North and South
I have a confession to make: I gave North and South three stars on Goodreads. Three stars means "I liked it," which is to say that I liked parts of it, but I did not love it entirely. This result is a disappointment, too, because I fell in love with the 2004 TV mini-series, which is why I was inspired to read the book and had high expectations.
Set in England, North and South contrasts people, places, and ideas. For example, Margaret, the main character, is a strong woman, extremely empathetic towards the plight of others, while Mr. John Thornton, a wealthy factory owner who falls in love with Margaret, seems hard-hearted and impassive. The South, where Margaret is from, is spacious, tranquil, and unblemished, but the North, where Mr. Thornton works, is crowded, boisterous, and polluted. And love, just one idea from the story, shouldn't be so difficult to grasp; however, for some people, like Margaret, she is so distracted by "loving others" that she doesn't know how to be loved herself.
Gaskell takes those examples and twists them. However wonderful you may think Margaret appears to you, Reader, she is also protective of her pride. I wondered why Margaret irritated me for most of the story, until the near end when I suddenly warmed to her. She was overwhelmingly imperious, at times, and somewhat snobby. I did not understand why Thornton was attracted to her. Yet, that was my initial opinion of her. At the same time, the cold-hearted Mr. Thornton, later revealed a softer, compassionate side. He proved himself to be a good man, worthy of his importance and honor.
In addition, places were found to have opposite sides, as well. While the South seemed perfect, Margaret noticed it was also detrimental to the state of one's potential. People moved slower, and their senses and abilities were dulled and wasted; and yet, while the North proved to be a hazard to one's health and life, it was also extremely necessary to provide work and goods for the people. The North forced people to think and solve problems.
And as for love, well, Margaret needed to relax; she needed to step outside herself to see that it was good to be loved. She softened the tough exterior and made herself vulnerable, experiencing someone else's love and care for once. It was not so bad after all.
Elizabeth Gaskell is clever for turning these things (people, places, and ideas) or situations inside out to juxtapose differences, not only between opposites, but also to contrast itself with...itself, if that makes sense. Isn't that how life truly is? Isn't that how people are, too? Everything has a good side and a bad side.
Having said all of that, it took me two months to read this book, and my experience of it was spoiled by my own personal prejudices. I was in a struggle for survival in my own marriage; I was not in the mood for love, darn it! This caused me to contemptuously reject that Mr. Thornton was easily enamored of Margaret. "MEN ARE NOT LIKE THAT!" my experienced-self declared. I missed what great deed Margaret performed that captivated him, because I only remember every time she walked into a room, he fell over himself. She must have been a hot chick. OK, she did place herself between him and the strikers, taking a blow to the temple. (It should have been the other way around, but she was quite overbearing.) And he was certain she must love him.
After that event, Gaskell used some strong words to describe Thornton's weakness for Margaret.
But in truth, he was afraid of himself. His heart beat thick at the though of her coming. He could not forget the touch of her arms around his neck.
... he was on the verge now; he would not speak in the haste of his hot passion...... to one whom I love, as I do not believe man ever loved woman before.
He panted as he listened for what should come.
He loved her, and would love her; and defy her, and this miserable bodily pain.
He turned away and stood leaning his head against the mantelpiece, tears forcing themselves into his manly eyes.
This goes on and on throughout the story to describe Thornton's inflated emotions for this woman, even though he was portrayed as the heartless one. His faintness for Margaret was not convincing to me because my judgment was clouded, full of bitterness, and determined that men are really selfish, self-centered creatures, only in love with themselves. Even in marriage, it's really themselves they admire and tend to first. A married man forgets his obligation to others and becomes complacent, and often needs to be reminded of his duty, I was learning. (The more married women I speak to, the more I find our experiences the same.)... almost sick with longing for that one half-hour - that one brief space of time when she clung to him, and her heart beat against his - to come once again.
Look, Ladies, there are no Mr. Thorntons or Mr. Darcys. Those men do not exist! Furthermore, women authors devised them. Who else could have written the best love letter in lit history? Captain Wentworth? No! He was the creation of Jane Austen!
As for my feelings about Margie - I did not like her. I rebelled against her character. If Mrs. Thornton, John Thornton's mother, whom he lived with (which was part of his manly problem, if you ask me), was not such a jerk, I may have shared in her total disdain of Margaret. She was snooty and superior, and I could not reconcile how a rude girl could easily attract and win the admiration of another. Obviously, Mr. Thornton was a sucker!
All is not lost because the end of the novel was a turning point for me, as well as for Margaret and John Thornton. There were two truths that Gaskell highlighted. The first was of conviction. Due to a complicated situation involving her brother, Margaret was untruthful, leaving her reputation vulnerable. But it was conviction that caused her to negate her pride and pray never to lie again.
The other truth was empathy. When people interact with each other, regardless of class or circumstance, they come to understand one another. It’s like walking in someone else’s shoes. Mr. Thornton discovered, "Such intercourse is the very breath of life."
He said, "...and becoming acquainted with each other’s characters and persons, and even tricks of temper and modes of speech. We should understand each other better, and I’ll venture to say we should like each other more."