Grief is for the Living: Death in Gaskell’s North and South

Grief is for the Living. Those left behind when a loved one dies know this.

English: Comfort in Grief
Comfort in Grief (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, death is a main player. At least six characters, big and small, die in the course of the novel: Bessie, Mrs. Hale, Mr. Hale, Mr. Bell, Boucher, and his wife. Reference is also made to the suicide of Thornton’s father before the period in which the novel is set. Gaskell is said to have remarked, jokingly, that she should call the novel “Variations on Death.” As expected, reactions to grief vary although, in all cases, there is deep sorrow.

Nicholas Higgins—whose daughter Bessie dies from toxic effects of working at the mills, while still a child reacts with anger. He thinks he and others like him have been dealt an unfair hand

Mr. Hale, devastated at losing his wife, suffers great feelings of guilt that he may have hastened her death. Already sickly when she comes to Milton, Mrs. Hale literally wastes away after moving to Milton. Mr. Hale is helpless from grief and eventually dies, probably in silent despair. Added to her death is the loss of his purpose/meaning in life. His heart gives out—a fitting metaphor for an existentialist death.

Boucher, weak and ineffective, presumably kills himself for his destructive role in the strike as well as his inability to adequately provide for his many children. His equally weak, helpless wife, saddled with the children, is overcome by despair and also dies shortly thereafter, probably from hopelessness and the loss of someone she was completely dependent on.

Cover of "North and South (Oxford World's...
Cover, North and South

Margaret, herself, confronts the death of loved ones three times after her friend Bessie dies. At her mother’s death, she knows she must be strong because her father, in his grief, is not. So, although distraught, she exerts herself and makes decisions as both father and brother are paralyzed by mourning. When her father dies, Margaret’s initial reaction is to be still and prostrate from shock, numb, and nearly inconsolable. But she pours her sorrows out at the sight of her aunt who reminds her of her mother. When she returns to London, Margaret—energetic when she needed to be for her father’s sake—becomes relatively passive and submits herself to the solicitous attention of her cousin and her aunt.

Mr. Bell’s death within the same year triggers more despair. Gone are three people Margaret used to rely on most for advice and support. This realization is a turning point for Margaret who, while recovering from her grief at a succession of losses, assumes responsibility for her life and grows into a higher level of maturity.

English: Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865)
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gaskell, a pastor’s wife, knows grief and how it manifests itself according to the personality of her characters. Those of us who have been touched by grief are acutely aware of what grief feels like.

There is only one death in Margaret of the North and it occurs towards the end of the novel. Mrs Thornton, who would have grown quite old by then, dies. Most of the novel happens in a span of three years from Margaret and John’s marriage. I fast forward to 20 years later from that same point mostly to write the death in.

I included the death because, to me, it signals the waning of the tyrannical rule of masters upon their workers. It is also a device to show that Mrs. Thornton does connect strongly with Margaret’s daughter and develops a comfortable, if not affectionate, relationship with Margaret.  Margaret, herself, is never sure until the end how Mrs. Thornton regarded her.

This chapter also depicts the reaction to the loss of a loved one by a young woman, looking towards a promising future her grandmother never imagined. She grieves, unable to go into her grandmother’s now empty house where she would have to face once again the reality of her loss. Her sorrow is made even more unbearable by guilt at being away at university when her grandmother dies and her reluctance to accept her full legacy. She finally bursts out crying in her mother’s arms. Margaret’s role as comforter continues.


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4 Responses

  1. Kay

    “At least” six is at once vague and so precise a description to be absolutely wrong. There are 8 deaths, although one is such a minor mention he may not signifify. In order, Bessy, Mrs. Hale, Leonards, Boucher, Mrs. Boucher, Mr. Hale, the unnamed man Margaret spoke to by the dilapidated cabin hear Helstone when she was drawing, Mr. Bell.

    • evyjourney

      I don’t remember that unnamed man, but it’s been almost 20 years since I read the book. Thanks for pointing it out to me, though.

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