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Study Guide: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: Themes

Society and Class

Margaret is poor, but she thinks she's too good to marry Mr. Thornton, who is rich. That's mostly because Margaret is educated and cultured and Thornton is not. Thornton's mother, though, doesn't want her son marrying a poor woman because Thornton's mom is a snob who thinks that poor people smell.

So yeah, issues of society and class are at play in North and South. It's just not always easy to figure out what game they're playing. That's because people from the south of England live by very different values than people from the north, and questions of social class and status often get confusing in this clash of cultures. read more...

Love

Love is a funny thing in North and South. It's always hovering around, but it's never really fulfilled until the last half of the last page. Well, maybe that's not totally fair. Family love is definitely fulfilled at different times in the book. But romantic love is always frustrated, whether it's Henry Lennox's love for Margaret or John Thornton's love for her.

One of the reasons this love takes so long to pan out is because Margaret Hale doesn't really know how to love in the romantic sense. So much of her attention has always been devoted to compassion for others and to love for her parents that she can't imagine the idea of ever being married. But luckily for John Thornton, that changes by the end. read more...

Family

North and South is a book about values, and the source of values for every character in this book is their families. It's clear that Margaret Hale's values have been deeply influenced by her parents; the same goes for Mr. Thornton, especially when you see how much of a hold his mother has over him.

Family provides these characters with a model of how we should treat the people around us. Mr. Thornton treats people a certain way because that's what's expected from his family, and the same goes for Margaret Hale. The problem for both these characters lies in how they relate to other people when their families have given them different versions of how to approach the world. read more...

Compassion and Forgiveness

Even the epigraph to North and South suggests that Elizabeth Gaskell would like for the whole world to be a little more compassionate. The book's main character, Margaret Hale, would like the same thing, although she's more of a hypocrite than she might first realize.

More specifically, she shows compassion toward the people you'd expect her to—the poor and the needy. But she has no compassion at all for members of England's new middle class, people who have built up their own businesses and who strive to make money. If anything, Margaret is extremely judgmental toward these people, and she doesn't really mature as an adult until she learns to extend compassion to them too. read more...

North and South Themes

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