me + mr thornton, episode 1

[The explanatory prologue for this post is here. 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 is willing to let him 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 post is episode 1 of four.]

***

Where work is play for mortal (or moral?) stakes: Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) thrashes Stevens on the factory floor at Marlborough Mills in episode 1 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

***

We meet Mr. Thornton for the first time when he’s in charge, in control, knows what he’s doing, at the summit of his art, in the place where, it becomes clear as the story unwinds, that love and need become one for him. Except that he’s not in as much control as he seems to be at first, once we look at him from Margaret’s perspective. The factory’s a dangerous place, though it looks so beautiful: all the floating flakes in the hall are cotton fibers, lying in wait to choke the unsuspecting, and then there’s all the machinery. Mr. Thornton knows more than anyone just how dangerous that cotton waste can be; he knows he can’t stand there, breathing it indefinitely, and yet he holds the responsibility for all of those workers. Initially the most majestic figure in this poisonously snowy wonderland, he surrenders his sovereign status completely as he chases Stevens across the factory floor and then beats him up in anger — or rage. He’s trying to protect what’s his (we think) and he can’t figure out how to do it except by getting personally involved. Indeed, everything about Marlborough Mills is personal for Thornton — as signaled by the proximity of the house to the factory. For his mother, it’s about having the picture of his wealth, power, and achievements right in front of her, but Thornton himself, I think, feels the need to be close to watch over his baby, a tendency we see much later when we observe him sitting in his office, noting end of the shift with his (father’s) pocket watch and walking through the mill yard with his shirt sleeves rolled up. Mr. Thornton, the strong, dedicated, respected professional — a point that even the fractious Higgins eventually concedes — is definitely dedicated enough to beat someone up on principle even if he doesn’t quite realize that’s why he’s lost his temper.

***

Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) running the short distance from his office to his home as the strikers advance in episode 2 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

***

The violence toward Stevens is not blood sport, even should others watching see it that way. Even as we’re appalled by the gleeful energy with which Mr. Thornton appears to attack Stevens, he means us, as we learn the next time we see him, to understand even this violence as representative of an ethical stance. We can’t see this behavior as so admirable just at the point when it’s erupting because someone else sees him committing it, someone who has no context for understanding what he’s doing. And everything that he’s proud of begins to crumble, although at this point he hasn’t put two and two together, not quite yet, and he doesn’t see his humiliation coming. The possibility of status loss only becomes clear to him when he encounters Margaret the second time, in her father’s study — where he makes a self-assured attempt to reassert control by telling her that he has legitimate concerns about fire, and excuses what he refers to as his “temper” by implying that he doesn’t want to see his own workers’ corpses laid out on a hill after a conflagration. And when she dresses him down as not ethical (as for her, being a gentleman — someone not motivated in his actions by material or productive concerns — is the normative measure), he makes an attempt to reassert his social position by extending a dinner invitation, and then gets the hesitant response from Mr. Hale that indicates that Thornton is, after all, first of all, at least in the eyes of this family, a tradesman. He may be lord of all he surveys, as his mother will stress to Mrs. Hale and Margaret when she visits — mainly, it seems, to assert that everyone who is anyone knows John Thornton, manufacturer and magistrate of Milton — but he is not in control, either of how people perceive him or his own behavior.

***

Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) describes the machinery of cotton manufacture to Mr. Hale (Tim Pigott-Smith) in episode 1 of North & South.

***

It’s too bad that he isn’t exactly who thinks he is, that he manages less control of his fate than his manners and actions would seem to indicate he could. Because Mr. Thornton is ethical in a way that the historically sensitive viewer is meant to understand as following the principles of emerging classical liberalism, but which I recognized in myself while watching as sheer cussed or moralistic loyalty to his own principles. If he’s arrogant, it’s not so much because he thinks he’s better — but because he thinks his principles are. He follows notions that might seem hard, but only because they are true — which means accepting that, like any religion, they’re going to make his life unpleasant at times. For Thornton, virtue (however defined) is its own reward, negative externalities reckoned in. The point is not ever personal gain but something much, much larger. This inchoate thing can be visualized or manipulated or measured in an object like a mill or a spool of yarn, or a bolt of cotton cloth, but it is really bigger even than that. The Thornton project incorporates elements of self-discipline but also of an only cautiously admitted stance that seeks not to hurt when unnecessary — something we could call utilitarian, but which quite clearly stops rather short of the label agape. So if Thornton outs himself as a classical liberal, then more on the side of personal libertarianism and less on the side of scraping every possible penny he can from an inherently exploitative operation. (This stance in episode 1 makes his slight concessions to social liberalism in episode 4 at least credible — in other words, this reading will move on to suggest that Thornton hasn’t changed all that much by the time the series ends.) His position is clear in his words and his actions well before he becomes personally acquainted with Higgins. Although Thornton describes his installation of the wheel in his carding room as purely a measure taken in his business interest, for instance, he must concede to his fellow masters that he can’t justify that decision in “pounds, shillings, and pence.” He’s not doing everything just for money, anyway, as becomes clear once he visits the Hales for tea. Mr. Thornton loves the machinery of what he does and speaks of it with enthusiasm; he expresses a preference for hard work and self-denial; and he’s puzzled when Margaret criticizes his activity as work that brings nothing of use, and suffering to the powerless to boot.

***

Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) responds to Mrs. Hale’s observation that the men of Milton are busy making their businesses successful in episode 1 of North & South.

***

This highly individualistic notion of virtue is, well, highly individualistic, overlap as it may with some of the emerging, competing ideologies of the period (my western civ lecture on the mid-nineteenth century was always entitled “The Age of Isms.”) Virtue is now virtue from a perspective. It takes a great deal of energy to maintain it, and it’s assailed on all sides. The tea scene makes clear in just a few moments every paradox in which Mr. Thornton finds himself enmeshed vis-à-vis the Hales, who — like all entrenched elites — maintain their insistence on their social power to judge, even as the very circumstances in which they find themselves doing their insisting indicate that it’s eroding rapidly. Thornton is clearly ethical, but with business instead of Christian ethics; he clearly sees himself as belonging to the elite, but from their perspective, he belongs to the wrong one; he’s clearly productive and energetic, but of the wrong things — a product “nobody” wants to wear; clearly knowledgeable, but possessed of mechanical and practical, rather than high cultural knowledge — which is why he’s visiting Mr. Hale in the first place; and extremely disciplined, but (from the female Hales’ perspectives) lacking in compassion and unwilling to acknowledge his own good fortune by acting more charitably. In the end, a haughty invalid condescends to him and a slip of a girl who’s never produced anything in her life but looks down on him because he does — in whom, it is clear by the middle of the scene, he has developed a pointless crush — accuses him of oppression and then refuses to touch his hand in farewell.

His hand: not only unduly presumptuous, but dirty with work he’ll never be able to wash off. The brushoff thus implies a rejection of him not only as a social blunderer, but also as someone who works for his living and doesn’t even have the good grace to be ashamed of it.

We might be tempted to ask, in this scenario, why it is that Thornton isn’t able to take on the scornful position of his mother. “Why do you dress to take tea with an old parson?” she asks, scoffing, in an earlier scene, referring to Margaret as “a renegade clergyman’s daughter.” When Thornton states that he’s “in no danger from Miss Hale” in the same scene, the claim is both self-defensive subterfuge to imply, falsely, to his mother that he’s not a man to cultivate futile desires — which is silly, because the entire series will show that Thornton believes against all odds in the ultimate fulfillment of the futile–, and a strict self-assessment of the circumstances. He knows Margaret won’t give him a second glance. And yet there’s something there that he wants.

***

Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) and a fellow mill owner observe the entrance of some of their workers into the Lyceum Hall for a union meeting in episode 1 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

***

Margaret’s cut at the end of the tea scene wounds Thornton visibly. We see the flare all over Richard Armitage’s face. And yet he persists on his path, maneuvering his way between all the people who stand on the sidelines of his work, feeling free to criticize. As he’s just told us, he’s had to work hard for a long time to get where he is from where fate put him as a teenager, and without (as he sees it) much good fortune except the discipline of being raised by his obdurate mother. (That he refuses to acknowledge just how much cultural capital the accident of birth gives him reflects the uncritical creed of the self-made man, but it is a litany eagerly repeated and we can accept it when we look at it from the perspective of someone like the Hales. Papa wasn’t helping him, except in the negative sense, a self-deceptive perception that I share with him.) He sticks to his beliefs though they make him no friends anywhere. While his principles are a dangerous luxury, as we will learn later, for the moment he can rely on the fact that people respect his position, his power, and his achievements. He receives at best grudging, even jealous, respect from his fellow capitalists at the dinner he gives them. At the owners’ meeting in the upper room of the building across from the Lyceum Hall, Mr. Thornton states his conviction that his workers should do what they like with their leisure. Then, criticized for not being more concerned about the nascent union assembly, he expresses with barely hidden aggression his reaction to Hamper’s covert willingness to renege upon the compact of the mill owners for personal advantage. Come home from the meeting and locking up the mill gates, he rejects Stevens’ proffered anti-union espionage, even though he could clearly benefit from it — and just as he’s running Stevens off, he perforce comes into contact with a disdainful Margaret and her reproachful father — an encounter which has to hurt because Mr. Hale has ostensibly been Thornton’s ally up until now, and is certainly very much his client.

***

Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage), caught by the Hales as he’s sending Stevens away at the end of episode 1 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

***

As episode 1 draws to a close, we see that Thornton’s anger or violence or suppressed aggression often really reflects his inability to express fully the humiliation that stems not from actual damage to him so much as false implications being made about his behavior and principles. The point in the initial encounter with Stevens is just as much the worker’s failure to live up to principle after warnings to follow the rules as the practical danger in which he puts the workers with his pipe: “You know the rules!” Mr. Thornton yells when we meet him the first time. Caught again, here, Thornton’s not ashamed of having behaved brutally to Stevens, or even that the Hales have seen it, but rather defeated because they won’t or can’t see it for what it is.

No one can see his ethics, and as we will see in episode 2, even those who can misunderstand them. For Thornton, virtue has to be its own reward, even if, as the series opens, it’s garnished with a topping of professional success. But the series develops to show all of the dangers of adhering to such a principled position.

***

To episode 2.

~ by Servetus on January 31, 2012.

39 Responses to “me + mr thornton, episode 1”

  1. Excellent review! rewatching N&S episode 1 now on Netflix 🙂

    Like

  2. Wow. I can’t wait for the rest of this ‘review’!!

    It’s interesting the choice of Plato in N&S – since Mr. Thornton (particularly given your rundown of his principles and adherence to them) is far more clearly an example of the Aristotelian man…

    Like

    • I think this is something the scriptwriters just don’t understand, signaled by the fact that the beginning, Hale gives Thornton the choice between Plato and Aristotle. Of course they’d have started off with Plato. Or earlier in the tradition, as they do in the novel. And in the novel Thornton makes at least one ironic remark about Plato. I think this is a situation where the scriptwriters didn’t have the education to realize why this was at all at issue in the novel or what’s at stake in the Plato / Aristotle comparison; a further argument for that would be the fact that the series doesn’t ever signal to us why it is that Thornton would want to read classics in the first place. The series implies that it is either out of kindness to the Hales or because Thornton is looking for a father figure (and those things are not false — it’s just that it’s more than that).

      Like

      • This makes the mention of Aristotle even more ironic in the series (and by Thornton as Aristotelian man, I am loosely paraphrasing Aristotelian doctrine of “happiness is living a life in accordance with one’s values”)!

        In the book, I don’t believe Plato is actually studied between Mr. Hale and Thornton (Mr. Hale implies they will cover Plato after they have finished with Homer). However, Mr. Thornton sounds quite familiar with Plato’s Republic, although his application of it to his relationship with his workers sounds decidedly Hobbesian:

        “On some future day – in some millennium—in Utopia, this unity may be brought into practice–just as I can fancy a republic the most perfect form of government…. in the Platonic year, it may fall out that we are all—men, women, and children—fit for a republic: but give me a constitutional monarchy in our present state of morals and intelligence. In our infancy we require a wise despotism to govern us. Indeed, long past infancy, children and young people are the happiest under the unfailing laws of a discreet, firm authority… I maintain that despotism is the best kind of government for them; so that in the hours in which I come in contact with them [the workers] I must necessarily be an autocrat.”

        In the series, in the beginning it does appear that Thornton is studying with Mr. Hale as a sort of favor to his landlord’s friend. However (and in light of Margaret’s defense of his curious mind) I think it is fair to conclude that he wished to finish an education that was cut short by circumstances in his youth – and felt more capable of appreciating such knowledge as an adult (well, little good it did in helping him keep the mill). 😦

        Like

        • Just a note — it’s fine to use the book to interpret the series but I am explicitly not doing that in this interpretation since I didn’t read the book until i had seen the series approximately 25 times. So comments that I make about philosophy as it applies to the series are explicitly not read through the novel — which (i.e., the novel) makes all of this a great deal subtler.

          Personally, I think the most convincing explanation of what Thornton is doing *in the series* is essentially Veblenian (Theory of the Leisure Class, ch. 9: The Conservation of Archaic Truths).

          Like

        • Oops, sorry, I meant Ch 14: “Higher Learning as the Expression of Pecuniary Culture.”

          Like

  3. This is brilliant. The series is, of course, more dramatic and personal than was the book, while maintaining the spirit of Gaskell. A bit hard on Thonton, aren’t you? 😀 But a realistic and fascinating view – and an interpretation of the tensions inherent in industrialised nineteenth century England.

    Like

  4. Reading and enjoying your interpretation of N&S!

    Like

  5. Wonderful interpretation, Servetus. I fully agree that Mr. Thornton does not really change. I always saw his relation with Margaret Hale as a form of discovering the other’s character, not an assimiliation of positions, but really a growing understanding for the position and moral motivation of the other’s actions and judgement.
    I am very much looking forward to your further parts of the analysis ;o)

    Like

    • There’s a slight change, I agree, more of a nuance than a principled transformation — and after all, we catch him *going back to the mill*. But that’s for episode 4.

      Like

  6. I would agree that Thornton does not so much change as simply become more aware of who he is and more aware of his and Margaret’s motivations. The part where he goes to Helstone and picks the yellow rose is, I think, very revealing, showing that he wants to understand Margaret’s sentiments. In the beginning, I think Gaskell wanted him to appear cruel and aloof, and then to “change”, becoming more approachable and apparently compassionate, but that is the agenda of the author. Thornton’s politics are strongly reminiscent of “enlightened self interest.” He buys a wheel for the mill because healthier workers mean more and better production; he thrashes the worker for smoking because a fire would devastate his business, not just kill his workers.

    Like

    • Maybe. I’ll discuss what I think of Thornton in Helstone when I get to episode 4. I also disagree that Gaskell wanted him to appear cruel and aloof. One of the comments made in the commented version of the DVD is that the scriptwriters felt they needed a way to make him more of a problem for Margaret than he is in the book. In the book he’s actually compassionate right from the very beginning (e.g., by insisting to the landlord that he change the papers in the Hales’ rental property).

      Re: enlightened self interest — yes and no. Yes, insofar as it can be understood as a kind of utilitarianism. No, insofar as I don’t think the welfare of the group is his only or primary motivator. His primary motivator is the principle. The resulting focus on the welfare of the group is an outcome of that. I get into this more in the next episode because he gets a nice chunk of time to articulate his principles from a series of perspectives.

      Like

  7. I haven’t read Gaskell’s novel and have only ever come away from a viewing of N&S with an appreciation of the acting, RA in particular of course, production values, costumes and the romantic ending. The shallow stuff! 😉
    I have never had an analytical mind when it comes to literature and film, so am always interested to hear and read what others see that I don’t because I’m not
    “looking”.
    I’m finding this an interesting topic and discussion, and will be watching N&S next time with new eyes!

    Like

    • You might like the novel — if you like Victorian literature. I think it’s a lot better than Dickens 🙂

      But you can also just enjoy the film for what it is — 🙂

      Like

      • I’ve never liked Dickens’ work, apart from the occasional tv/movie version. N&S is on my reading list, either on my Kindle, or through the local library.

        Like

  8. I think John and Margret both changed. In the beginning they’re repelled by each other’s lifestyles, values, and character. But once they embark on a shared journey they come to appreciate what initially repelled them. John learns to value Margaret’s social consciousness and begins to add these qualities to his own lifestyle, i.e. working with Higgins to open the community food bank; while Margaret ends up accepting, if not appreciating, John’s drive to excel in industry to the extent of subsidizing his venture.

    In the last scene of the movie, RA is able to convey the change in John’s personality just by the change in his physical appearance and literally takes time to “smell the roses” by going to Margaret’s home place. I don’t think the actress who played Margaret was as successful in portraying her character’s transition — not sure why.

    Like

    • I’m not convinced that he’s repelled by her in the beginning. Were that the case, it would be unlikely that the tea scene would go the way it did, to the extent of his repeated conciliatory gestures despite some pretty peremptory behavior on her part. I don’t think his conciliation can entirely be explained by attraction. His dialogue in this episode suggests that he thinks she’s naive or uninformed, or that she misunderstands his treatment of his workers — which is arrogance insofar as he’s a sort of poster child for willful naivete himself — see commentary on next episode — but he’s not repelled by her values. He recognizes them as not his own and not ones that he’s willing to embrace, but I’m not convinced by a reading that suggests he’s hostile to them. I might be willing to go further in that direction based on a reading of the novel, where her gentry politics are made much more explicit, but in the novel he primarily seems to be puzzled by her at the beginning, and then convinced that she’s arrogant — but because of her behavior, not because of her values.

      I’ll comment on things that happen in episode 4 when I get to episode 4.

      Like

  9. I believe that Thornton and Margaret do act on one another to effect change in each. Perhaps it is not a sea-change, but neither remains fixed in stasis. For Thornton, this might be initially evident in the willingness to work with Higgins. Of course, this is self-interest, but also prompted by Margaret’s intervention.

    Like

    • I don’t see there is no change at all in Thornton, simply that he doesn’t change all that much. For instance, I don’t see how a mill cafeteria is all that different from a ventilation system in the carding room. My point at this turn is simply to foreshadow that I don’t the change is significant — and maybe, although I didn’t say this above, that I don’t see the change as a sort of victory, as many readers heavily influenced by the love affair aspect of the story tend to do. I hope this will become clear in my discussion of episode 3.

      Like

      • I think there are significant changes to his character. For example the scenes with the little boy and when he goes to Higgins’ home. Especially the scenes where he helps the boy with his reading. And at Higgins he asks about the readying again. Before there was nothing to indidicate he considered his workers on a personal level. He even told Margaret when she asked that what his workers did after work was none of his concern. But those scenes with the boy and at Higgins home showed that he was begining to look at the workers in a more personal way, not just as resources.

        Like

        • I don’t think that how you treat one person or family is evidence of a philosophical change. If he’s employing Higgins because of Margaret’s involvement, that is not a philosophical change, that’s doing something that he thinks Margaret will like. That’s a single decision, not a worldview transformation. However, this is fodder for episode 4.

          Like

          • If you look at it from that perspective, then you can conclude that everything he did after he met Margaret was because he thought she would like it.

            Like

            • You could conclude that. As should be clear from my discussion of episode 2, that’s not what I conclude. Nonetheless, behavior toward individuals is not evidence of principled change, and I think this is clear from the scene between Thornton and Higgins in Higgins’ dwelling. However, I’m going to ask that we discuss this in more detail when I get to episode 4, which is the major place where any evidence for a change on his part is located. We still have episode 3 to get through, and what happens in episode 3 heavily influences what I think of what happens in 4. The episode 3 reading is probably going to offend some people, however.

              Like

    • Oh, and I forgot to say, yes, she has to change. For one thing, of course, she has to learn to see what he does as honorable.

      Like

  10. Wonderful reading! I can hardly wait for ep. 2.

    Like

  11. […] explanatory prologue to this post is here; episode 1 is here. Please note that this series gives a peculiarly personal reading of North & South, not the […]

    Like

  12. Thank you for your analysis. I don’t agree with it all, but I find it fascinating. I think a large part of Thornton’s appeal is his innate purity/dedication to principles. And that hint of awkwardness and naivete. (Which is part of the appeal of RA, too, although he is overcoming that — or learning to conceal it.)

    Like

    • yeah, I don’t expect 100% agreement and in fact i think there will be explicit disagreement as the reading wears on. All I can say is that I was watching the episode under particular circumstances. I’ve been wondering how much I can / should say about those, but for now I’ve decided to leave that a bit implicit. I might get there later.

      A naive man played by a naive man. Interesting.

      Like

  13. […] 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 / warnings apply as […]

    Like

  14. […] To episode 1. Share this:DiggFacebookTwitter […]

    Like

  15. […] you know, of course, in light of the work narrative of the piece, I came to read Thornton’s brutality in this scene as of a piece with his principles. But I believe that I would have had a lot of difficulty developing further sympathy with Thornton […]

    Like

  16. […] link them all here, although if you want to “get” my engagement with this piece, here‘s a good place to […]

    Like

  17. […] I leave out all the other stuff — I still do think about this kiss that you gave to Mr. Thornton to give to Margaret. I still […]

    Like

  18. […] He was so beautiful that night that I couldn’t draw my attention away from him. It took me months to figure out what was going on, why he was so fascinating. The explanation starts here. […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

 
%d bloggers like this: