North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell


Margaret Hale has been living happy and peacefully in a Southern small village: Helstone, when suddenly her father - a parishioner - announced that he has decided to leave the Church due to his "miserable doubts". As it was disgraceful in 19th century, he must leave Helstone, and consequently with the whole family, to live in a Northern industrial (cotton manufacturing) city called Milton.

Like the two poles of earth, the North is completely different from the South. It's noisy, busy, harsh, ugly. But live there they must. Margaret was then introduced to the never ending conflicts between masters and workers. And to a handsome mill-owner, self-made entrepreneur called John Thornton.

This was my first Gaskell, and I'm slightly surprised to find that her writing was straightforward and bold, very unlike the flowery Dickens - who was her mentor when she first became author. Frankly speaking I personally didn't find Gaskell's writing very distinguishable, but her topic is very engaging - and bold for her time.

For 25 years I have been working as a business assistant in two different trading companies selling industrial parts to factories. So I am quite familiar with Gaskell's industrial topic: masters vs workers. In my opinion, the never ending conflicts will always be there, and will never end. What about Gaskell's ideal relationship of Mr. Thornton and Higgins, then? Wouldn't it possible to apply such mutual understanding atmosphere in real factories? My answer is: it's just a dream! I don't know how it goes in other countries, what I offer here is my personal insight from my own experience in Indonesia. There might be some factory owners like Thornton, who really care for their workers, and not merely about profit; who see the workers as assets, not machines. But seriously, if I were a master myself, and must continually be annoyed by strikes demanding unreasonable higher wages, I would do what Thornton or others did in this novel: punish the perpetrators and replace them with better ones. Or, just move the factory away.

But how about the workers' perpetual poverty? Don't the masters have consciences? More often than not (again, from what I see), it's the workers’ own foolishness. They keep demanding high wages, but work lazily. They spend more than their income, so they apply for credit to the masters. If the masters refused (because by and by they'll take it for granted), they'll say that the masters are bad, they don't care for them, and so on. Mr. Thornton makes a good example by approaching the workers and treating them kindly (eating lunch with them, for example). The reality is, no sooner than the masters allow himself to be placed almost equal with the workers, why, the workers won't pay any respect to them. They will get lazier and more demanding. No, I don't buy Gaskell's suggestion in this novel. Clearly she didn't understand industrial business. I understand that she wrote this to promote humanity, but then, the mill owners were businessmen, they just do what others do: to make a living. If the workers cannot cooperate, the company could not running well for both sides.

Apart from the industrial controversy, North and South is also about the struggle of its characters to face what life has in store for them. There's a bit of a Darwinian touch in it. Of the Hales, only Margaret was able to adapt to her new life, to make peace with the past (mistakes), and to welcome the future. And that's why she eventually meets a brighter one. Her mother is the opposite; she could never accept reality, kept going to the golden days of her past. The bitterness finally eroded her life. The same happened to Mr. Hale.

Speaking of Mr. Hale, I still don't get what his "miserable doubt" really was. Does it mean that he did sermons and other services for years, then one day did not really believe on what he's been preaching? He said it isn't religion, but then what? Of all characters, I hate him most, for being weak (vague), coward, and selfish.

Second of all, I hate Mrs. Hale too for being whiny, self-centered, irresponsible. How could she demand Frederick - the fugitive son - to come home while the risk was that big for the family? Being dying doesn't mean you can ask anything without thinking about the safety of others! And that was a foolish decision too from Margaret to grant it - unfortunately not the last either! She seems to always say or do things she shouldn't, and never do what she should.

John Thornton is my most favorite. He reminded me of my own boss - a self-made businessman, tough, fair, no nonsense, respectable, kind hearted but not sentimental. If his worker went to do riot against him like Boucher did in this novel, I'll gladly recommend him to be sacked!

All in all, I loved North and South. It offers a different but relevant and interesting topic compared to general Victorian novels. Not one of my most favorites perhaps, but it's been heart-warming and delicious. I'd certainly read more from Mrs. Gaskell!

Score: 4 / 5


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