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Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life is the very first novel written by English author Elizabeth Gaskell which was published in 1848. The story takes place in the city of Manchester between 1839- 1842. It describes the difficulties faced by Victorian working-class families.

Mary Barton Summary

The story opens with two working-class families of Manchester, the Bartons and the Wilsons. John Barton’s wife dies and he now has to raise his daughter alone. Mary starts working as a dressmaker. Jem Wilson and Harry Carson both are attracted to Mary. Mary wishes to marry Carson to secure her future but later on learns that she loves Jem.

Carson and Jem both entangle into a fight. Carson is shot dead and Jem is arrested for this. Mary realizes that her father has shot Carson, not Jem. Mary travels to Liverpool to find out who can help her to save Jem without giving her father away.

Jem is announced as innocent and learns about the great love of Mary. Mary comes back to Manchester. Her father confesses his sin to John Carson, father of Harry Carson, and soon dies.

Jem decides to leave Manchester because it would be difficult to find a new job for his reputation. In the end, Jem and Mary get married and have a child and they live happily with Mrs. Wilson in Canada.

Mary Barton social commentary

Elizabeth Gaskell’s uses literary techniques to describe her analysis of working-class families. She uses diction, and characterization to describe her social commentary about a poor man. The poor people need the money that the wealthy already have but contrarily, the wealthy need the poor to be the physical labours.

They need one another without even realizing it. In the novel, Mary Barton is portrayed, using different aspects as it is taken apart and formed together again.

Mary Barton Characters

• Mary Barton –
Mary Barton is the protagonist, a very beautiful girl. Her mother has died early and she now lives with her father and works as a dressmaker.
• Mrs Mary Barton –
Mary’s mother, who dies early in the novel.
• John Barton –
John Barton is Mary’s father, a millworker, an active member in trade unions.
• Esther –
Sister of Mary Barton, she is a fallen woman and peripheral for most of the story.
• George Wilson –
George Wilson is John Barton’s best friend. He works at John Carson’s mill.
• Jane Wilson –
George Wilson’s wife. She is very short-tempered.
• Jem Wilson –
Son of George and Jane Wilson. He is an engineer and inventor who has loved Mary from his childhood.
• Alice Wilson –
George Wilson’s sister. She is a pious old washerwoman, herbalist and a sick-nurse.
• Will Wilson –
Will Wilson is Alice’s nephew whom she raised after the death of his parents. He is a sailor who falls in love with Margaret.
• John Carson –
John Carson is a wealthy owner of a mill in Manchester.
• Harry Carson –
Son of John Carson who is attracted to Mary.
• Margaret Jennings –
A neighbor of Alice who is blind, a singer sometimes, a friend to Mary.
• Job Leigh –
Job Leigh is Margaret’s grandfather, a self-taught naturalist.
• Ben Sturgis –
An old sailor looks after Mary during her stay in Liverpool.

Mary Barton Analysis

In the novel, Gaskell attempts to incorporate the realism of her representation. She includes the discussion of the working-class, not only through the use of idioms and dialect but also through the chartist poems. She even uses working-class ballads, proverbs, and nursery rhymes. The first part of the novel deals with the comparison between the rich and poor.

One element of the novel is a matter of criticism that is the evident transfer in genres between the political focus on the early chapters to the domestic on the later ones. It is a matter of argument whether the first-person narrator is synonymous with Gaskell or not.

On the one hand, the consistent use of tone through the original preface of the novel, Gaskell is directly describing the story. On the other hand, the narrator is too unsympathetic in all novels to be her own voice.

Gaskell highlights the importance of the mother in a family. It is seen from John Barton’s physical and moral situation after his wife’s death. The theme of motherhood is related to decreasing masculinity. Both Wilson and Barton are portrayed holding the infants that can’t be afforded as the novel begins. But eventually, they both end up relying on the earning of their children.

The second half of the book deals with the murder. Here it can be seen that retrieval is also a key aspect of the novel, in Gaskell’s representation of the character Esther, the typical “fallen woman”. The selfless nature of the character, have her confess her own mistakes with honesty.

Another aspect of the indifference of the characters is that they symbolize the impotence of the class to defend themselves politically. She publicly begs for reducing the class divisions through good communication and understanding between employers and workers through human behaviour based on Christian principles.

Gaskell frequently tries to hide her beliefs in the novel by disclaiming her knowledge of matters as economics and politics, but the strong language she gives to her characters is an indication of the author’s interest in class discrimination.

Gaskell portrays an Italian torture chamber where the victim is provided many luxuries at first but at the end they destroy him. Death plays an important and unavoidable role in the plot. It has been interpreted both practically and autobiographically as the cathartic relief of frustration of Gaskell’s son’s premature death.

Mary Barton Film

The BBC telecasts a four-episode series in 1964. It was directed by Michael Imison and it featured Lois Diane as Mary Barton, George A. Cooper as John Barton, Barry Warren as Jem Wilson and Patrick Mower as Harry Carson.

The author of Mary Barton quickly became famous because she wrote to give a voice to those who are not heard in order to reveal the common humanity.

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her first novel, Mary Barton because her husband suggested so that she can take her mind off of the death of her infant son William from fever.

Gaskell actually planned to title the novel as John Barton. Gaskell took inspiration from previously published industrial fiction and her vivid imagination. The publisher Chapman and Hall bought the manuscript and published the novel.

The plot is based on the murder of a wealthy mill owner. Gaskell’s sympathetic depiction of mill workers garnered much critical attention from the higher circles of English society.

Many factory owners felt that Gaskell had wrongly represented their class. Many others praised Gaskell’s pioneering efforts to expose the backlash against the Industrial Revolution. Some believed that the author had risked too little in appalling the worker’s condition.

Mary Barton Famous Quotes

• “If you dare to injure her in the least, I will await you where no policeman can step in between. And God shall judge between us two.”

• “There is always a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty.”

• “People admire the talent and talk about their
admiration. But they value common sense without talking about it,
and often without knowing it.”

Frequently asked questions

• When was Mary Barton written?
Mary Barton is the very first novel written by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1848.

• Who is the narrator of Mary Barton?
The narrator of Mary Barton takes the third person omniscient form.