27 September 2020
Close Reading Gaskell’s Mary Barton
“‘Listen!’ said Margaret, as she stooped her head down to catch the muttered words more distinctly.
“‘What will mother say? The bees are turning homeward for th’ last time, and we’ve a terrible long bit to go yet. See! here’s a linnet’s nest in this gorse bush. Th’ hen bird is on it. Look at her bright eyes, she won’t stir. Ay! we mun hurry home. Won’t mother be pleased with the bonny lot of heather we’ve got! Make haste, Sally, maybe we shall have cockles for supper. I saw th’ cockle-man’s donkey turn up our way fra’ Arnside.
“Margaret touched Mary’s hand, and the pressure in return told her that they understood each other; that they know how in this illness to the old, weary woman, God had sent her a veiled blessing: she was once more in the scenes of her childhood, unchanged and bright as in those long departed days; once more with the sister of her youth, the playmate of fifty years ago, who has for nearly as many years slept in a grassy grave in the little churchyard beyond Burton” (Gaskell 190).
Hitherto, time is a spool of thread: an ongoing line, unwinding itself as the story unfurls, often snipped short for a handful of the characters of Mary Barton. The function of time is seemingly clear, and that is to corrode, to headlessly progress. Time is a great unsung villain of the novel, ushering the lower classes toward famine, despair, scarcity, and death. The bulk of the plot itself relies on a race against time, as Mary Barton rushes to Liverpool and after the sailing John Cropper to save her beloved Jem. Time, perhaps, is Mary’s greatest antagonist.
And yet, in this passage, time turns tender. As the old Alice Wilson nears the end of her days, her mind regresses back to her childhood years, in a way fulfilling her desire to return to her homeland. As her physical body withers, her mind is eroded to the point of escapism. Thus, the function of time becomes all the more complex, somehow operating with a plurality that seems binarily opposed. The structure and language of this passage reveals time as both a poison and remedy, simultaneously decaying and relieving.
Most blatantly, time in this passage offers a restoration. There is a return to youth in the subjects that Alice speaks about, concerned with childlike matters such as her mother and what will be for dinner. A child’s perspective of time entails an atmosphere of immediacy and presentness, suspending a moment and slowing (or rather ignoring) the passage of time. A number of phrases and visuals elicit a sense of this youth and themes of fertility, specifically in the “bright eyes” of the linnet and the fact that this linnet is a hen bird in her nest (190). Youth and fertility here greatly contrast the constant material lack that is faced by the community dominating the perspective of the novel. Beyond the material, there is also an emotional contentment expressed in this imaginary moment (or recalled memory) that Alice is experiencing. In this moment, the novel diverges from its common atmosphere of emptiness and lacking to a pause of abundance and relief. There is also a restoration of life, as Alice “reunites” with her sister “who has for nearly [fifty] years slept in a grassy grace in the little churchyard beyond Burton” (190). Time abandons its destructive nature for this pause, seemingly reversing its linear projection.
These feelings of emotional contentment and temporal suspension are executed by means of spacial reduction. There is an emphasis on small life, such as the bees, the linnets, the heather, and the cockles, tightening the visuals on simple details (190). The world becomes smaller. There is a simplification of life that, once again, contrasts the chaos and rush of the main plotline. The voice shifts to a micro-perspective, allowing the readers to rest in this specific scene of Alice’s childhood before launching them off on the wild goose chase of Mary’s plot.
And yet, this simplification is accompanied by a looming sense of lacking time. Phrases like “we mun hurry home” and “make haste” recognize an ending of this moment (190), which for now is preserved but lays exposed to time. This is not so much a statement on the memory itself, but a break in the illusion of this memory to acknowledge the approaching expiration date of Alice’s material body. The notion of returning home alludes that Alice may be perceiving her true reality to some extent, manifested in the childhood recollection of hurrying home for dinner.
It is also important to note the chronology of this passage’s descriptive words. Words and phrases of decay like “illness” and “old weary woman” are placed before words and phrases of health and wholeness like “childhood,” “unchanged and bright,” “youth,” and “playmate” (190). As mentioned, the projection of time has reversed, working backwards to restore instead of decay. But the addition and repetition of the phrase “once more” (190) reveals not just a reversal of the linearity of time, but its abandonment altogether. “Once more” implies the past coming around again, fusing with the future to form a self-contained timeline. Alice’s timeline becomes cyclical, the decay of time reaching a sort of “carrying capacity” or max point where it not only flatlines but begins to produce an inverse effect: relief.
And so, Alice Wilson is left spinning in the circles of her timeline, seemingly stuck and yet saved from the reality of time. In this passage, time is both illness and medicine, more a threat to her physical being than her emotional, and more a comfort to her emotional being than her physical. Time empathizes not with the material, but rather with the internal, sentimental person. It is villain and nurse, decomposing and restoring, unresolved as a great pharmakon of Gaskell’s Mary Barton.
Gaskell, Elizabeth, and Thomas Recchio. Mary Barton (First Edition) (Norton Critical Editions). First, W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.