Stress and Despair in Mary Barton

“It was scarcely ten minutes since he had entered the house, and found Mary at comparative peace, and now she lay half across the dresser, head hidden in her hands, and every part of her body shaking with the violence of her sobs. She could not have told at first (if you had asked her, and she had commanded voice enough to answer) why she was in such agonised grief. It was too sudden for her to analyse, or think upon it. She only felt, that by her own doing her life would be hereafter blank and dreary. By-and-by her sorrow exhausted her body by its own power, and she seemed to have no strength left for crying.”

Mary Barton, page 131

This moment occurs just after Mary has turned Jem’s offer of marriage down, and he has left the house in a rush. Mary is left to her own devices as she realizes the weight of her words and has a breakdown. The scene is incredibly tense. The tone created by Jem’s anger shifts to Mary’s despair, leaving a hollow feeling. There are few directly duplicate words in this section- most of them are similar to each other, and they deal with the strain of emotion on the physical body. “Shaking”, “agonized”, “blank”, “grief”, and “crying”, all point towards the aftermath of an emotionally fraught situation. There’s this sense of weariness, of heaviness, that has been weighing on Mary since she started seeing Henry, and now it finally drags her down, both physically and emotionally.

There’s only one mention of a word that stands in stark contrast to Mary’s despair, and that is “peace”. But even then, it is written as “comparative peace”, which is fair. The emotional burdens Mary has been carrying for some time- her father’s luckless attempts for political change, her own wish to avoid Jem while secretly courting Henry, and even stress from events that have long since passed such as deaths of family friends- have finally spilled over, much in the same manner as she lies across the dresser.

There becomes a split between what Mary wants now and what she thought she wanted. On one hand, it is about her heart and her emotions, who she really loves, and on the other, it is about her hope and her logic- she hopes she can marry Henry Carson for a chance at a better life for herself, even if it means tricking herself about what she really feels. It also points to class struggle of the era- the chances of Mary genuinely being able to climb the social ladder were slim in the first place, but now they are gone completely. Not only that, but Mary has made the decision for herself- it was not entirely an outside force that caused this. Perhaps it is more about her dream, the possibility that came with it and the loss of opportunity.

3 thoughts on “Stress and Despair in Mary Barton”

  1. I loved reading your post, severalpandas. Also, on page 131, Mary thinks how Mr. Carson “… would place her in all circumstances of ease and luxury, where want could never come”. I think this sentence is really interesting because it contains three important words that define the social classes conflict through the book: “ease and luxury” (for the upper classes) versus “want” (for the lower classes). By marrying Mr. Carso, Mary would be making a more practical decision, of not having any more “want”. She then concludes than having all “ease and luxury” wouldn’t matter if she had no love.

  2. I also liked how you focused this trait of Mary Barton. It brings to mind our discussion on Tuesday and other moments throughout the book with similar descriptions. As discussed in class, Mary is a fairly passive character throughout the book’s first half. But as shown, the emotional weight of the events Mary endures is never pushed to the background in the same way her actions can be. We see this early on with the death of Mary’s mother, specifically on page 22, as well as when she becomes ill from her anguish from the trial on page 346.

  3. I also have something I want to say about your post! I wonder if Margaret is more successful in her journey to climb the social ladder than Mary because her way of doing it is more independent. Because Mary is relying on Carson to give her a better life, she has to deal with the emotional distress and heartbreak of turning down Jem. In the scene you picked out, Mary is dealing with not just that but also the realization of what she has to give up for even the smallest chance at a richer life (being with who she loves). Esther’s method of marrying into wealth also backfires on her. On the flip side, Margaret seeks to make money off of her own talents without relying on marriage. She doesn’t deal with the conflict Mary does between what her heart wants and what she thinks she wants, because she is singing is not just a way to make money, but something she genuinely enjoys doing. She also earns her money with fewer conflicts than Mary (her blindness does not hinder her singing ability). I think when comparing this scene to Margaret’s journey, it is revealed that Gaskell believes in hard work and making money in a more independent way, which makes sense for an author.

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