North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell is a social novel published in 1855. This book takes place in the fictional industrial city of Milton, England, and it is here where Gaskell explores the poor treatment and conditions of the working class by their employers. To comment on the problem in the novel, Gaskell includes revealing dialogue between the protagonist Margaret Hale, mill owner John Thornton, and laborer Nicholas Higgins. Also, the author incorporates a strike by the factory workers against the mill owners of Milton to acknowledge the anger the laborers feel because of the poor wages they earn. In North and South, Gaskell illuminates the need to reform the rights of the working class.
Gaskell’s argument is effective. Although the poor conditions and treatment of workers is a complicated social problem to discuss, Gaskell weaves this issue throughout the text by using description and dialogue. At the beginning of the novel, the author paints Milton as a dreary place, especially since, “the air [of Milton] had a faint taste and smell of smoke, and [the people] dressed with a slovenly looseness” (Gaskell, 60). Through this description, the reader learns that Milton seems to focus solely on the production of goods and those working to complete the job. Furthermore, Gaskell indicates that the mill conditions caused workers to become ill. Unsurprisingly, Gaskell includes the death of Bessy Higgins, the young daughter of Nicholas Higgins. Bessy dies from overexposure to cotton fibers that filled her lungs when she worked in the mills (Gaskell, 216). The reader feels sympathy for Bessy but anger because of the workers’ poor quality of life. By incorporating Bessy’s death, this is a logical way for Gaskell to communicate the need to reform the rights of workers.
Another way Gaskell discusses the need for better workers’ rights is through revealing conversations in her novel. One distinct conversation between Hale and Thornton shows the disparity of their views regarding the treatment of factory workers. At a gathering, Thornton declares that other mill owners “Won’t advance a penny [and] we [will] tell [mill workers] we may have to lower our wages; but can’t afford to raise. We, the owners of capital, have a right to choose what we will do with it” (Gaskell, 117). In response, Hale argues that Thornton as an owner “[has] a human right” to give realistic wages to his workers (Gaskell, 118). It is evident that Thornton believes that the mill owners are superior to their workers and can treat the laborers however the owners deem best. However, Hale counters that it is a fundamental human right to uphold the dignity of the workers and pay them fairly.
Moreover, this relevant conversation between Hale and Higgins describes the mill workers demands. Higgins explains to Hale, “It’ll not take long for to make [the mill owners] give in, for they’ve getten a pretty lot of orders, all under contract; and they’ll soon find out they’d better give us our five percent than lose the profit they’ll gain” (Gaskell, 150). Gaskell shows the simple desire for fair wages from the laborers. The various conversations between Hale, Thornton, and Higgins expose the reader to the differing perspectives these characters have on the issue of the treatment and conditions of the working class.
Furthermore, one of the most significant pieces of the plot is the strike that occurs towards the middle of the novel. Before the strike occurs, however, Higgins rallies a group of workers from various mills in Milton to discuss their harsh treatment by mill owners (Gaskell, 150). At their meeting, Higgins and the other workers decide that a strike is the best option to demand better treatment. Incorporating this scene allows the reader to have a sense of the contentious strike that will ensue. However, Gaskell could have used more examples of the workers preparing to strike to provide the reader with more insights as to how upset the workers are. Nevertheless, the author illustrates the mayhem caused by the strike at Thornton's mill. When the disgruntled workers arrive at the mill, “instantly the storm br[eaks] [and] the hootings rise and fill the air” (Gaskell, 177). Gaskell proves the grit of the workers and their desire for change.
Also, a valid part of Gaskell’s argument is her reliance on events that occurred. She bases the strike in Milton, England off of an actual strike that happened in Preston, Ireland in 1853. Workers at Preston went on strike after the mill owners breached their promise of a pay increase (Mendac). Similarly, the primary reason that the strike occurs at Milton centers around the workers' rage over their meager wages. Gaskell strengthens her position that the rights of workers need improvement since she uses facts to make her strike more realistic and believable for her reader.
Overall, Gaskell makes a cogent yet poignant argument. She evokes sympathy from the reader by including the death of Bessy Higgins to represent how the poor working conditions need improvements. Furthermore, her argument is considerate. She addresses all perspectives, that of the mill owner, the worker, and the protagonist. This allows the reader to formulate opinions on the poor treatment of workers. Moreover, Gaskell’s novel is readable for any person and especially for those interested in learning more about social issues like the poor treatment and conditions of workers during the industrial age. Although North and South is fiction, this novel is useful. Gaskell makes her book seem real by basing the significant strike off of an actual strike that occurred two years before the novel publication. Also, North and South illustrates the social problem of the unfair treatment and conditions of workers with great detail. However, although Gaskell creates an overall strong case for improving the conditions and treatment of workers, she could have included more instances of suffering workers to emphasize the horrors of the working class in Milton.
North and South highlights the need for better conditions and treatment for the working class. Gaskell’s argument is compelling, as she includes a bleak description of Milton and telling dialogue between prominent characters to illustrate the contentious debate of workers’ rights. The strike in Milton shares parallels with the Preston strike in Ireland, making the novel seem real, which validates the need to reform the rights of workers. Ultimately, Gaskell’s novel shows how people who want a better quality of life will persist until change occurs.