In this passage from North and South, one immediately perceives the contrast between Helstone and Milton, between country and city, light and dark:
The chill, shivery October morning came; not the October morning of the country, with soft, silvery mists, clearing off before the sunbeams that bring out all the gorgeous beauty of colouring, but the October morning of Milton, whose silvery mists were heavy fogs, and where the sun could only show long dusky streets when he did break through and shine. Margaret went languidly about, assisting Dixon in her task of arranging the house. Her eyes were continually blinded by tears, but she had no time to give way to regular crying. The father and brother depended upon her; while they were giving way to grief she must be working, planning, considering. Even the necessary arrangements for the funeral seemed to devolve upon her.
"Soft", "silvery", "sunbeams" evoke bright, peaceful images of country life. Milton's "heavy fogs" and "dusky streets" powerfully oppose the preceding words and impose a tone of their own.
Charlotte Brontë uses this same technique, although on a larger scale, in Jane Eyre. "According to R.B. Martin, Bronte achieves many of her 'finest' effects by lurid contrasts of illumination and shade, by the relentless light of rational day set against the menacing shadows of dead of night." (GPL, "Melodramatic Contrast in Jane Eyre,") We find an example in chapter 23, the scene in which Rochester proposes marriage: "It was now the sweetest hour of the twenty-four. . . Where the sun had gone down in simple state — pure of the pomp of clouds — spread a solemn purple, burning with the light of red jewel and furnace flame at one point, on one hill-peak, and extending high and wide, soft and still softer, over half heaven" (217).
The chapter opens with this soothing image of evening, but only hours later: "We were all in shadow: I could scarcely see my master's face, near as I was. . .thunder crashed, fierce and frequent as the lightning gleamed, cataract-like as the rain fell during a storm." Brontë uses the technique in this instance to foreshadow the "stormy weather" soon to come in the lives of her two main characters. A violent storm following so closely after a tranquil evening increases the former's ominous effect. Similarly, the contrast Gaskell shows between city and country life makes Milton seem all the more disagreeable.
In the second half of the passage quoted above, Margaret grieves for the loss of her mother. She wants to give in to her sorrow, to cry freely, but she must stifle her own feelings so that she may serve others. Gaskell believes that a woman's duty to her family (Margaret's duty to her father and brother in this instance) needs to come before her personal wants and needs. This theme that responsibility to one's family takes priority over one's own desires appears also in Jane Eyre. Jane's position as governess and her friendship with Rochester must both be left when her Aunt Reed becomes seriously ill. A few words from her aunt, "'Bring Jane — fetch Jane Eyre: I want to speak to her'" (195), place her entire life on hold. Jane, like Margaret, leaves her own emotions by the wayside in order to minister to her family.
According to Catherine Barnes Stevenson, the theme that repression of one's feelings must accompany family responsibility, merely manifests a much larger repression or "silence." Margaret and Jane's sacrificing of their own emotions to perform family duties seems to reflect the societal situation of the time. Women worked in factories, wrote as authors, and yet contemporary literature (even that which had women as heroines) chose not to discuss these alternative female roles.
Created October 1992; last modified: 25 March 2000