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Study Guide: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: Characters


Margaret Hale: The protagonist, she is proud and spirited and very fond of her parents (especially her father). She is 18 years old at the start of the story, before she returns to Helstone, and has been living mainly with her aunt (Mrs. Shaw) and her cousin Edith in London since she was nine years old.

John Thornton: Owner of a local mill, a friend and student of Margaret's father and Margaret's love interest.

Nicholas Higgins: An industrial worker whom Margaret befriends. He has two daughters, Bessy and Mary.

Hannah Thornton: John Thornton's mother, who reveres her son and dislikes Margaret (especially after Margaret rejects his proposal).

Fanny Thornton: John's younger sister.

Margaret Hale

The Proud

Every main character needs to be flawed in some way. After all, who's going to care about a main character that's perfect? No one, that's who.

And when it comes to flaws, the first thing Elizabeth Gaskell wants us to know about Margaret Hale is that she is a proud young woman. We learn this in only the second paragraph of the book, where we find out that on the eve of her cousin's wedding, Margaret can't bring herself to compliment the prettiness of another woman. As the narrator tells us, "They had grown up together from childhood, and all along Edith had been remarked upon by everyone, except Margaret, for her prettiness" (1.2). It's subtle, but the pride and jealousy are definitely there. read more...

Mr. Thornton & Margaret

John Thornton

The Capitalist

If pride is the first trait we notice about Margaret Hale, then impatience has to be what we notice about Mr. John Thornton. For a writer like Elizabeth Gaskell, Thornton is a classic example of "new money," a person who was born poor but has become rich. This is, in family history-minded 19th Century England, considered tacky. No, it's not fair.

Thornton has a vivid memory of how horrible it is to live without money, so it makes sense that he spends almost every waking hour thinking about how he can get some more. As the narrator tells us, "Mr. Thornton was in habits of authority himself, but she seemed to assume some   ... read more...


Mr. Hale

Mr. Hale means well, and you have to admire him for sticking to his principles and resigning from his job. But the dude is pretty weak-willed and not really the most supportive father. When he explains to Margaret that he can no longer be a clergyman, he tells her that "You could not understand it all, if I told you—my anxiety, for years past, to know whether I had any right to hold my living—my efforts to quench my smouldering doubts by the authority of the Church" (1.4.18). So yes, the guy probably has a good reason for leaving the church. But his anxiety causes him to act in irresponsible ways.

Mr. Hale doesn't deal well with people contradicting him, saying, "I cannot stand objections. They make me so undecided" (1.4.48). This is probably why he won't tell Margaret or his wife about his real reasons for leaving the church—he's afraid that they'll convince him …read more…

Mrs. Thornton

Let's face it. John Thornton can sometimes be a bit of a mamma's boy. And how can you blame him, seeing as how his mother takes an interest in every aspect of his life? First on her list of priorities is making sure that no girls try to marry John and take him away from her. When John first meets Margaret Hale, Mrs. Thornton jumps all over him, saying, "Take care you don't get caught by a penniless girl, John" (1.9.26). She gets even angrier when she finds out that Margaret Hale thinks she's too good for John, adding, "What business had she, a renegade clergyman's daughter, to turn up her nose at you!" (1.9.32).

Okay, so here's what we know. Mrs. Thornton loves and respects her son for pulling himself (and his family) out of poverty through his hard work and intelligence. She also wants the whole town of Milton to respect him. As the narrator tells us directly at one point, "she looked fixedly at vacancy; a more...

Mrs. Hale

Mrs. Hale doesn't do a whole lot in this book other than complain. Like her husband, she mostly just puts pressure on her daughter Margaret to fix the family's problems and to take care of everything. Her health has never been good. But the narrator also gives us the sense that she's a woman who isn't happy unless everything is going her way. As we find out early on, she decides not to go to her niece's wedding because she "had been detained at home by a multitude of half-reasons, none of which anybody fully understood, except Mr. Hale, who was perfectly aware that all his arguments in favour of a grey satin gown, which was midway between oldness and newness, had proved unavailing" (2.1). In other words, Mrs. Hale will miss a family wedding because she's not happy with what she has to wear.

Mrs. Hale comes from a wealthy family and more...


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