In the opening chapters of North and South Gaskell creates a conflict between the class that one is born into and belongs to by blood and the class that people may believe they belong to because of their culture or education. Margaret acts and believes that she is of a higher class even after her father loses his position in their community. She refuses to accept that she is now closer in social status to the people of Milton than to the life she grew up knowing with Aunt Shaw. When she meets the Higgenses and discovers that they live in her new neighborhood “Margaret was shocked by his words-shocked but not repelled; rather attracted and interested” (73). This abrupt drop in social status is still incomprehensible to Margaret because she is not used to associating with people she traditionally thought of as below her. Gaskell highlights that there is social mobility in society, but it is neither accepted nor controllable.
Margaret’s pride comes from an upper-class upbringing, even though she herself was born into a somewhat lower class. This prejudice for people beneath her stems from time spent with Aunt Shaw and Edith, yet through her move to Milton and loss of status she maintains her elitist airs and beliefs. In her relationship with Dixon we see this elitism come to the surface, even once the family is unsure if they even have enough money to keep a servant on. When Dixon spoke out of turn “she never noticed Margaret’s flashing eye and dilating nostril,” Margaret was shocked “to hear her father talked of in this way by a servant to her face!” (48). This inability to let go of prejudices shows the inherent elitist nature of those born or raised in upper class communities. Gaskell shows that social class is determined by family and birth. Though the Hales have the education and culture of those above middle class, they are not able to experience upward mobility due to their birth. The opposite is true of Thornton, who experiences the benefits of a high rank without any of the education or culture of the Hales. These two extremes show Gaskell’s interpretation of a backwards social system and the inability to let go of the society and community in which one grew up.