Character Depth in Mary Barton

“‘Oh! Jem, I charge you with the care of her! I suppose it would be murder to kill her, but it would be better for her to die than to live to lead such a life as I do. Do you hear me, Jem?’

‘Yes! I hear you. It would be better. Better we were all dead.’ This was said as if thinking aloud; but he immediately changed his tone, and continued,

‘Esther, you may trust to my doing all I can for Mary. That I have determined on. And now listen to me! you loathe the life you lead, else you would not speak of it as you do. Come home with me. Come to my mother. She and my aunt Alice live together. I will see that they give you a welcome. And to-morrow I will see if some honest way of living cannot be found for you. Come home with me.’

She was silent for a minute, and he hoped he had gained his point. Then she said,

‘God bless you, Jem, for the words you have just spoken. Some years ago you might have saved me, as I hope and trust you will yet save Mary. But it is too late now;—too late,’ she added, with accents of deep despair.

Still he did not relax his hold. ‘Come home,’ he said.”

Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell, page 163

Mary Barton is a very topical novel. Every chapter, every conflict, and every character ties back the exploitation of the working class in 19th century England. For some characters, this includes exploration of direct political ramifications and activism. In others, constant personal loss exemplifies the darkness surrounding these characters’ lives. The narration wavers between these two modes, sometimes explicitly pondering the methods and reasons behind their suffering (Gaskell 84-85). Famine, disability, and ultimately death are all facets that Gaskell does not shy away from. However, in addition to the direct championing of awareness and sympathy to the working-class struggle, Gaskell also never neglects the emotional and spiritual consequences on the characters.

Small moments reveal the depth of this toll. A prime example of this is a conversation between Jem and Esther on page 163 shown above. Ostensibly, the passage shows Esther’s desire to save Mary, while Jem also encourages Esther to come “home” with him.  Throughout this passage, key repetition devastatingly reflects the everyday emotional states of these characters. For example, the idea of life, death, religion, and determinism are spread throughout this passage. Esther starts this paragraph by exclaiming, and then “charging” Jem with a task. The use of the word “charge” carries a much heavier connotation that synonyms like “ask” or “request,” and invokes an idea of duty. However, Esther displays her deep commitment to Mary’s salvation and her own equal sense of self-loathing in other ways. Esther also invokes God, before expressing the idea that she fundamentally cannot be saved. Conversely, Jem’s own repetitions also show the full seriousness of what Esther has given up on. Three times Jem utters the phrase “Come home.” Home is not only a place of living, but also has at least some sort of community and safety. Jem’s repetition and Esther rejects him every time says volumes about the toll of her life, and how the circumstances of her poverty has destroyed her from feeling worth the blessing of home.

However, Jem also displays the individual impact of this extended exploitation. Jem’s own reactions on Esther’s charges reveal a great deal about him, as both a character and representative of the male working class to Esther’s female. The narrative thus far has presented Jem as a solid, decent person, which remains true. Nevertheless, Jem’s response reveals something quite dark. Instead of being perturbed that Esther talks of murder and death ideation, Jem actually agrees with it, and offhandedly mentions that “it would be better if we were all dead.” Then, as the narration notes, he returns to the task at hand of convincing Esther to come home. Still, as it is his first reaction and he says it “as if thinking aloud,” the effect does not lessen.

Both Jem and Esther are in unique positions within this conversation as male and female members of the working class, yet could likely stand in for many who could see no way out of their economic situation. In the end, Esther and Jem’s positive qualities are not enough to save them from the fundamental misery of a life of exploitation and degradation. Thus, an important facet of Gaskell’s work is revealed. Although Gaskell’s work might not be awash with symbolism and metaphors and other literary devices, realized characters is not one she forgets. To fully and deeply portray the plight of suffering people, it is important to portray them as actual people with actual emotions. In the case of Esther and Jem’s conversation, Gaskell illustrates the individual impact on two characters, highlighting her broader point in conjunction with more specific arguments.

Madame Defarge and the Flies: Knitting it Together

In the chapter “Still Knitting,” the image of flies occurs for the second time. Just in case you had forgotten this, though, Dickens reminds the reader, “Curious to consider how heartless flies are!– Perhaps they thought as much at the Court that summer day” (173). The summer day Dickens is referring to occurred in Chapter 3 of the second book, “A Disappointment,” in which there were blue-flies present during Charles Darnay’s trial for treason. The people watching the trial are compared to the flies, who are “carnivorous” (75). The flies, then, reflect how the people have become eager for the blood of others to be spilled.

As Madame Defarge sits knitting in the wine shop, a hoard of flies nearby one by one fall into some wine and die. This reoccurrence of the flies in a way characterizes them to a similar end, as they are definitively once again being compared to people. This time, however, we are in France instead of England. The lesson however is roughly the same. The flies this time are characterized as a bit more blasé, but still they are curious observers, in pursuit of wine but ignorant to the destruction that wine is bringing to the other flies as they fall into it. Dickens writes, “Their decease made no impression on the other flies out promenading, who looked at them in the coolest manner (as if they themselves were elephants, or something far removed)” (173). The flies’ previous symbolism, in combination with the symbolism that wine has also previously carried in “The Wine Shop,” makes it clear that this passage is blatantly foreshadowing the futures of the people of France, who currently applaud the executions of others, but will one day face the same fate.

Besides the message inscribed symbolically within the text, this passage finds success in the language it uses to paint the scene, and also peeks curiosity with the inclusion of Madame Defarge tied into it. The passage includes lots of language that expresses ambivalence or indifference, as was described previously. The flies are “heedless” and have “the coolest manner” (173). Madame Defarge however, as she watches over the flies, has a “pre-occupied air” (172). While the passage very clearly foreshadows that anyone who thinks themselves above the death they welcome upon others risks facing their own demise, this warning is not at first applied to any of the novels characters specifically. However, although Dickens offers plenty of symbolism that reflects people’s behavior in Revolution, by looking at the positioning of these moments, it is possible to discern more plot based characterization of the implications of these moments. Madame Defarge is herself, with her air of ambivalence, positioned at the top of the paragraph that contains a description of flies, that clearly symbolize people, who in their ambivalence, are doomed to die. It seems only fair then, to wonder if it is not just people in general whose ambivalence towards the fates of others will be their destruction, but if this lesson applies to Madame Defarge specifically.