me + mr thornton, episode 3(b)

[Continued from here (episode 3a), as episode 3 was threatening to top six thousand words. There was a glitch and if you are an email subscriber, you may not have gotten the push mail, so make sure you’ve read 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 / warnings apply as in previous posts.]

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A quick reminder here from the previous post that I’m pursuing the reading that episode 3 most fully presents the defeat of principle for Thornton.

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The scene between Mr. Thornton and his mother shows him shaken and hurt, but still loyal to the girders and weight-bearing walls of his personality and ethics, which are heavily grounded in duty. So, given the comforts of duty and work to which we imagine Mr. Thornton retreating to lick his unadmitted wounds, it’s compelling that the next time we encounter him for an extended scene presents one of the most explicit implicit evaluations in the series of the merits of different kinds of work done in nineteenth-century industrial society: the Crystal Palace exhibition — itself, paradoxically, a place of leisure and consumption, as if those who created the objects that fill the exhibit have been compelled to bring their tribute and those who do the work facilitated by the technology presented are finally pushed fully off-stage — left behind, in Milton.

First, we stumble over Maxwell Lennox, who’s transfixed by the power of the machinery, but sees it primarily as a source of money.

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The Lennoxes, the Shaws, and Margaret at the London exhibition, from episode 3 of North & South.

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Maxwell’s brother, Henry, the world-weary technocrat, warns him away from any pipe-dream textile ambitions. Too much work — and in London, they don’t need to make cotton to make money. The constant hints that the world of textile manufacturing (the so-called “first” industrial revolution) is yielding to the complex financial instruments that appeared to facilitate the larger-scale achievements of its later stages (the “second” industrial revolution) is one chief reason to assign this series in the classroom, and here we see the conflicts around this development discussed explicitly. Why schlep? Henry seems to be saying. Here in the place where all the wonders of the entire world, old and new, can be summoned before the wide eyes of the curious, we can benefit from what Albert Einstein much later called “the eighth wonder of the world”: not Arkwright’s invention, which Thornton thought merited inclusion in the classics, but Benjamin Franklin’s “miracle” — compound interest. The point of work for the investor is not work or production, but investment in it for profit. The scene also signals that despite the influx of new men like Thornton, entrenched social elites always stand in the best position to profit from economic transformation. The discussion of work vs. money here is subtle but important, because it’s so paradoxical. The Lennoxes and Aunt Shaw are supposed to be above caring about money (underlining that you can only not care about it when you have enough), but money is the primary prism through which these men view the wonders of the exhibit. In contrast, for Thornton, who’s recently been accused of being able to think only of buying and selling, for Thornton the venial, the basely motivated, for Thornton the “tradesman,” soliciting money from investors is distasteful, and as his remarks throughout the scene reveal, his activities are emphatically not about the money.

When Mr. Thornton strolls into view, we witness him speaking to a group of men; as we learn later from Mr. Latimer, potential investors. I suspect that the scriptwriters here wanted to turn Thornton in the direction of having been influenced by Robert Owen, as indeed Gaskell seems to have tried to do in her novel, but the trajectory of the script prevents such a development from being even basically credible. Nothing’s new here. Thornton fails to articulate anything here that we haven’t heard from him before, and well ahead of the strike and his rejection at Margaret’s hands: the wonders of the technological world (from the tea scene), the need for cooperation (repeatedly in conversations with his fellow factory owners) and the belief that things will work themselves out in time (an optimism that he expressed to his mother when discussing the situation ahead of the strike). That this summary all seems new to Margaret results not from the fact that he’s saying something different from what he ever has before — only from her failure to have heard it in this combination, or even to listen very carefully, when he’s given voice to pieces of it before.

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Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) speaks to an attentive audience at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in episode 3 of North & South.

***

Similarly, Thornton’s statement, when he notices Margaret listening, that she knows the depths to which manufacturers have descended, is not an entreaty for her to think of him differently, or even a concession that he’s behaved badly, but rather made in a bitterly facetious tone that’s calculated to irritate. When she responds that he can’t presume to know her at all, his response — undertaken as he steps toward her rather purposefully — that he tried and was mistaken points again to the mutual mistaking of principles. He says now, more or less, that he applied the wrong principles to try to understand her (“I presumed to know you, and was mistaken”) — not that he’s changing his now.

And then, of course the Lennoxes and Aunt Shaw catch up to Thornton and Margaret.

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Henry Lennox and Mr. Thornton finally meet in London, in episode 3 of North & South.

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When Henry and Mr. Thornton come face to face, the two worldviews collide head on, and we see in the juxtaposition that Thornton is the principled one, both in the sense of having principles, and in the sense of having the sort of principles we think Margaret would wish him to have. Though it’s difficult from Denby-Ashe’s at best tepid acting in this scene to discern much of what Margaret thinks or feels, at least the script forces her into a lukewarm defense of Thornton undertaken, one suspects, at least as much out of embarrassment in reaction to Henry’s cutting and condescending words as out of a desire to represent Thornton’s intellect fairly or accurately. (“All the way from Milton,” Henry remarks, as if traveling from dirty north of England involved the equivalent of a pilgrimage from Darkest Africa, and Thornton were as exotic as the other displays at the exhibition by the colonized peoples of the British Empire.) The social hierarchies clearly work their subjugating magic, as well: by saying Henry’s name first during the introduction, as the classical canon of European manners tells us, Margaret signals that she finds him to be the more important or socially superior person. The contrast between the usage of Henry’s Christian name, which signals their relationship by marriage, in contrast to her employment of Thornton’s surname, reminds us yet again of her social separation from Thornton.

The exchange with Henry, moreover, demonstrates Thornton’s ongoing loyalty to principle, which is now taking its initial, halting steps in the direction of the catastrophic dénoument of episode 4. Latimer later tells us that Thornton was disappointed by the demands of the potential investors whom he came to London to meet; the subtext of this pronouncement suggests that Thornton refused to dissimulate or make false promises. Depending on how we feel about his adherence to his principles, what seemed like naïveté in episode 2 is now starting to look self-destructive. Given the previous conversation about money between the Lennox brothers, moreover, it seems clear that the use of the word “dabble” in the ensuing lines has two meanings. Here, “dabble” means not only “engage in casually,” but also “invest in,” since that is what Maxwell would want to do. So Thornton’s rejection of Henry’s approach is a double one: by asserting that he is “not sure [he] would know how to dabble,” he states an important principle — manufacturing cotton is not a casual enterprise for him — but he also rejects the apparent hint at a possible investment (even if we as viewers imagine that Henry is mostly saying this taunt or subordinate Thornton, a trap into which we are probably happy he does not fall). A smoother man, a man less focused on the one thing — the duty — at the center of his enterprise, would follow up with some kind of patter to provoke a discussion of investment. It’s gotten to the point that the collision of Thornton’s focus on his principles with his financial interests is impendingly obvious. And yet, even now, Mr. Thornton, who is no fool, will not make nice.

The scene closes, then, with Mr. Latimer’s remarks about “starry-eyed Londoners.” As always, in the world of North & South, the technocrat gets the last word. (To foreshadow, I hope tantalizingly: in episode 4, it’s the technocrat rules the day.) In consonance with the resigned way that Thornton looked at the mill yard during his earlier long scene, the viewer is given the sense here that work as a principled attitude toward the world is beginning to rankle on a personal level. If just moments before, he spoke to his audience about technological advances and wonders with enthusiasm, here he describes his machinery, with his jaw clenched, as an obligation. They may admire it, as they are viewing a zoo (a telling choice of metaphor, one that suggests that he himself feels he’s been put on pointless display), but he still “ha[s] to live with it.” His principles may be grim, but he still has them.  Isn’t that the point? Whatever else you don’t have — love, investors — you’ve still got your beliefs. What’s new in Thornton in this scene is not his principles — it’s his clenched jaw, and his apparent resentment of things he claimed before to love. He turns away to end the conversation.

This turn from the camera is one of two points in the series where I sense the greatest identification with Thornton and his moral dilemmas. He feels trapped. Just how trapped, and what he’s willing to do about it, we see in the concluding pieces of episode 3.

***

To episode 3c.

~ by Servetus on February 4, 2012.

18 Responses to “me + mr thornton, episode 3(b)”

  1. […] To episode 3(b). Share this:DiggFacebookTwitter […]

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  2. Thornton may stick with his principles to the point of catastrophe, but he learned those principles the hard way. His father committed suicide over “dabbling” and the family was left ruined. Thornton and his mother had to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives from a point of destitution. I imagine it would be hard to let go of lessons learned recovering from those circumstances. I’m enjoying your series…it’s a great exercise.

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    • yes, as I said in the commentary on episode 2, there’s nothing wrong with his principles ethically, and he knows what they are and why he believes them and can state them accurately (even when other people misunderstand or exploit them). It’s entirely clear why he does what he does. It’s just that he also pays a very high price for them, and episode 3 both shows the price and suggests his own consciousness of some of these prices.

      none of these commentaries are a criticism of him per se — they present how I see myself in him (as the prologue attempted to make clear), how I identified with his problems in a way that made me an obsessive watcher of the series.

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      • I never obsessed over this series (like I did Jane Austin – that was a total obsession) and the only reason I’ve watched it multiple times is because it’s a piece of RA’s work. I wasn’t all that impressed when I first watched it and thought there were parts that were a bit contrived. And to be honest, I thought Daniela Denby-Ashe’s acting had a lot to be desired. I find it hard to sit through the parts where her character dominates the scenes. I didn’t really identify with Thornton other than understanding his ability to hold to his principles to the point of going down with the ship. Higgins was the character that really fascinated me. But I’m finally reading the book hoping I can get a better appreciation of the story and characters. You’ve got me wanting to know more.

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        • DDA: she’s really a comedic actress, not a dramatic actress. I think this is obvious in her scenes — she gauges her presentation of emotions for short term effect and not the longer camera shots of drama. She’s not terrible — just clearly the weakest person in a strong cast.

          the script: the anachronistic language ends up being a real problem at times — really interferes with Gaskell’s subtlety of position. But then again, it’s tv.

          Wanting to more is always good — I’m always for that.

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  3. I had always felt that the scene between Henry and Thornton about Margaret versus anything else, so thank you for bringing more depth to the scene.
    I had always wondered why Thornton had come to the exhibition if he was not willing to deal with investors, it just seemed rather pointless and did basically make him an exhibit in an industrial zoo. I also understand his resistance towards speculating based on what his father had done, but he is also against investors in a sense that he would no longer be master of his mill? Currently he is accountable to himself and makes business decisions that he feels are correct, with investors he is accountable to others. Perhaps he also views this as a lessening of his position in his own mind, reducing him from the gentleman that he sees himself as and down to a “tradesman”? I honestly don’t know, you’ve given it a lot more thought that I ever have. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

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    • fearing investor interference: that’s a good point and it would fit with his ongoing “here in the North we value our independence” refrain. Though it’s a sort of maxim of capitalism that you have to borrow to get ahead — and the minute he borrows money from Latimer’s bank he’s given that up.

      The historian in me feels compelled to point out that this theme has a lot to do with the transition from the banking instruments that funded the IR in the first place and those that allowed its development later. In the 1770s, the point is the mill; by the 1850s, the fact that you also produce in a mill is one tiny piece of a larger puzzle for the adept investor. When I’m discussing this with my students one of the things we inevitably have to take up is the question of virtue as it relates to markets — capitalism requires some notion of virtue to work, but it also requires the erasure of some other notions. One reason that Thornton won’t speculate (aside from the damage he’s experienced from his father’s speculation) is that “it would hurt others.” That’s episode 4, though. At this point we’re only seeing his prickliness toward investment.

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  4. Misunderstandings abound. That Thornton chooses to view Margaret’s presence as disdainful curiousity about him and not her potentially developing a favorable interest in him speaks volumes about his hurt pride. And as they say, pride goeth before a fall.

    And as you’ll no doubt share with us in your essay about episode 4 it is Thornton’s “fall” that allows him to unburden himself from the last shred of pride (and perhaps arrogance. Thus clearing a path for Thorton viewing Maragaret’s opinion of him in a new light–and rise from the ashes of his disgrace like the phoenix.

    I’m loving your N&S essay series and looking forward to your final
    Cheers! Grati ;->

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    • I don’t think he loses his pride in principle, or not much of it. But that’s for episode 4. I’m not a big optimist about the Thornton / Margaret relationship; I don’t read the series as hugely romantic. This separates me from the vast majority of readers, I’m sure.

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  5. I always enjoy reading/listening other people opinions about films and books I like… They can call attention to details you didn’t notice or give different points of view and make you think… Your comments about Mr Thornton is not different. Certainly they’ve enriched my understanding of this character… and I think I’ll watch N&S again!!!

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  6. A theme of humiliation begun in the previous episode, with Margaret assuming the initiative during the riot and her subsequent rejection of the proposal, continues here. (Margaret did not escape either – her reputation was dented). Nevertheless, Thornton withstands the patronising efforts of the Southern bougeoisie to make fun of his “alien” principles and manner, with dignity. This, as well as Margaret’s Milton experience, seems to have won him some respect from her. Did he not not come south at his banker’s urging – in view of the post-strike state of affairs of Marlborough Mills? In addition, as Margaret says, he is genuinely interested to see what new technologies might offer.

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    • yeah, I wouldn’t argue that he’s lost dignity here, his personal humiliation in the previous episode notwithstanding. But he has a bigger problem here in terms of the “my principles vs the standards of the world” issue than he’s had yet. Till now everyone’s respected his stance because he’s successful. Even after the strike, the other owners speak respectfully of him and the broken strike. In essence the rejected proposal, though humiliating, can be seen from a principled stance, and he doesn’t *have* to have Margaret, even if he would like to. But now, someone else has something that he needs — money, or more money than Latimer will lend him in cash — and he doesn’t control the rules any more. He’s not breaking his rules, but this scene painful shows why they’re such a problem. And love of anything never implies no frustrating with it. As a parting shot, “You may play, but i have to go back to work” is not especially sovereign when it sounds so resentful, though it maintains his fidelity to his worldview.

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  7. […] from here (episode 3a), and here (episode 3b), as episode 3 was threatening to top six thousand words. This is the concluding piece of episode […]

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  8. […] of the argument: the prologue; here episode one; here episode two; continuing with (episode 3a), (episode 3b), (episode 3c), and (addendum to episode 3). Same disclaimers / warnings apply as in previous […]

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  9. […] of the argument: the prologue; here episode one; here episode two; continuing with (episode 3a), (episode 3b), (episode 3c), and (addendum to episode 3). Same disclaimers / warnings apply as in previous […]

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  10. […] of the argument: the prologue; here episode one; here episode two; continuing with (episode 3a), (episode 3b), (episode 3c), and (addendum to episode 3). Same disclaimers / warnings apply as in previous […]

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  11. […] of the argument: the prologue; here episode one; here episode two; continuing with (episode 3a), (episode 3b), (episode 3c), and (addendum to episode 3). Same disclaimers / warnings apply as in previous […]

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