Breaking through alienation’s drought

Mary Barton is a novel that exhales urgency. A large part of the British society in the 19th century contributes immensely for the wealth of just a few but receive practically nothing in return. The working classes lie, concomitantly, at the center of the country’s economy and in a void where the State cannot be found. Elizabeth Gaskell, through the genre of the realist novel, expects the reader of 19th century England to acknowledge their situation and to start questioning their own place in capitalism’s machinery.

The passage I chose, located in chapter 6 (Poverty and Death), is a great specimen of what a descriptive passage from a realist novel is. The words chosen by Gaskell make the reader feel the density of the unbearable situation that the working classes have to go through every day. This passage in particular describes in detail the dwelling of a family in the novel, the Davenports. Gaskell doesn’t use the word “dwelling” but “lair”. The Davenports are, therefore, animalized. The three or four children roll “…on the damp, nay wet brick floor” (60). The narrator doesn’t know the number of children: they seem to merge with the dirty floor, invisible in their pain and hunger, utterly ignored by the State.

Through the brick floor, “… the stagnant, filthy moisture of the street oozed up (60). There is no clear distinction between the street and the dwelling. Gaskell wants the reader to grasp the putrefaction of the Davenport’s house and how urgent their situation is. The stark and lengthy description of the present moment is preferred by Gaskell, instead of long digressions trying to find the reason why there is such a disparity between social classes in industrial England. The focus on the present is a call for action in a society largely dominated by alienated workers, hyper specialised in the line of production. They don’t see any meaning to what they are producing and all the work they are doing has no benefits. Gaskell wants the reader to feel the void, the abandonment, the darkness. The author, through this passage and many others, wants to plant a seed which can break through the dry soil of alienation and reach the first breezes of awareness.

3 thoughts on “Breaking through alienation’s drought”

  1. Hi Strawberrymochi, I really like your post. I think what you are saying is all really true. I wonder if we compare how Gaskell describes the Davenport’s home and how she describes the Carson’s home. In my opinion, she doesn’t give nearly as much description of the Carson’s home as she does the Davenport’s home. I’m not sure if that is because she assumed that only upper class citizens would be reading her novel and they already know what an upperclass house looks like, or if it is for another reason. I think that would be really interesting to look at.

  2. I like how you frame Gaskell’s descriptions of the Davenport’s house as a way to bring awareness to her upper-class readers about the conditions of the working class. As we discussed with the Harner article, these descriptions may not only bring awareness to but also sympathy and/or empathy out of the upper class. Seeing this animalistic description of a house of the working class, I can’t help but think about how Gaskell describes the Carson house. While the working-class houses are descriptive in term of how terrible they and the environment surrounding them are, the Carson house is descriptive in term of details and structures. This may be a way that Gaskell allows her upper-class readers to immerse into the novel without scaring them off.

  3. I like this post and the way you spoke about urgency. The urgency that Gaskell writes with was also present in my section of the book that I looked at from chapter 3. I think the theme is prevalent throughout the novel and it’s interesting to think about the ways urgency is shown in the characters and also in the way law and authority acts in the novel. For example, how they respond to John Barton when he is rushing to find help for his dying wife, or when they respond quickly to the murder of Harry Carson, who is higher in class than John Barton and his family. Overall, great post and interesting obvervations!

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