me + mr thornton, episode 4(a)2

[Previous pieces 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 posts. A short reminder of the way I started this series in the prologue: “What I write about Thornton … I also write of myself.” This is not a historical, but rather a personal, interpretation. Also, a quick reminder that in my interpretation I’m reading from the series alone as a document and my capacity for critical perspective on it as a human and a historian — I don’t consider the book centrally in these interpretations because I didn’t read it until I had seen the series approximately twenty times.]

[This episode is also going to require more than one installment of analysis. I’m thinking that 4(a) will be primarily about work. To make reading and commenting more easy than writing this material was, however, I’m dividing 4a into several chunks. The previous piece of episode 4 commentary is here (episode 4[a]1). There are two more pieces to this; I hope to publish them by Monday evening.]


The apparent self-assurance of Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) at his sister’s wedding, here with his presumed marital interest, Anne Latimer (Lucy Brown), in episode 4 of North & South, signals everything about his performance of moral, personal, and social status in Milton. And we see it all reflected in her eager, admiring eyes: pillar of the church, upstanding man, wealthy factory owner, milieu-appropriate wedding. Of course, the second before, he’s glanced over to where Margaret is standing. Pride is an ambivalent source of self-esteem; it only means something when others notice. Source:


“No one could accuse me of being careless … or frivolous,” Thornton spits out. Principled behavior? Or pride in principled behavior?

If a transformation is occurring for Thornton in the series, I would argue, it develops in the progression of his responses to the experience of successively more effective challenges to his pride, just as much as (or in my opinion, rather than) his exposure to Margaret. I’ll argue below that Thornton’s larger principles don’t change much. Here I want to talk about the role of pride — by which I mean a sense of satisfaction in his own (social, moral, personal) rightness and an emotional attachment to same — in his decision-making.

Challenges to Mr. Thornton’s pride are clear in episode 1, at his second meeting with Margaret, in which he’s schooled by Margaret’s insistence that he’s not a gentleman, and by Mr. Hale’s hesitation at his announcement of his mother’s call, and when Margaret refuses to shake his hand as he takes his leave. The challenges are compounded in episode 2, when, even after he explains to her both his basic philosophical position in the millyard, and the specific application of it with regard to the strike at the dinner party, she refuses his proposal. Finally, the security of his attachment to his rightness is rubbed in his face in episode 3, when of his own volition, he abandons important ideals to hide her lies from Mason’s view for a reason (whatever it is — we differed on that in our discussion of it) that obviously fills him with self-disgust and rage. These are challenges, respectively, to the pride he feels in his social status, in his equality as a man of worth equal to that of any gentleman, and, finally, in his personal integrity and code of ethics. At the end of episode 3, however, he still has pride in his work in which to take refuge — the importance of this signaled by his grim mention of at the end of the Crystal Palace scene. And this, in the end, is what the narrative of episode 4 threatens to take away from him, and then, insofar as the loss of Marlborough Mills manages this, does take away.


Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) at work, in episode 4 of North & South. Source:


Episode 4, in its focus both on work (in it, we’re finally granted repeated glimpses of Thornton active at his place of work) and its narrative trajectory toward the failure of Marlborough Mills, traces the contours of the last refuge of, and final destruction of, his pride. If he has nothing else in the world, Thornton has his work, and this episode gives us numerous glimpses of how involved he is in it. His work is the last piece of pride, and principle, that he has — and how he clings to both.

The thing is, and this is a complicated matter to assess: what is the relationship between principle and pride in principle? Didion commented in a remark on episode 2, which heavily treats the failure of people around Thornton to understand what he’s about, that despite his insistence that his principles are right, Thornton sells himself poorly to everyone around him. He serves a thing that only he can see. He can’t convince anyone of his vision, not even his mother, who loves him, not even his fellow manufacturers, who express their reluctant admiration of his success alternately with jibes and incomprehension. As long as he’s successful he’s invulnerable, of course, and as long as he’s invulnerable he doesn’t need to convince anyone else, but no one is invulnerable forever. I watch the billiards room scene, and I want so much to identify with Thornton because his issues are exactly mine. I am a professional, I know what I’m doing, I’m not willing to cut corners, I’m not willing to put others in the path of harm. If someone is going down in a mess that I can’t control, it’ll be me — not the people who are less able to protect themselves. This is principle, and it is correct to be principled. It is also pride — *I* will not let people down — which creates an inability to see when one’s principles are creating problems; or perhaps a stubborn insistence that one will pay the price, no matter what. But in any case, pride is a huge obstacle to growth, and a problematic one that distracts from fundamental issues at the worst possible moments.


Under pressure to repay his loan to Mr. Latimer’s bank, Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) expresses his views on “idiot money schemes” in episode 4 of North & South. Source:


As much as it pains me to say this (and if you knew the exact details of the parallels in my life to the failure of Marlborough Mills that I draw in my head when I watch episode 4, you might better understand just how badly it it does), I have to take seriously the possibility that Thornton’s pride in following his principles contradicts his actual principles, and this potential contradiction is openly visible in the conversation with Latimer. In the world in which Thornton lives, the success of his mill is dependent on market forces that operate outside of his entire control. His failure is not one of having borrowed money, or even having borrowed money at the wrong time — every capitalist manufacturer borrows; every manufacturer is a Hochstapler — but rather a failure to capitalize out of his borrowing. Given the situation in which he finds himself globally, with reference to the entire market, the financial stability of his manufacturing enterprise is dependent not just on borrowing to manufacture (a non-speculative necessity that he has clearly accepted), but on creating a balance of investment to keep his capital flow in place across periods of difficulty and shocky commodity and manufactured goods markets like the ones he’s just experienced (and which were notoriously common in the newly-globalized and globalizing nineteenth century).

Thornton won’t speculate — which is understandable, as we are told in episode 1 that this was the reason for the demise of his father. But, if the point of his principle, and the reason he continues to espouse to our ears the utilitarian aspects of the logic of classical liberalism, is not harming others, then in choosing not to speculate, he has learned the wrong lesson. (It’s not this particular speculation I mean, by the way — that’s just a device to advance the plot — but instead, in the sense that Mr. Latimer offers in the billiards room, the resort to “more modern financial procedures” as a general policy; or in the sense that Fanny means when she superficially articulates the viewpoint that all business is risk; or in the sense that Margaret means when she expresses her surprise to Fanny that Thornton would contemplate participating in a risky venture.) In short, if Thornton’s goal is not to harm others, he has to do whatever he must to keep his mill in business, since a failure harms precisely the people to whom he is presumably referring. In the end, the calculation about any particular investment has to be his; but his refusal to participate in modern financing altogether clearly puts him at an unacceptable risk — and ultimately in an untenable position. By refusing to get with the times, Thornton is putting his pride in maintaining his principle (“don’t speculate”) over his adherence to the substance of the actual principle (which is articulated more fully in this episode than in anywhere else in the series as “don’t harm others”). I understand that the issues involved are acute for him because of the role his father’s failure played in the developing course of his life — and clearly, the insistence on repaying his father’s creditors, who’d given up hope of repayment, is as much a matter of fulfilling to the letter the demands of traditional morality as of pride. But by refusing to protect himself financially, Thornton takes exactly the same kind of risk for which he blames his father and for the outcomes of which he has already been paying almost all of his life. In the end, then, his principles make him as much of a utopian dreamer as both his father, the failed speculator, and Margaret, the failed moralist. He prefers, apparently to substitute a belief in the possibility of an outcome that is futile for an honest self-assessment of the actual applicable circumstances. And as a result, he fails in exactly the way that both of them have.

What Mr. Thornton doesn’t understand: you can get so preoccupied with maintaining the principle that you lose track of what’s important about the principle.

What Mr. Latimer understands, and Mr. Thornton doesn’t: if you don’t play the game everyone is playing, eventually you will not be playing at all.

You can ask yourself: do you want to play at all? That’s a legitimate question. But it’s generally not answered in the negative by people who are playing as enthusiastically as Thornton appears to be, all the way up until the last twenty minutes of episode 4. The reading that the message of the series concerns stopping to smell the roses is confounded slightly by the fact that, apart from the romance, the only signal in that direction is Thornton’s tense farewell from the Crystal Palace exhibition. That piece of evidence is significant for a different reading of this story, and I will come back to it. But even so, it’s not entirely clear from the last episode that stopping the game is anything Thornton wants to do, despite his struggles with the business. He may not be happy every second, but he’s involved and he’s proud of the nature of his involvement. The failure of Marlborough Mills — that most personal of all of Thornton’s enterprises, so personal that, as his mother notes, he houses his family inside of it, as a witness to all his achievements — is a failure not only of business, and skill, and principled behavior, but the exposure that the role his pride in all of these plays in their demise. It is a failure of vision, so that when he loses Marlborough Mills, in short, he loses everything.


[So, in the conflict between work and virtue as their own reward, and the possibility that Thornton misunderstands his own principles because he’s blinded by his emotional attachment to them, and thus causes his own demise, I have at least to consider the possibility that the reading offered above is more accurate than the one I’d prefer. G-d, it hurts to write that.]


to episode 4(a)3.


Don’t forget about the North & South global rewatch, scheduled for June 1 and 2! Times are here. Directions for connection are here.

~ by Servetus on May 27, 2012.

38 Responses to “me + mr thornton, episode 4(a)2”

  1. As someone studying business, Thornton’s actions attempting to keep his business going fascinate/confuse me. I agree with the idea that he does lose sight of what’s most important. What I would have loved to see is the moment when Thornton knows that it’s impossible to keep going. When he tells his mother that the payroll is currently safe, I’m not convinced that he knows how dire the situation is. But that wouldn’t make any sense, considering how much he slaves over the books. The way he reacts, though, makes me think he still believes he’ll make it through. I think what I need to find is a timeline of the story.

    • I agree that what you refer to is incredibly mystifying from any rational perspective one can develop from outside of Thornton. It is only explicable from the perspective of being inside his mental world. This is where I most deeply sympathize with him (and perhaps, excoriate myself).

  2. It’s easy to be caught up in the “I’m doing what is right/best” when actually it’s really a matter of “i’m doing what I want” I think Thornton doesn’t know HOW to do what others are doing to be successful. It’s alien to his nature. This is shown in the disastrous decision to get the Irish workers (with all the consequences). But he does change in his relationship to Higgins, being willing to actually listen to him — which shows me that he is open to change and growth.

    • Thanks for the comment, Beverly. I disagree slightly with regard to Higgins, but that’s in part 3, so see what you think when I publish it.

    • it turns out this material is in part 4 — so a few more hours, but I address this issue at length.

  3. I think, just focusing on ep 4, that Thornton has disengaged from principles. He appears not to have awareness of what it requires of a mill-owner to protect his employees. His vaunted principles have come before the welfare of his people. He has an image of himself, which is more important to him than anything. At this stage. Yes, it hurts to judge him in this manner. But, it is not the whole story. At this point, he has not yet gained self-awareness. These are only preliminary thoughts…

    • well, he’s still aware of their wellbeing, at least. I don’t know how much self-awareness he really gains.

  4. In addition to pride, Mr. Thornton has fear. Thornton is not a man of action, he is a man of reaction to his fear of becoming like his father. His principles are based on a reaction to his father’s example and trying to be the opposite of him. Do we ever see Mr. Thornton acting vs reacting? I cannot think of an example but I haven’t watched it in forever. He’s living his life and running the business all while taking steps to be the opposite of his father due to fear of becoming his father (even stubbornly refusing to objectively evaluate the current situation). Unfortunately, what he fears most does end up occurring and his business fails.

  5. Snicker’s Mom, I think that is a prescient interpretation. Can it be expanded to see Margaret as a woman of action?

  6. I agree with Sincker’s Mom. I think Thornton’s decision not to speculate comes more from the devastation of his early life and the fear of reliving those experiences. However I think the failure of the mill has more to do with the strike than Thornton’s decision not to gamble on “modern” financing. I know very little about financing, but even today investing is a gamble.
    Something your post made me realize is that while I personally relate to the character of Higgins and my father was a union man too, the person Thornton reminds me of the most is my father because he never waivered from his principles and it adversely affected his life at times…mostly in terms of relationships.

    • the strike sets him up for failure — but he plays an important role in causing the strike.

      yes, all financing is risk. Putting on my history teacher hat, here, however, I have to note that we’re standing here in the 1850s at the end of the “first” industrial revolution which was primarily about textiles and the technology needed to make them, and at the beginning of the “second” industrial revolution, which moves into metals production, other kinds of technologies, transportation infrastructure, chemicals and dies, and importantly, financial instruments. The series is absolutely on spot in its implication that the financial developments of the mid to late nineteenth century (particularly as developed in England, the financial center of the world) made the earlier sorts of financing models obsolete and endangered the business of those who clung to them.

  7. Many interesting things happened in Episode Four, the last episode of the excellent BBC miniseries. First, about Nicholas Higgins (Brendan Coyle), a good friend of Margaret, also the father of Bessy Higgins, Margaret’s close friend in Milton (Bessy died in Episode Three; Anna Maxwell Martin played her well, just as she played Cassandra Austen in Becoming Jane). Nicholas had been adamant not to work again at any mills, but upon the death of Boucher (one of the workers), he felt responsible and took Boucher’s six children. Thus, Nicholas needed fresh cash. And, after being persuaded by Margaret, he swallowed his pride and asked for Thornton to give him job. Of course, Thornton refused him. But upon several inquiries, the mill owner realised that Nicholas was telling the truth. After a touchy visit to Nicholas’ shabby house, Thornton agreed to give him a job. The tall, dark, handsome brooding Thornton also finally realised that Margaret was the one who persuaded Nicholas to ask for job.

  8. Thanks for writing about this, because I find this series so compelling, and I also identify with Thornton despite being a woman!
    I completely agree about Thornton throughout this episode progressively having to let go of ideas he has about himself, in particular, his pride in the roles he has been working for his whole life: the family provider, the good son who will replace what his father lost, the respected businessman. What is so stunning about him in the final scene, and is also shown clearly in the book, is that he is completely without shame about his enormous failure. He has let go of the image of himself as a successful businessman, and he has somehow become free, because of this.

    I’m not sure I agree with you that Thornton has become so attached to the principle that he has forgotten why he has it, in terms of refusing to participate in the speculation. I think his principle is not so much to keep his mill in operation at all costs, but that profits should be fairly earned by doing an honest job, that the right kind of endeavour will lead to fair success. I think the speculation is alien to him not only because it is risky, as he knows through his personal pain, but also because it does not seem like a fair and honest way of earning money.

    • Thanks for leaving a comment and welcome to the blog!

      Agree on the lack of shame issue — I’ll talk about this as I get to the end of this series (there are three or four more posts to go, dpeending on how I divide them up).

      I agree that the series wants us to believe that all of this is about “an honest job,” but I also think that the definition of “an honest job” has changed right under these people’s feet. Yes, it’s clear that Thornton doesn’t think speculation is honest (and this particular speculation clouds the issue as it is a problematic one). But he might be wrong and he refuses to consider that possibility. It’s interesting that he doesn’t, though, as will come up in part 4.

  9. Servetus, this is just terrific! And I can’t believe how much you’ve nailed a couple of problems with the representation of business in the series (and in the book too, but that’s a different matter). In some ways the plot jumps and the editing make Thornton’s behavior a little more hermetic than it needs to be — but this is such a lesson that with multiple viewings one can pry open anything.

    Thornton’s choices reflect the choices many of us make when it comes to principle — there’s only so much logic to them on the surface (why does he pay his workers more than other mills if he’s struggling?); there’s more logic to them below the surface (to an extent, Thornton’s pride in good mill ownership rests on his capacity to do right by his workers, *better* than other mill owners — the wheel, etc.); and his pride in making those choices can be the greatest problem in sustaining them.

    But you raise troubling questions. If all of us must ultimately engage in realpolitik against the our principles yet in order to maintain the substance of those principles … well, you can see why so many people have mid-life crises.

    When I was growing up I knew a number of family farmers still working land their families had owned since the 1880s (a very long time in California) but, by the 1980s & 90s, this demanded that a large extended family of people be engaged in the act of funneling money from other jobs into keeping the farm afloat. Farming was so precarious, the profit margin so thin unless the farm was owned by a massive corporation, that entire families kept themselves solidly in the lower middle class because their funds were flying out the bottom of a losing proposition.

    For Thornton specifically, the question ultimately is, will Margaret’s riches be just another pile to fly out the bottom? In the end, that romance of capitalism in the series is so fragile that you wonder, again, what’s the principle underlying it.

    • When it comes to farming and family land sometimes carrying on the family tradition takes precedent over the acquisition of more money and/or status. The ownership of land goes much deeper than a purely business level no matter the costs or consequences. It has to do with reverence for the homeplace. You could probably equate that to how Thornton felt about the mill especially since his home was an extention of the mill or vice versa.

      • Totally agreed. But at a certain point a family wonders whether their dedication to the preservation of the land has put at risk their capacity to survive and thrive as a family. These are such difficult decisions; at times Gaskell seems overly eager to smooth over those rough edges by means of romance!

      • though he also loses the house … which is the only thing at all that he says regarding the mill failure.

    • engaging realpolitik against your principles: you would know this better than I, Didion, but isn’t this the whole problem of the (self-made man’s) ambition that industrial society / capitalism brings to modernity? That sustainability becomes an economic race to the bottom that is not compatible with any kind of principle? Or that this is the way that capitalism encourages us to see it? It’s hard to see how Thornton would be running into these problems if he weren’t (also) ambitious.

      re: will Thornton make the same mistake again — I want to get to that question in the final pieces. One kind of thinks so. I hope that Margaret kept Henry Lennox as her financial adviser.

  10. […] To episode 4(a)2. […]

  11. […] [This episode is also going to require more than one installment of analysis. I'm thinking that this piece will be primarily about work. The previous parts of this piece are episode 4(a)1 and 4(a)2.] […]

  12. This is, for a strange reason, the first time in your analysis, Servetus, where I seem to disagree with your interpretation. Perhaps, it is because of very personal reasons, as to quite some extent I feel to be in exactly the dilemma Mr. Thornton is in, but I also interpret his actions, the conflict with the banker and the pre-story of N&S, leading to his current problems, differently.

    • Wow, cdoart! I hope you are willing to share your perspective with us?

      • Hello UK Expat. I will try to put my points to gether in a post on my blog, because my immediate reaction to Servetus’ post was, to write down 5 pages of notes. I think it would be unfair to overrun her interpretation in that way, when her analysis is completely legit and detailed to a point I find hard to reach in my analyses.

        • Hello cdoart, I will look forward to reading your post on the subject when you are ready to publish it! Thanks for giving us something else to look forward to. 🙂

        • LOL. I’d love to read a post on your blog about this.

    • I got Armitagemania because of my personal circumstances relating to this dilemma — but part of my criticism of Thornton is also thus intended as a criticism of myself. In looking critically at him, I look critically at myself. Actually, though, given what I said here I’m a bit surprised that I’m not hearing more frustration with this reading. So perhaps you’ll help people out and start the counterargument?

      • I made such a lot of notes, that I am not sure it would be fair to dominate the discussion so much. I also must see today, if my notes of yesterday still make any sense ;o)
        They contain a bit of my economic criticism of our time as well, and I am not always sure I want to reveal that much about my strange political opinion ;o) (Just criticised one of the major German parties for a superficial 10 point plan on their website last week ;o)
        If it is o.k. with you (and supposed my notes still make sense today) I will try to put them together in a post on my blog and link to it here. This way I don’t plaster your blog with my points, as I find your opinion and interpretation completely legitimate, just not containing my defense for Mr. Thornton and why I find him completely acting all right and without fault (not because of his looks alone ;o)

        • my political opinions are also something I try to keep under wraps here. So I understand not wanting to talk about them. Nonetheless, I’d love to read your perspective in whatever detail you’d like to offer it.

  13. […] this piece will be primarily about work. The previous parts of this piece are episode 4(a)1 and 4(a)2 and […]

  14. I never really paid attention to the fact that there was a contradiction between John’s principles, and that this contradiction, or rather the choice of a principle at the expense of another, leads to his downfall. A very enlightening reading, as always, and I still have two parts to read avidly !

    • it’s a general problem with principle, but of course he’s living at a particularly acute point in history.

  15. Everyone please check out CDoart’s response here:

  16. […] North & South will be primarily about work. Previous parts of this piece: episode(s) 4(a)1 and 4(a)2 and 4(a)3 and 4(a)4. Apologies for the delay on this. There are also some great comments on the […]

  17. […] North & South as based on the theme of work. Previous parts of this piece: episode(s) 4(a)1 and 4(a)2 and 4(a)3 and 4(a)4 and 4(a)5.  There are also some great comments on the posts in these series. […]

  18. […] [This episode is also going to require more than one installment of analysis. I'm thinking that this piece will be primarily about work. The previous parts of this piece are episode 4(a)1 and 4(a)2.] […]

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