Tuesday, October 2, 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. A Guest Post

A guest post by Dr. Ken Bugajski, 
Associate Professor of English Education at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana

Who Do You Think You Are?

In my literature classes, I often talk with students about identity. The question of identity—how an individual defines himself or herself—is, for me, a question that is always interesting to consider when reading a book. I believe my students like to talk about it, too. Given their ages and stage of life, I imagine that they are thinking a fair amount about their own identities and who they want to be.

Novels, perhaps, are the best kind of text for thinking about identity. From the very beginning, novels in English have focused on individuals. A quick survey of early British novels turns up titles like Robinson Crusoe, Oroonoko, Pamela, Joseph Andrews, Gulliver's Travels—all are named after individuals. (Jane Austen, though not particularly early as far as novel authors go, is an outlier since her most famous novels are named for concepts instead of people--but even she has Emma.)

You may already know that Elizabeth Gaskell intended for the novel you are now reading to be titled Margaret Hale, but Charles Dickens, who published the work, insisted on calling it North and South. Gaskell's original title, though, shows that she intended the book—at least originally—to focus on the individual, the title character. I thought, then, that as we're beginning this novel, it might be useful to think about Margaret's identity.

When I talk with my students about literary identity, we sometimes start with thinking about how people, in general, define themselves, as there are a number of major ideas that can apply to a wide variety of characters. The rest of this post will focus on some of those areas.

True story: Just 2 weeks ago, my 11-year-old—who, though she only lived there a year, is a native Texan—was practicing with her school choir at St. Charles here in Fort Wayne. They were singing a song with the word "child" in it, but, because the word fell on a short note, the choir ended up singing "chyle." The teacher stopped them and said, ”No, no, no. You have to finish the word. You have to say chil-D. What are you, from the South?" My daughter said, under her breath, "Yes. As a matter of fact, I am."

Just as it is for my daughter, where a character comes from plays an important role in that character's identity or sense of self. Margaret is from Helstone, but by chapter 7, she is on the move to a new location. Such movements are common in novels because displacing a character shakes her up; it makes her look at life in a new way (you can look for a similar movement in Persuasion when you get to it next year!).

Another important marker for identity is, of course, family. When my wife and I used to do Pre-Cana, we often talked about Family of Origin and the role that can play in a marriage, and my guess is you all know how important family can be. Margaret's family is small--just herself, Frederick, Mom, and Dad. But as North and South begins, family members are in their own moments of turmoil. Frederick, of course, is in the Navy and, we later learn, essentially exiled from England. Mr. Hale, beyond the usual distance a nineteenth-century father would have from his daughter, is facing matters of religious conscience and is really more focused on those issues than he is on his family. And soon enough, Mrs. Hale becomes ill. All of these issues set Margaret apart from those to whom she might otherwise be very close. Even though she has a family, the dynamics of that unit change radically in the early parts of the book.

Religious beliefs are, of course, another primary way that people define themselves. Since this club is called Bookish Catholics, I'll assume I don't need to say much else about the importance of religion to identity! Like other areas of Margaret's life, however, religious beliefs are unsteady. Margaret remains strong in her faith, but her father's doubts—or rather, his convictions that dissent from those accepted by the Church of England—bring uncertainty into this area of identity.

Individuals often identify themselves with a certain socio-economic class, and certainly this is the case for Margaret as well. In the early chapters, we get a good sense of her quiet country life. And while she is very kind and active in her help of the poor in her father's parish, she is also comfortable in her own station. Once her family moves to Milton, Margaret sees poverty of a kind she never experienced before—or even knew existed. Further, she meets the Thorntons, and they—as newly wealthy industrialists— present still another new class division to Margaret.

Maybe most of all, we define ourselves by who we love. Including dating and marriage, I have been linked with my wife for more than half of my life. Who I am, who I have become, and the person I am yet be will be influenced—maybe even shaped—by this person I have chosen to love.

When the novel begins, Margaret does not seem to have experienced romantic love. But after moving to Milton—there's that change of location again—she finds Thornton, an odd and very different—yet still strangely fascinating man (oh and look, Margaret likes his simle…

So to sum up, then: If you agree—or at least will go along for the ride—with the idea that individuals define themselves through categories of experience, Margaret finds herself in an unusual situation. What she thought about herself in terms of location, family, religion, class, and love—everything—has been called into question by Chapter 11 of the novel. By creating so many important changes for our heroine, Gaskell's intent and Margaret's conflict seem clear: Margaret can no longer be the person she thought she was.

The big question (and, really, it’s The. Big. Question.) facing Margaret is: Who will she become?


  1. Oooo... LOVE this perspective. Thank you.

  2. Thank you Dr. Bugajski for your insights! Right off the bat, I feel I can identify with Margaret as she broadens her views and re-invents herself after moving to Milton. I made a move my senior year of high school, at a time where I obviously knew everything about the world, and had to redefine so much of what I thought I knew as I went into college. I had to wade through misconceptions, and challenge other things of which I felt so certain, and I truly hope I will have to do that for the rest of my life. Even though I'm still paging through the early parts of the book, (might it be ironic that helping with the school book fair is getting in the way of me reading this month?) it seems that Margaret can hold passionately to what she believes is right and true, but she can also synthesize what is essential about the world around her. I am not yet to Ch. 11 (in fact, I have quite a ways to go) but I am really interested to see how the author shows Margaret processing her experiences.

    1. Oh gosh--call me Ken! I think that probably a lot of us have had such movements like the one you describe in your senior year--I know that I did when I moved to Texas to attend A&M. For me, that's part of Margaret's appeal. We've all faced similar questions in those areas, so we see part of ourselves in her.

  3. The first time I read North and South, I really related to Margaret. I had lost my mother and watched my father's decline and death from dementia. I no longer had my parents to turn to and I was forced to "find myself" in a way that I had never done before. I felt Margaret was a kindred spirit as her father was physically there, but emotionally he was so caught up in the turmoil related to his dissent from the Church of England and the effects of his decision. I've always thought he was probably never really as strong as Margaret remembered and that was part of her discovery. That is such a jarring realization. He always reminds me of the father in Little Women and the father of Andrew Carnegie.

    Thank you again for this post and I will appreciate the guidance as I revisit this beautiful novel!

    1. Yes, Terri, I think the death of a parent is a time where many of us face an issue of identity. I know that hen my Dad passed away, I thought a lot about what that meant. If there was a problem with the car, I did not have him to call for advice—now *I* was the one who was supposed to know such things.

      I really appreciate, too, what you said about Margaret seeing her father in a new way. I had not thought of it that way before, but I do think that is part of the transformation. She recognizes her father is not the Perfect Parent a child might imagine but a human with imperfections and weaknesses. Perfectly common and understandable, but—as you said—totally unsettling all the same.


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