The Negative Nancy of Mary Barton

In the third paragraph on page 168 of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton, negative words are used five times, one of which was the word “never” (Gaskell, 168). These negatives are all spoken by Mr. Harry Carson and shows that he has an air of authority. He is speaking down on Jem, literally and figuratively. At the same time, he is telling a police officer, a person who is supposed to have more power than Carson, what to do. This authority leads Mr. Carson to believe that he has the ability to do as he wants. 

This interaction occurs when Jem decides that he wants to speak with Mr. Carson. The interaction goes poorly and ends with Carson hitting Jem with his cane and Jem laying in the mud with Carson physically standing over him. Carson has now forced Jem to be under him in multiple ways. Jem is a poor worker who comes from nothing. Harry Carson on the other hand comes from wealth and power. His father is the employer of George Wilson, Jem’s father, and has given Harry Carson a comfortable life. Jem is looked down upon by the rich, and Carson forces Jem to have to look up to him rather than seeing each other equally. Carson then tells Jem that he “will never forgive or forget insult” (Gaskell, 168). The insult that he is referring to was Jem speaking to Mr. Carson as if they were equals. Carson uses their class divide to separate the two men and as a defense for his attack.

Mr. Carson’s authoritative behavior does not stop there. He emphasizes the class divide between him and Jem verbally as well. Mr. Harry Carson is a part of the upper class and believes that his father’s employees should settle with the minimal pay that they receive or lose their jobs (Gaskell, 172). Carson once again has a negative viewpoint on that matter. To him, the poor should not gain more money but rather be content in their miserable lives. His higher place in the social class of Victorian England leaves him with a negative view of the lower class and with that belief of them being below him in many regards.

3 thoughts on “The Negative Nancy of Mary Barton”

  1. I enjoyed your post. I want to speculate as to where Mary fits in this. Carson refuses to see Jem as an equal because of his class and prefers to wield authority over him and others. However, Mary is also a part of the lower class, so it begs the question, how does Carson truly view her? There is some insight into this in the scene where Mary rejects him. Carson doesn’t believe someone from her class would turn someone from his own. He has such a negative view of the lower class that he believes those in it would do anything to escape it, and cannot fathom one turning down an opportunity to do so. To Carson, he is better than her, and is gracious enough to give her a chance to be on his level (once again putting him in a position of authority). And so, just as he has no respect for Jem, he never truly respected Mary.

  2. This post reminds me of a post entitled “Character Depth in Mary Barton”. You both express the idea that important concepts about class struggles are emphasized through dialogue between characters, a technique Gaskell uses to ground her intent within her plot. The stratification between Harry and Jem is emphasized in differing tones of their discussion, much as the effect of poverty shows itself in the hopeless words of Jem and Esther. Both explicit speech and the more implicit feelings contribute to the same awareness of social division.

  3. This is an interesting reading of the dynamic between Jem and Harry. Carson’s behavior demonstrates his background in wealth and its apparent that he takes after his father’s opinions of the poor. Another commentator asked this, but how does this change with Mary? Does he simplify her to the status of a poor girl? Additionally, how does his opinion become affected when his father changes his mind after speaking with Jem and Job about working conditions for their employees? If John Carson is able to come around and start treating his workers fairly, how does Harry Carson’s perception of Mary change? How is she an exception to Harry’s sentiments toward the poor? When we learn from John Barton at the end of the novel that Harry was actually loved by many, does that information lead readers to sympathize with him?

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