- Parables and Unitarianism in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton1
Mary loved another! That idea would rise uppermost in his mind, and had to be combated in all its forms of pain. It was, perhaps, no great wonder that she should prefer one so much above Jem in all the external things of life. But the gentleman! Why did he, with his range of choice among the ladies of the land, why did he stoop down to carry off the poor man’s darling? With all the glories of the garden at hand, why did he prefer to cull the wild-rose?(166)
This passage from Mary Barton (1848) offers a window into the complex formal and thematic workings of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of Manchester life. Jem Wilson, working-class suitor of Mary Barton, has just discovered that Mary prefers Harry Carson, the rich mill owner’s son. Read synecdochically, Jem’s reaction stands in for many episodes Gaskell depicts: the rich live lavishly while the poor go without. What interests me, however, is Gaskell’s allusion to 2 Samuel 12.1–7 in the phrase “the poor man’s darling” (166). This Biblical text recounts a parable told to King David after he has had an affair with Bathsheba and arranged for the murder of her husband.2 The prophet Nathan tells of a rich man who, to feed his guests, took from a poor man his single beloved lamb. Hearing the story, David is enraged, insisting that the rich man should be condemned to death and restore four times what he took. Nathan responds with the famous indictment: “Thou art the man” (2 Samuel 12.7).3 Just as Nathan sets his parable alongside the story of David and Bathsheba, Gaskell places Nathan’s parable alongside her story of Jem, Harry, and Mary. Such is the nature of parables: they do not present explicit lessons but rather prompt the reader’s engagement with moral problems by means of stories juxtaposed against one another.
Mary Barton traces the lives of a working-class father and daughter, John and Mary Barton, living in Manchester in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Although Gaskell’s novel often focuses on questions of the domestic and the individual, her characters are by no means exempt from the wider political history of the time; indeed, the failure of the 1839 Chartist petition forces John Barton into depression and opium dependency, galvanizes his radical politics, and drives him to murder his daughter’s rich suitor, Harry Carson. Published [End Page 59] anonymously six months after the failed Chartist uprising at Kennington Common in April 1848, the novel drew extreme praise and extreme criticism from the press and from Gaskell’s personal acquaintances (Uglow 215–16).4 The novel frankly addresses the conditions faced by the Manchester poor and sympathizes with its Chartist protagonist, the murderer John Barton. The revolutions of 1848 made Mary Barton’s political interventions especially timely5—indeed, Gaskell pushed her publisher to release the novel earlier than scheduled in order to address the political situation. As she wrote, “the tenor of my tale is such as to excite attention at this present time of struggle” (Chapple and Pollard 53). However, her preface, written at Chapman’s insistence, claimed ignorance of political economy and insisted that Mary Barton had been written in the mid-1840s, when Chartist activism seemed to have lulled.6 Although Gaskell may not have conceived Mary Barton as attuned to the political situation of England in 1848, she certainly wove contemporary events and movement into her radical rhetoric.
Equally radical, however, were Mary Barton’s religious implications—implications that scholars have generally undervalued in favour of the novel’s explicitly political setting. This essay will examine the form and function of parables in Mary Barton, which, I suggest, we must read in the context of Gaskell’s Unitarian faith. Born into a devout Unitarian family, Gaskell was exposed from a young age to the doctrines of this dissenting church and remained immersed in them through her adult life due to her marriage to William Gaskell, minister of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester...