Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Alive to Distant, and Dead to Near": Masochism, Suicide, and Masculinity in North and South

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Alive to Distant, and Dead to Near": Masochism, Suicide, and Masculinity in North and South

Article excerpt

In Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1855), cotton mill "master" John Thornton begins the novel with a firmly-held conception of his own identity based on a tenuous class contrast between himself and his employees. The "softening" of Thornton's rigid, isolated, stereotypical identity as "Captain of Industry" is a topic well-covered by the novel's critics. The general consensus has been that Margaret Hale, the novel's female protagonist, negotiates the class warfare in the fictional Manchester surrogate Milton-Northern. It is said that, through her intercession, she helps bring "master" and "men" together in a dubious accord of mutual understanding. (1) Within this industrial romance, it is necessary for Thornton to acknowledge interdependence, and Margaret supposedly "softens" him, "feminizes" him, teaches him sympathy. (2) It is my contention, however, that critics have relied too much on this script of "feminization" in interpreting female-authored nineteenth-century novels. Because twentieth-century feminists and gender theorists have thoroughly codified patriarchy's reduction of women to mere bodies, critical thought on the Victorian era tends to ally affect with the feminine. Critics have tended, consequently, to tout "feminization" as the best way to conceive of those male characters' emotional journeys. Catherine Barnes Stevenson, for instance, claims that Thornton begins the novel "scorning the female world of emotion," and thus Gaskell supposedly punishes him by "unmann[ing]" him, "fore[ing] him into suffering and dependence" (11). (3) Stevenson's conclusion echoes Gilbert and Gubar's influential thesis that Rochester's dispossession, blindness, and other injuries at the end of Jane Eyre (1847) punish him for his misdeeds and compromise his patriarchal power so that he and Jane may at last relate to each other as "equals" (368). (4)

This line of thinking, which has remained steadfast in criticism of male characters in novels written by women, casts suffering and vulnerability as "feminine" states, resulting in a conflation of disempowerment, reformation, and "feminization." (5) In misreading Margaret's role and Thornton's character along these lines, we've misread the novel's most important insights about gender as well as class. I argue that Gaskell's characterization of Thornton in North and South unearths a social-psychological barrier deeper than a lack of sympathy. Namely, Gaskell indicts a strain of masochism in what Herbert Sussman has called the "economic man," an ethos which she shows as the root of many of the injustices of industrial society (Masculine Identities 81). Many critics, including Sussman, have explicated "the definition of manhood as self-discipline, as the ability to control male energy and to deploy this power not for sexual but for productive purposes" (Victorian Masculinities 11). (6) I argue that Gaskell's rejection of certain tenets of industrial masculinity amounts to more than just a rejection of masculine isolation or economic authoritarianism in favor of a kinder, gentler paternalism. Rather, Gaskell casts the self-control of the "economic man" as a kind of self-inflicted masochistic violence that reverberates outward onto the working class and onto women.

Thus, the "physical and mental affliction" Thornton suffers from Margaret's initial rejection is not a punishment out of which he will transcend a better man, one newly capable of "compassion for the women and the workers in [his life]" due to a purgative female influence (Malay 51, Stevenson 12). Indeed, Thornton begins the novel as a feeling man whose most notable feature is his intimate relationship with his mother: "The very daringness with which mother and son spoke out unpalatable truths, the one to the other, showed a reliance on the firm centre of each other's souls" (North and South 87). (7) In writing a male character who acknowledges dependence upon his mother and whose "soul" is akin to hers, Gaskell creates from the very start of her novel what others have argued to be the novel's endpoint: an emotionally literate "new gentleman" who has proven himself susceptible to female influence and can therefore act as a fit partner in a (somewhat) egalitarian relationship with the novel's heroine. …

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