How does Gaskell use setting and location to reveal the character of her heroine, Margaret Hale?

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Introduction

How does Gaskell use setting and location to reveal the character of her heroine, Margaret Hale? The final title of her novel 'North and South', suggests the important role setting and location play in Gaskell's story of Margaret Hale and her relationship with Milton mill-owner John Thornton. During the course of the novel, we see Margaret settled in three locations; Harley Street, Helstone and Milton. Each of these settings represents a different social stratum and we see Margaret develop in her perception and attitude towards each of them. They all contribute, in some way, to making Margaret the girl that she is at the end of the novel. The book opens in Harley Street, where we are presented with the character of Edith. Edith's role in the novel is to act as a contrast to Margaret or 'control sample'. Through her, we can see what Margaret's life would have been like had she accepted Lennox. Edith is the model Victorian woman and she fits in perfectly with her Harley Street surroundings, but Margaret is far more independent, strong-minded and unconventional. When having her lover describe her future life in Corfu, "the very parts which made Margaret glow as she listened, Edith pretended to shiver and shudder at...because anything of a gipsy or make-shift life was really distasteful to her.

Middle

Edith's letters from Corfu provide not only the reader, but Margaret also, with a constant reminder as to what her life could have been like. The first letter from Edith tells of her arrival and is received on the day of Margaret's own arrival in Milton. The lively and gay description of their happy days in Corfu provides a stark contrast between the dark, chaotic and cramped life in Milton. The lives of the two young cousins have diverged completely. At this point in the novel, Margaret would have preferred Edith's life, but later on we see that she would not have been content with such a life. Margaret's humanitarian interest is awakened in her through her life in Milton. She provides a counter-argument to that of J.S. Mill and those of the utilitarian movement such as Gradgrind in 'Hard Times'. She sees a smaller section of Milton society and was "thrown in with one or two of those who, in all measures affecting masses of people, must be acute sufferers for the good of many". She, like Dickens' Sissy Jupe sees the cost in terms of human suffering, her concern is for the individual. Margaret is interested in people and it is through her acquaintance with Higgins and his family that Milton "became a brighter place...in it she had found a human interest".

Conclusion

She is able to come to terms with it as her past and remember it solely as such. Mr Lennox comments that Margaret returns at the end of the novel to the "Margaret Hale of Helstone", but he is wrong; she is quite a different woman to the now. Thornton too fails to see that it was her time in Milton that made Margaret the independent woman she is at the end of the novel, describing Helstone as "the place where Margaret grew to be what she is". Margaret's character is shaped not only by her young childhood in Harley Street, her summers in Helstone, but also her young womanhood in Milton. It is probably the latter that had the most substantial impact on her, causing her to see both Harley Street and Helstone through different eyes on her return. Ultimately, she chooses the life and spirit and vigour of Milton over the laziness of London, through her choice of Thornton over Mr Lennox as a husband. The vast differences in the scenery and setting over the course of the novel reflect Margaret's attitude and her changing opinions regarding herself and those around her. The changes she undergoes in Milton are highlighted by her return to the familiar scenes of Helstone and Harley Street, her new attitude to them and the people connected with them.

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