Wherefore And When Do Gods Walk Amongst Men?

“Won’t you?” (with a taunting laugh), “then I’ll make you.” The young man raised his slight cane, and smote the artisan across the face with a stinging stroke. An instant later, he lay stretched in the muddy road, Jem standing over him, panting with rage” (Gaskell 167-168).

 Questions of power and how it is transmitted are central to the study of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, Mary Barton. In a moment of furious confrontation between two of Mary’s presumed lovers, Jem Wilson refuses to move from Mr. Henry Carson’s path until he promises to protect Mary from harm. Instead of yielding to the request, “the young man raised his slight cane, and smote the artisan across the face with a stinging stroke” (Gaskell 168). Ending the phrase with the alliterative “s” sound emphasizes the swiftness of action, but one word in this phrase draws more attention than others. In using the word “smote,” Mr. Carson is immediately transfigured into a God figure, more like those who rain fury upon the Earth when mortals see fit to challenge him than those of flesh and blood in his own town.  

This scene is a precise microcosm of the power that Mr. Carson wields not only in the street as a wealthy man, but as a factory owner across Manchester. This scene of “disobedience” between a master and subject could easily have been placed in the context of the beginnings of a worker’s strike. One man may go to the untouchable master, his status made so by his money, to plead for better working conditions, or perhaps a better salary. However, because of the discrepancy in status and the master’s miserly desire for power, these demands are seldom met, and moreover, often collectively punished. It is common for vindictive, mortal God to strike the poor man, and many accept this as the world’s order.  Because God never suffers the consequences of His actions, He perceives His power as limitless, undeniable, and irrevocable. So, for a moment, God stands above Jem Wilson, victorious. 

However, when considering the transference of power in this scene, one must also pay attention to the titles that the characters are given. Though formally introduced as Jem and Mr. Carson in the beginning of the text, their titles evolve into “the artisan” or “the mechanic” and “the young man” (Gaskell 167-168). As an artisan and mechanic, Jem Wilson is learned. He has a specialized craft for employment, a working knowledge of the industrial city, and specific social competencies to navigate a world plagued by want. He is a master of the fine arts and the sciences in a way that even Mr. Carson, only a young man with a fancy expensive education, could never. In his epithet, God has is diminished, infantilized to a state of naïveté and greed and characterized as one might chide a misbehaving child.  

This observation becomes especially important as one considers the implications of the final line in which, seemingly without effort and without being seen, Jem overtakes his opponent and stares him down in the muddy street (Gaskell 168). The distinct difference in the eloquence of the lines is striking: in order to hit Jem, Carson is aided by stinging alliteration his wealth and education can afford him, while Jem simply uses his own force of will which no words are swift enough to describe. In pitting these two characters against one another, there is an underlying question about the true source of social and work force power and furthermore who truly wields it. Is Carson’s showy vanity the power that controls England and its economy, or should we pause to consider the might of the working classes, particularly as Unions begin to form and demand industrial reform? The language in these few lines divulge secret but emerging forms of working class power in Industrial Victorian England where the faceless and skill-less God of antiquity is beginning to crumble.