Mary Barton is almost unrelievedly grim through its first half (and not a lot cheerier later). Unemployment, fires, fevers, alcoholism, drug addiction, senility. One character goes blind; another goes deaf and then goes blind. And then dies.
The number of deathbed scenes is extraordinary, but purposeful. The repetition of the scene allows Gaskell to catalogue and develop one of her Big Ideas – the importance of consolation.
'Come in, wench!' said her father. 'Try if thou canst comfort yon poor, poor woman, kneeling down there. God help her!' Mary did not know what to say, or how to comfort; but she knelt down by her, and put her arm round her neck, and in a little while fell to crying herself so bitterly that the source of tears was opened by sympathy in the widow, and her full heart was, for a time, relieved. (Ch. 6, 72)
This scene comes early in the novel, in the light and frothy chapter titled “Poverty and Death.” Mary does not know how to console. Her own tears come from she knows not where (self-pity, partly), but they are somehow comforting to the bereaved widow, even though it is not clear that they mean anything in particular.
Some children die in the very next chapter. Mary again can only offer comfort mechanically, for which I hardly blame her. Other characters seem to offer consolation more naturally. Most simply, the novel is about how a woman loses her adolescent self-absorption and learns to regard others.
Her father takes the reverse path – he turns inward over the course of the book, with disastrous results. His tragedy is his loss of sympathy. In the idealistic end, all of the right characters learn to understand each other at just the right time. That’s the story Gaskell is trying to tell. That’s the Christian message underlying the book, as I understand – all men are brothers, yes, but our sense of connection requires continual effort. All women are sisters, too, a theme Gaskell returns to in everything of hers I’ve read. Mary Barton uses the word "sympathy" or a variation more than any novel I know. Another piece of The Sympathy Project.
Rebecca Reid points out a difficult feature of the novel’s structure. The first half or so seems to represent something like ordinary (miserable) life, and does not have much of a story. The second half, surprisingly, becomes a proto-detective novel and courtroom novel. Yet the thematic complexity of the book lies in the first part, while the more zippy second half is altogether simpler. Another two hundred pages of ordinary life might have been a trial tot he reader, but the more exciting plot, the trial to the characters, tells us little we didn’t know. The novel is at first slow and dull, but rich. Then it becomes quick and lively, but thin. Sort of odd. Badly balanced.
The post’s title is from Chapter 35.