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Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Mary Barton” is a novel of social reform that explores injustice, abuse and inequality. The novel is especially concerned with the societal condition of England at the time. In her “Preface” Mrs. Gaskell asserted, “I know nothing of Political Economy, or the theories of the trade. I have tried to write truthfully”. The “truth” of “Mary Barton” is not political or economic but the truth of the human heart. The novel is not about industrial conditions but about people living in those conditions. Mrs. Gaskell’s social aim in writing is to inform rather than to reform.
Her aim in writing is to give “utterance to the agony” and to explicate the consequences of “the seeming injustice of the inequalities of fortune”. In “Mary Barton”, the protagonist John Barton asks with bitter vehemence about the injustice of the massive gulf between the upper and lower classes: “Why are they so separate, so distinct, when God has made them all? [… ] We are their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as Dives and Lazarus, with a great gulf betwixt us”.
John Barton is ultimately driven to the act of murder by his outrage at the gulf fixed between the rich and the poor. John Barton is ultimately a victim of society and an example of how a man full of human kindness is hardened into hatred and violence. As the author tells the reader his wife’s death meant that “one of the ties which bound him down to the gentle humanities of earth was loosened”. The string of events that followed – the strike, the Davenports’ starvation and fever, the employees’ arrogant isolation and the failure of the petition, seem to purposely show that the world reckons the poor folk no account.
And as John Barton lies on his deathbed his enemy Mr. Carson sits in his library quite unable to hate his son’s murderer. At the end Mr. Carson forgives John Barton and the murderer dies in the arms of the man whose son he has murdered and this image explicates the novel’s pivotal theme in the hope of human heartedness. In her novel Mrs. Gaskell presents men and women at the extreme of suffering at which point only the most radical of human actions remain be they despair and hatred or alternatively human compassion and forgiveness.