The Portrayal of Leisure in Mary Barton

The line I chose to examine in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton is “There were homes over which Carson’s fire threw a deep, terrible gloom; the homes of those who would fain work, and no man gave unto them—the homes of those to whom leisure was a curse” (Gaskell 58). This passage is written in the context of the fire at Carson’s mill. The imagery of the ‘gloom’ covering both types of people’s houses, the rich and the poor, shows that there is a perceived unification of the two classes that in reality does not exist. Some people, the rich who “would fain work,” can afford leisure time and have an abundance of it. For others, “leisure was a curse” because they must work constantly to earn their living, and any rest they take could mean that they or their families starve. This is partially illustrated through the description of the gloom as “terrible,” because this can be interpreted to mean that its coverage is deceiving. This line therefore brings to light the intense contrast between the lives of the two social classes living so close to one another. It also throws into light the dystopia that this class division creates.  

Similar themes can be found in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. The main character, Edmond Dantes, starts out as a peasant earning just enough to get by, and when he is promoted, he is betrayed by his friend because of a moment of leisure, when they discuss this event that should be celebrated. Instead, he is thrown into jail to rot for life as a result of this moment of leisure, so one could argue that this leisure turned out to be a curse for him. Later, he escapes from prison and becomes very wealthy, and uses his wealth to punish those who betrayed him. This is a similar contrast to the one found in Mary Barton, where Henry Carson and his family are cursed for having too much leisure and not allowing their employees to have any. 

Both texts, therefore, share the idea that leisure is a privilege that is only reserved to the most fortunate, and those who are less fortunate are punished when they try to take advantage of this same privilege. By illustrating this position, Gaskell uses what she has seen in her life to try to convey the struggles of the working class in a way that people can understand. This is also an example of the “venting” about class struggle mentioned in Richard Altick’s ‘Victorian People and Ideas,’ which he argues is the reason that “Victorian England escaped class struggle” (Altick 72). Whether Altick’s claim is true and supported by evidence or not, messages of this type were common in Victorian novels because of the pressing issues of the time. 

The passage contributes to the novel as a whole by setting up the context for the later class struggle that leads to the murder of Harry Carson. By showing the stark contrast between the lives of the working class and the rich, especially by saying that to the working class “leisure was a curse,” this helps to explain the working class people’s motivation to form a union, and later to take drastic measures to try to achieve their goals. Leisure is a common human desire, so this helps to foreshadow and explain later events in the novel. The juxtaposition of the two types of homes is therefore meant to contribute to the overall spirit of justice in the novel. 


2 thoughts on “The Portrayal of Leisure in Mary Barton”

  1. Hello, Double A. Very nice analysis and comparison with The Conde of Monte Cristo. The stark difference between social classes in Victorian England is something that Gaskell tries to reinforce many times during the novel, especially in the beginning, before the murder takes place. In the chapter “Poverty and Death”, we can see utter contrast between the Carson’s and Davenport’s dwellings. The Carsons have plenty of free time and Amy is worried about having roses for her room. On the other hand, the Davenports have nothing to eat, the husband is dying and Mrs. Davenport can’t even feed her baby.

  2. Hi DoubleA! I think it’s important that you brought into conversation the topic of leisure, particularly its disparity between Victorian classes. While I see your point about how this line shows a false unification between classes, I think we can read the Carson’s home (which threw the gloom) as representative of a well-to-do class and separate from the other classes of people left in the metaphorical dark. This point seems to be better supported by your analysis and latter conclusion about class difference. I want to add to the line “leisure as a curse” by noting the implicit. That is to say that, if relaxation is bad for the working class, then the text suggests many have a desire to work. I wonder what kinds of narratives Gaskell might be responding to when she makes this claim?

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