The Language of Change in Mary Barton – Literature Essay
In the novel Mary Barton, language is used to convey mood as well as religious commitment. Elizabeth Gaskell uses an obvious shift from common language to an almost biblical language when she wants display a
change in the mood or the religious manner of the characters. This is most apparent in the dialogue of John Barton, when he either seems to need or has lost his religious fervor. However, some of her intentions can be interpreted in a modern context quite differently than they were intended in the nineteenth century. Gaskell also uses a subtler, possibly unintentional, language shift in various passages to show the mindset of the upper class in contrast to the lower class.
In the beginning of chapter three, after the death of Mary’s mother, John Barton has a common dialect. He says, on page 51, “Nothing could have saved her-there has been some shock to the system” (Gaskell 51). However, a few pages later he is talking to Mary after she says that she will do anything to help him he says, “I know thou wilt. Thou must not fret thyself ill, that’s the first thing I ask. Thou must leave me, and go to bed now, like a good girl as thou art” (Gaskell 53).
This shift in language shows a shift in tone, almost a prayer for divine intervention. M. M. Bakhtin would refer to this as heteroglossia, meaning different languages. In his essay, “Discourse in the Novel,” he states, “Shifts from common language to parodying of generic and other languages and shifts to the direct authorial word may be gradual, or may be on the contrary quite abrupt.” (Bakhtin 302-3).
Gaskell’s shift from common language to a biblical tongue is quite abrupt, as Bakhtin theorizes in all novels, but contrary to Bakhtin’s assumptions that in all novels this is type of shift is an unintentional occurrence, Gaskell’s shift is quite intentional and purposeful.
Bakhtin says, “To one degree or another, the author distances himself from this common language, he steps back and objectifies it, forcing his own intentions to refract and diffuse themselves through the medium of this common view that has become embodied in language (a view that is always superficial and frequently hypocritical)” (Bakhtin 302). I believe that he is trying to say that the author often changes the common language without thinking directly about the shift, but subconsciously adds his own feelings to the language, which often shows his (or in this case her) own bias view of the world. In Mary Barton, however, this is not always the case.
In the case of Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell has a point that she is trying to make, and that point is quite intentional. In the passage where John Barton speaks to Jem Wilson as Barton is dying he says, “Lad! thou hast borne a deal for me. It’s the meanest thing I ever did to leave thee to bear the brunt. Thou, who wert as innocent of any knowledge of it as the babe unborn. I’ll not bless thee for it. Blessing from such as me would not bring thee any good. Thou’lt love Mary, though she is my child” (Gaskell 449). This is a direct shift from the common language that John Barton was using prior to this statement. It seems to reflect a need for forgiveness. The tone is like a catholic confession. The reader is left with the feeling that he is not only asking for forgiveness from Jem, but he is also asking forgiveness from God. Once again, in this passage the author creates this change intentionally contrary to Bakhtin’s assumptions of an author’s shift being unintentional. However, sometimes Gaskell’s intentions can be interpreted differently.
In a modern context, a person who speaks in a biblical dialect is considered pompous and arrogant. We assume that the person is talking as if he/she is God. Early in the novel, when John Barton is speaking to his daughter Mary about her relationship with Jem Wilson he says, “Thou’st played thy cards badly, then…At one time he were desperate fond o’ thee, or I’m much mistaken. Much fonder of thee than thou deservest” (Gaskell 177). Although this is intended to be a father’s concern for his daughter’s well being, it seems more like he is trying to control her, when taken in a modern context. In the nineteenth century it might have been fine to expect a daughter to have a man to take care of her, but in a modern context it is taken as degrading to women to think in such terms. This is an idea where Bakhtin’s theory might apply more clearly to this novel.
Bakhtin states, “The relationship of the author to a language conceived as the common view is not static-it is always found in a state of movement and oscillation that is more or less alive…” (Bakhtin 302). I take this to mean that the language takes on a life of its own, and can sometimes go beyond what the author had originally intended. In the previous passage, Gaskell might have intended for the change in discourse to show a father’s love for his daughter (much like that of God himself), but it appears to me, over a century later, that this is a domineering type of speech (also much like God in the Bible). There are many other examples of this type of speech in the novel. Early in the novel John Barton is talking about a conversation that he had with Mary’s mother about Mary possibly becoming a lady one day. He says, “Thou’d best not put that nonsense i’ th’ girl’s head I can tell thee; I’d rather see her earning her bread by the sweat of her brow, as the Bible tells her she should do, aye, though she never got butter to her bread, than be like a do-nothing lady, worrying shopmen all morning, and screeching at her pianny all afternoon, and going to bed without having done a good turn to any one of God’s creatures but herself” (Gaskell 39). Once again, this may have been intended as a father wanting his daughter to be raised with good values, but in a modern context I see it is a demonstration of a religious zealot forcing a patriarchal belief on his daughter. Since I am not a Christian, and see Christianity as overbearing, I am going to read more into the language than Gaskell had intended when she wrote the passage. I think this type of unintentional discourse is what Bakhtin is trying to get at in his essay. But, there are also more subtle uses of language by Gaskell that reflect Bakhtin’s theory in the novel.
In the passage where Harry Carson is talking with Mary about how much he loves her and why she should love him also. In the passage, which is much to long to quote entirely, Gaskell uses words like “own, luxury, purchase, factory, good deal, offer and ambitious” to describe young Carson’s feelings (Gaskell 187). The shift in language, from sentimental to business like, is used to show Harry’s feeling that everything is a business deal and money can get him anything he wants. This shift in discourse is possibly, although not likely, something that the author might not have intended. I perceived the language as showing how cold and calculating Harry was about love. He is totally incapable of comprehending anything that doesn’t involve money. But, another reader might see it as just his way of arranging his thoughts to best describe his feelings for Mary. Thus, the language had taken on a life outside of the intended meaning.
In another example of this type of subtle shift is right after the Trade Union returns from London after unsuccessful negotiations, Gaskell uses the word “master” frequently in describing the factory owners. This change is language shows the narrators change from an objective observer to a bias commentator. The narrator uses the word master because of the connotation to slavery. If the owners are the masters then the reader will subconsciously think of the workers as the slaves (Gaskell 228). This may or may not have been intentional by Gaskell, but in the context of twentieth, or twenty-first, century life having ones boss called master is very offensive to the worker. Therefore, we see once again that text isn’t static, having only one perceived meaning as the author had intended, but different readers can interpret it differently over time.
There is even a more obvious example of how connotative language changes over time, when the author is describing John Barton she says, “ John Barton became a Chartist, a Communist, all that is commonly called wild and visionary” (Gaskell 226). To people living in a post-Cold War society this sentence would make John Barton seem like he is out of control and evil, but the text footnotes the passage to remind the current reader that “communist” in the nineteenth century only meant that he advocated communal living (meaning sharing things like food and what little money they had with others in there social group for the betterment of all).
Thus, one can see that although Elizabeth Gaskell, in the novel Mary Barton, uses an obvious shift in discourse for her own meaning, religious forgiveness, confession, and to show how fatherly love is much like that of God, there is also an unintentional meaning added by the reader, that of hypocrisy and social dominance. There are also subtle, possibly unintended shifts in discourse as well. Either way, it has been shown that the language of the novel, or any novel, is not set on a single connation, but has many different interpretations depending on the reader’s beliefs and the era in which it is read. It is all relative to the reader and goes beyond what the author has put on the page. That in a nutshell is what I believe Bakhtin was also trying to say.
Bakhtin, M. M. “Discourse in the Novel.”
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Ed. Jennifer Foster. Toronto: Broadview, 2000.