Elizabeth Gaskell discussion

Does Thornton have low self-esteem?

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I was reading a big discussion about the ending to the BBC mini-series vs the book and it made me think. One of the reasons I love the book ending is because of the lines

“Oh Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough.”
“Not good enough! Don't mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.”

Now, this issue with their feelings of not being good enough for one-another is to me a big part of the dilemma. As much as I scream at the e-reader 'just tell him' (which does not work for you who are curious to try it at home ;) ) I can understand why Margaret is holding back. She is a woman with very high morals and ethical standards, and when she lied about Fredrick, she did not live up to those standards. She feels like she has fallen, and it is natural to understand why she therefore doesn't think she is good enough for the man she loves (and also why she wants Mr. Bell to tell Thornton about the lie. She is not worthy to do it herself). At the same time Thornton has also been talking about how he is not worthy of Margaret. Even before the first proposal, he tells his mother

“I dare not hope. I never was fainthearted before; but I cannot believe such a creature cares for me”

He is a man in love, I get that, but he also seems to have so low self-esteem and I don't get why. Several times he talks about her not deserving him, and the scene near the end where he talks about the workers saying they will work for him again if he gets a chance, as wonderful as it is, made me think of a little dog jumping up and down shouting 'love me, love me, love me'. I get why Margaret didn't talk to him, she was fallen and therefore unworthy (in her own eyes, not mine), but why does Mr. Thornton feel so strongly that he doesn't deserve her (even after realising who the man on the station was and all of that)?

message 2: by Courtney (new)

Courtney (courtney_m) | 25 comments I don't think he has low self-esteem. Since he doesn’t typically care what other people think about him, he values himself based on his own very high standards of moral integrity, fairness, ability to maintain emotional equilibrium, success as a businessman, etc., and his relationship with Margaret challenges all of those things. Margaret disorients him. As they interact, he feels himself slipping in nearly every category of self-evaluation and judges himself harshly, saying he’s “unworthy.” I don’t think he needs to get more self-esteem, I think he needs to get a grip on his unreasonably high standards and bring them down to an earthy level. She helps him do that.

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Courtney wrote: "I don't think he has low self-esteem. Since he doesn’t typically care what other people think about him, he values himself based on his own very high standards of moral integrity, fairness, abilit..."

I can understand that, and maybe low self-esteem is the wrong word like it would have been with Margaret. It's just strange that from the moment he meet Margaret he thinks to himself "she looked at him with proud indifference, taking him, he thought, for what, in his irritation, he told himself he was - a great rough fellow, with not a grace or a refinement about him." or when he thinks Margaret has been out with a strange man at night at people have started to talk "Oh! Margaret, could you not ave loved me? I am but uncouth and hard, but I would never have led you into any falsehood for me."

So I agree that this has to do with high standards more than low self-esteem, but he does seem to be focused on the fact that unlike the people in the South, he is not, in lack of a better word, "refined". But is this reaction just an issue of him feeling his "lack of being refined" in meeting with The Hales that he views as "refined", or is there something else here?

message 4: by loriBear (last edited Feb 10, 2014 10:20AM) (new)

loriBear | 13 comments Marie, you are not the first to bring up this idea. I think many in our modern age struggle with this element in Thornton's character. It's hard for some to understand and grasp the balance of 'confident commanding master' and 'humble, tender and loving man'. Yet they both embody him and make him the amazing character that he is.

Let me see if I can explain this. What can appear as "low self esteem" is only Gaskell revealing the more humble side of this confident man. The statement you quote from early in the story, "I dare not hope. I never was fainthearted before; but I cannot believe such a creature cares for me...", true to Gaskell's brilliance of writing, delivers many things at once. The first element is something that readers of the Victorian age would have not only immediately understood... in truth they would have expected. I read an article years ago that spoke of how North & South was not received well in the southern parts of Britian. Many felt the love story was an unequally matched. (translation: the upper classes didn't approve of Margaret falling for a man of the working class)

In Victorian Britain, class separation still ruled society yet it was on the verge of change. With the evolving industrial revolution, people who were considered "working class" were rising to heights of wealth and power, and this was upsetting the well established social apple cart (so to speak). This very issue plays a heavy role in the message that Gaskell was attempting to communicate in her story. The disadvantage for us, in these modern times, is that Gaskell doesn't spell this out. Again, because the readers she wrote to understood this without explanation, they were living it.

At the time that Gaskell wrote this wonderful story, though this element was changing... full change had not taken place. Thornton, though immensely wealthy, was well aware of his "lack of refinement" by the definition of the class above him. He had not been born into a social class that would have taught him those refinements, in fact, the tragedy of his fathers death also play a role. His statements on this topic were not a lack of confidence but rather a reflection of what he knew to be true in the society he lived in. His understanding of this and his full opinion on the matter is revealed in more detail in his discussion with Margaret about the true definition of a "gentleman". To sum up his words, he held himself to a higher standard than that which was thrust upon him by society. That a 'true' gentleman was defined by his actions rather than his blood line.

Thornton knew that Margaret would view him as "lacking refinement" and he was spot on. We all know very well Margaret's prejudice against him in the first half of the book. If he had not loved her so keenly, I don't think this would have bothered him much. In fact, if you look closely at the beginning of their acquaintance, though he felt attraction to her, her view of him rather amused him. It was only when his attraction grew into an all consuming passion that this 'fact' began to sting.

Also, his statements about feeling unworthy of Margaret also reflects his humbleness of character. Thornton's love for Margaret, as Courtney shares, unsettles him. It completely knocks him off balance. This confident, powerful man is shaken to his core by his love for this rather naive, idealistic southern refined lady.

In truth, loving Margaret redefines him. As I stated above, I don't believe it is until he meets Margaret that he feels the full brunt of the social class constraints. Though he was well aware of them, it wasn't until his heart longed for her love, that he felt the full weight of the limitations it put on him.

The last point that I will make comes from another quote in the novel. One of my all time favorites. "...he passionately loved her, and thought her, even with all her faults, more lovely and more excellent than any other woman..." He adored her. Because he thought of her (in translation) to be the best woman in the world, it is not so surprising that the humble side of him felt unworthy of her. In truth, it is quite beautiful. Gaskell reveals to us much the same in Margaret. In the second half of the book, she comes to understand Thornton. She sees him for what he is.. an amazing man. Gaskell reveals the depth of their love for each other in these last words. Both love and adore the other so deeply, they feel unworthy. It is not a self esteem issue.. but rather a thing of real beauty.

I don't know if I helped you understand this any better or not. I do understand how this can be hard to grasp! I hope you will keep asking questions. Coming to understand many of these elements will make you see the novel with new eyes and I think you will love it all the more!

There is a post on the blog West of Milton covering this topic as well. I hope you will check it out and join in the discussion! http://wp.me/p2JPvJ-Ek

message 5: by Trudy (last edited Feb 10, 2014 09:09AM) (new)

Trudy Brasure | 59 comments I think all these instances of him finding himself falling short of some standard is specifically tied to his falling in love with Margaret. As Courtney pointed out, it's his judging himself as a possible match with Margaret that gets him tied up in knots. In all other instances, he is comfortable with who is and what he's become.
He's never tried to match himself with any woman before. Then along comes a confident, poised, gentleman's daughter from the south who suddenly seems to be looking down at him. And because of his immediate attraction to her, he starts to see himself as she might.
In no other instance does he wonder what others must think of him. It's only with this girl who he is falling in love with.

I think it's beautifully drawn. He is now self-conscious and vulnerable in a way we all are when we fall in love. He thinks her too good for him. And I think it shows how much he really does admire/love her that he puts her higher than himself. It's so much more refreshing and compelling than the swaggering arrogance of the 'sexy' hero often offered in modern literature and film.

message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

loriBear wrote: "Marie, you are not the first to bring up this idea. I think many in our modern age struggle with this element in Thornton's character. It's hard for some to understand and grasp the balance of '..."

Thank you so much for explaining. I feel like I understand him much more now :) In a sense, this issue is just another aspect of the class theme in the book then. Not just between working and masters, but between the blue-bloods and the Nouveau riche.

message 7: by loriBear (new)

loriBear | 13 comments Exactly Marie! As I said, understanding this element will help other things make more sense as well. I think you will find you love the book all the more! I'm hopelessly hooked and still learning!

let me say again.. we would love to have you come and chat about the things that you've learned on the blog West of Milton. We invite anyone who loves to discuss North & South to come. www.westofmilton.com!

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