North and South argues that the Industrial Midlands represent the future, and a better future at that, by dramatizing Margaret Hale's gradual conversion from Heltone to Milton. Her godfather Mr. Bell, who playfully complains that her residence in Milton has "quite corrupted her," describes Margaret as "a democrat, a red republican, a member of the Peace society, a socialist," to which she responds, "Papa, it's all because I'm standing up for the progress of commerce. Mr. Bell would have had it keep still at exchanging wild-beast skins for acrons" [Chapter 40]. Margaret has in fact become converted to industrialism, urban life, a rising working class, and many other aspects of modern life, so when she and Thornton marry both have tempered their original views.

Among the contrasts that Gaskell provides, the following have particular importance:

1. Differences in standard of living of farm workers and mill workers

Mr. Hale voices the shock of encountering the culture of the north that Margaret registers when he admits,

I hardly know as yet how to compare one of these [worker's] houses with our Helstone cottages. I see furniture here which our labourers would never have thought of buying, and food commonly used which they would consider luxuries; yet for these very families there seems no other resource now that their weekly wages are stopped [by a strike], but the pawn-shop. One has need to learn a different language and measure by a different standard, up here in Milton. (Chapter 20, North and South)

Late in the novel, Margaret, who had previously always held up Helstone as a rural ideal by which to criticize Milton, dissuades Higgins from travelling south for work:

I owe it to you — since it's my way of talking that has set you off on this idea — to put it all clear before you. You would not bear the dullness of the life; you don't know what it is; it would eat you away like rust. Those that have lived there all their lives, are used to soaking in the stagnant waters. They labor on from day to da, in the great solitude of steaming fields — never lifting up their poor, bent, downcast heads. The hard spadework ribs them of their brain of life; the sameness of their toil deadens their imagination. . . . they go home brutishly tired, poor creatures! caring for nothing but food and rest. [Chapter37]

This recognition that the inhabitants of her rural idyll suffer in grinding poverty and ignorance prepares for her later encounter with barbaric superstition in Helstone in the form of the woman who burns a cat alive to use its cries in a magic spell.

2. Differences in working class behavior

By focusing upon Margaret's experiences, Gaskell emphasizes the northern factory workers' dramatic lack of reserve toward strangers and absence of deference toward those higher in the social scale:

The side of the town on which Crampton lay was especially a thoroughfare for the factory people. In the back streets around them there were many mills, out of which poured streams of people two or three times a day. Until Margaret had learnt the times of their ingress and exgress, she was very unfortunate in constantly falling in with them. They came rushing along with bold, fearless faces, and loud laughts and jests, particularly aimed at those who appeared to be above them in rank or station. The notes of their unrestrained voices, and their carelessness of all common rules of street politeness, frightened Maragret a little at first. The girls, with their rough, but not unfriendly freedom, would comment on her dress, even touch her shawl or gown to ascertain the exact material; nay once or twice she was asked questions relative to some material which they particularly admired. There was such a simple reliance on her womanly sympathy with their love of dress, and on her kindliness, that she gladly replied to these inquiries, as soon as she understood them; and half smiled back at their remarks. She did not mind any number of girls, loud and boisterious though they might be. But she alternately dreaded and fired up against the workmen, who commented not on her dress, but on her looks, in the same open, fearless manner. She, who had hitherto felt that even the most refined remark on her personal appearance was an impertinence, had to endure undisguised admiration from these outspoken men. But the very outspokenness marked their innocence of any intention to hurt her delicacy, as she would have perceived if she had been less frightened by the disorderly tumult. Out of her fright came a flash of indignation which made her face scarlet, and her eyes gather flame, as she heard some of their speeches. Yet there were other sayings of theirs, which, when she reached the quiet safety of home, amused her even while they irritated her. [Chapter 8]

3. Differences in upper middle-class behavior

[Margaret] was surprised to think how much she enjoyed this dinner. She knew enough now to understand many local interests — nay, even some of the technical words employed by the eager millowners. . . . They talked in desperate earnest — not in the used-up style that wearied her so in the old London parties. . . . She liked the exultation in the sense of power which these Milton men had. It might be rather rampant in its display, and savour of boasting; but still they seemed to defy the old limits of possibility, in a kind of fine intoxication, caused by the recollection of what had been achieved, and what yet should be. [Chapter 20]

Victorian Web Overview Elizabeth Gaskell North and South

Created c.1992; last modified 27 March 2000