Wednesday, July 21, 2010

But who was he, that he should utter sympathy or consolation? - Mary Barton at the deathbed

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.


  1. I like the notion of the two parts of Mary Barton--interesting observation. I've read that Gaskell originally titled the work John Barton and set out to write the father's story but it morphed into Mary's story as she went along.

  2. It is interesting because I just last night finished reading Wives and Daughters. I read Mary Barton back in December and reading your thoughts now makes me really wonder how the two novels were the same writer! Mary Barton was not, in the end, a favorite, and thinking about it now, I have no desire to ever revisit it!

    I don't recall enjoying the "richness" of the first 200 pages. I was bored and waiting for something to happen. I guess I like plot and it was just too slow to get to one. But like I said in my post, it was then unrealistic and dramatic in that second Gaskell just couldn't win on this story for me.

  3. Personally, I wish it had stayed John Barton, with Mary's story the B-plot. We lose John for too much of the novel, which vitiates his tragedy.

    I'm afraid, though, that John Barton, might have only reinforced the sorts of problems Rebecca had with the novel.

  4. The importance of consolation, the fraternity of man, the continual effort. I know I just got done saying I wasn't so interested in Mary Barton, but this stuff really does interest me. And of course it's all very much on my mind as I'm going through Melville (though I wouldn't say he was as concerned with the consolation part, but it's a good addition).

  5. Having just read Ishmael's "marriage" to Queequeg, I can see other ways that Gaskell and Melville, however strange it seems, are working on similar problems.