Mary Barton and Role of Women

An analysis of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novel Mary Barton, focusing on women’s roles in public spaces and reconciliation among social classes.

This paper argues that in her novel, “Mary Barton”, Elizabeth Gaskell is trying to offer knowledge as a solution in reducing class tensions and in giving the rich and the poor a better understanding of each other. The paper uses female characters and their roles in the public domain as a medium for demonstrating this.
“City life in the 19th century ushered in a difficult and conflicted era for women. Torn between the necessity of remaining in the domestic sphere for the sake of the maintenance of a comfortable family life for all, and the new, frequently arising necessity of entering the public sphere, women of lower classes became obligated to undertake the double burden of balancing traditional roles and roles in the workplace and other public venues. Staying home and entering the public domain both offered many consequences, and left women’s practical options unclear, and also created an ever-greater rift between their ways of life, and those of wealthier women, who typically remained entirely in the domestic sphere. Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel, Mary Barton, displays the intricacies of a variety of female lives, rich and poor, public and private, under extremely trying and class-dividing circumstances, those of the Industrial Revolution. Gaskell tends to represent women as actively engaging in public urban life out of necessity rather than out of any personal desire to do so, and she uses the idea of balance as an important issue which also relates to class tensions. Mary Barton’s message to women is that they must cautiously advance into the public domain, but not neglect the ill effects and the dangers of such a move, and rather be aware of the positive and negative aspects of life in the private and public spheres. This awareness of both sides of an issue is additionally reflected in Gaskell’s compromise-centered views on class tensions and reconciliation, which is to do what one must for one’s own station in life, but to remain aware of the effects on others of different classes, and to find a balanced happy medium in one’s actions.”