary’s speech alludes to the difficulties of the entire lower class while also demonstrating how her personal brain patterns (an intense focus on cost) have been altered by her situation in poverty.

  2. I think this speaks volumes about to the emotional stress the characters are repeatedly put through. Take John Barton, for example. No matter how optimistic and hopeful he was about the Chartist movement, the stacking failures eventually led him to become an entirely different man than when we first met him at the start of the novel. Mary too, grapples with her own struggles, and in the rare moments she breaks down, she is no longer the flat, bland person she we normally she her being.

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