Patsy Stoneman
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Mary Barton (1848)
in Elizabeth Gaskell
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Most critics deplore the presence of ‘extraneous factors’ such as the love story and the murder plot in Mary Barton. Elizabeth Gaskell dissociated herself from ‘political economy’ because she believed that humane ethical attitudes, rather than blind market forces, should govern social relationships. Mary Barton develops a contrast between two ethical systems, that of the working class, based on caring and co-operation, and that of the middle class, based on ownership, authority and the law. The dichotomy is similar to the conventional gender-role division, and Gaskell has been criticised for trying to evade the question of class struggle with an inappropriate domestic ethic. She had, however, some justification for presenting the working class as observing a ‘female ethic’. Rather than evading the question of class struggle, however, Mary Barton offers a critique of confrontational politics. As a critique of fatherhood, Mary Barton needs its ‘irrelevant’ subplots.

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