Domestication Blunts the Edge of Revolution in Mary Barton 

In as much as many a workman or workwoman has a family, it is a known fact that revolutions are engineered by and are about workers, whether they are factory, domestic, scholarly, or industrial workers. Revolutions are not about the family. The critics who argued that Elizabeth Gaskell resolved the conflicts in Mary Barton by incorporating class violence into individual family scandal are incorrect. Gaskell did not resolve the conflicts for the families. As much as Gaskell sought to garner sympathy for the individual family, the drama was not and should not have been about the family; it was and should have been solely about the worker.

That Gaskell chose to domesticate the political revolution (while attempting to make it more personal) caused the edge of the novel to be blunt. The incidents that involved the worker were of sharpened and of focused interest to the reader. The worker, when not saddled by family, was happy:

[Excerpt 1] “She said in them she were very happy, and I believe she were. And Frank’s family heard he were in good work” (Gaskell 81).

Granted, revolutions can be personal, as in the personal interest of the worker, but it is more than that. It is much broader and much more political in nature and is not an arena for the family. Revolution is about the condition of the working person, not of the family. In the excepts below, each mention of the word, “family,” showed evidence of deliberate attempts by Gaskell to earn sympathy from the reader, but more so, it showed evidence of the family’s mismanagement of resources, of the family’s failure to practice population control/family planning, and of Gaskell’s attempt to cast the “master” in a bad light.

Evidence of lack of family planning/population control:

[Excerpt 2] “…In order that their only bed and bedding might be reserved for the use of their large family” (66)…

As Gaskell indicated, couples and lovers did not have any problems maintaining the wages they were paid or any problem having spontaneous fun:

[Excerpt 3] “Here and there came a sober quiet couple, either whispering lovers, or husband and wife, as the case might be; and if the latter, they were seldom unencumbered by an infant, carried for the most part by the father, while occasionally even three or four little toddlers had been carried or dragged thus far, in order that the whole family might enjoy the delicious May afternoon together” (5).

The men of business, the workers (when unencumbered by the family) seemed happy and knew how to portion his/her time and other resources for business and for pleasure: business came first so that the family can be taken care of:

[Excerpt 4] “There were happy family evenings, now that the men of business had time for domestic enjoyments” (45).

Jem Wilson rose in rank because he did not have a family to gulp his time and suffer his talent; he focused on his job and was able to invent a machine. After he was paid handsomely, the payment allowed him to save money for a rainy day. Even after his trial and acquittal for the murder of Harry Carson, and even after his co-workers refused to allow him to return to his job, Jem was able to find another job and did not have to worry about children at home needing to be fed, clothed, and catered to. In line with being unburdened, relocating to Canada or to elsewhere to find employment was not a problem for Jem; he did not have a family to strangle his ambition.

[Excerpt 5] “We have been written to by government, as I think I told you before, to recommend an intelligent man, well acquainted with mechanics, as instrument-maker to the Agricultural College they are establishing at Toronto, in Canada. It is a comfortable appointment,–house,–land,–and a good per-centage on the instruments made. I will show you the particulars if I can lay my hand on the letter, which I believe I must have left at home” (303).

Without hesitation or without the need to consult a wife, Jem responded immediately:

[Excerpt 6] “Thank you, sir. No need for seeing the letter to say I’ll accept it. I must leave Manchester; and I’d as lief quit England at once when I’m about it” (303).

Even the government, as Jem’s future employer, did not care about a family. The government’s concern was the worker, Jem:

[Excerpt 7] “They’ll never ask if the family goes upwards or downwards” (303).

[Excerpt 8] “Jem felt that it was a relief to have this point settled; and that he need no longer weigh reasons for and against his emigration” (303).

The Manchester labor union sent representative workmen to discuss terms with the Masters. During the negotiation, never was the family mentioned nor was there ever a negotiation between the Masters and the members of the representatives’ families:

[Excerpt 9] “So class distrusted class, and their want of mutual confidence wrought sorrow to both. The masters would not be bullied, and compelled to reveal why they felt it wisest and best to offer only such low wages; they would not be made to tell that they were even sacrificing capital to obtain a decisive victory over the continental manufacturers. And the workmen sat silent and stern with folded hands, refusing to work for such pay. There was a strike in Manchester” (135).

And there it was: A strike in Manchester! A strike between Masters and workmen.

(Sorry families, mine and others. I was assigned to argue against the family in this debate on revolution.)

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