Mary Barton, Bummer!

“This mourning, too, will cost a pretty penny,” said Mary. “ I often wonder why folks wear mourning ; it’s not pretty or becoming ; and it costs a deal of money just when people can spare it least ; and if what the Bible tells us be true, we ought not to be sorry when a friend, who’s been good , goes to his rest ; and as for a bad man, one’s glad enough to get shut on him. I cannot see what good comes out o’ wearing mourning.” (Gaskell 47)


In this passage, Mary’s critique of the practice of wearing mourning clothes is instigated by her ingrained awareness of the funds needed to purchase the new apparel, simply to fulfill societal tradition. Gaskell repeats the word “cost” throughout her thought process, implying how strongly money factors into Mary’s lack of appreciation for dressing in mourning. Her analysis of mourning begins with just the cost, but delves deeper, referencing the Bible and more emotional aspects of a loved one’s death. However, her thoughts quickly cycle back to lack of understanding of what “good” wearing mourning can accomplish, demonstrating that Mary’s thoughts simply cannot be detached from the omnipresent need for money. Gaskell makes Mary’s social status apparent in this speech, as it is governed by money (or really lack thereof). She associates death with lack of funds, likely because many deaths in her community were of the breadwinners (men) of households or due to malnourishment (which was due to poverty). Outside the microcosm of Mary’s community, mourning carries weight as a British tradition and demonstration of respect for the deceased. Starting with royalty, social traditions trickled down through the social classes, despite the stratification between them. However, for the upper classes (Queen Victoria’s long period of mourning following Prince Albert’s death comes to mind), the decision to wear mourning is a matter of choice, whereas for the poor, Mary’s speech demonstrates that it’s a matter of sacrifice, when one has already lost so much.


Furthermore, the mourning cost discussion is brought forward through Mary’s monologue, rather than just a passage from the narrator. Gaskell frames this concept within her character’s speech to cement it within the plot, rather than going on a personal tangent, which would lose traction with the reader. Mary’s frank speech about the unnecessary cost of mourning is indicative of the transparency of the entire novel. Gaskell does not try to cloak any criticism of society within metaphor or any other figurative language, because much like the frivolity of mourning, the poor can’t afford to hide behind the curtain of figurative language. Mary’s speech plainly represents an argument from Gaskell about the exacerbation of poverty through an attempt of social tradition but is more subtle because it’s woven into the plot by delivery through a character. Gaskell does not mask her economic and social opinions and push for reform in Mary Barton by using typical techniques like symbolism or metaphor. It is unnecessary to “read between the lines”. However, Gaskell’s choice of vehicle is a form of mask itself. Just as she impresses new concepts–such as the unnecessary cost of mourning–through Mary’s voice, Gaskell delivers her opinions through an entertaining novel that includes romance and near-death experiences. This novel was written to generate action within the lower class and hopefully empathy from the middle and upper classes, and Gaskell can achieve this by reaching a larger audience through the diverting nature of the plot while also delivering concrete opinions and transparent intentions about the need for equity in England.

One thought on “Mary Barton, Bummer!”

  1. Hi moonjuice! I find the multifaceted nature of your analysis to be extremely helpful in terms of examining the literal and figurative meanings of “wearing mourning” in this context. While the act of “wearing mourning” [clothing] is indication of a person’s socioeconomic standing (as it was out of reach for most poor workers), I also think that the act of “wearing mourning” physiologically (exhaustion, disease, etc.) is detestable to Mary Barton because it is indicative of the working class’s weakness or susceptibility to wear and tear.

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