Literary Paper

Motherhood and Industrialization:

Literary Analysis wilby/industrializati


The Industrial Revolution forced women to encounter directly a world with which they were previously unfamiliar. They had to move from their familiar private sphere and enter the public workforce. Women, men and children all worked in factories. With increased city populations came an increase in sanitation problems and disease. These problems resulted in an underpaid, underfed and unhealthy workforce. Elizabeth Gaskell exhibits the way of life of the people who lived and worked during the Industrial Revolution in Ruth and North and South. Mothers endured several trials during the Industrial Revolution; they had to endure food shortages, unstable wages and sometimes husbands that cared all too little for their families. Elizabeth Gaskell focuses much of her work on the issues concerning not only women but also much of society. She, unlike many of her contemporaries wrote about the middle and working classes instead of the wealthy upper class.

        Ruth is about Ruth Hilton, a young orphan dressmaker who through a series of unfortunate circumstances, ends up as a single mother in a world where being a single mother is simply unheard of. Luckily, Mr. Benson, a dissenting minister, and his sister kindly take Ruth and her son, Leonard, in and treat them as if they are a part of the family. The Bensons help Ruth to acquire a position in the wealthy Bradshaw household as a governess; she has to act as if she is a widow named Mrs. Denbigh. This situation suffices until Mr. Bradshaw, the patriarch of the Bradshaw household, finds out that Ruth has been posing a widow and that she is a “fallen woman.” Mr. Bradshaw fires Ruth from her position as a governess. She then finds a job as a nurse for people sick from “the fever.” Ruth gains love and respect because of her skill and compassion, but Ruth catches the fever from Mr. Bellingham and dies. Ruth is a perfect example of a good mother. Though she is a single mother, she takes care of her son the best she can with the help of the Bensons. Ruth, even in the disgraceful position she is in, maintains her dignity. Gaskell’s novel North and South presents a rather different view of the Industrialization and motherhood.

        North and South is about Margaret Hale, daughter of a minister of the Church of England and a mother who is habitually ill and infirm. She is of the rural middle class until she is forced to move with her family to  urban Milton because her father has chosen to relinquish his position as a minister to join the dissenters, Protestant denominations that have broken away from the Church of England. Margaret is very upset at this decision. Aside from Margaret’s habitual conflict with Mr. Thornton and his mother, Margaret spends much time with the poor Higgins family, specifically the sickly Bessy. When both her father and her mother die, Margaret is left an orphan. She leaves Milton to live with her cousin Edith and her husband. Her fortune changes when Mr. Bell, her godfather, dies, and he bequeaths her his estate. The main themes of North and South are the role of religion in the Industrial Society, and the social stratification that occurred between the working and middle classes. Religion plays a very important role in both Ruth and North and South.

        The Industrial Revolution essentially is a separation between the old and the new, the current and the outdated. This separation is evident in the difference between the contrasting environments of northern and southern England. The North was industrialized. It was a representation of the new:

…developing the mechanized mass production

of goods such as textiles, placed

wealth and power in the hands of those who

owned the new means of production--the water

and the coal to fuel the machines, the factories

which housed them and the capital to

buy raw materials and labor. It was the

rugged landscape of the north which provided

the fuel, as well as the technical

inventions, for the mechanized

industries… (Stoneman p. vi)


 The south retained the habits of the past: “The south thus came to represent the past, where landowners inherited the right to gather rents from farmers and peasants along with a certain responsibility for their welfare” (Stoneman p. vi). The South is a representation of the feudal system, that dates from the Middle Ages, and the North represents a new free market economy, the beginning of modernity.

        The difference between the north and south of England plays an important role in both Ruth and North and South. In Ruth, Ruth Hilton is forced to leave her rural home when her father dies and leaves her with no means to support herself; her guardian acquires a job for her at Mrs. Mason’s dressmaking shop in Fordham, an industrial northern city. Her new home is vastly different from the rural setting where she grew up. In North and South, Margaret Hale moves from her comfortable rural home in Helstone to the bustling and highly industrial Milton when her father decides to leave his ministry in the Church of England. This change proves difficult for Margaret. She is deeply attached to her home in Helstone and leaving it is traumatic for her, even though she bears the move with a brave face mainly for her parents’ benefit.

        While encountering many of the same social situations and difficulties, Ruth and Margaret are shown from very different perspectives. Ruth is a member of the working class; she is a former dressmaker. Not only a member of the working class, she is also considered a fallen woman because she has a child out of wedlock. That is enough in this society for her to be shunned. The redeeming factor for Ruth is she is guilty “because she has absolutely no doubt that what she did, whatever the circumstances, was wrong” (Shelton p.xv). Ruth’s guilt for her actions redeems her.

        Margaret, on the other hand, is of a wealthier class than Ruth. She does not have to work. She is well stationed in the upper middle class. Although she is a member of the wealthier class, she does have sympathy for those below her: “Margaret is sympathetic towards the working class, but she cannot be said to ‘represent’ them” (Stoneman XVI). The trait Margaret and Ruth share is the ability to recognize guilt and repent for their faults. Margaret lies when questioned by a police officer who asked about her whereabouts on the night a man is killed. Margaret lied to protect her brother, Frederick, who is trying to escape being tried for a court marshal. Margaret recognizes her guilt for lying, disregarding her reason that she was trying to protect her brother from being executed for treason, and repents for it, especially when concerning a loss of respect in the eyes of Mr. Thornton. Mr. Thornton believes that Margaret was lying for her lover not her brother. He did not realize the circumstances behind Margaret’s lie.

        Religion is very important in both Ruth and North and South. Ruth, after she gives birth to Leonard, continually begs God to be worthy to be Leonard’s mother.  Ruth, believing she has fallen from God’s graces prays:

…as one who had gone astray and doubted

her own worthiness to be called His

child; she came as a mother

who had incurred a heavy responsibility

and who had entreated His almighty

to discharge it; full of passionate,

yearning love which craved for more

faith in God, to still her distrust

and fear of the future that

might hang over her darling (Gaskell 180)


 Ruth’s faith is important to her, and she prays that God will restore her to His good graces. Margaret’s faith is also important to her. Margaret is extremely disheartened when her father decides to abandon his position as a minister in the Church to join the dissenters: “You cannot mean you are really going to leave the Church—to give up Helstone—to be forever separate from me, from mamma- led away by some delusion-- some temptation! You do not really mean it” (Gaskell 37). Margaret is more upset with his decision to leave Helstone but some of her anger arises from her father’s decision to become a dissenter, which to her means essentially a traitor to everything that is familiar.

        Both Ruth and North and South are concerned with the issue of motherhood. Ruth Hilton, despite her situation, is an exemplary mother. Her focus in life is her son, Leonard. An example of this love for her son is when she has to tell Leonard of his parentage and illegitimacy and tries to warn him of the consequences: “…when the time of trial comes…remember God’s pity and God’s justice; and though my sin shall have made you an outcast in the world--oh, my child, my child”(Gaskell 345). Even when her shame is found out, she is only concerned that her son might be shunned because of it. The examples of motherhood in North and South are far less positive. Mrs. Hale is sickly and infirm. She cares only for her sickness and her own wants. She does not consider the feelings of others when confronted by her own trials and tribulations. Mrs. Thornton is another example of motherhood in North and South. She is another selfish mother. She scolds more than she caresses; none of the typical aspects of a caring mother is present in her. When she tries to give motherly advice to Margaret, she fails because she is so harsh with Margaret. Margaret is not accustomed to being scolded; she is the parental figure to both of her parents.

        The Industrial Revolution presented a new way of living, as well as a new way of manufacturing and working and it did not come without risks. It brought, along with a new way of manufacturing, cities filled with disease and refuse. Larger populations led to overcrowding and poor food supplies led to starvation of the masses. Ruth and North and South both exemplify the difficult transition from an agriculturally based society to an industrially based society during the Industrial Revolution. Both Ruth and North and South focus on the difficult transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society and more specifically on the issues of motherhood during this difficult period.