SEPT / OCT 2011: BY HANNAH KINGSLEY
Of all the characters I have discovered in 19th Century novels, the one that has been the most believable as a male figure is John Thornton, of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and the BBC miniseries by the same name. In books there are male characters who fight deftly with swords, men who recite sonnets and are of feeling; men who are heroic, witty, cunning, or kind. And then there is Mr. Thornton. He has many traits but in a manner that proves distinctly and realistically male. This is likely why Gaskell’s creation of him has become one of the most popular of literary men.
In the beginning of the story, we encounter John Thornton as the master of a factory. To outsiders such as Margaret Hale, he seems to be overbearing, authoritarian, and even cold. In the book, Ms. Hale initially describes him as “a great rough fellow, with not a grace or refinement about him.” It is true that such a man would probably have seemed rough to those accustomed to the tranquil beauty of the south. In contrast to feeling at home in the niceties of a country house, Mr. Thornton is at home beneath the smog-filled sky, and in the cool grays of the surrounding cityscape. In Milton, the people rush, ideas are exchanged, and life seems to breathe as much as through the cotton-fiber filled lungs of factory workers as through the machinery that supports their way of living. Here is more chaos and less literacy, more progress and less beauty.
Mr. Thornton has reason to be proud of his existence and way of life in Milton. He rose from nothing with a father who was a disgrace to become the owner of his own little empire in the form of a piece of the cotton industry. As long as the hum of his factory can be heard in Milton, it speaks not only to his prosperity, but the hard work it took him to obtain it. The book recounts the years he spent saving money and providing for his family when his father was no longer living. This also explains the strong bond Mr. Thornton has with his mother and why she views him as a success with such queenly satisfaction. His mother has every right to be proud of him, she figures. He is the utmost of a self-made man.
In North and South, the author gives us the unique vantage point of reading Mr. Thornton’s thoughts and views, unlike earlier female novelists such as Jane Austen. Thanks to Gaskell’s writing style we learn far more about John Thornton than we might otherwise. For example, it becomes clear throughout the book and mini-series that John Thornton is not the cold-hearted master that Ms. Hale first thinks him. Instead, his true character comes to light.
While sometimes he can seem pretentious or cold, in fact much of his actions are based on a concern for other people and their well-being. He may not always go about displaying his concern for others in the most visible of ways, his kindness less of the gentle kind, but his true intentions can be discovered in his working away at his desk into the late hours far after the factory has closed for the night. He tries to keep accounts straight and make sure that his employees will be paid. When hard times hit, he figures this is the best way to preserve the livelihoods of the people under his care, as well as the running of the factory. This is something that at first his love-interest Ms. Hale does not realize.
Mr. Thornton’s character runs deep. He is a private man with strong values and an appreciation for the truth, even in business practices. He avoids participating in schemes and “speculation”
(glorified gambling) that might jeopardize his employee’s welfare, and bears the insults of others when his moral fortitude brings him up short of the winnings that could have been his if he had gambled. His integrity includes the way he behaves toward his family, as he quietly bears the mortification of his sister’s behavior and is respectful of his mother. John Thornton need not ever fear of the strength of his good reputation anywhere his name is known.
Mr. Thornton is believable as a man because his characteristics are so traditionally male. He desires to be a protectorate. He is strong but capable of being gentle. When he makes a mistake, he tries his best to fix it. These and other traits set him apart from other male characters; somehow he is less separate from the world that he lives in than other fictional men. He balances well the reality around him and his ability to be a romantic—and he knows how to be truthful without being cynical. He cannot escape the details of his factory’s business, nor the tentativeness of life in the city. He has likely suffered more days of forehead-creasing and worry than experienced days carefree enough to incite a smile. This is the world of life in the north of England at such a time in history: but at once it feels as if it is also real, as if Mr. Thornton were in many ways a caricature of men in the modern world thrust between a desire to survive and to thrive. Perhaps the greatest thing about him is that John Thornton appears to do both.
In the city, he does not want for female admirers, but though even Ms. Hale must gradually admit to his handsome demeanor, it is not his appearance that is most attractive, but the strength of his character that endures and continues to grow. His soul is not stagnant, but is open to learning. His mind is not stagnant either, as the pursuit of his lessons with Ms. Hale’s father attest. Mr. Thornton is always improving himself, always questioning, never willing to settle into merely existing. He may have had hard times and times may continue to be difficult, but a part of him never gives up hope. Like days of clouds make you appreciate the sun, or earth helps you to appreciate the promise of heaven, John Thornton seems to know that there are still some reasons to smile… if you hold on long enough. ■