me + mr thornton, episode 4(a)3

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


 Nicholas Higgins (Brendan Coyle) asks Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) for work in episode 4 of North & South.


Now, it’s possible that the moral narrative of work and principle is still a better reading than the one offered above, or an equally good one, and that Thornton’s attachment to these is principled rather than an index of pride, and that the way this episode is put together does not undermine such an argument. I think there’s a case for each, and I will get back to the argument that I feel so much emotional affinity for at the end of this post, just because the conflict between these positions in the series is something that has kept me rewatching it incessantly, as if it would offer some epic revelation. For the moment, however, I’m moving back to the narrative of the episode as it involves Higgins, work, and the question of Mr. Thornton’s ostensible personal transformation, because the question of his transformation provides a framework for asking about what work really means in this atmosphere.

When next we see Thornton, he’s encountering Higgins in the portal to his millyard. Note that Thornton here is having the same conversation about principle with Higgins that he had with Latimer, but the conversation with Latimer was simply about a general notion of business skills and acumen vs. (to him unacceptable) risk. This conversation, however, focuses the question of principle on the specific problem of work: its legitimacy, its quality, its remuneration, its worth. The inauguration of the debate over the nature of work between Higgins and Thornton thus allows Thornton the opportunity to make his principles more precise or clearer to us, anyway — as well as setting up the narrative arc that allows Thornton and Higgins to interact meaningfully and influentially upon each other despite their class differences. Yes, the pretext is the request for a job, but the whole discussion is about work, and Thornton, reflecting his pride, repeats the discussion with Higgins about principle that he had with Latimer.


“I’ll not give you work,” Thornton (Richard Armitage) says to Higgins with a self-righteous coldness, in episode 4 of North & South. Source:


In this conversation, Thornton presents himself as the victim of circumstance or force majeure in the form of the union over against Higgins — a slightly different stance than he’d used to justify himself to Latimer, to whom he makes no concessions as to his own behavior or forecasts. Good work and principle are about protecting the mill. From his perspective, the union prevents good work, first (the implicit background of the discussion) by trying to fix wages via industrial action, then by forcing the owners to hire unqualified weavers in order to protect themselves against the necessity of capitulation to union wage demands, then by scaring away the scabs, then by preventing owners from hiring the workers they’d rather hire if those workers remain union adherents. Allowing a unionist like Higgins in, Thornton says, is the equivalent of torching the cotton waste — a metaphor we understand since it has played such a decisive role in determining our perception of Thornton in the first place — and since the mill is Thornton and Thornton is the mill, the vehemence is understandable, if still distasteful. Higgins, in response, represents himself as a good worker, steady, industrious, and willing to be principled in his dealings with the owner, against Thornton’s second suspicion that his request is a ploy to get himself back into financial shape to strike again. The section of the dialogue about Higgins’ apparently hypocritical willingness to take low pay reads not so much as a pointing out of self-contradiction (though, of course, Thornton is correct in terms of the logic of classical liberalism — and here, Higgins replays Margaret’s defensive remark in episode 2 that feeding children is not entirely a matter of logic) as a statement that if Thornton takes Higgins seriously in his actions and statements about the nature of work, he has to assume  the explanation regarding the children to be false. Indeed, we see Thornton’s most openly contemptuous facial expression of the entire series in just this scene, in response to that possibility.

Fans of the reading that pushes love for Margaret as the reason for Thornton’s eventual alleged transformation get their best piece of evidence at this point in the clip, as Higgins brings Margaret into play without identifying her, even as Thornton dismisses him peremptorily. It’s significant for that reading, of course, that this datum replays later, in the scene in the Princeton District where Thornton actually does offer Higgins work, and asks at the end whether Miss Hale was the woman in question. But her mention in this conversation in particular has never struck me as causal. Thornton’s pullback at the end of his office conversation with Higgins — signaled more in his eyes and his lips than in anything he says — comes with his reflection upon Williams’ answer to the question about how long Higgins had been waiting. If we believe what Thornton’s been saying all along about work, he’s almost required to reconsider Higgins’ petition, or betray his own principles about hard work and discipline. It’s about being the person as whom he sees himself, not about Higgins.


Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage), Mrs. Thornton (Sinead Cusack) and Fanny (Jo Joyner) discuss Fanny’s wedding, Margaret’s attitude, and John’s refusal to speculate in episode 4 of North & South.


By the end of the day, Mr. Thornton’s nerves are wearing (understandably) thin. His failure to sell his vision to anyone around him and the fact that he will be left practically alone with the impending business failure is now painfully obvious. He gets little sympathy from his banker, his confrontation with Higgins leaves him angry, not least at himself, and now, at home, he’s faced with the reminder that he will be paying for his profligate sister’s wedding. The news from a comically outraged Fanny that Miss Hale, at least, seems to have understood his position has to offer small comfort at this point. Because yet again, Mr. Thornton is forced into a conversation about his principles. Responding to Fanny’s insistence on certain profit, Armitage makes Thornton’s voice reach the level of emotion it did in the failed proposal scene from episode 2, so that his credo, that “there’s nothing certain about speculation,” is expressed with the same degree of desperation as his earlier statement that he gave no thought to Margaret’s reputation in his decision to propose (a blatant lie that shows that he’s at least been turning an idea over in his mind. I love that Armitage makes Thornton such a poor liar). At first, with Latimer, Thornton’s principles were about business acumen and risk; then with Higgins, they concerned work; now, finally, in the confrontation with his sister, they become about protecting his workers: “I will not risk the livelihoods of my men by joining Watson’s tom-fool schemes.”


Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) and Mrs. Thornton (Sinead Cusack) discuss the riskiness of the proposed speculation in episode 4 of North & South.


The dénouement of this conversation stands at the basis of my contention that Thornton’s principles remain essentially unchanged, at least and certainly to this point, because the articulation of his desire not to harm his workers to Fanny is essentially consistent with, if slightly nuanced in emphasis from, his statements to Margaret in the millyard in episode 2, in which he states that the efficient running of the mill protects their existence. After Fanny storms out of the room, his mother’s questioning elicits the same response, even if it’s put with slightly broader applicability. Mrs. Thornton, though offering her customary approval and affection, questions him about the state of affairs and asks him, albeit obliquely, if he won’t undertake the speculation. “If it succeeded, they’d never know,” she offers, half encouragingly, but Thornton knows that he would know, and even the risk of having injured others and knowing that he’d have done so is enough for him, it seems. “If it failed, I would have injured others,” he says, still rather emotionally. “Would you ask me to risk that?” He puts his refusal in curiously personal terms. He would have been asked to take the risk; he would be responsible for the injury to others.

What Thornton thus finally says about his principles in this scene: My refusal to speculate is just as much about my picture of myself as it is about my principles. And his mother, who loves him as much as he loves himself, resigns herself and asks him what she should do.


To episode 4(a)4, which is coming tonight after we’re done with all the solemnities and festivities of the day.


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 28, 2012.

7 Responses to “me + mr thornton, episode 4(a)3”

  1. […] [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 and 4(a)3.] […]


  2. […] to episode 4(a)3. […]


  3. […] 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 posts in […]


  4. […] 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. Do not […]


  5. Let’s see if we can mobilize the troops again this year! It would have to be Fri May 30th, Sat May 31st and Sunday June 1st. Luckily Memorial Day is the previous Monday.


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