Four Themes in North and South {Book Club}

True confession.

In Chapter 3 of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (free on Kindle) I had no idea what was going on. I could not have told you the name of anyone, except maybe Margaret. Was Margaret the one who got married in Chapter 1? I recall something about a wedding and her mom not coming because of clothing.

People, not good. Not good at all. So, for the first time in Book Club history, I started a book over; and I’m so glad I did! I am not sure why I missed everything the first round through, but I’m guessing I was thinking of other things as I read and (clearly) not paying attention.

Now I know that it was Margaret’s cousin Edith who married Captain Lennox for love and that Margaret’s mother, Mrs. Hale, is sister to Edith’s mother Mrs. Shaw. Margaret’s dad came to fetch her after nine years of living with the Shaws and having lessons with Edith.

In the first 13 chapters we also met:

—Henry Lennox (brother to Captain Lennox)

—Janet (sister to Captain Lennox)

—Fredrick (Margaret’s rebel brother)

—Dixon (long time servant of the Hale’s)

—John Thornton (a business man in Milton, Mr. Hale’s contact in Milton)

—Mrs. Thornton (John’s mom)

—Fanny Thornton (John’s sister)

—Bessy (a poor girl in Milton)

I’ve noticed four themes that I will be curious to watch:


Since the title is North and South, it is fitting to list this one first. In Chapter 10 Margaret tells Mr. Thornton “’Now, in the South we have our poor, but there is not that terrible expression in their countenances of a sullen sense of injustice which I see here. You do not know the South, Mr. Thornton,’ she concluded, collapsing into a determined silence, and angry with herself for having said so much. ‘And may I say, you do not know the North?’ asked he, with an inexpressible gentleness in his tone as he saw that he had really hurt her.”

Up to this point, it is understandable that Margaret and her mother have noticed all that is unpleasant about Milton. Going from London and a certain level of high society (Margaret) and the hamlet of Helstone and being a pastor’s wife (Mrs. Hale) to a factory town would be quite the adjustment for anyone.


Even within the Hale family, we get a sense of class tension between how Mrs. Hale feels about her circumstances when she compares them to her London based sister, Mrs. Shaw. When the Hales were still living in Helstone, they looked for ways to help the poor that lived there. But it is when they move to Milton and Margaret comments often on the “factory town” and how dirty it is, that this theme of class seems to jump to a new level.

Margaret has such distain for Mr. Thornton because he is a tradesman. Even when Mr. Hale tells Margaret and her mother about John’s background—father committing suicide leaving large debts, John’s resilient mother moving to a cheaper area and John apprenticing, years later returning to Milton and John quietly paying off all of his father’s debts—Margaret doesn’t seem overly impressed.

When Mrs. Thornton and Fanny visited the Hales in Chapter 12, the feeling was mutual!


Will it be Henry Lennox or John Thornton that wins Margaret’s heart?

I would say, “Obviously it will be one of them.” But since this was originally written in serial format, thus the cliff hanging endings at each chapter that tease me to read the beginning of the next chapter, maybe another fella will be introduced. We are, after all, still early in the book.


Of all the themes, this is the one I am most curious to watch. And the most pained. I am not entirely clear what Mr. Hale’s crisis of faith is, since he did say, “Margaret, how I love the holy Church from which I am about to be shut out!” He also said, “I suffer for conscience sake.” I think we will learn more about this crisis of faith as the book unfolds.

Also, if one of you can explain it, please do!

I have known a small handful of people who had a fairly serious faith crisis while on the field (and we have written about it before too!). Like Mr. Hale, it is one thing to have a faith disorientation or shift, but when you are in full time ministry, it can be isolating, especially confusing, and costly. As I said, I’m curious to see how this theme unfolds.

Mixed Bag 

These are not to the “theme” level, but I

  • Wonder what has happened to Fredrick and why he can’t return.
  • Do not like how Margaret’s parents triangulate her. They both confide in her when they should confide in each other. AND I know this is a novel and she is the main character so this is a way of furthering the plot and keeping us (the readers) informed. Still, I don’t like it.
  • Am curious how much editorial license Dickens takes. I read that he did not like her original title (Margaret Hale) and insisted on North and South. It is a better title! I’m curious where else he might have left his fingerprints.

What stood out to you? Next week we will discuss Chapters 14-26. You’re also welcome to join in this Summer Reading Challenge.


Summer Reading:

Photo by Andrei Ianovskii on Unsplash


  1. Ruth June 4, 2018

    I’ve read beyond chapter 13 (it was so good I couldn’t stop!), but I’m not finished yet. I am also really curious about the faith theme and hope we hear more about it (although it hasn’t come up yet in what I’ve read). I want to do some research, but I’m afraid that it will spoil the ending, so I’m waiting. But I do wonder if it isn’t necessarily that he has lost his faith in God, but lost his faith in the Church of England. There are a couple of places where it mentions him joining dissenters or seceders. That might be the Wesleyans/Methodists. So that’s my guess at this point.

    1. Michele June 5, 2018

      That was my assumption…I recall learning some history of the church in that period and how Wesleyan tendencies meant a disconnect from the Church of England, though most who held them did love the only Church they had ever known, so that it was often a wrestle with conscience. Mr. Hale’s situation seems to fit that, and I wonder if it was something original readers would have just understood.

      1. Amy Young June 8, 2018

        I bet you’re right :)! Original readers would probably laugh that we don’t get it :)!

    2. Amy Young June 8, 2018

      Ruth, I’m now further in to the book too and this doesn’t seem to be a major theme, but like you I don’t want to do research yet and ruin the ending. By the end, when there is no more to be ruined, we’ll be able to look into this more!! BUT I think you are right.

  2. Sam June 5, 2018

    North and South is one of my most favourite stories of all time! I am enjoying seeing it through your eyes, and reliving the magic of that first read.

    1. Amy Young June 8, 2018

      I bet it is fun for you :)!! and you can smile where we are on track and where you know we are WAY OFF 🙂

    2. Alicia Acosta August 21, 2018

      I thoroughly enjoyed my first journey with Elizabeth Gaskell via “North And South.”

      Has anyone seen the movie with Richard Armitage cast as John Thornton?

  3. Rachel Kahindi June 5, 2018

    I found myself confused in the beginning, as well, having to flip back and forth to remind myself what’s going on and who was so-and-so and how they fit. I didn’t catch that Margaret had lived with the Shaws for 9 years, though.

    The class tension is so interesting to me – that Thorntons and Hales both look down on each other, the one because they have more money, the other more status. In my American mind, it’s hard to separate earned income from class.

    Margaret making friends with Bessie was really beautiful. I related much to this: “As she went along the crowded narrow streets, she felt how much of interest they had gained by the simple fact of her having learnt to care for a dweller in them.” Some places are interesting because of history or art or the beauty of natural landscapes. All places are more interesting when we love people who live there.

    1. Phyllis June 10, 2018

      I also marked that quote. It fits so well with reading this with a cross cultural mindset. I’m seeing that as a theme, too: roots, homesickness, regional differences, local culture. It’s like our lives.

      I am loving this book! I had wanted to read it for a long time, so I’m really glad to get to it now. It’s my kind of book!

  4. Christy June 5, 2018

    I’m so glad to find that I am not the only one who was confused in the first few chapters. I thought it was because I read those chapters during my long, exhausting travel (I got delayed 24 hours on a trip that already was going to take 30 hours). I guess it was more an issue with the book than with my exhaustion, though. Since my arrival at home, however, I’ve read up to chapter 13 and I’m now really enjoying it.

    I was also curious about the crisis of faith. I read some stuff about Oldfield, the ejected minister that is referred to when they are talking about Mr. Hale’s decision to leave the church. Based on that and reading between the lines, it seems like he must be in disagreement with the church about something (I’d really like to know what it is!) and his conscience will not allow him to continue in ministry there. I can understand this struggle, because at times I have had difficulty when I have strong theological disagreements with churches I have attended, and that must be nothing compared to what it would be like if you were a minister having these conflicts of faith. It is hard to hold onto faith in God and be true to what you believe when that goes against what is accepted by those around you.

    However, I was really bothered by the way he dealt with his family regarding his decision. Asking his daughter to inform his wife about a decision of that magnitude? Yikes! Seems like a rather problematic marriage if he can’t even talk to his wife about the most important things, especially when those things have such huge consequences for the whole family. At this point, Margaret seems to be the most mature one in the family.

    I wondered a lot about what Margaret’s issue is with Henry Lennox, and why she wouldn’t marry him. At the beginning (granted, I was still confused at this point and for a while I didn’t realize there were 2 different Lennox men), she seemed infatuated with him. I am wondering if she has built up some perfect man in her mind, which is causing her to reject anyone who doesn’t measure up to that standard. She seems rather prejudiced, but maybe she’ll come around in the end, at least to one of the men.

    1. Megan June 8, 2018

      I totally agree with the confusion over her rejecting Mr. Lennox. It seemed like she returned his regard until he actually proposed.

  5. Bayta Schwarz June 6, 2018

    Maybe because I have the topic on my brain right now but to me, the whole theme of transition was a big one in this first section. Just a few things I marked. When describing her father dropping (a very young) Margaret off at her aunt’s, it mentions Margaret trying to keep her sobs very quiet. After all, so much preparation and anticipation had gone into this move – how could she now be unhappy?! That sense of a move you had been building up to then being tough (and feeling guilty because of that) sounded so familiar!
    Then as they leave Helstone, Margaret trying to hard to keep it together (“if she gave way, who was to act”) and others misinterpreting that as her not caring about the place she was leaving.
    And as they pass through London on their way north, Margaret reflecting that while there were many people in that city who would gladly welcome them in happier times, none who would “admit of even an hour of that deep silence of feeling”. What a treasure people are who will just sit and endure with us the grieving aspect of transition.
    Lastly, Margaret realising how much interest the streets of her new home had gained “by the simple fact of her having learnt to care for a dweller in them”.
    And oh, the Tennyson poem at the start of chapter VI! So haunting but beautiful!

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