me + mr thornton, episode 3(a)

[With apologies for the delay. In addition to the demands of real life, I’d simply under-anticipated how visceral writing about this particular episode, even now, was going to be. Episodes 3 and 4 were the ones I rewatched most often in the early months, and after writing and editing this, I understand why.]

[The explanatory prologue to this post is here; episode 1 is here; episode 2 is here. Please note that this series 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 as presented, though I throw in a few pieces of historical or literary commentary here and there because that’s the way I am. This is episode 3 of four episodes. I think it’s the most likely one to present a controversial reading or potentially offend readers who are heavily invested in the reading that emphasizes Thornton’s positive transformation, so be prepared.]


Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage), walking home after his unsuccessful proposal, in episode 3 of North & South. Source:


Viewed from the perspective of Thornton, his vocation, and his relationship with his principles, episode 3 is a fascinating, though depressing entry in the series. My overall argument up till now asserts that in episode 1 we meet a principled man who accepts misunderstanding from the world in which he lives in exchange for toleration of his choice to live and act according to his values and despite challenges to them — a tolerance of eccentricity that is justified to onlookers primarily because of his success; episode 2, in turn, confronts us with just how naive this stance makes Thornton look when his principled activity is misunderstood or even exploited by the people around him. Thornton is lonely, we might say, but not least because he makes himself so in the name of rectitude — a conclusion foreshadowed by his ongoing problems of communicating his position throughout the episode and culminating in his disastrous marriage proposal.

Episode 3 gives Thornton relatively little screen time, as the majority of the episode’s narrative covers Frederick’s brief reappearance and its consequences in the wake of the death of Mrs. Hale. Thornton is mostly a reactor in the first half of episode 3, to the strike and Margaret’s turndown and his audience in London, but he’s faced with the challenge of how to act affirmatively again in the second half. And in episode 3, as I will argue here, the dominant theme behind the ongoing discussion of principle, calling, and work becomes Thornton’s supreme self-betrayal of principle and the ways that “giving in” end up making Thornton feel.

From my perspective, what Thornton suffers in episode 3 is ultimately more problematic for him as a personality or character than the more obvious social defeats and humiliations of episode 4.


Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) attacks a good, stiff shot — or rather more — in the wake of the riot and Margaret’s rejection in episode 3 of North & South, as his mother (Sinead Cusack) awaits his news. Source:


As the episode opens, Thornton debriefs after his failed proposal in a scene with his mother that always slices through me like a knife. Work sets through its ongoing, ubiquitous presence for Thornton here, a presence signaled previously by the hopeful musical overlay given to accompany the workers’ return to the mills even as Thornton goes to press his suit with Margaret. Work is the thing to which Thornton navigates the cemetery to return; the thing that Thornton stares at from his window — the man grappling with the cotton bales in the mill yard –; it’s the locus on which Mrs. Thornton finally broaches the conversation with her ominously silent son; it’s a duty that Thornton has already fulfilled by taking care of the Irish workers and starting to deal with those who clamor to return; it hums in the background of the quiet scene.

Work: till now, the melody playing in the background of Mr. Thornton’s soul. And now?

As we know, Thornton is nothing if not dutiful. Once the mill is running again, he comes to give account, and here, again, we see the repeat of the philosophical split between mother and child, this time as applied to their human relationships.


On the late morning of the day after the strike, Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) and Mrs. Thornton (Sinead Cusack) react to the events of the previous day and that morning, in episode 3 of North & South.


Mrs. Hale is ready to hate, indeed says that she does hate Margaret for her rejection of her son. Mr. Thornton has not moved that far, not at all, despite the open pain on his face after the rejection of his suit. Their statements in this scene square well with their respective ethical positions at the beginning of episode 2, where Mrs. Thornton expressed her view of life as a struggle for dominance and Thornton demonstrated his self-assurance by articulating his decision to continue following his own principles, which got articulated as “duty” to “the efficient runnin’ o’ the mill.”

Mrs. Thornton’s statements throughout reflect her partisan allegiances, an “enemy of my friend is my enemy” position, but in this scene, Thornton refuses twice, both times strongly, to support anything like that. First, after he makes an uncharacteristically self-pitying observation — one wonders if he’s trying, and failing, to be lighthearted, or to respond reassuringly if belatedly to the fears she expressed earlier — and Mrs. Thornton informs him that her motherly love stands steadfast in comparison to that of “a girl,” his response to her criticisms of Margaret is to reproach himself — even here, by articulating a principle: “I knew that I was not good enough for her. Yet I think I love her more than ever.” One reading of this exchange is as an implied romantic declaration of eternal love, and I’m sure that’s how most viewers see it. But an equally plausible interpretation in the wake of what we’ve learned about Thornton’s allegiance to principle in episode 2 suggests that he’s saying something more like: “I love her because she successfully persisted in her principled stance — even if that stance excludes me.”

In that sense, precisely her rejection makes her worthy of his love in the first place. That his love is inevitably unrequited based on Thornton’s perceived deficits is a necessary consequence of always comparing himself to a particular standard — whether his own, or others — and placing that standard about his own needs for anything else except the comfort of a clear conscience. If Mr. Thornton wants to be loved inter alia for his loyalty to his own values, then loving Margaret means loving her for loyalty to hers — even if, as the conversation at the dinner party revealed, he can’t very well embrace their specific content without reservation. If he’s to remain true to his values, he has no other option in this scene — he cannot yet despise her because she has only behaved as she has clearly always signaled that she would. We may all be miserable but at least we have not betrayed ourselves. It’s precisely this stance that creates the possibility for the spite and humiliation that emerge from Thornton only at the end of episode 3 — but not yet. Here, Margaret is still worthy of his respect and of the love that she will not accept from him.


Tension in her posture, Mrs. Thornton (Sinead Cusack) awaits the news of the outcome of her son’s proposal in episode 3 of North & South. My cap.

[Irrelevant interjection: every time I see this scene, I wonder how Mrs. Thornton knows so well that a girl’s love is changeable — and whether her own past is reflected in that statement, or in the vehemence with which she spits out that beautifully formed northern English short “u” and long “o” — “puff o’ smoke.” Brilliant, Ms. Cusack. Every word you have Mrs. Thornton say reminds us that she has a past, too. I wish we could see more such vital screen portraits of more mature women.]


At this point, Mrs. Thornton reiterates a positive hate for Margaret, as if to model to her son that anger or sadness in such a situation is normal. Life, she implies, involves more than principle. It’s also a place to live out passion, the sort of passion that she feels for her own children’s futures, justifying her reaction via her desire for her son’s happiness, a goal for which she says she “would give her heart’s blood.” But Thornton once again rejects his mother’s emotion — and again, significantly, in the name of principle. “No,” he says, shaking his head in strong disagreement — the most sudden motion we’ve seen from him in this scene. And when his mother presses her point that he must be feeling something, by saying, “your sorrow is mine. And if you won’t hate her, then I must!” we note a clear jerk of the head, calling attention to the brief, momentary, if quickly suppressed, expression of rage on his face in response to his mother’s continued insistence (at about 2:08). Thornton responds to his mother’s passion with calmly affirmative principle. First, he rejects her heated statement about hate: “No. She does not care for me. That is enough.” And then, in order to protect himself, he makes yet another rule: that they will not speak of her.

Mr. Thornton’s come to the destination at the end of his principles, which feels like an extremely cold place — so tied to his loyalty to his values that he can’t legitimate or even acknowledge his own pain directly, as if the need to be fair, to acknowledge his own fault, to validate the system even in his own defeat — predominates. We could give this attitude a number of labels: Christianity charity (first seek the fault in yourself); Enlightenment rationality (look at the situation objectively and dispassionately); Weberian vocationalism (duty and principle are its own reward). The one thing he will absolutely not admit to here is passion or romantic attraction or disappointment. Whatever we attribute his behavior to in the face of Margaret’s rejection, he won’t defend himself or his desires, as he’d been willing to do at least provisionally before the proposal (“I know she does not care for me but I have to ask“) or even accept his own desires, an expression of them, or an emotional response to her refusal. Neither will he admit that he feels the sorrow his mother imputes to him. But he still has his work, tasks he’s presumably reminded of as he looks out the window at the end of the scene and cranes his neck to overcome the humiliation he’s feeling. We know he’s hurt, because of the relatively extreme formality and brusqueness of his behavior in the street when he encounters Mr. Bell, the Latimers, and Margaret, a bit later. By that time, however, he has already underlined his extreme sense of rectitude (of the form “you may have spurned me, but I will not allow my feelings to interfere with my values about correct behavior”) by sending Mrs. Hale some beautiful grapes; as Mr. Bell says, “the best in the county.”


Mr. Hale (Tim Pigott-Smith) and Mrs. Hale (Leslie Manville) admire the concrete demonstration of Mr. Thornton’s virtue — the gorgeous grapes — in episode 3 of North & South. My cap.


To episode 3(b).

~ by Servetus on February 4, 2012.

10 Responses to “me + mr thornton, episode 3(a)”

  1. […] from here (episode 3a), as episode 3 was threatening to top six thousand words. There was a glitch and if you are an email […]


  2. […] To episode 3a (Episode 3 is published in three parts). Share this:DiggFacebookTwitter […]


  3. “We may all be miserable but at least we have not betrayed ourselves.” Wow. This is going to take a little time for this to sink in and process. Especially for those of us whose lives have been altered by our parallel identification with Mr. Thornton’s plight in N&S.

    I can’t thank you enough for these posts and look forward to the additional ones you have yet to add (even as I slowly chew through the ones you’ve already posted). 😉


    • This is the point at which it starts to get ropey for me — I was thinking while I was writing this that probably the reason I watched 3 and 4 so much more often in the summer of 2010 than 1 and 2 was that I was (am?) still trying to figure these out. I agree that it’s not entirely clear what the consequence of our acceptance of Thornton’s work and principle-orientations should be.


  4. Beautiflly said. Cheers! Grati ;->


  5. Wonderful, Servetus. I am a bit astonished, that I follow you so far on your individual way of interpretation ;o)
    I think, his work gives him the strength, to put his feelings aside as he needs to function and needs to appear in a specific role to keep the whole construct of the mill intact.
    I am really looking forward to your next parts…


    • maybe I overstated my individuality. I had so many conversations with people about their romantic identifications w/ N&S that I thought I was saying something different, but maybe not.

      I emphatically agree that he needs to be needed. That’s an important insight. I’m bookmarking that to come back to.


  6. “Work: till now, the melody playing in the background of Mr. Thornton’s soul. And now?”
    I just loved your description of the scene preceding this romantic statement! Indeed, his life is constructed upon, and consumed by work.
    I’ve always been awed by the imagery at the very ending of episode 1, when Margaret’s voice is saying “I’ve seen hell…” and we see Thornton’s figure striding through his mill. The realization comes over me with this imagery that Thornton is trapped in a ‘hell’ of his own making. I feel his loneliness and his weary, endless striving in this image. His life is indeed all work, work, work.
    I think he may be longing for something else, but does he even realize it himself yet?


    • If he indeed is, the only substantive evidence of that for me is in 3(c).

      Having finished writing this chunk now, I realize that something that I didn’t articulate but which is a fairly important assumption of mine is that simple fatigue in response to hard work is not really a sign that you don’t want to do it. Many people who really love hard work take exhaustion as par for the course.

      I think I never identify with him more in a positive sense than in these moments when he’s walking through the factory — even if Margaret sees that differently.


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