The Main Character of North and South and Society

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Frederick's Character Review and the Consequences of His Mutiny
  • Social Authority and Justice Frederick's Mutiny in the Gaskell Novel
    Critics on Frederick's Mutiny
  • Conclusion


The social structure in Victorian England was rigid and fixed, so any drift of change was highly judged. Gaskell's novel "North and South" explores that, through situations, through characters, through war and peace. It is a novel about social structures, about respecting authority and tradition or defiance against it. The subject of this paper is the concept of social authority and the constant rebellion against it. Frederick is an example of the greatest fear of the middle class, a man who cannot reconcile his inner personal moral values with social norms and patterns of behavior that have been accepted in his society. Frederick as an individual and as a character reviews the relationship between personal and social responsibility and, as a tragic heroic character, accepts his destiny in the end. Frederick is delicate, but strong. He does not think about his actions thoroughly, but acts impulsively.

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Frederick's Character Review and the Consequences of His Mutiny

'Literary character' can best be understood in relation to a more fundamental concept, namely 'literary characterization'. The latter is really a pragmatic concept in the sense that it focuses on the relationships between characters and their users. The relationship between the characters and the relation to the society is considered. ''The exact social conditions in England at this period clearly need to be delineated and an explanation thereof may shed some light on the particular thrust of Gaskell's work, in particular North and South'', explains Chen (2017: 494). Therefore this work was the result of the relationships in society at that time. This work speaks about the contrast between the rural and cultural south and the industrial violent north. Also, author critically describes the consequences of strong industrialization in England at that time.

''North and South literally embodies social and economic exploitation – in the factory, on the land, in the law, army or navy'', says Uglow, (2003: 372). The example mentioned is the exact portrait of Frederick's character. The main thing is that he impersonates part of society of the nineteenth century he lived in – his personality traits can be extended to personalities of a lot of people in that society, and explains their thoughts, reasons, actions and, in the end, the situation in America in the nineteenth century and why it was the way it was.

Frederick acts impulsively. His actions, in the the mutiny and upon his return to England could have had different consequences if he had thought them through. His exile in Spain was so hard for him that he feels the urge to change his whole identity, and his actions in England constantly haunt him. ''Frederick, who was one of the most senior officers, had been among those who had mutinied'' (Gaskell, 2008: 24). Here author emphasizes his participation in the mutiny as he was an officer. As a matter of fact he did not act alone in the mutiny.

''He had joined the navy some years ago, and had taken part in a mutiny, with the result that he was now unable to return to England, as he would be arrested if he did'' (Gaskell, 2008: 6). Here we can see his reason for going to Spain, because he would most likely end up in jail if he would return to England. Frederick is not sure whether his views on social justice and the sense of principles that guides him are suitable for nineteenth century laws or society's mindset.

Furthermore, explains (Mikysková, 2011: 31), ''Frederick is depicted as a 'lost' son. He lives in Spain and cannot go back to England because he would go to prison. His behavior is irresponsible; he does not face the consequences of his acts. But he is also depicted as a devoted son, he comes back to England to see his mother before her death, even if it is very dangerous for him to appear in England again.'' Consequences of Frederick's action are harsh and deep. The consequences are visible in their influences on society and the environment. The fate he has brought upon himself is that he is exiled from his native country and family; he has to change his whole identity and person. His change of identity seemed to be truly needed at that time. Also, his family members back in England have to live with his actions - their own attitudes are deeply saturated with his mutiny.

Social Authority and Justice Frederick's Mutiny in the Gaskell Novel

In the mid-nineteenth century, the structure of society was strictly set, the norms of behavior were known and had to be respected and followed. Industrial revolution and emancipation of workers had just begun and social justice was not seen in the same sense as it is today. The multi-century class division of people by the end of the eighteenth century comes into question. Multiple consequences of French Revolution led to a re-examination of the position of individuals and their active place in society. However, divisions in classes were no longer inherited, but the material statuses of families were. It was possible to climb the class ladder, but with great effort and difficulty. The influence of Romanticism on new generations and their evolving individuality has led to new reflections on the position of individuals in wider society. However, changes were slow and difficult because the vast majority of lower classes were not educated or self-conscious – their identities were not active and they were alienated. But, by the end of the nineteenth century there were significant changes regarding status and position in the society of the lowest classes of workers and the exploited poor. A new, educated middle class bourgeoisie, retailer and industrialist is at the expense of expelling their workers and trying to bring social differences to a minimum. Middle class was afraid of people like Frederick. He is an example of a person, which cannot reconcile the inner personal moral convictions with social norms and patterns of behaviour. Frederick as an individual and character reviews the relationship of personal and social responsibility and, as a tragic heroic character, accepts his destiny. But a lot of authors have critiqued his mutiny, his mindset and some of his actions, which is the theme of the next chapter.

Critics on Frederick's Mutiny

Michael T. DuBroy in his work ''A Reading of Symbolical Aspects of Mrs. Gaskell's North and South'' criticizes the mindset of Frederick and Margaret. Both characters express deep understanding of social injustices, but are, he claims, melodramatic and don't think it thoroughly. ''Juxtaposed with the story of the riot is the tale of Frederick's mutiny. Although the Union has been rejected, Frederick's mutiny makes it clear that the strike itself is not unjustified'' (Dubroy, 1977: 41). It should be noted that the post-romanticism literary realism, which Gaskell's novel is a part of, is still unclear whether the heroes are to be realists or romantics. It is a reflection of the transition period of literature and society as a whole. ''Frederick is, in many ways, a rather melodramatic figure: the lost son who gallantly supported mutineers against the injustice of their captain and is exiled as a result. All that would be needed to complete his story would be belated recognition by the government, of the justice of his actions, and his safe return to England'', explains Dubroy, (1977: 73). The writer explains that modern views on Frederick's mutiny were positive, but in the light of early Victorian age are impossible to comprehend. Frederick seems to be detached from his realism, since his strong moral convictions which he is passionate about, defy common sense and the early Victorian period sense of duty. The writer is a part of the society which transforms on a rapid, day to day basis, and cannot reconcile its inner moral convictions with fast-growing capitalist realism and exploitations of the poorest classes.

''He does not really care very much about getting a pardon, for he has set down new roots in Spain. Thus, in the world of reality, the heroic figure does not simply wait offstage until he returns in triumph; his life must continue and does continue. Denying his old life, he starts a new one. Frederick, therefore, serves to emphasize the gap between Margaret's heroic aspirations and reality, a split crystallized in Margaret's lie. Admirable as such intentions are, they have no place in the real world and cannot successfully function in real society. Frederick is really a passionate hero of melodrama, living in a far-away country, and leading a strangely different life from that of Margaret. He does not belong in the realities of Northern England in 1854'', states Dubroy (1977: 74). The personal tragedy of Frederick's actions is that he has to start his life anew, change his entire identity and forget the past, including his family. The author criticizes his actions as products of passionate and unadvised thoughts which he explains as pure fiction, not as real actions of a true hero. To reinvent its own character in a remote, backward country, which Spain of the period was being considered as, must've been a dreadful perspective to pre-colonial Great Britain, a beacon of civilization and progress of the Industrial era.

Rebecca Parker Fedewa in her dissertation 'Truth Telling: Testimony and Evidence in the Novels of Elizabeth Gaskell' provides criticism of Frederick's mutiny too. In her work, she criticizes and analyses the personal moralities of early Victorian age and those of collective mindset of that time. In the beginning of the age of individuality the author makes rebellious characters as examples of making things right no matter what the socially acceptable actions are. The sympathy and compassion with lower classes is just in its infancy, and is evolving through literature.

She (Parker Fedewa 2009: 175) says that ''the characters who live truthfully and show mercy to others are those whom Gaskell uses as models for her readers so that they may see others the way that she imagines God sees them. Thus, by showing compassion, the readers experience lasting change that is internal and that, potentially, has eternal ramifications. In her fiction, she sought to create exemplars of careful judgments, executed with compassion and an eye toward God. She writes of redeemable characters and for redeemable readers.'' ''The question of acting on one's own authority when faced with injustice, specifically when society will disapprove, ties together Mr. Hale, Frederick, and Margaret; as each negotiates how to deal with matters of conscience'' (Parker Fedewa, 2009: 54). Each of the characters is actually facing their own conscience. Author highlighted the need of justifying actions in unjustified society through examples of personal morality and questioning social authority if needed.

By reviewing literature it can be concluded that the main critiques are that characters of that time make decisions and actions impulsively and without excessive reflection on the consequences, although their ultimate goal is a great one; to change the society as a whole and start and era of social justice.


In the end it can be concluded that this novel gives an example of moral re-examination of the new middle class and also serves as a warning for actions that are not thought through. However, it gives the example of actions, no matter how reckless, that are fair and for a great cause – for change, which is an aspiration of all writers from that time. Bearing in mind that the novel was intended for the educated part of the society, both the high and middle classes, messages of individual responsibility and moral conviction towards the overall society are obvious. Changes in social justice issues, as usual, come from those who were able to make those changes, in cooperation with the lowest classes and the education of the poor and the needy. Frederick is a romantic, tragic Byronian hero whose actions can only be appreciated in retrospect, which probably was the intention of Elizabeth Gaskell.

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