In chapter eight of North and South, Margaret befriends a textile worker named Nicholas Higgins. During her stay in Milton, Margaret becomes close not only with Higgins himself, but also with his daughter, Bessy, who is dying of consumption. Margaret's interactions with Higgins and his daughter give the reader a sobering reminder of just how much suffering the working-class was forced to endure:

"Spring nor summer will do me good,' said the girl quietly. "I'm afeared hoo speaks truth. I'm afeared hoo's too far gone in a waste.' (ch.8, p.73)

"And I think, if this should be th' end of all, and if all I've been born for is just to work my heart and life away, and to sicken i' this dree place, wi' them mill-noises in my ears for ever, until I could scream out for them to stop, and let me have a little piece o' quiet — and wi' the fluff filling my lungs I could go mad' (ch.13, p.101)

Bessy and Margaret are the same age, and yet the disparity between these two girls is incredible. Margaret was fortunate enough to grow up completely surrounded by all of the beauties that life has to offer. Whether drawing the landscape of Helstone or indulging in the luxuries of Harley Street, Margaret's life before she came to Milton was not characterized by much suffering. Bessy, on the other hand, has only known misery and sadness. Her short life was devoted to working in a mill, and ultimately, her death was the result of that very same mill.

Gaskell uses the Higginses in order to comment on the immense class disparities of the Victorian period and to show the terrible suffering that resulted from these disparities. In order to allow the reader to distinguish immediately between a working-class character and a character of the gentry, Gaskell uses linguistic mannerisms and dialect. For example, Nicholas Higgins consistently uses the word "hoo" in place of the pronoun "she." Because there are so many characters, this technique is even more important in a novel like The Pickwick Papers where language mannerisms not only allow the reader to recognize class differences, but also permit us to distinguish between individual characters. Dickens' classic example of this technique is seen in Sam Weller:

the man in the white hat set to work upon a top-boot with increased assiduity. There was another loud ring; and the bustling old landlady of the White Hart made her appearance in the opposite gallery.

Sam,' cried the landlady, "where's that lazy, idle — why Sam — oh, there you are; why don't you answer?'

"Vouldn't be gen-teel to answer, 'till you'd done talking,' replied Sam, gruffly.

"Here, clean them shoes for number seventeen directly, and take 'em to private sitting room, number five, first floor.' The landlady flung a pair of shoes into the yard and bustled away.

"Number 5,' said Sam, as he picked up the shoes into the yard, and taking a piece of chalk from his pocket, made a memorandum of their destination on the soles — "Lady's shoes and private sittin' room! I suppose she didn't come in the vaggin.' [ch.10, p.131]

Sam's dialect and sarcastic way of communicating make him easily recognizable among the many personalities in The Pickwick Papers. The fat boy is another example of this type of character. We know when the fat boy is present because he is inevitably either eating or sleeping.

Yet Sam and the fat boy are not realistic characters because Dickens bases their existence within the novel solely on their external characteristics. The reader needs these types of characters to be predictable because of the density of the novel, but at the same time, their one-dimensional personalities prevent us from getting to know them on a deeper level. For example, from the passage above, we know that Sam is part of the lower-class because of his language mannerisms and because he is a boot-black at an inn. Unlike Bessy, however, his opinions on class disparities are unknown to the reader. The high realism of North and South is witnessed in Gaskell's ability to represent a convincing portrayal of her characters' emotions and opinions. In The Pickwick Papers, on the other hand, it is precisely the frequent lack of character development that makes the novel more reminiscent of fantasy.

References

Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. New York, London: Penguin Books, 1999.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.


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Last modified 21 March 2003