The Pitiable Trades Union

Although Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton  is typically read as empowering and honoring Manchester’s factory workers, it is not without its critiques, and it does not always paint the poor in a flattering light. 

The most blatant criticism the novel levies at the working men is over their response to the power-loom weavers coming in from out of town to break the strike. It characterizes this event as the beginning of  “the real wrongdoings of the Trades’ Union,” (173) suggesting that the throwing of vitriol on poor men is not the only wrong-doing of the trade union. 

Following this dark turn of events, the narrator’s attitude about the Union members seems to shift. Rather than presenting a proud group convinced of its righteousness, the representatives that meet with the masters in the following chapter are made to seem weak and ineffective.

Although the scene opens with a description of the delegates as “wild, earnest-looking men” (182) and an appeal to the values the unions places on brains and speech over appearance, the remainder of the scene lacks any flattery and the adjective earnest, which is usually reserved for the likes of John barton, is even used to describe the Master’s conversation, thus considerably decreasing it’s weight as a compliment. 

What really emphasizes the weakness of the trade union in this scene are the actions ascribed to them. Throughout the entire scene only two actions could really be described as strong or admirable: When they “ positively decline” (183) the masters counter offer, and when they leave the room “without a bow” (183). The rest of their actions are almost pitiable. Even when the lead delegate does speak it is done in a “high pitched voice, psalm singing voice” (182). 

The most frequent action undertaken by the delegates is to “withdraw.” They word is used three times in the scene. The first two are done at the request of the masters almost back to back. The resulting image is of these men just walking in, and out of the room repeatedly, getting nothing done. The third use comes from the masters who withdraw their offer, a much more powerful move. Then after that point the delegates being sent out of the room is no longer described by withdrawing, instead the narrator comments within parentheses that the delegates “had been once more turned out” (184). So, not only does the narrator’s language become less respectful but, with the phrase “once more,” it characterizes the previous withdrawals as, in fact turning outs, only adding to the pitiable image of the delegates.

One thought on “The Pitiable Trades Union”

  1. I think it’s fair to point how the ‘pitiable’ the Trades’ Union is in achieving their goals. Moreover, it might be worth also asking why that might be. As we noted in our class discussions, Gaskell has several remarks about her perceived notion on the breakdown of inter-class communication. During the interaction between the masters and the union, the narrator mentions how “[The masters] were… declaring all communication between the masters and that particular Trades’ Union at an end” (183). This theme of communication echos earlier passages like, “The most deplorable and enduring evil that arose out of the period of commercial depression to which I refer, was this feeling of alienation between the different classes of society” (85). If we accept that “Mary Barton” focuses, in part, on this theme of communication, then I think it’s fair to ask who holds the power during the meeting between the masters and union. Moreover, who might be responsible for this breakdown in communication, and what might Gaskell suggest be done (if anything)?

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