The Portrayal of Leisure in Mary Barton

The line I chose to examine in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton is “There were homes over which Carson’s fire threw a deep, terrible gloom; the homes of those who would fain work, and no man gave unto them—the homes of those to whom leisure was a curse” (Gaskell 58). This passage is written in the context of the fire at Carson’s mill. The imagery of the ‘gloom’ covering both types of people’s houses, the rich and the poor, shows that there is a perceived unification of the two classes that in reality does not exist. Some people, the rich who “would fain work,” can afford leisure time and have an abundance of it. For others, “leisure was a curse” because they must work constantly to earn their living, and any rest they take could mean that they or their families starve. This is partially illustrated through the description of the gloom as “terrible,” because this can be interpreted to mean that its coverage is deceiving. This line therefore brings to light the intense contrast between the lives of the two social classes living so close to one another. It also throws into light the dystopia that this class division creates.  

Similar themes can be found in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. The main character, Edmond Dantes, starts out as a peasant earning just enough to get by, and when he is promoted, he is betrayed by his friend because of a moment of leisure, when they discuss this event that should be celebrated. Instead, he is thrown into jail to rot for life as a result of this moment of leisure, so one could argue that this leisure turned out to be a curse for him. Later, he escapes from prison and becomes very wealthy, and uses his wealth to punish those who betrayed him. This is a similar contrast to the one found in Mary Barton, where Henry Carson and his family are cursed for having too much leisure and not allowing their employees to have any. 

Both texts, therefore, share the idea that leisure is a privilege that is only reserved to the most fortunate, and those who are less fortunate are punished when they try to take advantage of this same privilege. By illustrating this position, Gaskell uses what she has seen in her life to try to convey the struggles of the working class in a way that people can understand. This is also an example of the “venting” about class struggle mentioned in Richard Altick’s ‘Victorian People and Ideas,’ which he argues is the reason that “Victorian England escaped class struggle” (Altick 72). Whether Altick’s claim is true and supported by evidence or not, messages of this type were common in Victorian novels because of the pressing issues of the time. 

The passage contributes to the novel as a whole by setting up the context for the later class struggle that leads to the murder of Harry Carson. By showing the stark contrast between the lives of the working class and the rich, especially by saying that to the working class “leisure was a curse,” this helps to explain the working class people’s motivation to form a union, and later to take drastic measures to try to achieve their goals. Leisure is a common human desire, so this helps to foreshadow and explain later events in the novel. The juxtaposition of the two types of homes is therefore meant to contribute to the overall spirit of justice in the novel. 


The Wealthy and Their Departed

In “Poverty and Death”, Mary Barton attends the funeral of Ben Davenport. The passage describes a distinction between the treatment of the poor and the rich that exists after death. In the case of funerals, the rich construct huge tombstones and hold loud, decorated funerals, while the poor share their sorrow in silence and in black. Further in the passage, the funeral is detailed as “a simple walking funeral, with nothing to grate on the feelings of any; far more in accordance with its purpose, to my mind, than the gorgeous hearses, and nodding plumes, which form the grotesque funeral pomp of respectable people.” (73). The decorated funerals serve the purpose of competition as the phrase “..with nothing to grate on the feelings of any…” indicates funerals for the wealthy aim for people to feel guilty for the lack of an extravagant funeral. She claims that the “simple walking funeral” is more respectable because it is “far more in accordance with its purpose”, which is to give honor, respect, and remembrance to the life and legacy of someone who has passed on. Additionally, in describing these tombstones for the rich as “a wooden mockery of stone respectabilities”, once again, the passage depicts the manner in which the rich honor those passed on as more so embarrassing rather than commendable or “respectable” (73). The paupers are left with dead bodies “piled until within a foot or two of the surface”, shallow graves for those deemed less important to society yet, according to the passage, treat each other with greater respect in their burial than the wealthy (73). The comparison in the sentence regarding the “walking funeral” in contrast to the “gorgeous hearses” carries a sarcastic tone, insinuating that the wealthy are so removed from the true purpose of a funeral that they do not show or have respect for their own people enough to have a respectable funeral, they are decorated and pompous and lack genuine compassion. In this way, the passage highlights the sentiment of the impoverished that they are more respectable and honorable than the rich who partake in grandiose and unvirtuous displays of funerals and burials. 

The sentiments highlighted in this passage are one explanation for a portion of the frustration of many Chartists, like John Barton. These individuals in the novel vent their anger toward the wealthier factory owners who treat their workers unfairly yet fail to treat their employees with basic compassion. Just before the death of Ben Davenport, Wilson rushes to the Carsons looking to request permission into the Infirmary. To Wilson’s surprise, John Carson does not “pretend to know the names of the men [he] employ[s]” and Harry, who seems to only be half-listening to the conversation, digs around in his pocket for change and gives it to Wilson “for the ‘poor fellow’” condescendingly (70). The reaction of both Carsons explicitly shows the lack of compassion the wealthy share contrasted with the nursing aid of the poor to their own ill neighbors.

Wherefore And When Do Gods Walk Amongst Men?

“Won’t you?” (with a taunting laugh), “then I’ll make you.” The young man raised his slight cane, and smote the artisan across the face with a stinging stroke. An instant later, he lay stretched in the muddy road, Jem standing over him, panting with rage” (Gaskell 167-168).

 Questions of power and how it is transmitted are central to the study of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, Mary Barton. In a moment of furious confrontation between two of Mary’s presumed lovers, Jem Wilson refuses to move from Mr. Henry Carson’s path until he promises to protect Mary from harm. Instead of yielding to the request, “the young man raised his slight cane, and smote the artisan across the face with a stinging stroke” (Gaskell 168). Ending the phrase with the alliterative “s” sound emphasizes the swiftness of action, but one word in this phrase draws more attention than others. In using the word “smote,” Mr. Carson is immediately transfigured into a God figure, more like those who rain fury upon the Earth when mortals see fit to challenge him than those of flesh and blood in his own town.  

This scene is a precise microcosm of the power that Mr. Carson wields not only in the street as a wealthy man, but as a factory owner across Manchester. This scene of “disobedience” between a master and subject could easily have been placed in the context of the beginnings of a worker’s strike. One man may go to the untouchable master, his status made so by his money, to plead for better working conditions, or perhaps a better salary. However, because of the discrepancy in status and the master’s miserly desire for power, these demands are seldom met, and moreover, often collectively punished. It is common for vindictive, mortal God to strike the poor man, and many accept this as the world’s order.  Because God never suffers the consequences of His actions, He perceives His power as limitless, undeniable, and irrevocable. So, for a moment, God stands above Jem Wilson, victorious. 

However, when considering the transference of power in this scene, one must also pay attention to the titles that the characters are given. Though formally introduced as Jem and Mr. Carson in the beginning of the text, their titles evolve into “the artisan” or “the mechanic” and “the young man” (Gaskell 167-168). As an artisan and mechanic, Jem Wilson is learned. He has a specialized craft for employment, a working knowledge of the industrial city, and specific social competencies to navigate a world plagued by want. He is a master of the fine arts and the sciences in a way that even Mr. Carson, only a young man with a fancy expensive education, could never. In his epithet, God has is diminished, infantilized to a state of naïveté and greed and characterized as one might chide a misbehaving child.  

This observation becomes especially important as one considers the implications of the final line in which, seemingly without effort and without being seen, Jem overtakes his opponent and stares him down in the muddy street (Gaskell 168). The distinct difference in the eloquence of the lines is striking: in order to hit Jem, Carson is aided by stinging alliteration his wealth and education can afford him, while Jem simply uses his own force of will which no words are swift enough to describe. In pitting these two characters against one another, there is an underlying question about the true source of social and work force power and furthermore who truly wields it. Is Carson’s showy vanity the power that controls England and its economy, or should we pause to consider the might of the working classes, particularly as Unions begin to form and demand industrial reform? The language in these few lines divulge secret but emerging forms of working class power in Industrial Victorian England where the faceless and skill-less God of antiquity is beginning to crumble. 

The Scandalous Sacrifice of Mr. Harry Carson

“So I naturally wished her to know what a sacrifice of prejudice, of – of myself, in short, I was willing to make for her sake; yet I don’t think she was aware of it after all. I believe I might have any lady in Manchester if I liked, and yet I was willing and ready to marry a poor dressmaker. Don’t you understand me now? And don’t you see what a sacrifice I was making to humour her?” (138).

In this dialogue passage, Mr. Carson is talking to Sally about his relationship with Mary Barton after she rejects him. The repetitions of “willing” and “sacrifice” not only stress the “hardship” he has gone through for Mary, but also make his courtship a favour for her rather than a part of a mutual relationship. Moreover, the phrases “sacrifice of prejudice” and “poor dressmaker” indicate that he is well aware of the differences in class and status between him and Mary, making it more seem like Mary owes him for liking and wanting to marry her. His awareness of his status is also shown when he says he could marry anyone in Manchester if he wants to, further establishing his ego and pride in his wealth. Additionally, the repetitions of “I” with active verbs and adjectives indicate his belief that it is him that put all the work and face all the “hardship” for the relationship. Thus, what I am really trying to say here is that I think these lines show Mr. Carson has great pride in his status, leading to him feeling entitled to Mary, who is poorer than him, and her affection.

Comparing Mr. Carson and Jem Wilson, we can see the differences in their reactions to Mary’s rejections. As the novel points out, while Jem accepts the rejection as final, Mr. Carson simply views it as Mary having a “caprice” (139-140). The novel attributes Jem’s acceptance as his genuine love and respect for Mary. However, I believe that wealth is also a factor in this acceptance. As I analyze earlier, Mr. Carson’s wealth makes him think that he is doing Mary a favour by loving her, thus, her rejection is something unthinkable. Meanwhile, Jem is in the same social class as Mary. He has no promise of wealth or stable life to offer her like Mr. Carson does. He also has his widow mother to take care of. Why would a beautiful lady like Mary agree to marry someone like him when she could do much better? Hence, in his mind, and possibly some other working-class men as well, rejection from a pretty lady, even when she is in the same class as them, is a final. This connection is shown more clearly when Mary talks to Will Wilson about Margaret. He states that since she is more well off than he is (as she is a singer), he wants to be second mate on a ship to have something to offer her when he asks for marriage (193).

Therefore, in the larger context of this novel and Victorian society (as well as our society overall), Mr. Carson’s dialogue shows how wealth influences decisions, perceptions, and marriage.

How can change be initiated?

The passage I chose is from the scene where Mr. Wilson visits the Carson household to seek aid for the Davenports.  While sitting in the kitchen as food is prepared around him, “Wilson began to yearn for food to break his fast, which had lasted since dinner the day before.  If the servants had known this, they would have willingly given him meat and bread in abundance; but they were like the rest of us, and, not feeling hunger themselves, forgot it was possible another might.  So Wilson’s craving turned to sickness…” (Gaskell, 67).  This excerpt, as well as the repeated use of diction related to desire such as “yearn,” “hunger,” and “craving,” illuminates how the lower class’ income is so poor that it leads to sparsity of basic necessities.  The absence of substantial meals is so severe that the hunger it results in for poorer people is a “sickness.”  Wilson’s silence and the servants’ ignorance means it is also an unacknowledged problem.  The rich and those who have submitted to them, like the servants in the Carson household, have such easy access to food that they do not even think of hunger, much less that someone may suffer from it.  Gaskell hints that so long as the poor remain silent and respectful and the rich remain uneducated and ignorant, nothing will change and the lower class will remain destitute.  The only way to bring about a better life for people in poverty is to either speak up and make the situation heard, work directly in servitude to the rich as the Carson servants have, or remind the rich what it’s like to be hungry.  The reason Wilson remains hungry is also the reason why Mary Barton and Harry Carson are a doomed relationship from the start.  Mary’s community is struggling, and her and her father’s meals are scant.  Harry is thriving, eating enough food to forget about hunger along with his family and the servants in his household.  Mary doesn’t dare mention her problems to Harry, and so Harry remains ignorant, and they are stuck at the same impasse as Wilson in the Carson kitchen.  On the other hand, John Barton has no qualms making the poverty of the working class known to the rich.  However, he travels down a darker path in which he would be satisfied dragging the rich down to his level, reminding them how hunger can result in “sickness.”  In this way, he is also doomed, forgetting his original purpose to obtain rights in favor of a determination for vengeance that is eating away at him.  The real Chartists outside of the novel, by persisting in their goal to change the law and obtain rights for the working class through more peaceful methods, are more successful in initiating change than Wilson, Mary, or John.  Reform Acts were passed after their dissolution in the late 1800s.  They were neither silent nor malevolent, and so were more successful in their goals for change.  Based on Gaskell’s depictions of lower class characters interacting with higher classes, she would be approving of the Chartists efforts and triumphs.