In North and South, Gaskell’s characters refer frequently to fairy tales, myths, and other such fictional forms of writing. These tales usually seem to allude to geographic locations outside the one which Gaskell’s characters inhabit. Early in the novel, Margaret states that “Helstone is like a village in…one of Tennyson’s poems” (12). When Margaret visits Bessy’s house in Milton-North, Bessy’s father reproaches her for filling his daughter’s head with “visions of cities with golden gates and precious stones” (90). Fanny Thornton tells Margaret that she was captivated by the “Tales of Alhambra” (97), and that she would like to visit the city someday. In the following passage, Mr. Thornton compares industrial technology to the mystery and fantasy of the Arabian Nights.

[Margaret] rearranged her mother’s worsted-work, and fell back into her own thoughts—as completely forgotten by Mr. Thornton as if she had not been in the room, so thoroughly was he occupied in explaining to Mr. Hale the magnificent power, yet delicate adjustment of the might of the steam-hammer, which was recalling to Mr. Hale some of the wonderful stories of subservient genii in the Arabian Nights—one moment stretching from earth to sky and filling all the width of the horizon, at the next obediently compressed into a vase small enough to be borne in the hand of a child (81)

Questions

1. As suggested by Fanny’s comparison between London and Alhambra, most of Gaskell’s characters seem to view all cities outside their own to be equally foreign, regardless of the actual distance away from home. How does the characters’ geographic insulation feed into the novel’s views about industrialization?

2. Many of the tales here refer to the exotic richness of the so-called “Eastern” world, as evidenced by Thornton’s allusion to the Arabian Nights and perhaps Nicholas’ mention of “cities with golden gates and precious stones.” If Gaskell is making some kind of commentary regarding the colonialism and Orientalist ideas which correspond to industrialization and capitalism, how does she avoid placing a clear value judgment on British Orientalism?

3. Is there a gender-based difference between the “tales” of Margaret or Fanny and the Arabian Nights reference made by Mr. Thornton?


Victorian Web Overview North and South Elizabeth Gaskell

Last modified 3 March 2003