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

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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. Margaret, on the other hand appears to be ill at ease with the superficial attitudes and concerns of those around her. As she tells her mother; “I think what you call the makeshift contrivances at dear Helstone were a charming part of the life there”. Margaret has no pretensions and this dislike of the superficial relationships is particularly evident in her description of her aunt’s view of her “neighbours whom Mrs Shaw called friends, because she happened to dine with them more frequently than with any other people, and because if she or Edith wanted anything from them, or they from her, they did not scruple to make a call at each other’s houses before luncheon”. This relationship contrasts with her experiences in Milton were the term ‘neighbours’ is applied to people such as Higgins and his daughters; a far more personal and sincere relationship.

   The opening scenes also provide the reader with an explanation of Margaret’s position in Aunt Shaw’s house. It is shown to be a warm and affectionate household with her “gentle aunt and dear cousin”, but Margaret’s position within it was that of ‘poor cousin’ and companion to Edith. Margaret’s proud character and regard for social stature is clear from her eager “delight of filling the important post of only daughter in Helstone parsonage”. This perception of class and positions in society is one that shapes many of her dislikes of Milton and its inhabitants and is one that she must eventually overcome.

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   The title of chapter two, “Roses and Thorns” has significance in that is shows the contrast between the life Margaret expects at Helstone, surrounded by roses and the outdoors, and the “thorns” in her life that she hadn’t expected. It shows how beneath the idyll of her memories of Helstone, lie problems waiting to cause pain. Margaret feels that she belongs in Helstone where “its people were her people”. As an example of this, she “learned and delighted in using their particular words”. However, she is later to acquire the language of the people in Milton, showing her adaptability ...

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