Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Elizabeth Gaskell's industrial novel Mary Barton provides a look at the debilitating effects not only of economic inequality but of Victorian England’s patriarchal society. Manchester’s factory laborers find themselves striving for adequate pay in order to feed and maintain their families. While there is suffering amongst various characters, female characters seem to suffer more, largely through the failings of England’s patriarchal society. This provides an examination through a feminist lens to evaluate Elizabeth Gaskell’s narrative.
While Elizabeth Gaskell sought to examine the problems of labor and capital, seeking a reconciliation through the two forces, Mary Barton includes numerous examples of how a male-dominated society, i.e., a patriarchy[i] debilitates both the male and female members of society through imposing certain gender roles. These include the male as provider, the female as homemaker, and female appearance. These gender roles have crippling effects on characters ranging from John Barton, Mary Barton, Esther, and Jane Wilson.
Abrams and Harpham note feminist criticism’s view that:
…Western civilization is a pervasively patriarchal (ruled by the father)—that it is a male-centered and controlled and is organized and conducted in such a way as to subordinate women to men in all cultural domains: familial, religious, political, economic, social, legal, and artistic” (125).
Although patriarchies are ruled by men, that does not mean their subordinating effects only affect men. As I shall show, a feminist critique of Mary Barton reveals the harmful effects of the English patriarchy on both male and female characters.
John Barton is devastated by the loss of his wife, with his woes escalating when he loses his job due to lobbying on behalf of his fellow workers. John Barton’s inability to serve in the traditional role of provider furthers his depression, leading to opium addiction and his eventual murder of Harry Carson. He also alienates his daughter Mary. A feminist critique would show how Barton’s role as provider is the only thing he has left in his life and how he suffers when he loses this role.
Mary Barton is a character who fits in with the Victorian Era who is a typical character given to extremes of emotion and an inability to handle stress. While she may be heroic in the context of the story, a feminist critique would show Mary’s behavior and weaknesses reflect the failings of patriarchal society. She is obsessed with finding a better life through marrying the wealthy Harry Carson, but is blind to the class differences that prevent her from doing so and Carson’s nature to corrupt her and abandon her. Mary is a victim of a society which focuses on women advancing themselves through an attachment to a man, i.e. marriage rather than accomplishing anything on her own. Furthermore, her dependence on her father does not prepare her for life when her father is no longer able to guide her due to his depression over losing his wife and his job.
Jane Wilson’s life is torn upside down when her husband and young children die. While her son Jem is able to provide for her and Jane’s sister-in-law Alice, her woes seem exacerbated by her reliance on men. With her role as a mother all but eliminated, and no husband to provide financial support, Jane seems to lose her way through life and is unable to help Jem when he is falsely accused of murder.
Esther represents the dangers to women who flouted societal norms. Here, Esther wants an independent life where she can enjoy recreation and capitalize on her beauty. However, as the text shows, she is corrupted, giving birth to a child after her suitor abandons her (although she is given a sum of cash to support herself). Again, females are shown as unable to adapt if they venture out of traditional gender roles.
Mary Barton’s friend Margaret Jennings is a positive affirmation of gender roles effects on society. Here, Margaret is unable to work due to her blindness. However, her singing ability allows her to earn a living. This is within societal norms and supports the idea women are suited for certain roles. However, if they venture outside their socially defined norms, they will face troubles and even ruin (as seen Esther).
Examining Mary Barton through a feminist lens reveals the harmful effects of a patriarchal society as reflected in the novel’s characters such as John Barton, Mary Barton, Jane Wilson, Esther, and Margaret Jennings. These effects hamper their ability to function and/or thrive in said society.
Abrams, M.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11th ed., Cengage
Glaskell, Elizabeth. Marty Barton: A Tale of Industrial Life. Edited by MacDonald Daly,
Penguin Books, 2003.
[i] The patriarchal influence is by no means the only factor affecting the characters. A Marxist criticism provides insight into how capitalism harms the characters and society, but this response focuses on feminist criticism.