North and South Final Discussion Questions

north and south2You guys all know North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell is my favorite book and recently some of my twitter/blogger friends have been hosting a read-along and discussion group.  I posted my answers to the first sets of questions here. Now here are the final set of questions and my answers.  If you’ve read the book I would love your comments and thoughts.

Check out Suey’s Books answers here

1.  There’s much talk about all the deaths in this book. What are your feelings on that? Do you think they were necessary? Or too much?

I think it was just a part of Victorian living especially in a big city like Milton.  Maybe this sounds cold but I was actually glad to see Mr and Mrs Hale go because I never cared much for either of their characters.  I feel they are the weakest as far as character development in the novel.

I always felt like Gaskell missed the boat with Mr Hale. He starts out the novel doing this bold thing of uprooting his family and leaving his profession but then the rest of the story he is a complete pansy, dominated by his wife and others.  Mrs Hale is a character we didn’t learn much about it and is kind of a big nag so no love loss for me.They are both necessary characters to get the story moving in different directions and once served their purpose glad to see them go.

In our discussion on twitter someone mentioned perhaps Mr Hale wasn’t being bold but running away from the situation.  That is a very interesting point I had never pondered before (and I’ve read the book at least 10 times so you never stop learning about a book!).  What do you think? Is he a credible character? The rest of Gaskell’s characters are so strong I’m willing to give her a pass on 2.

Anyway, the only death that does affect me is Bessie because she is so sweet and innocent.  It is the classic Victorian type of death to frail figures such as Beth in Little Women. The nice one’s always get taken first. 😉

Aside from being important in moving the plot along, the deaths do force Margaret to do her final growing up.  She doesn’t have anyone to lean on which is key to her complete change and strength.
2. Was there anything that happened during this last part that you found surprising or unexpected? Or was everything very predictable?

I guess Leonards getting thrown by Frederick onto the train and dying is a tense surprising scene but the rest is somewhat predictable but in a very engrossing way.  It’s hard to say because it’s been so long since I read it for the first time in 2006.

3. What are your feelings on the about face Margaret and Mr. Thornton have with regard to their financial status?

It’s completely devastating for Thornton. In our day we tend to villainize anyone with money- the 1% you might say. Think of a movie like The Social Network where Zuckerberg is the bad guy and really only because he is the head of Facebook and uber-rich.

Gaskell is so great at tying Thornton’s wealth to his self-worth in an admirable way.  His father devastated his world by being foolish with money, so Thornton’s goal is to do something good for himself, family and those around him by being a good steward of his factory and money.

This tie between financial success and his character can be seen in this quote:

“Architect of his own fortunes, he attributed this to no special merit or qualities of his own, but to the power, which he believed that commerce gave to every brave, honest, and persevering man, to raise himself to a level from which he might see and read the great game of worldly success”

The change in fate was almost like God saying he was a failure not just his business.

When he loses the factory it is as if the world is saying to him he is no better than his father. It’s just devastating.

Margaret getting money is more of a convenience for the story and less influential on her character.

4. Do you think Margaret is justified in being so anguished over the lie that she told? Does it mostly have to do with her feelings for Mr. Thornton? Or something else?
I do because it is such a humbling moment for her.  She is a character that prides herself on her good instincts and doing the right thing.  That’s why she jumped in front of the mob. The idea she would lie and more importantly anyone would think she had sullied her name with a secret romance is too much.

The fact it is Mr Thornton, who she is beginning to have feelings for, makes it even worse. But we all have more shame when our sins are made public than when they are confessed to God alone.  That’s just human nature.
5. At what moment exactly do you think her feelings for Mr. Thornton completely changed?

I think when Mrs Thornton comes to talk to her after the incident and she asks herself

“Why do I care what he thinks, beyond the mere loss of his good opinion as regards my telling the truth or not? I cannot tell…”  That’s the beginning of the realization of how much the loss of his good opinion hurts her.

6. Discuss the character of Nicholas Higgins. What do you think about the relationship he has with Mr. Thornton? Did he change Mr. Thornton? Did Mr. Thornton change him?
He’s a lovely character.  I think he is a man who is a great follower but not a great leader.  In that sense him and Thornton balance each other out very well.  When he waits at the door and pleads for a job it is such a humble moment.  He is trying to do the right thing but he is not a Messiah character.  He makes mistakes but pleads anyway. It’s such a well written scene.  Thornton just can’t turn someone so sincere away.

7. How does Mr. Thornton’s views on the master/worker relationship change? Or. . .did it change? Did your view on this issue change as you experienced this book?
I think Thornton realizes how much he needs the good workers.  When Higgins does the extra work to get the job done it is such a lovely moment. Before the strike he probably saw his men as somewhat replaceable and now he knows better.

I’ve never been a big fan of unions but Gaskell does such a good job not showing her hand. We don’t know if she likes the unions or thinks they are thugs.  A lesser writer would have gone one way or the other, so as a result of her skill I am also left unsure.  They certainly do much good and are needed but they can also be bullies and misrepresent the needs of the workers.

8. Do you have a favorite quote from this book? If so, share and let us know why it’s your favorite.
“He shrank from hearing Margaret’s very name mentioned; he, while he blamed her–while he was jealous of her–while he renounced her–he loved her sorely, in spite of himself.”

(It doesn’t get much better than that my friends…)

9. The ending! Are you happy with how things turned out? (Try not to compare with the movie here… that’s for a later question!)

I love the ending.  I think it is a sweet moment.  Shouldn’t you feel like you are getting the better partner when you marry? I love when they say “I am not worthy”. I think that is beautiful and not over-the-top like a more tawdry novel might do (but gives us a little more romantic dialogue than Austen ever does).

10. What aspect of this book would you like to address that we haven’t yet talked about? Is there something we’ve skipped over in our discussions that makes you want to say… “Yeah, but what about….?”  And if you’ve got nothing there, answer this: Did you like the book? Why or why not?

It is my favorite book.  It improves on me every time I read it because of how much I love the characters.  A great book allows its characters to grow over time and is rich enough to show that growth in a wide range of characters not just the central hero.

Gaskell is a master at allowing Margaret to change from a pampered princess who scorns men of business as not gentlemanly enough to a humble, sweet landlord. That’s pretty amazing. Thornton also grows from a man who has been idolized to a wounded but proud creature. It’s so lovely.

Smaller characters show wonderful growth like Mrs Thornton and Higgins. It’s a book I never tire of reading because I like the people so much. I like being in their world.

I love how it tackles issues beyond a romantic drama that we still face today but it doesn’t beat you over the head with them.  It presents certain perspectives and lets you as a reader decide what you think.

I also love how Gaskell writes women in all of her novels including North and South.  They are independent, confident, thinkers with strong character arcs.  If you think about the women in most Dickens novels they are weak, frail creatures, so it is a huge accomplishment what Gaskell does.  If you changed the language and clothes her characters feel very modern in behavior and choices.

I really do think it is the best novel I have ever read and when I’m frustrated with preachy modern stories with predictable characters I pull it out and read it again.  It just always makes me happy.

BONUS MOVIE THOUGHTS:

The miniseries is excellent.  I still think it would make a great feature film and I’m shocked nobody in Hollywood has taken it up as a project.  For the record I think Michael Fassbender would be the perfect Thornton.

The movie has gorgeous cinematography and the recreation of the cotton mill using an actual museum in England is amazing.

cotton-snowflakes-north-and-south-factoryThe script adaptation by the amazing Sandy Welch is wonderful.  She manages to not only include everything from the novel but give a few scenes a modern sensibility which is quite lovely and in keeping with the spirit of Gaskell’s prose.

The score is also lovely by Martin Phipps- drawing you in and creating tension and passion when needed.

thornton23

But the real strength of the miniseries is the casting.  Of course Richard Armitage is so good as Thornton.  He captures the pride and all those British stares we expect in such a movie.  He also is vulnerable and towards the end quite devastating. A lesser actor may have played him very one note but he completely captures the nuances of Gaskell’s writing .

cotton-snowflakes-north-and-south

That said, I don’t think Daniela Denby-Ashe gets quite the credit she deserves as Margaret.  She is quite up to the task for sparring with Armitage. There is an elegance and innocence to her performance that endears her to the viewer right away.

The rest of the cast is wonderful including Brendan Coyle as Higgins who would later be famous in Downton Abbey as Mr Bates.  Sinead Cusack is also so great as Mrs Thornton.

 

The Endingnorth-and-south-ending1

A lot of people in the discussion group were upset with the ending in the book.  Here’s what I would say to them.

I like the ending in the movie.  It is a suspension of belief, a fairytale and extremely romantic. The man looks across the train station and see’s the girl and he has loosed the knot in his cravat all casual style. He comes towards her and they talk, declare their love and kiss. I love it!

But does it really make sense to the rest of the story?  Think about it.  The pair were almost kept apart because of a mistaken scene in a train station between Margaret and another man.  Would either of them really have kissed in public like that?  No way.  While it is very romantic as fairytales can be I actually prefer the ending in the book.

They have had passionate discussions throughout the book and how appropriate for it all to come down to the two of them talking and finally understanding one another.  I love how they both feel unworthy of the other’s love and good opinion.  That is perfect for a book based on two people who start out the story feeling superior to each other in every way.

I probably won’t convince anyone but I love both endings. 🙂

4 thoughts on “North and South Final Discussion Questions

  1. Great answers. I agree that Gaskell does a good job remaining fairly neutral about the master/worker relationship. Higgins and Mr. Thornton learning from each other was one of my favorite parts. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment on my bog earlier.

  2. That’s a great point about Higgins being more of a follower than a leader. I hadn’t thought about that, but that’s probably true. And I DO love how he and Thornton learn to know each other better and to respect one another. Their friendship is one of my favorite aspects of the story!

    That’s a great quote! Thornton’s constancy and steadfastness in his love for Margaret is just so lovely. I love how he decides to love her regardless of her or his mom or anyone! I think that becomes a great strength for him actually. Something he uses to get through all the other things he has to go through, like losing the mill.

    The characters are probably what I love most about this book though. Watching them change and grow strong where they need to and grow weak where they need to and just everything. These characters live inside me now and I just love them all to bits! 🙂 My favorites are Margaret, Thornton, and Higgins.

    I LOVE the miniseries! Thanks for sharing all the lovely pics. It is so well done and as you said, it perfectly captures the spirit of the novel, even the scenes that were added. The actors/actresses all do an amazing job. I just never get tired of watching it! 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for your great comments. I agree with all your points. You should read Wives and Daughters. It is so good and I also love Cranford!

  3. I finally finished listening to the audiobook, and overall I found it very enjoyable. I didn’t like all of the characters: Mrs Hale felt like any other nagging, woe-is-me mother you often see in classic novels, and there were times when I was put off by Margaret. On the other hand, Gaskell still succeeded in making me sympathise with Margaret a lot, and not just because of everything she goes through – I have read books where I disliked the protagonist so much that even when they went through hell, I didn’t feel the least bit sorry for them.

    I enjoyed the pictures that Gaskell paints, and the complexity with which she portrays the difficulties in the master-worker arrangement. The ‘will they won’t they’ between Margaret and Mr Thornton infuriated me, but in a good way; I liked how, unlike in some similar relationships, both of them had to grow in some way and become worthy of each other. In the last chapter, I was on tenterhooks, thinking to myself, “Just work things out already!!”

    You ever noticed that there’s no such thing as a boyfriend or girlfriend in this era? You go straight from ‘friendly acquaintance’ to ‘fiancee’.

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