I dream all the time that I am Mr. Thornton

[Please note that this post gives a peculiarly personal reading of North & South, not the only one, and certainly not the one that I present in the classroom when I teach the series. Speaking as a historian, I’d agree that Thornton is more politically culpable than this reading allows him to be. I’m also considering here only the series as it unfolds here — not as a representation of history, or an adaptation, however successful or unsuccessful, of the novel. This interpretation thus concerns only my identification with the character, though I throw in a few pieces of historical or literary commentary here and there because that’s the way I am. This is the prologue — there are four episodes.]

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The lord of all he surveys — or the slave? Our first glimpse of Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage), from Margaret’s perspective, in episode 1 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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I’ve written extensively before about my bizarre over-identification with Richard Armitage as a person standing on the brink of middle age. But that came after, once I had learned something about him. I suppose that the first post in this blog should have been titled “In the beginning was Mr. Thornton.” But.

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Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage), millimeters away from his first kiss of Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) at the end of episode 4 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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I guess that other women dream about having Mr. Thornton look at them with suppressed desire across a crowded room or, more boldly, about kissing Mr. Thornton. Or about something even more bold that didn’t make it onto the screen. I fantasize about those things sometimes when I’m awake. I’ve watched that kiss dozens over dozens of times, often to get through grading. I make no apologies for being a garden-variety over-educated forty-something single white female heterosexual. I’m totally a member of Mr. Armitage’s key initial target demographic. I love that kiss! But that’s not my main dream.

I don’t dream of kissing Mr. Thornton. I dream that I am Mr. Thornton. In the factory. At the desk. Walking through the streets of Milton. Dealing with Higgins. Responding to Mrs. Thornton. Running through the mill. (I’ve never dreamt I’m proposing to Margaret, or kissing her, although I’m guess that that will come, too.) Probably once every two weeks or so, for two years now, which is a long duration and a high frequency for a recurring dream, and which some experts would diagnose as a symptom of PTSD. This week I dreamt I was Mr. Thornton, hearing of Mr. Hale’s death.

Richard Armitage has never been in danger of being stalked by me, though well-meaning and hostile readers alike often made me worry about whether that was my actual problem and whether I was lying to myself about it by refusing to acknowledge it. Moreover, the intensity of the feelings I’ve had made me wonder if there was something sick about them. And I’m ethically bound to try not to hurt Mr. Armitage, as the muse who saved me, and so I have taken people’s worries seriously and written about them.

But. The real crazy? Somewhere deep in my psyche, some piece of me has concluded that she is Mr. Thornton. And she won’t let go of him.

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The Thorntons (Richard Armitage, Sinead Cusack, Jo Joyner) at home in episode 2 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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Every strong identification I experience when watching North & South occurs with a male character, and these identifications explain why North & South spoke to me so compellingly when I began watching it the second time. On the whole, although I enjoy reading fanfic in which Mr. Thornton has a sex life, I’m not overwhelmed with sexual fantasies about him. Obviously this statement is potentially more complex than it appears, because I’d never claim I don’t experience romantic or sexual fantasies about Richard Armitage, though that, too, is a complex problem that will eventually merit further discussion. But I think the reason I don’t think about Thornton much as a romantic partner is that I identify with him way too much.

Coincidentally or not, I sense a lot in common with Mr. Thornton socially. I see my family in his: the moralistic mother who shows her love in the first instance by maintaining her standards, who’s had to be strong because of the shame of the absent father (in my case, a father who spent thirty years in a faithful love affair with a beer can), the younger sibling who’s seen as frivolous because of an ostensible lack of self-discipline, the problems of the social climber. And like Thornton I know that the problems that bind us together, the very fact that we can fight with each other, means that we cling together much more closely than the Hales, who can barely speak to each other honestly. There are other things, too, beyond the family enmeshment.

However: the decisive issue for me in watching North & South remains Thornton’s experience of work as an ethical act of value in itself, a practical investment in the world, and a principled, structured way of interacting with the people around him. I am invested in Thornton’s way of being as recognizably my own. And so I watched, in fascination, in horror, in grief, in understanding, as I saw him formulate and espouse those commitments, and then pay the price for having done so.

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Running to fix it, dashing to make it right. Or applying too much effort? A scene that often replays itself in my dreams: Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) runs in pursuit of Stevens in episode 1 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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Seen from the perspective that captured me unconsciously that night, North & South presents mostly a story of challenged or failed vocation. Since this is the twenty-first century’s vision of English bourgeois / industrial society of the nineteenth century, the series gives vocations only to men — one of its more serious flaws lying in its incapacity to visualize adequately the callings of women in the society it depicts or to treat in any meaningful way, despite its gestures in that direction, the incredible burden of household and reproductive labor carried by women. Even so, the theme of problematic vocation sets the story in motion and persists through almost every moment of its narrative. The series begins with Mr. Hale’s inability to stay in the Church of England — he leaves because he is convinced he can no longer espouse its doctrines to others and remain honest — and the forced substitution of the career of tutor, which he says, somewhat defensively to his wife, who emphatically does not understand him, might be his real calling. Hale is succeeded in this pattern by his son, Frederick, who embraces a professional career that initially seems to offer him more flexibility to believe what he wishes. When Frederick stands up for principle on a ship of Her Majesty’s Navy, however, he pays the price of exile from England and separation from his family. We also see the example of Nicholas Higgins — working hard to keep his family alive and yet trying to improve his wages via his union — and the contrasting one of Boucher, who has too many children and not enough self-discipline to manage the same task. There’s Stevens, who can get ahead only by slinking around in corners, an apparent parallel to some of the less than honorable mill owners, or to Watson, who seeks to profit by speculating — by investing money without working at all. We have Mr. Bell, who gives himself to his books and dies without issue — thus un(re)productive. And Henry Lennox and Mr. Latimer: comfortable, rationalist administrators who seem to follow the demands of their society, conforming to expectations or enforcing them rather than striking out on their own, or similarly, Edith’s husband, apparently quite successful primarily because he smiles and does what is asked of him.

It’s a world, in short, without any apparent vocational integrity, even though we are meant to admire those most who have the strongest sense of principle. Every man with a sense of vocation that calls his security into question is defeated or fighting for survival or exiled; those who manage to get along without principles are succeeding but, like the straw men in between them, they apparently have no vocation. The story acknowledges their success but does not ask us to admire them. Such men can, at best, hope to be like Henry Lennox: a specialist without a spirit, a hedonist without a heart. Not the man who suffers; but more importantly: not the man who will win the girl in the end.

January 2010: I recognize North & South as the world that I have been living for the previous decade. A world in which work — which was central to my life, both because my family socialized me that way, and because I had made the task of understanding myself into a profession by choosing to research a topic of intense personal significance — in itself didn’t matter any more. In that world, work was only about gaining something else. As I saw it at the time, calling and integrity were pointless, as the technocrats and the gonifs and the posturers and the profiteers and the speculators had taken over. The work was no longer for the work or for what it produced or even for the meaning of working; for most people I worked with it had become an entertaining spectator sport with arbitrary moral values assigned to wins and losses as if they meant something to people who had long ago lost their own moralities and passions. In the end the outcome of the game didn’t matter as much any more as the problem that by playing it for so long, I had made it impossible for myself to work at all. And without work, I didn’t know how to continue existing.

And so, to “me + mr. thornton.” What I write about him, in the subsequent posts, as I read him, watching Richard Armitage play him on screen, I also write of myself.

***

To episode 1.

~ by Servetus on January 30, 2012.

57 Responses to “I dream all the time that I am Mr. Thornton”

  1. I see nothing wrong as a female identifying with the male in a story. As liberated career women in the 21st century, we can think outside the boundaries of marriage and children. If you’re a single careerist, you will more likely identify with the careerist in the piece. Or you can identify with the emotional themes. For example I identify with Guy in RH than I do with Marian or Robin because of my emotional background. So if you dream of being Thornton, that’s not surprising given your job upheaval.

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    • No, I don’t think it’s surprising any more, either, that I identified with Thornton. I think it’s odd that I dream of being him so often, though.

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    • Oh, and as you know: Guy is the other person in Armitage’s oeuvre that I feel a total personal identification with. So maybe we can talk about this some more.

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      • Guy is also a prisoner of his work, doing a job he does not like for a boss he loathes, but all he has is his career. Without it, he’s landless, homeless, penniless, and without (decent) family or friends. The more he tries to do his job well, the more his boss castigates him for incompetence. He has less-than-competent guards under his command, and presumably he’s not in a position to replace them. He seems to be the only person charged with capturing Robin Hood and that’s just one of his tasks. He is constantly cheated and mistreated; nobody loves him (except us, of course). Naturally, I can identify with Guy.

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  2. I totally understand your identification with Mr. Thornton. A highly principled person challenged by work pressures and social changes. Trying to do the right thing under trying circumstances. I know countless women
    (and men) struggling with this today, in fields that is not necesarily associated with profit. The non-profit secteur for example. It makes perfect sense to me.

    I never considered adoring Mr. Thornton because of a possible identification with how he handles himself in his field. Food for thought. I could see myself being Ms. Hale and befriending those that were ostricized and less popular. My whole career has been based on this. But now I can see how I may also be transfering some work related issues to him too. Hmm….

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    • Thanks for this. Part of my reason for wanting to articulate was also that I get tired of hearing that women are into this production because they like how Armitage looks, or it’s typical Victorian romantic fare. I think those things are also true, but I think that the series raises important questions for us about what work and ethics are. When you consider the typical demographic of the viewer of this series, described as highly educated and middle aged female, there may be more overlap of these things than we immediately see. I’ll be interested to read your reactions to the next posts.

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  3. Wow. I feel I’ve been whining for some time to hear more of Mr. Thornton and now that you’ve started, I am a little nervous for what you are set to reveal! *chews nervously on fingernails*

    I have to whole-heartedly agree with Judi’s observation above (thanks Judi!) As a previously overworked and burned out careerist myself (with strong feelings of financial responsibility for my mother), I easily identified with Mr. Thornton in N&S. That he could lose the mill and his standing as ‘Master’ even after all he had put into it – while Watson’s ‘financial scheme’ succeeded – was a huge, HUGE wake-up call for me. Such fickle and unjust conditions, of course, exist today in every field of work (your field and mine included). But N&S truly forced me to deeply evaluate the personal price I was paying for living such an imbalanced life devoted to and bound by my personal ethic towards work.

    I also appreciate what you are highlighting here since I also bristle at the oversimplification that N&S simply appeals for its romantic ending. I believe the animus runs strongly in quite a few of us, possibly to the developmental detriment of an equally necessary anima force.

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    • Be careful what you ask for 🙂

      Now that I’m “breaking the silence” I’ll probably be writing more about Thornton — from many different perspectives, so you will probably find some stuff to love and some stuff to fear.

      As I hope is clear by the end of this series, one of my issues with the film is the way that it seeks to resolve the conundrum it raises about the justness of labor in relationship to reward — the issue you raise is an important question.

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  4. I, too, am interested in exploring the questions of work and ethics in terms of Mr. Thornton, especially his being forced into the role of Master by his father’s death. I like the way Richard spoke of there being a patch mending Thornton’s trousers as a reminder of what he had come from. Does true responsibility make cowards of us all, or are we right to sacrifice dreams and perhaps callings to keep the commitments we have made? How are we supposed to feel when we do the right thing, only to lose it all? (And there is no Ms. Hale to come lovingly to the rescue?) Especially when others have gained for their lack of principles?

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    • My perception is that it’s not a dichotomy: many of us want to do what our parents expect of us (seeing that as a metaphor), or at least resolve the issues they’ve left behind them, but we also want to “be ourselves.” That’s a balance that is so hard to maintain.

      The end of both the novel and the film are cheap in my opinion, but that’s the generic convention of Victorian serial literature. I was not the book’s original audience 🙂

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  5. I’ve been waiting anxiously for someone to talk about Mr. Thornton and, wow, what a wonderful post… After watching N&S 5 or 6 times and reading the novel, I began to think about how much I indentified myself with this character. You certainly gave me more to think that I was looking for, but I’m not complaining about it. Loved it!!

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  6. Oh my god, I totally get it. Thornton’s need for control, even as he admits he “has a temper,” and how his feelings of helplessness take over as the business just continues to slide. I know exactly what you mean.

    But at the end of North & South Margaret comes through as the angel of mercy with her magical piles of money. When you dream of being Mr. Thornton, is there a magical angel at the end of the story? or are you always caught in the middle?

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    • I was worried about you specifically as a reader of this post because of all the time we spent discussing Margaret and the success or failure of her gender politics. I thought you might think I had abandoned ship. But as you know, gender is not the problem that keeps me up at night. I was really relieved when I finally figured this issue out.

      As to the ending: ah, you’re jumping to the end of the story, and no, I don’t like the ending, and I think you can safely say that the fact that I am still dreaming about this series from Thornton’s viewpoint can be taken as a partial answer for now. You’ll have to wait about four more days. It’s key, I think, that I never dream of kissing Margaret — and I don’t think that’s my heterosexuality at work, because as you know, I have sex with everyone I’ve ever met of whichever gender in my dreams.

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      • We could have such a long conversation about this. 🙂

        When I read the book and realized that Gaskell had us identify more with Thornton — and that she developed Margaret as a somewhat formal, more unknowable character — it helped me understand a slight problem I’d had with the series: that although I like and identify with Margaret in that version, her motives are still somewhat cloudy to me. And that despite the fact that we see events through her eyes in the series, it’s Thornton who really grows on us and emerges as the sympathetic character (to me). So I would never see this as an issue of betraying one’s sex.

        Plus, how much do I identify with Thornton, who works as hard as he can, all the time, and still fails? That he tries to keep his emotions working on a level that he thinks will present the best, effective, professional view to the world, while breaking down in private with his mother, the sole person he trusts? That he associates his work, his *style* of work, with morality? That he refuses to go with the popular fad of speculating? I don’t dream about him, but I’m totally with you on identifying with him.

        Plus, I now get — on such a visceral level — why it was the winter of 2010 when this series made that much sense to you.

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        • From the perspective of the winter of 2012 this seems completely obvious. It’s funny that in the winter of 2010 most of this had not yet occurred to me. The other piece of the puzzle was why Armitage — because i really thought, as you remember, at the time that it was some weird fascination with him *only.* I had wanted to publish a post on that before this series but the post is completely mired at the moment, so it will come after.

          In the novel I find Margaret really unlikable at the beginning and not all that much better toward the end. DDA does a good job of making her more sympathetic even in terms of her physical postures (and the script tones down Margaret’s worst prejudices in the novel quite a bit, I think).

          The facade question was really important to me, too, I think. All my resolutions in the Fall of 2011 about what I’d have to do to keep working there — even as everything’s going to hell. He really trusts his mother but she doesn’t really “get” him either, I don’t think.

          My favorite scene for months and months (this comes out in episode 4) was the scene where Thornton is watching Latimer play pool and he says, “I don’t think anyone can accuse me of being careless.” Oh, that hurt when I watched it. I didn’t understand why, completely, for months. What did I do wrong? Except believe in my principles. Uch, it’s painful to watch even now.

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  7. Nicely written post. A+. Thornton, and his ungentlmanly ways, are far more identifiable than Margaret. She’s a bit wooden. I sort of love it when Thornton loses his temper and is a bit unapologetic about it.

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    • There’s a sort of perfect storm there; Gaskell’s Margaret is not so well formed or esp. likable; it’s not entirely clear from the script of the series how her transformation is working; and Daniela Denby-Ashe, while not a bad actress, is clearly the weakest length in an amazing ensemble. There’s at least one reader of this blog who almost stopped watching because she couldn’t find a way to “get into” Margaret.

      I think (as the next post in the series makes clear) he’s unapologetic because of his principles.

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  8. I’m not surprised ,at all , Servetus ! IMO,you do not need a husband,you need good,affectionate wife. 😉
    I love Mr.Thornton(his responsibility),I admire Margaret and Mrs.Thornton.
    I fear that I’m like Mrs.Hale(is probably why I despise her)

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    • find me one 🙂

      don’t we all fear that we’re frivolous? as long as you’re afraid of it, you’re not in trouble, I think 🙂

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  9. In this day and age women can identify more with Thornton because the social structure has changed so much and there are so many women struggling to provide for their families and keep them from the poor house…or as we call them now “homeless shelters.” I identified more with Higgins.

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    • I think if I were to watch it *now* for the first time, Higgins is the character I’d identify with. At the time when I saw it I was really in a position where what I was doing seemed to strongly parallel owning and running a (knowledge) factory.

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      • I’m from a working class background. My grandmother actually had to live in a poor house when she was a child sometime in the early 1900’s in rural Georgia. You can imagine how bad that must have been. This same grandmother worked in the cotton mills all her life. She had a chronic cough caused from inhaling cotton all those years in the cotton mills. My father was a “union man.” The union was a big part of his life and I grew up hearing stories about the dangers involved in being a member….it could get quite violent. So I naturally identified with Higgins. I didn’t really identify with the Bessie character because my brothers and I never lived a deprived life.

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        • I did identify with Bessie in one way and that was the relatioship she had with her father. Higgins reminds me of my father.

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        • I have many relatives who work in paper mills, but my own nuclear family’s trajectory was farm — military — white collar. (Though my brother is rebelling by farming). For me, however, it was a “relationship to the means of production” issue, I think (if you’re willing to look at this in Marxist terms) that sparked the identification with Thornton at that time. Now I am a contract worker, which has changed some of how I’ve seen the series.

          I do want to say more clearly — and this is really important to me — that what I say at the beginning of these discussions is really true: this is a reading of Thornton that does not make him politically culpable for what is happening in a way that he clearly is, looking at it from the perspective of the historian. Union battles in England in the 1850s were *much* more brutal than this series indicates (and as your father shared with you — they continue to be so in the 20th and 21st centuries); the living conditions of the working poor were a great deal worse than the series indicates; and it’s hard to point to a historical figure that Thornton really corresponds to. N&S is Gaskell’s fantasy of a social reconciliation that never really occurred. If you keep those things in mind the need to look at the series from Higgins’ perspective is clearly imperative. I do that i the classroom — where I don’t talk about my personal identification with Thornton at all.

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  10. O yes Sloan,wonderful,fearless Higgins!

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    • who has, one must admit, his corners rubbed off him quite a bit by the script. In the book he’s a bit edgier.

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  11. RE dreaming you are a character. I think that is actually quite normal when you’ve immersed yourself in a story deeply. At the height of my Harry Potter madness, I often dreamt I was Hermione, either having to use a time turner to rescue myself from Voldemort or chasing Snape around the school. I think I also dreamt I was Snape once. So I’m going to say it’s totally normal and healthy and not at all related to PTSD. 🙂

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    • People who have PTSD have repetitive nightmares in which they are confronted by the same situation over and over again and can’t get past it in the dream. That’s not quite my situation, thankfully.

      Thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog.

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  12. […] explanatory prologue for this post is here. Please note that this post gives a peculiarly personal reading of North & South, not the only […]

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  13. […] explanatory prologue to this post is here; episode 1 is here. Please note that this series gives a peculiarly personal reading of North & […]

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  14. […] them, nothing really jumped at me. Looking for inspiration, I made the supreme mistake of reading Servetus’ latest series. Oh, I’m not down on the series but rather my timing. How foolish to think I […]

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  15. […] 3(a) before you read this or it may not not make sense. Previous pieces of the argument: here the prologue; here episode one; here episode two; there'll be one more piece of 3 coming up. Same disclaimers / […]

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  16. […] that involved characters you’ve played, and these were mostly about comfort and safety. Mr. Thornton for work stuff. Porter for support, for instance. Lucas North for encountering trauma but not being able to […]

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  17. I have not read any of these pieces but this one and look forward to what else you have to say. I have read no comments, so I may be repeating something.

    Before I go on, I want to add that I don’t necessarily find it odd to dream as a male and especially as you’ve done it.

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    • This isn’t the first time I’ve done it.

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      • So now I’m going to put the rest of my response, which I canned last night. I think it’s apropos.

        From the time I was a young girl, I was a male in many of my dreams. Part of that was great reverence for my father who always seemed to have his act together, was successful at whatever he attempted, and without melancholy. I so wanted to be like him. I also had a thing about King David and often dreamed I was him. I’ve always felt we were kindred spirits. Let me put it this way. I don’t remember when I didn’t identify with David.

        As I got older and was put in positions of authority, I had more dreams as a male, and then they began to wane as I gained a solid footing in whatever I was doing, i.e., when things seemed orderly and made me feel at peace. When I found myself with three small children, a husband who worked 80 hours a week, and I was running a company with dozens of employees and in an industry that was extremely complex but not my field, the dreams came back with a vengeance. So the correlation was always a need for control in some area of my life while feeling a lack of control. In my case, I ended with a nervous breakdown because the targets I was aiming at kept being shifted in a way that I could not keep up yet my proud nature made me hang in until I could not aim anymore. At the time, I had dreams of myself as a boxer who kept fighting. I remember several dreams of being knocked down and still swinging at the opponent even when blood was in my eyes. I would not let myself give up because I held this belief that lying down was tantamount to dying, to not existing, and my last attempt at control was to try to end my own existence. Obviously I was unsuccessful, and thankfully I don’t hold that belief any longer. But through all of this, I have never thought it was odd to dream as a man. I have had so many wonderful male role models in my life that it was natural for me to try to identify with them. None of that means I want to be a man, and I haven’t inferred that from what you’re saying at all.

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  18. I’m really trying hard not to lay my 3,000+ word response on you. BTW, the link to ep1 at the bottom of the piece is not working.

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  19. […] trail for me during about the first five months of Armitagemania. Thornton was about work — I’ve started, and almost finished delineating that; Guy is about power and powerlessness — and I am […]

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  20. […] before about my uncertainty about the usefulness of this Thorin metaphor, given that Thornton, with whom I identify so much, fails, in an atmosphere of disturbing signs about his likelihood of recidivism, so that I’m […]

    Like

  21. […] my brain off, you were there in the form of Mr. Thornton, and the performance that you gave, in a role I inherently identified with rationally and personally, but where you put Thornton’s feelings in the form of physical reactions in the fore of his […]

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  22. […] Significantly, I wrote more that I was proud of for various reasons, especially my series on Mr. Thornton and the things I wrote about desire. And I finally started blogging an interpretive Richard […]

    Like

  23. […] was the story, which seemed like a parable, and the actor, who had made the woman feel alive again, although it was impossible to explain at […]

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  24. […] even in the very earliest days when I was just watching Richard Armitage act in North & South and identifying with Mr. Thornton as opposed to fantasizing him about him in other ways. I just didn’t […]

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  25. […] crush on Mr. Thornton, had a lot to do with work, a theme I’ve explored extensively starting here, but the question of what caught my attention as much as how it was caught, was central. […]

    Like

  26. […] an Armitage fan because when Armitagemania smacked me across the face, it happened because of how the role of Mr. Thornton intersected with my concrete problems and the way that Armitage’s acting in that role first attracted me, and then made me think […]

    Like

  27. […] hung onto that and kept looking, through my identification with Mr. Thornton […]

    Like

  28. […] it was hardly a “first time ever I saw your face” affair, gradually, bit by bit, by walking me through my own problems, by addressing my inner conflicts even as you made it safe to do so with your beauty, you taught me […]

    Like

  29. […] stream of positivity made it possible for me to look at things that pain me severely, like my relationship with work. Because Armitage love lets me tap into every aspect of my energy, and because it helps me realize […]

    Like

  30. […] explanatory prologue for this post is here. Please note that this post gives a peculiarly personal reading of North & South, not the only […]

    Like

  31. […] the problem I had before, the problem to which North & South forcefully alerted me — that I was fatally, if nonetheless ethically, (over)invested in work. If that’s what’s happening — if whatever I have to do for work becomes the focus […]

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  32. […] Mr. Thornton fascinated me for other reasons. But as a straight adult female, I’ve got nothing against a wonderful kiss, and Richard Armitage can obviously kiss with the best of them, something he proved so sweetly and gently and intensely in North & South. […]

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  33. […] for. Most of Richard Armitage’s big roles have generated significant resonance for me: Thornton, with his need to work all the time; Lucas North, dealing with betrayals; Guy of Gisborne and all of his problems with humiliation, […]

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  34. […] capacities and an increased willingness to feel. His beauty was there to catch my attention and the story of Mr. Thornton was there to address my vocational issues. Over the years, Armitage took roles, often archetypal ones, that addressed fundamental problems or […]

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  35. […] Thornton caused Armitagemania onset, and I devoted a lot of attention to figuring that out and describing it. Thorin Oakenshield has meant a lot to me, too, although I’ve spent the least time on that. […]

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