Ventriloquist Activism: Discourse Through Dialogue and Distance in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton

How is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton not more radical? At face value, the novel takes the form of a marriage plot. Although the characters are mostly poor, laboring peoples, the narrative follows the titular Mary Barton as she moves through an industrializing Britain during the early Victorian era. She loves, then she longs. She learns that she doesn’t love. She longs some more, and then she loves again. Some people die along the way, but surely a happy ending ensues. Yet these romances and spectacles only dominate one part of the narrative. In this paper, I argue that Mary Barton performs a balancing act between flashy spectacle and serious, political commentary about class relations. The narrative voice does this through alternating between transparent and opaque language, and in doing so, the novel consistently comments on class issues while repeatedly claiming otherwise. Take, for example, the following passage:

“[The condition of the poor] is so impossible to describe, or even faintly to picture, the state of distress which prevailed in the town at that time, that I will not attempt it; and yet I think again that surely, in a Christian land, it was not known even so feebly as words could tell it, or the more happy and fortunate would have thronged with their sympathy and their aid.” (85)

Within the above section, there is a pattern of absence. Although the narrator claims that the conditions of the working class were “so impossible to describe,” the narrative then goes at length to monotonously not describe the impossible scene. Three consecutive times in only two lines of text, the narrator insists upon this point. Rather than withhold information, the text goes on about this elusive scene, imprinting it upon the reader. Through this repeated protest to speak, the narrative actually does much to convey the opposite. This repetition widens the void left through this absence, and the lacking text leaves the reader with a more vivid image of the distress which the poor endured than general statistics could otherwise provide.

Interestingly, the narrative then follows what had not happened with speculation. Wealthier, “more happy and fortunate” classes “would have thronged with their sympathy and their aid” if only they had known how bad the situation had gotten. It is hard not to read this passage in the context of another character, John Barton, who has often spoke on behalf of Trade Unionists and other contemporary labor groups. Yet here, the text steps out from itself. What first begun as a proclamation about impoverished peoples changes tone completely, as if to distance the narrative from radical positions while still commenting and agreeing with radical sentiments.

Every section that depicts the poor and laboring class seems to lead to some radical conclusion about inequality. Yet the text suggests that class sufferings are wholistically distinct from the very institutions which separate the different classes of Victorian England. At the same time, the very separation of classes allows for terrible hardship without relief. To be clear, I do not argue that Elizabeth Gaskell is a Radical. The ways in which Gaskell portrays working conditions and hints of a strong sympathy towards labor groups, however, raises an important question. How is she not?


Works Cited

Barton, Mary. Elizabeth Gaskell, edited by Macdonald Daly, Penguin Books, 1996.

One thought on “Ventriloquist Activism: Discourse Through Dialogue and Distance in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton”

  1. I think it’s interesting that you point out that the narrator’s voice is conscientiously removed from the minds of the characters, and I think that is precisely what makes this book so radical. Having a narrative voice one step removed from the characters themselves keeps them in a complicit state because the narrator is attuned, at times, to the larger picture of issues that they are struggling against while they only perceive it as the natural order. Take, for example, a passage in which Job Legh discusses the motives for John Barton’s murder with Mr. Carson. Job’s perspective, whether it is meant to placate or not, officially states that he’s honestly unsure about how John Barton felt about labor and even that was too sensitive about it. However, throughout the book, the narrator has given us explicit commentary on the industrial situation in Britain, and the steps that he has conscientiously taken against them. Though not all the characters have the presence of mind to challenge oppressive structures, the narrator sometimes helps to fill in the gaps with their consciousness of the bigger picture.

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