North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell's novel North and South is a tale of love, growth, and change. It is set during the Industrial Revolution. North and South was published in 1855 but originally serialised from 1854-55 in a weekly literary magazine called Household Words. This magazine was edited by none other than Charles Dickenswho suggested the title to Gaskell. Below is an explanation of the book's genre and summary. We will also explore a little bit about Gaskell herself, the characters of North and South, and the relevant themes in the novel.

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Table of contents

    North and South: Elizabeth Gaskell

    Elizabeth Gaskell was born Elizabeth Stevenson in London in 1810. Her father was a Unitarian but resigned his position on personal grounds and Gaskell lost her mother in childbirth. As a result, she was sent to live with her mother's sister.

    As you might guess, similarities can be drawn here with North and South (but remember, this doesn't mean it's an autobiography!). Two of her other popular novels include Cranford (1851-53) and Wives and Daughters (1865). Gaskell is known for capturing Victorian social life accurately. She also often dealt with women's issues.

    North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell Portrait, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - Elizabeth Gaskell is one of the best-known female Victorian writers.

    Elizabeth Gaskell died in 1865 at the age of 55 but her novels are timeless, and all of them have been adapted to television.

    Summary of North and South

    Overview: North and South
    Author of North and SouthElizabeth Gaskell
    GenreRealism, social novel, bildungsroman
    Brief summary of North and South
    • The novel tells the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman who is forced to leave her comfortable life in the South of England and move to the industrial North, where she confronts the harsh realities of the Industrial Revolution.
    List of main charactersMargaret Hale, John Thornton, Nicholas Higgins, Richard Hale, Hannah Thornton, Fanny Thornton, Bessy Higgins.
    ThemesClass, love, gender, the Industrial Revolution
    SettingFictional Northern English town of Milton in the nineteenth-century
    • Through Margaret's eyes, Gaskell explores the cultural differences between the North and South of England, as well as the social and economic tensions of the industrial revolution.

    Gaskell's novel centres on the life of Margaret Hale, a young woman of eighteen who has spent her adolescence acting as a companion to her much wealthier cousin, Edith. Because of this, Margaret has been brought up in the privileged world of middle-class London. This changes when Edith gets married and Margaret moves back to what she sees as her idyllic rural family home in Helstone. This is where her father, Richard Hale, has his vicarage. From this point onward, Margaret's life undergoes a series of dramatic changes and developments as she enters adulthood.

    Margaret soon discovers that, due a loss of faith, her father is resigning his vicarage and moving to the town of Milton-Northern (a fictional version of Manchester) to take up a job as a tutor. Therefore, the whole family must move there. Moving from Southern rural Helstone to Northern industrial Milton sets up the main conflict in Gaskell's novel, North versus South. This addresses the expansion of industry that was happening in the 19th century due to the Industrial Revolution.

    The Industrial Revolution was a period from approximately the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century, which took place mainly in Great Britain. At this time, the industry began to move from mainly agricultural to industrial and mechanical. This marked a huge change in manufacturing to which we owe much of our modern industries.

    It is in Milton that Margaret faces challenges to her natural beliefs that have been heavily shaped by living a privileged southern English lifestyle. Many of these challenges are personified by the character of John Thornton, a factory owner who has built himself up from poverty and represents industrialisation. He and Margaret initially meet because he is a student of her father's and the two do not see eye to eye because of their different values. But learning to accept others' values for what they are and seeing beyond her own narrow ideas are key to Margaret's maturity in North and South. Thornton also develops through Margaret's influence. In Gaskell's novel, Margaret represents the South while John represents the North as the two struggle to find a balance.

    Despite their differences, John Thornton is Margaret's love interest in this novel. North and South is also a romance. Their love develops gradually, as does everything in this novel. One incident that is particularly relevant is when Thornton's workers are furious with him as he has hired cheaper Irish labourers. This is to replace them while they are striking because of their poor working conditions.

    Thornton is hiding from his workers but Margaret convinces him to go out and try to reason with them as per her liberal ways. Thornton does so. But when she believes him in danger, Margaret throws herself in front of Thornton, being hit by a rock as a result. This action, according to 19th-century manners, makes it seem as though Margaret has an affection for John Thornton. To save her reputation, John proposes. Margaret is not yet able to deal with her feelings for John Thornton and rejects him. This is much to his mother's delight as she thinks Margaret is snobby (as does John, initially!).

    Margaret's life in Milton also brings her face to face with much tragedy and death, a great deal of it due to industrialisation. She befriends the Higgins family whose patriarch, Nicholas, is a union representative. Gaskell is showing the growth of unions at the time to protest the poor working conditions.

    North and South, The working class, StudySmarterFig. 2 - North and South is known for its exploration of complex moral and ethical issues, including the role of women in society, the responsibilities of employers to their workers, and the importance of individual morality and conscience

    Margaret spends a great deal of time with Nicholas's daughter, Bessy, who is deeply unwell because of inhaling cotton dust from the local factories, which eventually leads to her death. Throughout the novel, Margaret Hale also loses her mother, who has long suffered from illness, and her father. All of these tragedies gradually propel Margaret more and more into the adult world.

    Margaret's brother, Frederick, comes to visit their mother in her dying days. He has been exiled from England since his involvement in a mutiny in the navy. At the train station, he is involved in a physical fight with another naval man who disapproved of the mutiny, with this man later dying from his injuries. Margaret must lie to the police to prevent her brother from going to prison. Thornton is also aware of this as he too saw the incident. Because he is a magistrate he closes the case so Margaret will not be discovered. This changes her opinion of him but John Thornton believes Frederick to be her lover so he does nothing.

    After her father's death, Margaret spends some time with his close friend and her godfather Mr Bell. The two visit Helstone together but Margaret finds it is no longer as idyllic as she remembers, which shows how much growth and change she has undergone. When Mr Bell dies he leaves Margaret a fortune, including the landlord's rights to John Thornton's house (John had fallen into financial difficulties).

    Thornton visits her where she now lives in London and Margaret offers him money to help out. The combination of this and Thornton's newfound knowledge that Frederick is in fact Margaret's brother propels him to propose again. Now, a mature adult, Margaret accepts him.

    Central characters in North and South

    North and South charactersExplanation
    Margaret Hale
    • The central character.
    • A young middle-class woman who has somewhat judgemental middle-class ideas.
    • Also very caring and compassionate.
    • Represents the Southern rural world.
    • Learns much about others' lives throughout the novel which changes her prejudices.
    • Romantically involved with John Thornton.
    John Thornton
    • A factory owner in Milton who has built himself up from nothing.
    • Margaret Hale's love interest.
    • Represents the Northern industrial world.
    • Initially quite prejudiced against his workers and doesn't believe he should help them.
    • Learns, through Margaret's encouragement, that he must respect his workers as he relies on them just as they rely on him.
    Mr Hale
    • Margaret's father.
    • Former vicar but moves on to tutoring after losing his faith.
    • Principled, values compassion.
    • Also quite vulnerable and leaves much of the household responsibilities to Margaret after Mrs Hale becomes ill.
    Nicholas Higgins
    • Working class union man.
    • Daughter of the deeply unwell Bessy.
    • Represents the new industrial working class.
    • Proud family man.
    • Ends up cooperating with John Thornton on how to improve owner-worker relationships in Thornton's factory.
    Bessy Higgins
    • Nicholas Higgin's daughter.
    • Very unwell because of dust inhalation from the local factories. Eventually loses her life to this.
    • Deeply religious.
    • Working class background.
    • Helps teach Margaret about her prejudices and helps her grow as a result.

    North and South: the book's genre

    North and South is a realist novel. It has believable characters with a plausible plot and deals with everyday issues. Specifically, it can be seen as a work of social realism.

    Social realism is a sub-genre of realism. Realism is a literary genre that deals with everyday life. It has a plausible plot and is usually set in real or realistic places. Social realism is realism that deals with social issues, eg. in North and South, in which Gaskell addresses the issues that arose in England as industrialisation progressed.

    North and South is also a bildungsroman. This is a text in which a (typically young) main character grows and develops into maturity throughout the story. Margaret Hale is a young woman of eighteen at the start of North and South who is set in her ideas. By the end of Gaskell's novel, she has matured and learned to accept others' views. This is exemplified by her relationship with John Thornton.

    Themes in North and South

    The main themes of North and South are love, class, the Industrial Revolution, and North vs. South.

    North vs. South

    The title of Gaskell's novel details the central conflict in the text, North vs. South. The North represents modern industrialisation whereas the South represents the traditional rural world. These two ways of life were still battling for dominance when Gaskell was writing North and South.

    Margaret can be seen as representing the southern way of life while John Thornton represents the northern. John Thornton exemplifies new industry and opportunities as he has built himself up from poverty.


    North and South is also a love story between Margaret Hale and John Thornton. Because they represent the north and south, this is also linked to the previous theme. At the beginning of Gaskell's novel, the two are very different people and agree on little. Margaret thinks John is too harsh and he thinks her too snobby.

    They develop respect for each other as North and South progress. Margaret convinces John to be more humane and use his money for charitable purposes. And Margaret's interactions with John teach her to accept others' points of view and to respect those who have made money in new industries.

    Are those the Gormans who made their fortunes in trade at Southampton? Oh! I'm glad we don't visit them. I don't like shoppy people. - Margaret Hale (Chp. 2)

    At the end of North and South, Margaret and John have reconciled and it is obvious they will soon marry.

    There have been many theories on what this marriage symbolises in Gaskell's novel. One theory is that it represents finally finding a balance between the traditional Southern English ways and the modern, industrial Northern English ways. Another is that Margaret and John's relationship is a realistic one that shows the difficulties couples struggle with in the modern world and that they must learn to understand each other for things to work.

    From your reading of North and South, what do you think the ending symbolises?


    Class is also a key theme in North and South. This adds to the realism of the novel. It is narrated in the third person but we see the world through Margaret's eyes. Margaret belongs to the middle class. Because of this, she is an outsider to much of the poverty she sees in Milton. This is particularly represented by the Higgins family that Margaret meets and befriends.

    The daughter of the family, Bessy, is deeply ill due to inhaling cotton dust and eventually loses her life because of this. Margaret's interactions with Bessy help challenge many of her prejudices. Bessy's father, Nicholas, is an active union man who is very involved in the strikes that impact Thornton's factory. Gaskell is showing here the typical social issues that arose for the working class as a result of the Industrial Revolution. There is also growth throughout North and South on the issues of class via Margaret's influence.

    As she gradually moves past her own prejudices, Margaret pushes John Thornton, as a factory owner, to respect and negotiate with his workers more. This leads to a greater understanding between John and Nicholas Higgins and a better factory owner-worker relationship despite them being from very different classes.

    The significance of North and South

    In the canon of English Literature, much of North and South's importance comes from its social realism. Gaskell captured a very specific period in English history that she was living through.

    She deals with many of the social issues that came about because of the Industrial Revolution. These include poor working conditions, ill-health due to the proximity to factories, adjusting to a new industrial world from one that was agricultural, and many more. Elizabeth Gaskell does not offer any easy solutions to these issues but she does represent them accurately and with nuance.

    North and South - Key takeaways

    • North and South is an 1855novel written by Elizabeth Gaskell.
    • It falls under the genre of social realism and is a bildungsroman.
    • It centres on Margaret Hale, a young woman from Southern England as she tries to understand the new industrial world of the North. It is set during the English Industrial Revolution.
    • Margaret is thought to represent the South whereas her love interest John Thornton represents the North.
    • Important themes in North and South are North vs. South, Love, and Class.
    Frequently Asked Questions about North and South

    What happens in North and South?

    North and South follows Margaret Hale, a young, middle class, Southern English woman, as she tries to negotiate the industrial world of Northern England.

    What is the main idea of the novel North and South?

    The main idea of North and South is about trying to find a balance between the traditional world of southern England and the modern world of northern England. This is represented by the relationship between Margaret Hale and John Thornton.

    What happens at the end of North and South?

    At the end of North and South, Margaret and John have reconciled. They now understand each other better and are in love. Margaret helps John out of financial difficulties and John commits to being more charitable.

    What genre is North and South?

    North and South is social realism. It is also a bildungsroman.

    Is North and South a romance?

    As well as being social commentary, North and South is a romance. It follows the development of a romantic relationship between Margaret Hale and John Thornton.

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