The Evolution of Thornton’s Views on the Working Class in North and South North andSouth, an industrial novel by the English writer Elizabeth Gaskell, presents to usthe disparate perspectives of capitalist mill-owners and their factory workers,of ‘masters and men’, as they are calledin the novel. The plight of the working classes was a commonly discussed topicduring the Victorian era and has served as the subject of dozens of novels(such as Oliver Twist by CharlesDickens and Shirley by CharlotteBrontë) which later came to form the genre of industrial novel . In his articleNetworks and the Industrial NovelMichael D.
Lewis argues that the genre offers ”collective, political solutionsto suffering and injustice” and while the novels ”certainly don’t advocate anextension of the vote”, they ”plot models of democratic networks that join avariety of opponents, from employer and employees to governor and governed.” (Lewis,243) North and South offers a glimpseat some of the crucial issues in the relationship of industrial capitalists andthe working class, but also a possible solution to these problems, which ispresented to the readers through the evolutionof John Thornton’s views on the working class. JohnThornton, one of the principal characters of the novel North and South, starts out as a classic representative of 19thcentury economic liberalism. As a person who was born poor but has become rich,he believes everybody can, through hard work and self-reliance, rise to thevery top. After his father committed suicide because of debt he incurred throughspeculation, John had to leave school and provide for his family.
Slowly butsurely, he started accumulating wealth and is, at the beginning of the novel,known as an influental, wealthy, capitalist mill-owner in Milton, a smallindustrial town in the north of England. It is one of the great beauties of our system, that aworking-man may raise himself into the power and position of a master by hisown exertions and behaviour; that, in fact, every one who rules himself todecency and sobriety of conduct, and attention to his duties, comes over to ourranks. (Gaskell, 96)Thornton doesn’t seem to be completely ignorant of thehardships faced by factory workers,saying that ”there can be no doubt of tyranny masters excercised over theirwork-people” (Gaskell, 96), however, he refuses to acknowledge that theopportunities afforded to him might not be afforded to everyone.
Workmen feellargely oppressed and exploited by their masters who don’t even call them menbut ‘hands’. Mr. Thornton calls the relationship between these two classes a ‘battle’,believing it to be antagonistic in nature. This antagonism largely stems fromthe reluctance of both sides to communicate – seeing as both the masters andmen are unaware of each other’s viewpoints and motives, their resentment andindignation grows.
A good example of this in the novel would be the strike –the workers down their tools as their wages are cut because of the pressure ofcompetition coming from America. The reasons that laid behind the cuts are notexplained to the workers, so it’s only logical that they feel betrayed anddecide to strike. When Margaret asks Thornton why he can’t simply explain tothe workers that their wages are lowered because of bad trade, his reply is “Doyou give your servants reasons for your expenditure, or your economy in the useof your own money? We, the owners of capital, have a right to choose what wewill do with it…I will not be forced to give my reasons” (164) He comparesthe workmen to children in need of guidance, all the while denying that themasters have anything to do with making or keeping them that way. He maintainsthat they are ”the happiest under the unfalling laws of a discreet, firmauthority” (Gaskell, 140), hence ”despotism is the best kind of governmentfor them”. (gaskell, 141) Mr. Hale argues that the workmen are more liketeenagers, ”passing rapidly into the troublesome stage which intervenesbetween childhood and manhood” (Gaskell, 141), so masters should therefore takeup the roles of friends and advisors.
Essentially, what he is suggesting isthat, in dealing with this issue, applying the philosophy of social paternalism(which Thornton seems to strongly support) might not be the best possiblesolution and that communication might be a better alternative. Margaret, takingthe role of an altruist, implores Thornton to speak to the workers and explainthe situation to them, saying that it is ”not in the least because of his labourand capital positions, but because he is a man, dealing with a set of menover whom he has, whether he rejects to use it or not, immense power, justbecause their lives and welfare are so constantly and intimately intervowen.”(Gaskell, 143) She manages to persuade him to do so at the height of the strike,when his house is sorrounded by an angry mob of rioters, by saying:Mr. Thornton, go down this instant, if you are not acoward. Go down and face them like a man.
Save these poor strangers whom youhave decoyed here. Speak to your workmen as if they were human beings. Speak tothem kindly. Don’t let the soldiers come in and cut down poor creatures who aredriven mad.
I see one there who is. If you have any courage or noble quality inyou, go out and speak to them, man to man! (Gaskell, 209)In addition, she tries to explain the position of mastersto workmen, thus trying to build empathy between them:Suppose they could not, or would not do the last; theycould not give up their farms all in a minute, however much they might wish todo so; but they would have no hay, nor corn to sell that year; and where wouldthe money come from to pay the labourers’ wages the next? (Gaskell, 156)Margaret succeeds in her desire to establish communicationbetween the classes. Swayed by Margaret, Thornton begins working on improvinghis relationship with the workers.
He finally becomes aware of his own classprivilege and seems to feel a sense of genuine empathy and concern for theworking class. After first rejecting him, he reconsiders and decides to employ NicholasHiggins, a character in the novel who serves as a representative of the workingclass. The two develop a business relationship – Thornton listens to Higgins’sideas about the factory and starts implementing them while Higgins keepsThornton informed of the thoughts and doings of the workers. The two complementeach other perfectly and it is finally shown that the relationship between thetwo classes doesn’t have to be a battle and that it’s possible for them to worktogether. In his resolution to understand the workers better he even goes asfar as to build them a dining room so he could provide them with dinner.
Hedoesn’t go to the dining room without an invitation so he wouldn’t bother theworkers, but when invited he’s happy todine with them. He also helps the worker’s children by providing them withmoney for education. He no longer calls his workers ‘hands’. On his new courseof action he says:I have arrived at the conviction that no mereinstituions, however wise, and however much thought may have been required toorganise and arrange them, can attach class to class as they should beattached, unless the working out of such instituions bring the individuals odthe different classes into actual personal contact. Such intercourse is thevery breath of life.
(…) I would take an idea, the working out of which wouldnecessitate personal intercourse; it might not go well at first, but at everyhitch interest would be felt by an increasing number of men, and at last itssucess in working come to be desired by all, as all had borne a part in theformation of the plan; and even then I am sure that it would lose its vitality,cease to be living, as soon as it was no longer carried on by that sort ofcommon interest which invariably makes people find means and ways of seeingeach other, and becoming acquainted with each others’ characters and persons,and even tricks of temper and modes of speech. (Gaskell, 515)Jill L. Matus argues that Thornton’s views are “notchanged by intellectual conviction…Rather, he needs to be motivated by personalcontact with the people about whom he has so far generalized; only when he hasone of his workers in his home…which forces him to recognize the workers asindependent and responsible people” (Matus, 138). As thenovel reaches its end, it’s more than evident how much Thornton’s views andcharacter have changed and what a positiveinfluence this change has had.
North andSouth introduces us to key predicaments of the Industrial Evolution, offeringus a glimpse into the lives of both wealthy, capitalist mill-owners and thepoor, struggling workmen. However, the novel also bestows upon us the solutionto this issue of disparity – communication. With help of Margaret Hale andNicholas Higgins, John Thornton realizes the power of communication and howbeneficial it can be to both mill-owners and workmen. – through implementingthe worker’s suggestions in the decision-making process and taking into accounttheir needs and interests, as well as keeping them informed of the particularsof their workplace, both the workmen and the capitalists can flourish. Arelationship that was once described as antagonistic can now almost bedescribed as friendship. WORKS CITED: