Monday, October 29, 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

You know that feeling you get right after you read a really good book? That sighing, that warm bubbling in your heart, that sudden wonder you have for everything around you? It had been so long since I had felt that, but I felt it again as I closed the cover of Elizabeth's Gaskell's North and South. 

As I was reading, I kept asking myself, Why haven't I heard more about this book? I think it's slightly appalling how little recognition this book gets. With all the rage surrounding Jane Austen these days, you'd think Elizabeth Gaskell would get a break. This book has all the romance, social charge, and gender issues of Austen novels, but fewer scenes of people just sitting around waiting for men to come and entertain them.

England, the setting of North and South
(No offense to Jane Austen. I really do love her. But if I'm being completely honest, her books just aren't as exciting as this one.)

The characters in this book are so absolutely beautiful and real. I also love that Gaskell can weigh in on the debate about the workhouse horrors without obviously taking a side. She sees both sides of the issue, unlike many of the other authors of her time, and she presents them fairly.

The characters of Margaret and Mr Thornton and their relationship captivated me. There are just so many themes and ways to read the characters.

Margaret: Haughty, proud, and distant to strangers, but unabashedly loyal to her loved ones. She gives up her own comfort throughout the entire book in order to save her family members from discomfort. She hides her own despair in order to please everyone around her. But is she in the right? As admirable as her self-sacrificing is, is it right to be completely unfair to oneself in order to please others? She nearly kills herself with the stress of taking care of everything and not allowing anyone to help or even comfort her. In trying to help everyone, she completely isolates herself from them. Is she truly doing right by them and herself?

Mr Thornton: Also proud, but in a more stark and confident way. Unlike Margaret, he doesn't hide anything. He, too, loves his family, but selectively. While Margaret loves her mother despite differences, Thornton loves his mother more than he loves his sister because he and his mother are so alike. Speaking of love, Mr Thornton brings up the question, what exactly is love? He supposedly loves Margaret, but gets angry and frustrated with her so easily. Mr Thornton might seem quite the Byronic hero--mysterious, brooding, wildly attractive (like Batman, or Edward Cullen from Twilight)--but he's also really not because of his seeming inability to keep his thoughts to himself. If someone criticizes him or his practices, he's quick to tell the truth and absolve himself from guilt as much as he can. He's logical, but cold. He lacks Margaret's passion and fire.

He brings up another question: What is success? Mr Thornton brought himself up to the a level of financial and corporate success, but then (**spoiler alert**) lost all that by the end of the book. And yet, in losing it he wasn't very upset or ashamed. He had lost that similarity with his mother; he had learned what true success was. And that's when he won Margaret.

And then there's the issue of death that gets brought up over and over throughout the book as (another **spoiler alert**) pretty much every character gets picked off one by one. At first, Margaret recoils from death; she can hardly bring herself to look at Bessy's body after Bessy dies. But by the end of the book, she's calmly going to take care of things after the death of a dear family friend. What has she learned about death that allows her to look it frankly in the eye without fear? What is death? Is it temporary? Is there life after death? Is there life for the living after death--that is, did something in Margaret die every time one of her loved ones died?

And then there are the gender issues. Even though Margaret has more emotional power than any other character and is always looked to to take care of things, even by Mr Thornton, she hardly ever gets a say in her own fate. This is especially clear near the end of the book, when she is fought over by family and friends and isn't trusted to make decisions on her own about where to live. And she certainly can't live on her own--why, that wouldn't do at all! She's stronger than most of the male characters, but she isn't given half the credit the men in the book are given.

Like any true classic, this book covers endless themes and introduces endless questions. But on a more personal note, I could really empathize with the characters. Every time another blow hit Margaret, I felt her devastation. But at the same time, I could understand Mr Thornton and where he was coming from, and I wished Margaret would understand him too. At its core, North and South is a true love story--and love is something we can all understand.

If you're looking for a thought-provoking classic, a social commentary on the Victorian era, or even just a good love story, read North and South. Five stars.

Added to Classics Club list: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safran Foer. I've heard tons about it from English professors and other English students, so I decided that it counts as a classic even though it's not "old." 

Photo by wallygrom on Flickr

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