Role Reversal in North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is a novel of opposites. At first glance, there is the difference between London and Helstone, marrying for love versus marrying for duty, dreams versus realities, rural and agricultural versus city and technical, and most obvious, male and female. Most notably, however, the main character herself, Margaret, is a union of opposites. She is a city girl who looks forward to the “plans and visions which she entertained as to her future life in the country parsonage” (Gaskell 6). She is not thought of as particularly pretty in comparison to her cousin Edith, but Mr. Thornton calls her countenance “beautiful” and her complexion a “pale ivory” (62). Perhaps the most significant combination in Margaret, however, is the possession of male traits under a supposedly female front. This is seen in the stark contrast between Margaret and her father, Mr. Hale.

Men in Victorian England were seen as far superior to women; they were the unquestioned rulers of society (which is a conundrum in a country ruled by a queen at the time!). In fact, “women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men, which meant they were best suited to the domestic sphere,” which the men still governed when they returned from the world of business (Hughes par. 3). It would be rare that women held much, if any power, over men. However, in perhaps can be seen as a role reversal, Margaret comes to exhibit many of the traits expected in a man in the household, while her father, crippled by cowardice and indecision, becomes effeminate and loses what shreds of manhood he had. In this sense, Margaret becomes the one who must take care of her father and the arrangements for the drastic move from Helstone to Milton. She must comfort him after he makes a seemingly rash decision to leave the parsonage, and is the one who will not let him turn back by telling him that it is “bad to believe you in error. It would be infinitely worse to have known you a hypocrite” (56). She is the one who makes the big decisions, as her father tells her to “Do what you think best,” even in regards to their future lodgings (50). The best characterization of Margaret’s male-ness is the scene in which she meets Mr. Thornton. She enters as “an empress wears her drapery,” and Mr. Thornton, who “was in habits of authority himself” is taken aback, because she “seemed to assume some kind of rule over him at once” (62). This would be unheard of in a male-female relationship at this time, and is an important part of the characterization of Margaret that will be fun to watch play out throughout the rest of the novel.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Gender Roles in the 19th Century.” The British Library. The British Library, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

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