"ALIVE TO DISTANT, AND DEAD TO NEAR": MASOCHISM, SUICIDE, AND MASCULINITY IN NORTH AND SOUTH.
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. (8) Despite the many criticisms of the novel's abrupt proposal ending, however, Gaskell's portrayal of Thornton shows that marriage itself is not the panacea for social conflict. Rather, Gaskell portrays the suspended pain of erotic love as a far preferable state to Thornton's benumbed, masochistic self-denial in pursuit of a "manliness" grounded in "individual self-interest" (Sussman, Masculine Identities 81). The core problem of Thornton's character at the novel's start, then, lies not in his lack of sympathy but in his gendered orientation toward pleasure, pain, and suspense.
This is not to say that Margaret's role is unimportant--the novel was, after all, originally titled Margaret Hale--but that Gaskell is just as concerned with uprooting and interrogating men and masculinity as she is with liberating women. As Jack Halberstam has told us, masculinities studies need not (and should not) consist of projects that maintain easy equivalences between masculinity and male power. Keeping in mind that masculinities studies has all too often lacked "any real investment in the project of alternative masculinities" (Halberstam, Female Masculinity 18), I self-consciously examine a female writer's unmasking of the harmfulness of bourgeois industrial masculinity and its concomitant structures of power. Recognizing Thornton as the center of the marketplace drama of North and South illuminates Gaskell's arraignment of a masculinity that trades political and economic privilege in exchange for masochistic abnegation drained of both pleasure and real pain. Gaskell does not attempt to excuse Thornton's behavior but rather exposes its roots as well as the harmful homosocial competition it engenders; ergo, even though she portrays Thornton's pathos, she does not court "sympathy for the devil" (Halberstam, "The Good..." 352). The damage of the masochistic work ethic adopted by new captains of industry, she shows, is widespread, doubling back on bourgeois men but wreaking exponential pain on women, children, and working-class men.
In offering this criticism, Gaskell presents a much more nuanced and incisive portrait of the mill-owner than she does in her earlier novel, Mary Barton (1848), which her industrialist Mancunian neighbors condemned as a slanderous caricature. (9) In an 1850 letter, prior to the writing of North and South, Gaskell defended herself against the charge of being anti-business and biased against mill-owners, writing:
I can not imagine a nobler scope for a thoughtful energetic man, desirous of doing good to his kind, than... as the master of a factory.... And I should like some man, who had a man's correct knowledge, to write on this subject, and make the poor intelligent work-people understand the infinite anxiety as to right and wrong-doing which I believe that riches bring to many. ("Letters" 399-400)
Thornton's complexity is clearly at least the partial result of Gaskell's attempt to address this perspective that is missing from Mary Barton, and other critics have identified potential real-world models for this thoughtful master. (10) I'm interested less in Gaskell's faithful representation of real men, however, and more in her personification of the trappings of a masochistic masculine ethic brought on by the clash of Protestantism and industrialism. In a speech much discussed by critics, Thornton condemns his poverty-stricken workers:
"My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings [of wages] regularly.... This taught me self-denial. Now... I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me. Now when I feel that in my own case it is no good luck, nor merit, nor talent,--but simply the habits of life which taught me to despise indulgences not thoroughly earned,--indeed, never to think twice about them,--I believe that this suffering, which Miss Hale says is impressed on the countenances of the people of Milton, is but the natural punishment of dishonestly-enjoyed pleasure...." (North and South 78, emphasis added)
Emblematizing a typical industrial middle-class attitude toward his own social ascension, Thornton both acknowledges interdependence (regarding his mother) and denies it (regarding his workers). (11) This contradiction has been repeatedly identified by critics as the source of the economic conflict that makes up the framework of the novel. Even more than the notion of interdependence and sympathy, however, an examination of the discourse of pleasure and pain is crucial for understanding the "political economy" at work in Thornton's philosophy. Thornton locates the cause of his success as "self-denial," which he positions as the opposite of the "dishonestly-enjoyed pleasure" of his workers. Instead of pain, the opposite of pleasure is an emptiness, a negation. His mother has taught him to "despise indulgences," to despise pleasures, when he has not "earned" them through that negation. The suggestive moral language of Thornton's speech links economics with religion in the by-now-familiar reframing of the Protestant work ethic to suit the demands of free-market capitalism. As Sussman puts it, the influence of Calvinism transformed the Christian attitude toward wealth: "the elect were marked by worldly success in business attained by hard work and frugality. Thus, committed labor with its resulting commercial achievement became a sign of being chosen by God" (Masculine Identities 84). Through Thornton, Gaskell shows that by the 1850s "frugality" has morphed into the much more slippery "self-denial," and Thornton bases his entire masculine worth on denying himself the kind of indulgent pleasures which he accuses his workers of "dishonestly" enjoying--that is, the transient pleasures of drink, food, and (implicitly) sex in favor of future financial reward.
Gaskell's novel unmasks this deceptively simple system of religio-economic reciprocity that presented working men with a contract, as it were, of deferred reward but failed to deliver in just proportion. Much has been made of Gaskell's Unitarian vision for class and gender reconciliation, but this often leads to casting her as more ameliorative, more compromising, and indeed more cerebral in a Cartesian sense than her books show her to be. We are not used to considering the author who was until rather recently referred to by critics as "Mrs. Gaskell" to be so sensual, but I argue that, for Gaskell, hunger and sex--arguably the two foremost human experiences of pain and pleasure--figure crucially into the political economy of industrial England as determined and enforced by men in power. In North and South, Gaskell's critique of England's spiritual hangover from Calvinism takes the elemental shape of the body and its sensations (or lack thereof). In this way, she anticipates by some ten years Matthew Arnold's condemnation of Puritanism and the Philistine culture (or anti-culture) of acquisition, but whereas Arnold abstracts the battlegrounds of the industrial question into such incorporeal entities as Hellenism, Hebraism, and "sweetness and light," Gaskell's earthy narratives get right down into the guts and organs--literally, the stomach and the genitals. Mrs. Thornton's "training" is so effective that Thornton claims no longer even to think of "indulgences" when he has not first gone through a period of self-denial, and these "indulgences" bear a distinctly sensual character. Denial of the body to perfect the soul is a system that works well enough for the rich, Gaskell shows, since the rich body is not starving and, more interestingly, is an abstinent body, one which does not reproduce. Self-denial, then, becomes a position of privilege rather than of earnest self-improvement. The masculine work ethic that was once a method for the inception of and the provision for family (both nuclear and communal) has become a permanent lifestyle of endless, self-perpetuated struggle. This new system, built upon older and--Gaskell would argue--healthier, more orthodoxly Christian masculine values, revises pleasure as something contingent upon its denial and deferral, an equation which is essentially masochistic.
In calling these phenomena "masochism," I am proposing an alternate view of the usual way that we understand both Victorian masculinity and masochism itself. Mindful of Gayle Rubin's caution against treating masochism like "a unitary phenomenon whose singular psychodynamic, text, aesthetic, or narrativity are not only knowable but known" (306), it is my contention that "masochism" offers us a way to understand certain gendered Victorian attitudes towards work, leisure, pleasure, and pain. Taking a cue from John Kucich, who has advocated for freeing "masochism" from the exclusivity of psychoanalysis's sexual framework, I suggest that masochism can describe a subject's ideological orientation toward pain in a way that is potentially erotic insofar as masochism may dictate some sexual behavior, but it can also dictate other activities like work, leisure, and food and drink consumption (Imperial Masochism 12). (12) This is what makes the term and the dynamic not only appropriate but useful for understanding a novel like North and South. It gives us an entry point to understanding Gaskell's critique of Thornton's representative attitude toward the moral discipline of the body rather than the "conscience," as Arnold would have it. In Gaskell's novel, the same masochistic attitude applies to hunger and eating as well as sex.
The central characteristic of this brand of masochism, I propose, is its suspense, its frozenness, its waiting. Post-Freudian critics have long since recognized that masochism is not as simple as the taking of pleasure in pain; it is, rather, a state of suspended pleasure, of finding pleasure in suspense of an end. (13) Many have found that writers use this kind of suspense as a narrative affordance, for example, allowing sex to appear covertly on the page or even acting as "a negotiating tool in which pain is the price of a chosen desire that violates a moral or ideological norm" (Rosenman 23-24). (14) But again and again, the perversion for which the masochist supposedly pays through his or her suffering is seen to be marginal, unspeakable, unnarratable for one reason or another. I propose, however, that Gaskell's North and South points toward the mainstreaming of a masochistic masculine stance arising out of the convergence of Protestantism and industrialization. (15)
Masochism: The "Perversion," the Subversion, and the Social Symptom
John Kucich has recently contended that the psychoanalytic tradition established by Freud and carried forward by Deleuze has put into place a set of "rigid" erotic associations that confine inquiry regarding masochism. Kucich revises this approach by turning to twenty-first-century clinicians who have claimed "that sexual practices are among the rarest forms of what they would describe as masochistic behavior" and proposing a "better metaphorics for masochism, one less confined to an analysis of sexual domination and submission and more determinate in its decoding of masochism's ideological significance" (Imperial Masochism 21, 22). What's more, Kucich's reorientation of masochism within a nationalistic/economic schema rather than an exclusively sexual one opens up avenues of alternative exploration into male masochism. As the late twentieth-century "sex wars" and their aftermath have shown, much critical ink has been spilled determining whether female masochism is truly transgressive or merely an eroticized, sublimated expression of internalized patriarchal domination. (16) Male masochism, by contrast, appears relatively simple: "[T]he masochistic hero appears to be educated and fashioned by the authoritarian woman whereas basically it is he who forms her, dresses her for the part and prompts the harsh words she addresses to him" (Deleuze 21). In this narcissistic formulation, "woman occupies the space of the Other onto which the man projects his own narcissistic ideal" (Stewart 5). Kucich's study eschews the objectified dominatrix and substitutes the ideal of British imperial triumph. Just as Sacher-Masoch's prostration at the feet of the Venus in Furs was an iconoclastic pose that obscured its hegemonic motive, imperialists' willing self-sacrifice for Britannia, Kucich contends, was sanctified by British culture. That "sanctification transformed pain and finality of death or defeat into pleasurable fantasies of ecstatic rebirth or resurrection" (Imperial Masochism 5). In this way, Kucich recuperates what was important about a disavowed strain of late twentieth-century feminist critique, which is, first, that defining masochism in terms purely of erotic preference is not always the path to understanding its intricacies and, second, that masochistic behaviors can be both a "psychic symptom" of and a conscious or unconscious "response to social circumstances" (Felski 132).
Though Kucich devotes a chapter to Olive Schreiner's "fundamentally masochistic dynamic," his model is primarily extrapolated from male writers (Imperial Masochism 97). (17) In an imperialist fantasy dreamed up, for the most part, by men, Schreiner is exceptional, not emblematic. Imperial Britain lays out for men "a preoedipal economy... in which self-imposed suffering produces narcissistic fantasies of omnipotence," which act, in turn, as "the primary narcissistic compensation that masochism provides" (Imperial Masochism 32, 33). But for a mid-century woman writer like Elizabeth Gaskell, the actual compensation for male masochism is not a fantasy of omnipotence but a fantasy of the market's, and indeed the (divinely-instituted) world's, fairness, justice, and reciprocity--one which has no bearing in the realities of industrial England and which thus creates a shield of denial for the middle-class men who run the economy. It is this masculine fantasy that, she shows in North and South, creates the widespread damage brought on by class conflict. Rather than the "existential grandeur" lent by a martyr's death (Imperial Masochism 25), Gaskell portrays middle-class men's masochism as no less than self-destruction, drained of the compensating erotics of either pain or pleasure. "Self-denial" demands a deferral of reward so asymptotic that, in reality, it amounts to total negation.
Eating and Drinking, Deferral and Death (and Variations) (18)
In the same speech in which Thornton lauds his mother for teaching him this system, he insists, "Now I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her wish, requires.... Now... I have my mother safe in the quiet peace that becomes her age, and duly rewards her former exertions" (78-79). (19) The Thornton household, however, is not comfortable at all, nor is Mrs. Thornton either quiet or peaceful. She spends her time in the dining room rather than the drawing room in order to keep the latter pristine. (20) When Margaret sees the Thornton house for the first time, she marvels at how the chandelier is covered, how the ornaments are kept "safe from dust under their glass shades," and how "netting or knitting... veil" each piece of furniture.
It seemed as though no one had been in it since the day when the furniture was bagged up with as much care as if the house was to be overwhelmed with lava, and discovered a thousand years hence.... Wherever she looked there was evidence of care and labour, but not care and labour to procure ease, to help on habits of tranquil home employment; solely to ornament, and then to preserve ornament from dirt or destruction. (103)
The Thornton household's state of deferral to a distant, hypothetical future reflects its occupants' misguided "labour" to preserve rather than enjoy, even though enjoyment can be afforded. As Margaret observes, "the trouble that must be willingly expended to secure that effect of icy, snowy discomfort" ironically stultifies the healthy "home employment" that could be achieved if the Thorntons weren't stuck in a mindset that makes them behave as though they were still impoverished. The virtues of thrift have transformed into a useless self-denial to secure a future that never arrives and which, as Margaret's image of volcanic immersion captures, spells out tragedy, petrifaction, and death.
The Thorntons' ascension to wealth and their enactment of this masochistic lifestyle showcases the Victorians' moral struggles with the massive social and economic changes underway in England in the earlier half of the nineteenth century. liana M. Blumberg characterizes mid-century writers' emphasis on self-denial as their attempt to reconcile the values of Protestantism with industrial capitalism. Novelists strove for a sense of "equilibrium" between the two poles of Christian altruism and a new laissez-faire economic system based on self-interest (Blumberg 15). (21) Self-denial became, arguably, the Victorian characteristic and gave birth to a new work ethic built upon the old Calvinistic principles: a coalition of the similarities between Protestantism and capitalism, that is, their shared insistence upon "labor, self-control, and self-denial in pursuit of a deferred, increased reward" (Blumberg 16, emphasis added). This ethic forms the cornerstone of Victorian masculinity such that "[t]he compulsion to labor" through a practice of "self-discipline, self-denial and hard work" was "made an integral part of normative masculinity" (Danahay 7). For the first time in history, labor took on an exclusively masculine character, with middle-class women becoming "economically and spatially separated from the site of work" (Capuano 75). As industrialization eliminated many of the skill-based positions held by the working class, it simultaneously created unprecedented opportunities for middle-class men to enrich themselves without breaking a sweat, through the canny manipulation of markets. In short, industrialism disembodied work, and so middle-class men substituted the pains and pleasures of manual labor with the non-pleasure and non-pain of duty and deferral. Self-denial came to perform the double function of compensating for the dubious acquisition of money and acting as the ultimate mark of masculinity. Sydney Carton's one-and-done beheading may redeem his wasted, indulgent life, but not all men could expect the same kind of opportunity to die like a martyr. This is masochism without pain but also without pleasure, without the glory of self-sacrifice, a strange negation arising out of the cultural backwash of Calvinism and the uproar of industry. (22)
John Thornton begins life impoverished but not starving, and so the self-denial his mother teaches him to practice is appropriate for his circumstances. But once he acquires great wealth and local power, he doesn't stop. The moral practice that has delivered him and his family doesn't have an explicit endpoint, doesn't take changed circumstance into account, and therefore Thornton cannot--and this is a key word for Gaskell--"enjoy" his wealth. Late in the novel, Mr. Bell jocosely questions Thornton about "when you Milton men intend to live. All your lives seem to be spent in gathering together the materials for life." If Thornton won't use his money for "enjoyment," Bell asks, "What do you want it for?" Thornton replies, after a silence, that he doesn't know, but that money is not his ultimate object. When pressed, Thornton demurs, "It is a home question" (303). Thornton seems to hedge because he doesn't want to mention the possibility of providing for a wife and family in front of Margaret, who has spumed him. But since Thornton was already wealthy before he met Margaret, and since his mother and sister are both well set-up, the motive of masculine provision remains an unsatisfactory explanation. What Thornton does not or cannot voice is that he must continue, masochistically, to work and live in discomfort because to enjoy his wealth would be immoral and unmanly, even unpatriotic.
Later, Thornton makes the rather Amoldian assertion that the British are a "Teutonic" race; the Greeks, whom scholars like Mr. Bell revere, created "a life of leisure and serene enjoyment, much of which was entered in through their outward senses." (23) Thornton says he doesn't "despise" such sensuality, but that "we [Teutonics] do not look upon life as a time for enjoyment, but as a time for action and exertion" (304). Thornton rejects Mr. Bell's "Greek" model of masculinity, which is defined by sensual enjoyment (although not, apparently, "mere pleasure"), for a model of "action and exertion," but still cannot provide the endpoint or even the goal of that action and exertion. Like the "[s]enseless and purposeless... wood and iron and steam" of the Milton machinery enacting its "endless labours," Thornton himself works on in "tireless endurance... busy and restless in seeking after--What?" (379). Thornton insists that he "would rather be a man toiling, suffering--nay, failing and successless--here, than lead a dull prosperous life" because to him sensuality, enjoyment, and leisure are morally inferior states (75, emphasis added).
It makes perverse sense, then, that Thornton believes the "suffering" of the working class in Milton to be "the natural punishment of dishonestly-enjoyed pleasure" (78). Only the suspense of pleasure, the willing giving up of pleasure, is moral in Thornton's privileged position. Thornton goes on, "I do not look on self-indulgent, sensual people as worthy of my hatred; I simply look upon them with contempt for their poorness of character" (79). In his masochistic moral schema, any pleasure at all becomes indulgent, and sensual pleasures are the most blameworthy. Thornton's workers don't accumulate money, save it, or invest it. Rather, they spend it on their bodies: namely, on food and alcohol. Nicholas Higgins, for instance, drinks to excess. Gaskell takes care, however, to recast this "sensual self-indulgence" in the light of an understandable coping behavior. Bessy Higgins explains the motive of the poor to spend any extra cash on physical, momentary experiences:
"There are days... when yo' get up and go through th' hours, just longing for a bit of a change--a bit of a fillip [stimulus] as it were... I've longed for to be a man to go spreeing.... It's little to blame to them if they do go into th' gin-shop for to make their blood flow quicker, and more lively, and see things they never see at no other time--pictures, and looking-glass, and such like... at times o'strike there's much to knock a man down, for all they start so hopefully; and where's the comfort to come fro'?" (125)
This passage bears a striking similarity to one found in Engels's 1845 The Condition of the Working Class in England:
The worker comes home tired and exhausted from his labours.... He urgently needs some stimulant; he must have something to recompense him for his labours during the day and enable him to face the prospect of the next day's dreary toil.... It is greatly aggravated by the circumstances in which he finds himself--the uncertainty of his job, his lack of resources to fall back on, his state of insecurity.... Moreover, his need for company can be satisfied only in the public house, for there is nowhere else he can meet his friends. (116) (24)
Engels identifies physical stimulus as a psychological need as well as a coping mechanism. For Bessy, one of the novel's spokespeople for her class, physical stimulation staves off despair, just as it does in Engels's view. She translates "spreeing" into freedom and novelty, not hinging or indulging.
After Bessy's death, Margaret does not condone Nicholas's attempt to "drown care" with alcohol but neither does she blame him for it (207). In a moment of free indirect discourse that collapses Margaret's viewpoint with Gaskell's, the narrator asks, "In fact, where was he to look for comfort?" Instead of castigating, Margaret offers him "some comfortable food" at her own home (204). Mr. Hale wants to read Higgins a chapter from Job that urges stoicism in the face of suffering, but Margaret knows that this is the wrong course: "Not yet, papa, I think. Perhaps not at all" (210). Gaskell insists on the alleviation of physical need rather than the pious extolling of endurance.
For Thornton, the consumption of food and drink could not be more different. Instead of administering to the body, Thornton's consumptive practices are fiduciary. The Thorntons give an annual dinner party, not to enjoy the pleasures of good food and good company but to "kill off" all of the acquaintances to whom they "owe" a dinner (86, 133). Mrs. Thornton does not "enjoy" society; rather, she takes "satisfaction" in "dinner-giving, and... criticising other people's dinners" (88-89). Lavish dinners seem, at their face, to denote sensual enjoyment, but the Thorntons use them only as occasions to convey status and enact social competition. The slang phrase "kill off for reciprocating dinner invitations is suggestive enough itself, sapping any enjoyment that could come from socialization and turning the gathering into aggressive retribution. Margaret notes the excess and the "sumptuousness of the dinner-table and its appointments..." and feels "the number of delicacies to be oppressive; one half of the quantity would have been enough, and the effect lighter and more elegant" (146). Even in this moment when self-denial seems decadently thrown aside, the overwhelming number of rich foods abstract those very foods into signifiers of wealth--not meant to be enjoyed or even consumed but to be admired. The shadow of masochism is not absent, even from this feast: "Careless to abstemiousness in her daily habits, it was part of her [Mrs. Thornton's] pride to set a feast before such of her guests as cared for it. Her son shared this feeling... even now, though he was denying himself the personal expenditure of an unnecessary sixpence..." (146). The Thorntons' "abstemiousness" simply finds its other side in paying back a dinner debt with interest. Even when Thornton lingers over choosing the most exquisite fruits on offer to give to the ailing Mrs. Hale, the gesture is made to spite Margaret, who has rejected his marriage proposal, to show her and to prove to himself that he will not be prevented from "doing a kindness" for his friends "for fear of a haughty girl" (197). Dr. Donaldson wishes Thornton would attend in the same way to every one of his patients and "all their wants," but the narrator points out that Thornton "had no general benevolence,--no universal philanthropy" (197). His gift of delicacies for Mrs. Hale acts not so much as a provision for her hunger or delectation but rather to signify his defiance. For Thornton, food delivers a message rather than sustenance or pleasure.
Bessy Higgins articulates the perversity of the Thorntons' dinner party: "Food is high,--and they [working-class mothers] mun have food for their childer, I reckon. Suppose Thorntons sent 'em their dinner out,--th' same money, spent on potatoes and meal, would keep many a crying babby quiet, and hush up its mother's heart for a bit!" (137) For the Thorntons, eating is a purely social act and not an act of sustenance because the Thorntons do not experience hunger--not in the sense that denotes an unwillingly undergone, prolonged period without eating. When food and drink lose their neutrality as biological necessities, they become defined only by "sensuality" and "indulgence." Hunger, real hunger, will become a cornerstone of Gaskell's dismantling of this privileged worldview. Unlike other "pleasures," eating cannot be endlessly deferred, because, as the workers of Milton know, death is a quick result. The death of providing fathers and the subsequent orphaning of children becomes the issue that shakes Thornton out of his masochistic pose.
Mothers and Fathers, Masters and Men
Thornton pinpoints age fifteen as the moment he had to "become a man," when his father committed suicide (78). Thornton's father was once a working man himself who practiced "speculation" or dubious investment to pull himself and his family out of debt. When the organizers of the speculation vanish along with Thornton's father's investment, he ends his own life. Thornton verbally disowns his father and cleaves to his mother, "a woman of strong power, and firm resolve" who teaches the teenage Thornton all the "manly virtues," especially self-discipline (78). But Thornton's disavowal of his father's disgraceful suicide only papers over an ominous association between men's work, masochism, and death. After the suicide, Mrs. Thornton pulls her son out of school and procures for him a position as a "shop boy." Together, they set aside one-fifth of his fifteen-shilling weekly wage (the family's only income) (80). This system of "self-denial" therefore takes on a meaning that supersedes a simple road out of poverty; it also becomes a system for warding off the grim specter of a failed provider's ignominious self-destruction.
Out of the seven deaths described in the novel, only two are suicides--Thornton's father's and Thornton's employee Boucher's. Both result from their victims' inability to provide for their families. Reduced to desperation to get himself out of debt, Thornton Sr. attempted a series of "wild, hopeless struggles, made with other people's money, to regain his own moderate portion of wealth" (80). John Boucher, prevented from working by his own labor union whose strike pay is not enough to feed his six children, takes part in a riot that inadvertently injures Margaret. Both the mill-owners and the union subsequently blacklist him. Ostracized and forced to watch his wife and children starve, he drowns himself by lying face down in the shallow brook the Milton factories use to dye their cotton. His corpse is symbolically stained by the dye, and, in an ironic inversion of the starvation that drove him to the deed, his dead face is "swollen." Boucher's self-murdered corpse, I argue, catalyzes socioeconomic change in the novel; Gaskell's target is not only the gap between the female middle-class ambassador and the working man but also that between the middle-class man and the working man, a gap maintained by a masochistic work ethic, which, in turn, demands that Thornton devalue working class men's suffering. To complete his transformation, Thornton must allow himself intimacy and connection with a group of men who carry the taint of immoral pleasure as well as the fearful specter of suicide. (25)
Thornton's importation of Irish workers to replace the strikers prompts the riot, in which Thornton meets a reflection or, rather, an extension of himself, his degraded and denied other, embodied by Boucher. Boucher is the only individual man identified in the crowd, spotted by Margaret:
She knew how it was; they were like Boucher,--with starving children at home... and enraged beyond measure at discovering that Irishmen were to be brought in to rob their little ones of bread. Margaret knew it all; she read it in Boucher's face, forlornly desperate and livid with rage. (162)
The working class collapses into one man, Boucher, just as the mill-owning class collapses into Thornton. (26) Of course, this scene is the novel's ultimate expression of disempowered want meeting empowered privilege, but the fact that this meeting is colored in such masculine terms is crucial yet critically overlooked. As we can see from Margaret's observations, the working men's "rage" is a justifiable manifestation of a crisis of masculine providing, the workers unable to feed their "starving children." Thornton's refusal to recognize the legitimacy of their pain, which he regards as a self-inflicted result of their supposed failure to suspend sensual pleasure, amounts to a disavowal of his privileged position. Childless himself and free from the threat of starvation, he can afford to be virtuously masochistic and thus meets their righteous fury first with "stony silence" and then with open, reckless defiance. For Gaskell, Thornton's call for his men to kill him--"Now kill me, if that is your brutal will!"--is not a noble self-sacrifice a la Sydney Carton. His willingness to sacrifice his own life is not for the wellbeing of others, which many Victorians considered the necessary difference between self-sacrifice and self-destruction (see Blumberg 27 and Gates 69-72). Rather, his call to be killed by his employees is an attempt to stand upon a flawed and now obviously self-destructive ethic that has goaded him into a willingness, for a fleeting moment, to embrace death. By contrast, Margaret's behavior during the riot is an actual act of self-sacrifice, since she throws herself in the fray to shield Thornton. The starving fathers are acting to save their starving children. Thornton, meanwhile, has only abstract principle.
The indirect involvement of children in this confrontation shows how, in Malthusian terms, hunger goes hand in hand with another, unspoken sensual experience caught up in the politics of self-denial: sex. The existence of children proves an equally potent motivation behind the working-class men's revolt. If starvation is a curb to endless deferral, the starvation of children is even more arresting and all the more ironic: Thornton's masochistic stance points toward the future, but children, the personification of the future, are dying before his closed eyes. Thornton sacrifices the present for the future, but, in so doing, he figuratively destroys the future. For much of the novel, Thornton acts as though children do not exist when he discusses the working conditions in Milton and condemns charity as nothing more than a prolongation of the wrong-headed strike: "Mr. Thornton... said, those were no true friends who helped to prolong the struggle by assisting the turn-outs" (144). Sex remains unspoken but is strongly implied in Thornton's talk of sensual self-indulgence. For him, the six Boucher children, all of them under legal working age, symbolize their parents' inability to control their sexual impulses and prevent themselves from producing more children than they can feed.
Parts of the narration given from Margaret's point of view also seem to take this perspective. In contemplating Boucher's suicide, Margaret reasons that both the city poor and the country poor "must find it hard to realise a future of any kind," leading them "to revel in the mere sense of animal existence, not knowing of, and consequently not caring for any pungency of pleasure, for the attainment of which he can plan, and deny himself and look forward" (275). Though she reaches the conclusion on the road of condescension, Margaret does arrive at the truth: it is pointless to practice self-denial when poverty makes "realizing a future" difficult or even impossible. The fact that Margaret's representative poor person is a "he" is noteworthy--she has just come from the Boucher house, missing its father and overrun with children. The self-denial Margaret refers to is not specified, but it is easy to read it, due to its juxtaposition with the scene at the Bouchers', as sexual self-denial. Yet for Gaskell, sex among the poor is not simply an inevitable, fatalistic fact; rather, it is the right of "love." Bessy says of the Bouchers, "[A]ll folks isn't wise, yet God lets 'em live--ay, an gives 'em some one to love, and be loved by, just as good as Solomon" (142). When Margaret comes to inform Mrs. Boucher of her husband's suicide, Mrs. Boucher's laments focus on her husband's paternal and husbandly affection: "[H]e loved us a'.... He loved this babby mappen [perhaps] the best on us; but he loved me and I loved him..." (270-71). In North and South, Gaskell insists that marriage and procreation are human rights, not signs of failed discipline.
Margaret comes to this realization in the aftermath of a father's suicide, and this suicide--impelled by the same deadly desperation as Thornton's own disavowed father--orchestrates Thornton's change of heart. After the riot and after Boucher's suicide, Higgins asks Thornton for work. Higgins tells Thornton that he wouldn't have bothered to ask him, "But it's winter, and th' [Boucher] childer will clem [starve]... I'd take any wage they thought I was worth, for the sake of those childer" (North and South 291-92). Thornton retorts, "You'd be a knobstick [scab]... all for the sake of another man's children... I won't say, I don't believe your pretext for coming and asking for work; I know nothing about it. It may be true, or it may not. It's a very unlikely story, at any rate" (292). Thornton refuses to contemplate the reality of a group of six orphaned, hungry children without a provider, but later he comes to regret this, feeling that "he had been unjust." When starving children become more immanent than an unfortunate product of parental profligacy, it exposes the hidden "tenderness in his heart--'a soft place'" which he has kept concealed (295). Thornton admires Higgins's "patience" and "the simple generosity" of fostering the Boucher children. In contrast with Boucher and with Thornton's own father, Higgins takes on responsibility during a crisis of masculine provision; he self-sacrifices (swallows his pride and offers to work for reduced wages) rather than self-destroys.
Granted, the Boucher orphans' loss of father and then mother, combined with their "we are too menny" numbers, render them in an even more precarious position than the half-orphaned, fifteen-year-old John Thornton. Thornton never explicitly acknowledges the parallels between Boucher's fate and his father's; his change of heart happens "as if by some spell," guided by "divine instinct" (296). But the only Boucher child named by the narrative, the one who is "his father's darling," is named "Johnnie," and the only other two characters named John are John Boucher Sr. and John Thornton (271). Through this connection among orphans-by-suicide, Gaskell shows that not only must employees and employers relate to each other better, but that, more subtly and more crucially, without a revision to the way men relate to work, pain, pleasure, and their own masculinity, the suicidal cycle continues. Their shared, rather universal male first name attests to this: John Thornton, John Boucher, and Johnnie Boucher are each victims of that cycle. Boucher's last name in French literally translates to "butcher," the verb assigned to "butchery," as in "carnage." It also translates into a verb meaning "to block," clog, stop up, obstruct ("boucher"). Boucher's self-murdered corpse is a picture of butchery itself but also a demonstration of the butchery perpetuated upon men's bodies en masse by an industrial system that crushes their limbs in machinery (27) and demands their constant, restless motion. Furthermore, Boucher's corpse and the mode of death it embodies symbolize the obstruction preventing social reconciliation. Boucher's orphaned children are akin to Margaret's senseless body, struck by the thrown stone in the riot: both are evidence of the collateral damage done to women and children when bourgeois men buy into a social contract that requires them to perform a work-centered (and thus necessarily homosocial) masochism that defines their lives in direct opposition to and exclusion of a life that prioritizes familial care, for the self as well as for others. For Gaskell, if a man does not care for himself--and especially if he actively harms himself, as he must do in business--then he cannot care for those who depend on him. Self-destruction is never merely destruction of the self.
Of course, it is quite telling that Thornton's transformation happens over the corpse of a workman. The same process that Patricia Johnson notes as the alliance between middle-class woman (Margaret) and working-class man (Higgins), occurring "literally over the corpse of the factory girl" (39), seems to take place over Boucher's body between Higgins and Thornton, only in this instance the working-class corpse is male. This "grotesque body," which "stands in opposition to the bourgeois individualist conception of the body" because of its permeability via "openings and orifices," decay and deterioration, emphasizes the self as "mobile, split, multiple" and prevents all those who gaze upon it from denying their own multiplicity (Stallybrass and White 22). (28) Mike Sanders sees Boucher's death as enacting "an ideological move from the real to the ideal" in that it supposedly "accuses a fellow workman rather than a master," removing blame from middle-class shoulders and placing it onto the workers' union and its representative, Higgins (326). But Boucher's suicide pushes Thornton to accept some responsibility for the working class's physical wellbeing--thus, his instigation of the whole-sale dining room at his mill and his interest in the Boucher children. It also leads him to reevaluate his gendered conceptions of the morality of sensual pleasure and physical pain. Instead of blaming workers for their tendency to "spree," Thornton uses his power to provide the apparatus for fulfilling a physical necessity: food. He shifts from abstraction to real, lived experience, turning his attention from the will (and the willfulness) of the workers to their bodies. Where once he distanced and abstracted his workers' needs, he now provides and becomes intimate by way of physical proximity in the Higgins home and in the dining room. He becomes present, literally and figuratively: present-oriented rather than future-oriented. He had been "alive to distant, and dead to near things....[I]t had taken him long silent years to come even to a glimmering of what he might be now, to-day, here in his own town, his own factory, among his own people" (380).
This might sound like we're back to the tried and true idea of Thornton as someone who, by novel's end, has been taught to care. But I argue that his character arc is not about "teaching" any particular affect but rather about revising the cultural valuation of "manly" pain and pleasure. Thornton's acceptance of the disempowered pain of his loss at the end of the novel is the cornerstone of the social reform project of North and South. Rejecting the unfeeling safety of the isolated mill-owner whose position of power is supposedly justified by how few rewards he allows himself, Thornton instead exposes himself to the vicissitudes of the marketplace by shouldering responsibility for his workers and refusing to gamble their wages on a spurious investment--which, we must remember, was the prompt for his father's suicide. Thornton's refusal to speculate causes him to lose his mill and, thus, his means of providing for his own family. Yet this loss is no punishment, and this new state of suspense--in which the Thorntons do not know what will become of them--makes for a fundamentally different experience of pain than the static, under-glass stagnancy of Thornton's previous life. Thornton mourns his mill, of course, but in lieu of seeking out a new position, he journeys to Helstone, Margaret's beloved home village, to experience the bittersweet pleasure of a place that bears her traces alongside the pain of knowing that he may have lost her forever. "I wanted to see the place where Margaret grew to what she is, even at the worst time of all, when I had no hope of ever calling her mine" (395). This is a new kind of suspense, the suspense of indulgence instead of denial. In a moment of crisis, visiting Helstone has no utilitarian purpose, but rather amounts to an acceptance, even an embrace of vulnerability and pain. Thornton pauses any process of finding work or recovering the mill in favor of smelling the Helstone roses. Whereas the narrative condemns the South's eternal stillness, Gaskell resolutely differentiates between the "retrograde" suspense of "ease" and the rejuvenating suspense of "peace," a line she draws sharply in the novel's latter chapters, which detail Margaret's dissatisfaction with the "inactivity" of London and her disillusionment with the stagnant Helstone (364, 340). Thornton's and Margaret's evolutions are thus mirror images of each other; whereas Margaret learns to recognize that languor is not the same as peace, Thornton learns that conscientious inactivity can be a virtue. Pain and vulnerability are preferable to benumbed deferral without end. Instead of committing suicide at the loss of his means to provide, the reformed Thornton embraces his disempowerment not for the sake of a faceless ideal but for the sake of, in Gaskell's eyes, his soul.
Gaskell condemns a male masochism that subjects itself to economic abstractions, but she offers an alternative: the pain of erotic love. Thornton defines love as "a sharp pang, a fierce experience," and indeed one would be hard-pressed to find a description of Thornton's love for Margaret in terms that do not denote pain (306). Not only is love an agony, it is a masochistic agony, in which Thornton torments himself or longs for the queenly Margaret to torment him: he "rather liked" Margaret's tendency to "irritate" him with arguments; during their first meeting alone, he is "impatient," "ashamed," "mortified," and "more awkward and self-conscious in every limb than he had ever [been] in all his life before" and yet walks away from the encounter "with an admiration [for her] he could not repress, [while] she looked at him with proud indifference" (113, 58-59). He sees his impulse to propose marriage as submission to her: "I shall put myself at her feet--I must" (171). After she rejects him, Thornton feels as though she had physically beaten him "with her fists. He had positive bodily pain..." (191). In his desolation, he begins to set himself self-flagellating tests, either depriving himself of her presence or forcing himself to face her, finding his "greatest comfort was in hugging his torment.... He loved her, and would love her; and defy her, and this miserable bodily pain" (191). Thornton is subject to a masochistic love that persists even in the face of what appears to be Margaret's sexual impropriety and continues to survive, in the form of self-torture, past hope of reciprocation. "For all his pain, he longed to see the author of it.... He was in the Charybdis of passion, and must perforce circle and circle ever nearer round the fatal centre" (246-47). In stark contrast to the unfeeling masochism of Thornton's socioeconomic behavior, in love he relishes vulnerability, pain, and the suspense of Margaret's indifference, rejection, or absence.
Margaret, in turn, is cast as a woman to whom others apparently love submitting themselves, including Dixon, Mr. Bell, and Dr. Donaldson (46,318, 116-17). Margaret's "sweetest moments" in London after her parents' deaths are the times when she must subdue with "firm power" her cousin's son Sholto's bursts of "stormy passions," after which "he would rub his hot and tear-smeared face all over hers, kissing and caressing" (368). Gaskell aligns her heroine's allure with her interpersonal power, a power that reaches beyond feminine influence and enters a more traditionally masculine realm of leadership with an erotic twist. In the novel's resolution, Margaret is the one responsible for drawing up the new contract to which the representative industrialist can submit, one in which the man treasures the pain of love instead of the senseless, masochistic industrial work ethic: a business/marriage contract written in the service of others' needs instead of bourgeois men's control. This is not to say that Margaret is a dominatrix and Thornton her submissive; he remains "yet a master," as Gaskell intended ("Letters" 401), and retains some erotic power--he warns Margaret he will "claim [her] as [his] own in some strange presumptuous way" (North and South 394)--but surrenders the cold socioeconomic power of abnegation. Whereas earlier literary models of ideal masculinity, such as Jane Austen's heroes, embrace the "awful weathering" of "the dual profession--to a work, to a woman" (Wilt 75), (25) by the time the nineteenth century reached its peak, Gaskell shows, Captains of Industry have lost the woman in favor of devotion to work alone, and the rewards for this kind of negating devotion are illusory. For Gaskell--as opposed to Carlyle, for instance--healthy masculinity favors erotic and sensual expression and enjoyment rather than erasure and denial. (30) Gaskell's contract does not eschew business, but it does subordinate business to the needs of women and children--and, indeed, to the needs of men, the real, tangible needs of men, not the desire for wealth or invulnerability. It does not eschew the utility of pain or self-denial, but it does portray them as useful only when they are motivated by provision for life, that is, life's literal sustenance and its grounding in the present.
OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY
(1) Catherine Gallagher, speaking for a prominent strain of criticism on North and South, finds a "falseness" in the novel's ending (147-48).
(2) For arguments about the power of "female influence" and "feminization" in North and South, see, for instance, Gallagher, Kestner, Elliott, Harman, Matus, and Johnston.
(3) Patsy Stoneman interprets North and South and all of Gaskell's oeuvre as a continued assertion that learning to care for others--mothering, as she calls it--is the gateway to sympathy. Following Nancy Chodorow, she claims that Gaskell wants to "open motherhood to men," meaning Gaskell wants men to adopt the traditionally feminine task of caring for dependents (Elizabeth Gaskell 166). See also Stoneman's chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Gaskell, cited below.
(4) Gilbert and Gubar insist that punishment is not Bronte's only reason for injuring Rochester; rather, though "apparently mutilated, he is paradoxically stronger than he was when he ruled Thornfield, for now, like Jane, he draws his powers from within himself, rather than from inequity, disguise, deception" (369). In essence, Gilbert and Gubar argue that Rochester is reformed by becoming more like Jane, i.e., becoming more like a resourceful Victorian woman rather than a Victorian man--finding power "within" rather than from the patriarchy.
(5) John Kucich has noted that this idea of "feminizing" the hardened man in fact plays into the same Victorian cult of the domestic that casts women or femininity as the ultimate source of moral regulation ("Transgression..." 188-89).
(6) With regard specifically to the control of "violent male energy" in North and South, see Malay (50).
(7) There is, of course, the issue of Mrs. Thornton's somewhat sexual attachment to her son; she jealously bucks at what she believes to be Margaret's advances toward John. John Thornton's reliance upon his mother, however, is never cast as a flaw in his character. Rather, it is Mrs. Thornton's failing that she is so overly attached to her son.
(8) Jill L. Matus devotes much attention to Thornton's powerful emotions and argues that the novel implicitly critiques excessive "emotional control" and thus "suggests that the social injunction to keep strong feelings in check is a class convention, which may be as bad in its way as the tendency to surrender to excessive emotion" (37). Unlike Matus, I'm not concerned with the way the novel invokes emotional pain as an "undoing [of] the self (39); rather, I'm concerned with the specifically gendered ways that pain, pleasure, or lack thereof arc characterized. For more on the "new gentleman," see MacDonald (3). Holly Furncaux has also insisted that "physical tenderness [was] an integral part of that most quintessential figure of nineteenth-century masculinity, the Gentleman, [who appears] in some of the most commercially successful and widely read novels of the high-Victorian period" (111). See also Tosh.
(9) For details on Manchester manufacturers' reactions to Mary Barton, see Foster (34-37).
(10) Foster, for instance, names James Nasmyth, "self-made engineer and inventor of the steam-hammer..." (23), or Samuel Greg, a Manchester mill-owner who, Gaskell thought, "might... be made the hero of a fiction on the other side of the question [of Mary Barton]" due to his charitable schemes (109).
(11) See Kestner on the "assimilation to respectability" trope found in depictions of self-made industrialists in social reform fiction written by women (76).
(12) Kucich claims that masochism must be differentiated from "the pleasure-deferring, pragmatic emphasis on productivity described by the Weberian tradition" even though "masochistic fantasy might intrude parasitically on such behaviors" (26), but I do not believe that these two concepts can be so cleanly separated, as though masochism were an independent outside force "intruding" into the industrialist work ethic.
(13) See, for instance, Deleuze. For a more recent reaffirmation of masochism-as-suspense, see Jarvis.
(14) Claire Jarvis argues that scenes of "exquisite masochism" proliferate in the nineteenth-century British novel as a way of depicting sex by perversely withholding it, "dispers[ing] physicality throughout the scene, minimizing sex's risk while accentuating its thrill" (ix, xi).
(15) For an enlightening account of masochism as a vital theme in medieval Christian art, see Mills (156-71).
(16) As Rita Felski notes, the "transgressive" potential of S/M is often seen to lie primarily, if not exclusively, in queer relationships, particularly lesbian relationships: "[I]nsofar as lesbian S/M occurred between women, it could be safely distinguished from earlier images of female submission. No one was likely to mistake a lesbian being whipped by her leather-clad girlfriend for a docile housewife of the 1950s" (133-34).
(17) Kucich's references to female writers such as the Brontes and Gaskell tend to point out counterexamples of the kind of imperial masochism he's talking about. Sec his comments on Jane Eyre, Cranford, and Daniel Deronda (Imperial Masochism 6-8).
(18) Gaskell once joked (?) to her editor, Charles Dickens, "I think a better title than N. & S. would have been 'Death & Variations'" ("Letters" 402).
(19) The fact that it is a woman who teaches Thornton how to be masochistic deserves its own study.
(20) John Paul Kanwit makes note of the purely ornamental books in the Thornton home. He theorizes that "household taste is Gaskell's primary way of differentiating between those who have the perception to solve social problems and those who do not," and that Thornton's "serious attempt to elevate his taste and culture... help[s] him learn to read the complexities of Milton's social problems" (201,208). I contend Thornton's study with Mr. Hale smacks more of enjoyment than self-improvement. Thornton himself says, "Now that I have my mother safe in the quiet peace that becomes her age, and duly rewards her former exertions, I can turn to all that old narration [Homer, etc.] and truly enjoy it" (North and South 79).
(21) See also Sussman (Masculine Identities 81-98).
(22) Robert M. Kachurhas called Thornton "a stereotypical Calvinist... who embraces the Protestant work ethic and the sanctity of the free market system..." (22). This interpretation of Gaskell's religious critique is a convincing one, but ICachur docs not reckon with the complications that industrialization adds to classic Calvinism.
(23) Gaskell stages her own discussion of "Hellenism and Hebraism" here in North and South a good ten-plus years before Arnold's Culture and Anarchy.
(24) For Engels's specific observation about workers' drinking in Manchester, see 142-43.
(25) Despite historical reality and early moments in the novel that feature female factory workers, at salient moments Gaskell paints the working class as male. The rioting workers who break the strike are an "angry sea of men," "hundreds of infuriated men and reckless boys" with nary a working woman in sight (North and South 137, 162). For more on the erasure of the "factory girl" from industrial literature, sec Johnson.
(26) This is a typical Gaskell move. Mary Poovey sees the same individualizing trope in Mary Barton (143-54). Amanpal Garcha, on the other hand, argues that Gaskell's individualizing efforts "assert a more profit-minded ideology that critics often ignore" (172-73).
(27) See Capuano and Sanders.
(28) Mary Elizabeth Hotz points out that in North and South "the corpse [in general] draws a community of mourners from all ranks and provides an instance in which individuals may be transformed to act in the best interests of society" (168).
(29) For Austen's pre-industrial men, particularly aristocratic men, an orientation toward suspense and immediacy were signals of a "man without a future, tied to a spiritually empty heirship just out of reach: suspended in time and space and prey to the Nausea of directionless motion..." (Wilt 72).
(30) See Sussman (Victorian Masculinities 16-72). Sussman considers the ending of North and South to be a "short-circuit[ing]" of a Carlylcan ideal of homosocial community; Thornton establishes a dining room for his workers but finds manly fulfillment in marriage. Rather than an expression of "anxiety" about an all-male community, I believe that Gaskell's ending castigates the tendency for mid-century industrial masculinity to deny sensuality in favor of capitalistic productivity (65-66).
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|Title Annotation:||Elizabeth Gaskell's novel|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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