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Narrative Techniques in "Mary Barton"


Elizabeth Gaskell wrote the novel "Mary Barton" in 1848, a time of major class conflict in industrial England, the setting of her novel. "Mary Barton" tells of a young woman caught up in the struggle between her own class, the factory workers, and their employers, the middle class. Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister, narrates the economic struggle through the lens of Christian charity and a desire for emotional reconciliation between the classes, rather than focusing on an economic or political solution.

Third Person Omniscient Narration

The narrator of "Mary Barton" takes the third person omniscient form, in which the narrator is all-knowing and all-seeing. This narrator knows the thoughts of all the characters, notwithstanding their class. She moves between the classes like no member from either can. Her narration is full of pity and sympathy as she anguishes over the great divide between the lower and upper class. The narrator also attempts to present the classes authentically, as she records the local dialect of the working class.

Presentation of Class Struggle

Although the narrator endeavors to represent the classes authentically, literary critics have noted that she does not allow the working class any political or economical understanding: They are incapable of articulating any real political or economical solution to their problems. Instead, the narrator characterizes their trials in terms of emotional and physical suffering. This bodily representation of their suffering makes the working classes appear primitive and dumb. They can only weep about their problems, and their union meetings serve for little more than mutual commiseration and an expression of frustration at their inability not only to act, but to conceive of any kind of action.

Classic Plot Conflicts

A suspenseful murder plot and dramatic love triangle shape the narrative in "Mary Barton." These traditional narrative techniques effectively put faces and names to the larger class conflict. The heroine, Mary Barton, feels torn between two men, Jem, from her own class, and Henry, the son of her father's employer. When Henry's murder is pinned on Mary's father, the divide between the classes widens even more, as the factory owners now believe the unionists to be criminals, and the unionists resent their employers for what they feel is unjust suspicion. These smaller narrative conflicts bring the larger class conflict to a boiling point, heightening the suspense of the novel by hinging the resolution of the story's conflict on the classes' capacity to reconcile themselves with each other.

Poetry and Song

Every chapter of "Mary Barton" begins with a verse of poetry or song, some written by Gaskell or her husband and other famous ones; these set the tone and theme for the chapter. Excerpts from "Manchester Song" appear throughout the novel, describing the weary life of a mill laborer. Readers in Gaskell's time would have recognized many of the verses from popular poems or other literature. The narrator also records lyrics of songs the characters sing, many concerned with themes of suffering and toil. These folk songs bring authenticity to the characters and elicit the reader's sympathy for the plight of the working class.

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About the Author

Nadine Smith has been writing since 2010. She teaches college writing and ESL courses and has several years experience tutoring all ages in English, ESL and literature. Nadine holds a Master of Arts in English language and literature from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where she led seminars as a teaching assistant.

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