me + mr thornton, episode 4(a)6

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

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[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 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 is the last piece of my account of my response to episode 4 of 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. Do not neglect them; my readers have as much or more insight as I. Also, if you haven’t seen it, check out CDoart’s thoughtful response to my criticism of Thornton’s attitude in the conversation with Latimer, here.]

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Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) kisses Margaret (Daniela-Denby Ashe) and makes the whole story better in episode 4 of North & South. Except he doesn’t. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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All that’s left is to finish up. At the end of the last section, I acknowledged that adherence to principle and love of work were potentially sufficient to keep Thornton standing in the wake of such a colossal failure, and thus valuable on that score, even if they were concrete contributors to his business failure. My sympathy for Thornton’s principles and his loyalty to them and my sympathy for his attitude toward toward work, however, have to be balanced with my fears about Thornton’s future, particular as he joins his fate with that of Margaret at the end of it.

The next scene is relatively long, and given the focus on work here, I’ve edited it slightly to highlight two moments of the conversation. (Of course, it is equally a conversation about Thornton’s relationship to Margaret, so these edits are a bit arbitrary, but I’ll deal with that separately, in the section of this series on romance, when I’ll pull in what I say here and then look at the scene in its entirety.)

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Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage), reprising our first glimpse of him in the series, looks over his mill on the last day of its operation and remembers seeing Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) there for the first time, in episode 4 of North & South.

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About Thornton’s last visual survey of his now silent mill, I wish to note here primarily that it’s interesting, first, that a memory of Margaret interferes here — as if the makers want to suggest to us that a primary reason he looks so sadly over the mill relates to his loss of the place where he first encountered her, and that the many other recollections he might have associated with the mill as the place of his own victories and defeats of principle and work are forgotten. I’m not suggesting so much that this was the wrong decision on the part of the series makers — particularly if you wish, as many readers will, to follow the reading that the failure of the mill forces Thornton to realize there’s more to life than work, and that the romance with Margaret is key to this development on his part. I’m not saying “no” to that reading as much as wishing to point out that this whole scene is one not so much about romance as about principle, and even its gestures in the direction of romance relate to the articulation and centrality of principle. More of that discussion as it relates to Margaret later, however.

Pursuing the other aspects of the scene: Faced with his financial failure, Thornton will have to close the mill. But not before Higgins and Thornton get in another object lesson about the value of work that reproduces their earlier stances. We’ve already discussed the significance of the dirt under Thornton’s nails as an index of his active presence in the factory, even in defeat. Here, again, Higgins reminds us of the significance of work and the value of doing the job correctly, a conclusion with which Thornton certainly already agrees, although he appears to be chiding Higgins slightly for his devotion. But as anyone who works long hours know, the greeting, “Still here?” offers a an inherent self-indictment of its speaker as much as any kind of observation about the addressee, since it could not be offered in the first place unless the speaker were also “still here.”

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Higgins (Brendan Coyle) affirms the significance of work well done, and informs Thornton (Richard Armitage) that “a fair number” of Marlborough Mills workers would like to work for him again, in episode 4 of North & South.

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With his remarks, of course, Higgins reminds Thornton about the significance of keeping faith with his principles about work, although Thornton immediately points out, with a sort of dry ruefulness, his loss of the title of “master.” Even here, however, we see Higgins telling Thornton that someone else has noted and valued his virtues as an employer, with the extension of a petition of names of workers who would operate a mill for Thornton again in future, should the chance become operative. So he did sell someone — albeit it a bit late. And the final appearance of eager reader Tommy Boucher again serves as a souvenir of the positions that we have seen both men take throughout the episode. He reminds us of Higgins’ strength of principle in supporting the child of the weaker man who served as the proximate cause of the ruin of his own principled project, the strike. Equally, Tommy reminds Thornton (apparently in an optimistic way, given the kind look on his face) nostalgically of the worth of industry, hard work, and love of activity. One may fail in practice, but still, it seems, have been right in development, in activity, in industry, in principle.

And so we arrive at that last, fateful scene, the one that’s supposed to tell us how Thornton feels about himself, and how he’s changed.

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Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) detours to Helstone, plucks a rose, smells it, and comes to some conclusion, in episode 4 of North & South.

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Interpretively, this scene is a nightmare, the first sign that the end of the series will run its really quite tightly focused narrative off the dramatic tracks — we aren’t given a concrete time-frame for its occurrence, we don’t know where Thornton was coming from when he’s there, and worst of all, Thornton doesn’t actually say anything during the scene. All we know is that he’s traveled to Helstone; he’s walking toward, or past, the parsonage, which we’ve seen as the failed site of Margaret’s nostalgia several scenes earlier; and he plucks a one of those storied yellow flowers to keep. Armitage’s eye motions seem to suggest that Thornton’s thinking, and feeling, very intensely — and then his eyelids fall in acknowledgement of some big realization. We just don’t know what that thought is, and nothing in subsequent scenes gives us much further definite indication of its content. From the perspective of the series makers, of course, the scene is a master stroke, because as viewers, we can reasonably assign all kinds of meanings to it and so no matter how we’re reading the series, we can write the necessary emotions and recognitions onto Thornton’s behavior in it.

The most obvious, because blatantly, literally obvious, interpretation is that Thornton realizes that work is not everything, and that he needed / needs not to give everything to the mill, but to stop and smell the roses. Enjoy life. Fall in love with a beautiful English rose! Clearly, the setting also suggests a concrete reminder of Margaret and his emotions toward her, pushing us in the direction of the implicit declaration of love and presumed marital alliance with which the episode ends.

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Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) offers Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) a Helstone rose, in the final scene of episode 4 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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Because the destruction of the roses (of which we’d also learned earlier) in the vicarage garden to make room for the new vicar’s children is the concrete occasion for and manifestation of Margaret’s observations about the irretrievable nature of passing time and the impossibility of going back, however, I tend to read the rose harvest additionally not as much as a romantic symbol but as a nostalgic one, indeed a troubling one. If we ask what Thornton associates with losses from passing time and the changes that come with it, we’re immediately drawn back to the symbol of Tommy Boucher, his own picture of his childish desire for advancement which was merited due to his labor, and which appears charmingly in almost every scene related to work to remind him of how hard he worked himself as a child. And let’s admit: Thornton never looks at Tommy with much acuity or penetration, at least as far as we see him doing it. He doesn’t acknowledge the potential brutality of Tommy’s life in the way that Higgins does, by rescuing him, even though Thornton and Tommy share the shame of a father who’s killed himself. Indeed, at least initially Thornton says he couldn’t have taken care of Boucher’s children, apparently believing at least at that point that the sins of the fathers accrue justly and unavoidably to the children — in the sense, perhaps, that he paid with his own suffering for his father’s suicide. It’s unclear throughout, really, why Thornton views his own childhood with such approval or why he’d be willing to extend that stance to Tommy. The book states clearly that Thornton pays for Tommy’s education in a way that the series only implies, but again, I feel, this action remains fully consistent with Thornton’s already articulated moral principles rather than constituting an inherently progressive action or evidence of transformation. He’s not saving Tommy — Thornton sees Tommy saving himself, as Thornton thinks that he saved himself when he thinks of his own past.

And then, what will Thornton do with that rose? Initially, he puts it into his waistcoat, perhaps as a souvenir of whatever recognition it is that he’s had, whether work-related or romantic. But when he unanticipatedly encounters Margaret at the train station, he explicitly contradicts her reproduction of her earlier statement that the past is gone forever when she says, “I thought those had all gone.” In response, he says, a bit slyly, “Found it in the ‘edgerow. Y’ave to look ‘ard.” In other words, Thornton thinks: you can still find the things that were important to you if you just keep on looking. Don’t give up on principle.

So, from my perspective, on some level, the rose scene pushes the viewer over the threshold into a potential nightmare, as does the end of the series, as much as I like that kiss. (Richard Armitage, honestly, you can kiss me any time you see me. Don’t feel you need to ask for permission.) It provides him with a recognition that justifies all of his quixotic adherence to principle, and further suggests that he’s drawn the conclusion from his recent experiences that he just needs to keep on working and if he “looks hard” enough, he’ll be able to reconstitute those things that are important to him. As a symbol, in the context of how it is mentioned in dialogue, it implies a romantic return to all the attitudes and convictions that pushed Thornton and Marlborough Mills onto the shoals of failure in the first place. It strongly speaks against the few only very mild suggestions in episode 4 that there may some points at which Thornton is rethinking his visionary rigidity and principled inflexibility with regard to work.

The first thing that I hate about this pressing conclusion is that it means that the series forces Margaret through a separation from her past and ideals and her adherence to the same that it hardly applies with the same insistence to Thornton, the (now, as we know at the end of the series, temporary) failure of Marlborough Mills notwithstanding. It punishes Margaret vindictively for her self-righteousness in a fashion that it is not willing to afflict upon Thornton. Margaret concludes, in the wake of so many deaths and the loss of her childhood dreams, that one can’t go back to the past, but Thornton uses the rose as a symbol to insist that one can. And then he gets the money to do exactly that, dropped right into his lap, conveniently in the same scene.

But the more important problem, frankly, is that if Thornton doesn’t change, if he really thinks that all we need to do to find the illusory roses of our posts is to “look hard,” he has learned absolutely nothing from all of the lessons of the grinding work to which he subjects himself throughout the series. He has drawn no useful lessons from the ways in which his rigidity cost him allies and cut him off from the people around him who might have helped and prevented him from making either a realistic assessment of the world around him, or indeed, of his own prospects. He plucks the rose, and saves it, and gives it to Margaret, and remains himself all along. And Margaret affirms his vision with her money and her new commitment to work and production as a marker of gentility.

In sum: Thornton’s failed romance of work and rigid principle remains essentially intact throughout the series and is reinforced by its final scenes. This ending is not romantic; it’s catastrophic.

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He might well gloat — basically unrepentant, and he’s got his principles, his chick, and a sizable fortune. Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) and Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) on the journey together back to Milton, in the final scene of episode 4 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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So: concluding with this piece all of the episode 4(a) posts, I summarize the most important of my responses to the episode as they relate to work and moral principle:

  • Episode 4 shows that Thornton’s personal transformation as a consequence of the events we see in the series is minimal, constituted primarily in a return to things he has always believed rather than in a change towards greater charity or social-mindedness.
  • Higgins, rather than Margaret, offers the primary moral foil for revealing Thornton’s principled attitudes about work and social utility, which I would continue to characterize as utilitarian rather than philanthropic.
  • Although we wish to identify with Thornton’s (romantic) allegiance to his moral stances, we need to consider (more seriously than the series forces us to do) the possibility that his vision is heavily flawed, if not in substance, then at least in execution.
  • When pressed to articulate his principles, or find allies during a crisis, Thornton finds himself at a continued to loss to sell his vision or justify his actions, a problem which makes these seem arbitrary, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of his inability or downright refusal to examine them critically. Indeed, at times Thornton’s refusal to consider other alternatives, though justified on a moral basis, seems primarily to rely on a decision as to what most pleases him.
  • The romance of episode 4 is thus primarily not organized around Margaret, but rather around principle and work and rehabilitation of same as a moral and moralizing response to the challenges to these for Thornton as presented by the strike, the failed proposal, the decision to conceal Margaret’s apparently questionable behavior from judicial examination, the failed financing, and the economic situation at Marlborough Mills.
  • When the boundaries of Thornton’s world are rocked, he thus resorts to tried-and-true behaviors that have already created problems for him. When he doesn’t know what to do (or what he should have done), he fails to seek out new strategies.
  • Although Margaret puts the problem of the struggling family in Thornton’s path, his relationship with Higgins begins on the basis of principles that Thornton already has, and continues as the two men discover their own affinities around ethical issues around work; the scenes with Higgins thus serve as a rehabilitation of the romance of work with which we began the series.
  • Once we edit out our own romantic response to the principled millowner as moral actor and to Armitage as amazing actor, when looked at soberly, Thornton’s ongoing adherence to principle and the related destruction of Marlborough Mills, his second self, provides us at best an ambivalent lesson about the work / ethics problems addressed in the series. Principle makes Thornton simultaneously and inseparably the picture of fidelity, the epitome of a destructive, stubborn insistence — and an apparent emotional survivor who does not stop to justify his behavior even when his looming failure can no longer be ignored.
  • We must at least consider that, given, his lack of statements about it when it happens, that Thornton has learned little of practical use from the failure of his enterprise. His most coherent statement of explanation, offered to Latimer, places the responsibility for what happens in the mill on others or on random circumstance.
  • Rather than presenting Thornton with an opportunity for charity, Tommy Boucher plays the role of a (damagingly) nostalgic symbol. Thornton’s support for him illustrates fundamental points of his problematically rigid moral stance, and Tommy’s constant reappearances point to Thornton’s ongoing belief in the validity of his own hard work and struggles.
  • The final scenes where Thornton says anything substantive point in the direction that his values around work have remained, and remain, the same, despite his chagrin at the loss of the mill.
  • The symbol of the rose points in a troubling way at the possibility that Thornton will remain obdurate with regard to his romantic vision of work and principle.

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The next part of the discussion would turn to the romance as an aspect of episode 4, which I’ll be labeling as 4(b). I’m not sure if I’ll proceed to this immediately, or do one of my other pressing projects. It might be time for something a little lighter! Stay tuned.

~ by Servetus on June 2, 2012.

52 Responses to “me + mr thornton, episode 4(a)6”

  1. […] to 4(a)6, which is the end of the series on work as a theme in episode 4 of North & South Share this:DiggFacebookTwitter […]

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  2. Greetings, Servetus!!

    Congratulations on the completion of this significant stretch of me + Mr. Thornton – that is Episode 4(A)!! Just wanted to quickly comment my congratulations for now as I have not had time to read through Parts 5 & 6 yet properly.

    Got to run my favorite stretch of Pacific Coast Highway this morning by Huntington Beach. Gah – there’s nothing quite like having the CA sun beating down on me to give perspective to the cool temperatures that await me in London.

    I’m greatly looking forward to the downtime to read through your last two parts. 🙂

    xo

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    • I know, I kind of can’t believe I finished it. I’m sort of patting myself on the back for that much, at least. No rush in responding. Enjoy CA.

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  3. I respectfully disagree with your negative prognosis for Thornton’s future. I think Thornton has changed from a man who detatched himself from his workers, doing what he thought was best. He now listens to Higgins, acknowledges his value and his principles, and even supports the diner. I think that having married Margaret, and getting financial backing, he will be able to be a more successful mill owner — perhaps even create a new type of owner/worker dynamic. Margaret and Thornton have helped each other see the world differently.

    I admit that I am an optimist. I find that hard work and principles have helped in my life — but I also acknowledge that bad luck and tragedy exist.

    But even though I disagree with your conclusions, I find the discussion fascinating. Thank you.

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    • Thanks for the comment. I didn’t think I was going to get much approval for this segment, and that’s only one of the factors that made it take so long to get this down. After watching the series dozens of times, I just don’t see any evidence that his behaviors in episode 4 are anything qualitatively different than he would have done earlier in the series. Supporting the factory food spot isn’t any different from putting in a wheel except that he isn’t taking the cost on himself. There’s no evidence that he didn’t listen to workers before, or that he would necessarily agree with everything they said now. I’ve looked, and looked, and looked, and I find what he does in episode 4 entirely consistent with his earlier principles. I don’t even think his attraction to Margaret really constitutes a change, but that’s for post 4b. Because the scene with the roses could basically mean anything, it’s impossible to exclude a lot of the more optimistic and romantic readings of the series, of course. I just find little evidence for them.

      As to my own feelings, they rest on my own experiences, and after a decade of impossibly, bonecrushingly hard work that has ended largely in failure and left me in pieces, a situation in my life that underlies this reading quite obviously, I’d say: most of the results we achieve in life through our efforts are arbitrary successes. Hard work may be necessary but it’s never sufficient, and romanticizing it in the way this series does is dangerous. I tell my students now not to work hard but to work smart — something I didn’t do, and Thornton doesn’t, either. Having principles makes me feel better about myself. But they didn’t help me get ahead; on the contrary. They slowed me down, and they justified me in my refusal to face certain facts.

      Because this was so difficult to write it generated a lot of metawriting while it was in process, and I’m going to publish some of that — you may want to avoid it, as it is much more gloomy than this. Part of putting this down relates to my ongoing attempt to figure out how my analytical preoccupations and style relate to my experiences and inner processing of them. I’m trying to work out exactly what the relationship is and understand how I get from a feeling to a text — as a way of understanding my process well enough in other areas of writing to become more successful there.

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      • So, what’s next with your life? You’ve speculated that Thornton has not changed and if I’m reading your reading correctly, the probability of him doing so in the future is slim to nil. Have you changed? If so, what? Your principles? Your goals/definition of success? The way you work? Perhaps this is covered in your meta-writing. I guess my next question is, is change necessary? Thornton must be somewhat happy this way, he receives a reward and the chance to do it all over again. Is the ending to the story contrived?

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        • Wow. I can be pretty demanding and bossy. Never mind all that. I just hope your future can be better than the one I infer for Mr. Thornton.

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          • No, those are good questions and given my statements about myself throughout this series, they deserve to be asked. I didn’t answer them last night because I don’t really have answers. Last year, I also, like Thornton, got a sort of miraculous reprieve in the form of the job that fell into my lap. A friend even said to me, in the wake of what happened, there’s no way that reprieve would have happened if you hadn’t been the person you were earlier (industrious, principled), so don’t think that people don’t notice the way you are and respect you for it. To me it seemed random, to her it seemed earned. So obviously perspective matters 🙂

            It’s just that I don’t know that I am really capable of changing to the extent that I would have to, to remain in my profession in the way that I have practiced it up till now. Right now I am successfully treading water 🙂

            One thing that’s changed a lot (as noted above) is the way I understand the universal rewards schedule. I also have had a healthy dose of the “don’t judge if you haven’t been in that situation” vaccine. I think I’m generally more merciful with others. I’m still really wrestling with the “how much mercy for me?” question. I hope that it all comes out in the meta-writing, or at least the things I can say about it. But I still think I’m plagued by a troublingly inflexible stance on principles. I don’t know how to change that.

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      • I agree that hard work and Thornton’s brand of rigid self-righteousness doesn’t always produce successful fruits, but I wonder what you would have had Thornton change. For me, it seems that there were really only two instances that could have made a difference.
        1. He could have avoided the cost of the Irish workers and compromised with the strikers. However, this happened so early in the story that any ‘change’ in his character couldn’t be said to have happened.
        2. He could have speculated and risked the payroll of his workers. He could have done this, but as he mentioned, there’s nothing certain about speculation. If the speculation failed he would have lost the mill and his moral high ground. (However, I admit the fact that since so many others chanced the speculation, it might be proof that it wasn’t as risky as he made it seem.)

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        • 1) yes
          2) investment (as opposed to speculation), see 4(a) 1+2

          re the possibility of investment (vs speculation), you should, however, see CDoart’s arguments.

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        • I’m not an expert in Victorian history– I’ve only seen the movie and they make it seem like investments=risky speculation. I guess then, just like now their are responsible/relatively safe investments and risky ones. I’ll go see CDoart page for more on that. Thornton was risky by not taking appropriate risks.

          This has been an eye-opener, I really enjoyed this series of posts.

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  4. I’ve so enjoyed reading your views on Mr. Thornton in this series! I’ll have to read through again to really form any coherent opinions. But, I know that I agree with the idea that Thornton didn’t really change. From my very first viewing I’ve always thought that it was really Margaret who did most of the changing not Mr. Thornton–that her coming to understand who he was and what he stood for was the catalyst for her changed regard, not that he transformed into a person she could love.

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    • I’m grateful for any insights you have, obviously. I think the question is what we conclude based on the fact that Thornton doesn’t change much. The problem of course is laid out in the book — it’s not clear that the book offers much of a reconciliation between N & S except on the romance level. It would be nice to think one could stop the passing of time with a kiss, of course, but it’s just not plausible.

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  5. Just curious, but don’t you think it’s possible that Thornton would learn from his mistakes and manage differently the second time around? He brought the mill to failure (although perhaps he would claim that it was unfortunate circumstances rather than his management that caused the downfall of the mill), so wouldn’t he would be acutely aware of that possibility and therefore be determined not to follow the same path?

    I agree with you that Thornton really didn’t change over the course of the story, but rather it was Margaret’s perception of him that changed, but I wonder if, hindsight being 20/20, he would use his past experiences to avoid future pitfalls.

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    • I think one thing that the Helstone scene does for the series (which I find dramatically ridiculous, but that’s by the by) is that it makes any future result possible. We don’t know what conclusion Thornton comes to at that point. I mean, seriously, for all we know, maybe he found G-d. 🙂

      I also don’t think he’s an idiot by any means. It seems rational to assume that he’d try to avoid failure in the future. It’s just that since he hasn’t changed so far, and he has a tendency to revert to old behaviors in the face of new challenges, it seems unlikely to me. And that suggests to me that it’s not entirely clear how he’d even see an impending future failure coming. His inflexible allegiance to his own principles hide a lot from him (my “against the grain” reading of the scene w/Latimer points to this, so if you are inclined not to agree with that, you won’t agree with this).

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      • Ha Ha! Maybe he found G-d in Helstone. But will he affirm his belief in the Book of Common Prayer? Now that’s always been an issue that has bugged me, and I never felt was truly resolved. Why exactly did Rev. Hale leave the church? What’s so objectionable about the Book of Common Prayer?

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        • The series doesn’t tell us, but given Gaskell’s background (she was a Universalist), I tend to think that Hale discovered he could no longer endorse the doctrines on the Trinity.

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        • Oh, I see somebody noted that below. I’d just add that the religious overtones of the book are largely absent from the series.

          (writing this on Trinity Sunday, ha ha ha! says the Trinitarian heretic Servetus!)

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  6. Though you surely will expect, that I will not agree with all your arguments, your comment in answer to Beverly made your point of view more clear to me.
    I agree with you in most things, only not, that Mr. Thornton is bound by his principles and therefore unable to change his business decisions.
    I think I understand what you refer to, as it was / is (still?) part of what hinders me in my life. I just interpret Mr. Thornton in a different way. (It would not be me not to make notes about it. Perhaps, if they still make sense tomorrow, I will add them to my blog with my final thoughts about the N&S group watch of today ;o)
    Thank you very much for linking to my N&S blog post!

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    • I think that when I started watching the series, because I was standing immediately in the wake of my own “business failure,” I was watching it for reassurance that what i had done was right. But I’ve seen it dozens of times since then and I can see how my own emotional needs from the series have changed.

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  7. Servetus, what a terrific series of posts! I have so much respect for your analytical ability and your powerful focus.I’ve been simply reading along, appreciating your insights and those of commenters, and enjoying it all.
    But now I respectfully want to disagree with your conclusions about the Helston rose (which I think I can do, because as you pointed out, the way that scene was constructed makes it possible to extract all kinds of meanings 🙂 ).
    What makes that scene work for me is that it shows Thornton doing exactly what he’s needed to do–find a new approach, a new paradigm, a new source of inspiration instead of struggling along in a way that is not working for him anymore. That rigidity that you pointed out was no longer supporting him, but instead had turned into a cage.
    Helston roses are the symbol of Margaret’s past, not John’s. For him they represent a new direction. To me, finding the rose means he’s intending to join together the socially-minded ideals that Margaret and the South represent with the Northern ethic of hard work and noble principle that he adheres to.
    So Margaret thought that the roses–to me, symbols of the old-fashioned idea of seeing the individuals in a community as bound together by their common humanity, each with their own place in the larger scheme of things–were all gone. The lifestyle of the Southern past is swept away by the modern Northern notion of each individual for themselves, with every person selling their time and labor in an arrangment called a “good deal” without any obligation to concern themselves about the big picture, which in Northern terms would be the efficient running of the mill.
    But John says that if you “look hard,” you can find ways to mesh the good parts of both systems. And that’s a new vision of the future that Margaret can devote her resources to with confidence.
    Well, that’s how I see it.

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    • Nice, Saraleee. I can see the validity in your position.

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    • Yes — the rose scene is so ambiguous it could mean anything. Someone just suggested in the previous segments comments that the behavior is almost unreasonably out of character for Thornton, and it occurred to me that maybe he’s having a psychotic break. I’m also a both / and girl, so I don’t want to say that romantic or optimistic readings of it have no legitimacy. They are just not readings to which I am very inclined.

      One reason I don’t go toward your reading has to do with how I read Margaret’s ideals. She’s consistently characterized by viewers of the series as humanitarian. Maybe. In my opinion, her ideals seen in context are much more ambiguous than that (without attributing malice to her, necessarily). One reason I show this series to students is that it does such an amazing job, even better than the book does, of reproducing the constellation of political attitudes toward emerged and emergent social ills in England in the wake of the Reform Bill of 1832 — I mean, seriously, it’s like they took a British history textbook and tweaked the characters to fit it. I couldn’t have asked for more as a teacher.

      Seen from this perspective, one reason that the gentry (not just the nobility) took this charitable attitude (what you call “humanitarian”) was as a political hedge against the “new men” that we are supposed to take Thornton as a symbol of here. Because of our own position with regard to these conflicts, more than a century later, in which the classical liberal has become (in my opinion somewhat deformedly) the enemy of any kind of organized social welfare, we see Margaret as the person who’s embracing a sort of humanitarianism (“where do you live? I’ll come over with a basket” and “everyone, including infants, deserves to eat”) and a belief in the dignity of all humans regardless of their capacity to work. As the series indicates, however, at the time many people saw her stance (or the stance that she represents socially) as a sort of paternalism, and not just from the self-interested position of the factory owners (Thornton saying what people do in their time off isn’t his business) but also from the stance of working people (Higgins saying, in his second encounter with her, in the presence of Bessie, essentially: we’re as good as you and we don’t want your basket). The kind of attitude that Margaret represents was multi-faceted: it stemmed from Christian ideals and also from social arrangements in the countryside (the big political powers of the South were mostly landed), in which the vicar’s wife and daughter took on particular social roles in the countryside, but make no mistake, at the time, it was also a political attitude that had certain ends (again, whether or not Margaret personally might have embraced these — she would certainly have been aware of them). Seen from the perspective of the mid-nineteenth century, in other words, it’s Thornton who’s the egalitarian and not Margaret. (That this is necessarily the case, and that it is a vision that is failing insofar as landed interests are under greater and greater challenge is played out by synecdoche in the scene in episode 4 when Higgins comes to see the Hales — he can ask them, at best, for charity, but he can ask Thornton for work.) Because the meaning of all of these matters has changed so substantially in the meantime, of course, we tend to see them differently. But the series puts enough signs into its script that we can still see the 19th c. at work.

      Margaret certainly comes to see work as a legitimate source of gentility. That she has to do that in terms of seeing twelve hour shifts in a punishing mill as a legitimate source of personhood is not, for me, a victory of her ideals in influencing Mr. Thornton. Even when Higgins gets work, she still has to feed him off and on. And while she feeds Higgins and watches out for his family, it’s not like he’s being invited into the parlor to discuss political ideals or the books they are both reading. In the end she simply shifts her opprobrium — essentially toward the class of investors who speculate — which is hypocritical, in part because that’s why she has the money to do what she does at the end of the series anyway. Margaret is not, at the beginning of the series, a real egalitarian and IMO while her prejudices change, she is not one at the end, either. But I have been charged more than once with not being sufficiently sympathetic to her position 🙂

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      • Okay, I sort of agree. 🙂 Even in Milton, Margaret carries out the traditional role of the vicar’s daughter from the gentrified and paternalistic South–she brings baskets, she nurses the sick, promote the education of the children, and offer solace when someone dies. This is the role she’s been brought up to fulfill, and it goes over like a lead balloon in the independent, industrial North. The mill-workers spurn her attempts at charity. They don’t want to be treated like children, and they shouldn’t be. That’s what Margaret needs to learn. But the good idea that she has to offer is that we’re not all alone in this world, and that life is better if you look out for one another.
        The Northerners, both workers and owners, see their interactions as a war, where conflict and opposition is the only way to maintain their dignity and assure fair treatment (because we’ll hurt you if you don’t do right by us).
        Margaret helps to overcome this stalemate when she encourages Higgins to talk to Thornton. And Thornton perceives Margaret’s respect for Higgins as an individual. Her example paves the way toward their better understanding of one another. They start the cafeteria together, which I see as a blending of the North and South values. Then, when the mill closes, Higgins gives Thornton the petition he got up–another piece of evidence showing a new direction in the relations between mill owner and mill worker.
        It’s not that Margaret is egalitarian, or that her ideas are right. Just that there are some good elements that can be sifted out of her attitude and beliefs.

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        • re: we’re not all alone in this world and life is better if we look out for each other: seems to me Thornton already has this idea, as expressed both in the meeting of the manufacturers at the end of episode 1, and what he says to his fellow manufacturer in the millyard in episode 2 (“it’s their lives and our livelihood”). Thornton is not the one who says that human interactions are a war; that’s an attitude expressed by his mother, and by a different factory owner (see discussion of Thornton’s position in episode 2). I’ve already said elsewhere what I think about the mill kitchen (how’s that for a name that seems accurate?), which may be more cooperative, but is hardly less humanitarian, than the ventilating wheel in the carding room.

          One thing I’ve been thinking while writing these pieces is that an important aspect of how we read these questions has to do with the extent of our willingness to accept the way the series uses synecdoche. I suspect most readers are willing to see Thornton / Higgins as a synedoche for Thornton / workers in a way that I am not. Can we really substitute (say) Stevens, or Boucher, for Higgins, in that analogy? It’s still all about virtue. Higgins proves himself virtuous to Thornton. Admittedly, we don’t get any encounter in the series with “average” workers — people who are neither troublemakers nor weak nor principled union leaders. The rank and file of the mill is necessarily elided in the series.

          BTW: I’m not opposed to humanitarianism or the dignity o f personhood or anything like that as ideals — on the contrary. However, I feel the need –perhaps too compulsively — to point out that altruism is never fully altruistic, and so these matters also involve political ideals.

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          • Yep, Servetus, I readily accept the use of synecdoche in the series and in the book (and it may be that I’m overly influenced by the book version here).
            And because I do, I think it’s necessary to have Thornton / Higgins as the stand-ins for millowners / workers, because they are the two best-intentioned characters in the story. You can’t substitute Stevens for Higgins, but you can’t substitute Slickson for Thornton, either. Thornton is more virtuous than other mill owners, yes, but in hewing to his original view of the world and his role in it, he’s limiting himself. He’s got blinders on. He needs a new perspective, and that, I believe, is what he gains when he takes that trip to Helston.

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      • I could’t agree more on Margaret’s paternalistic and superior position in “basket business” (which in my opinion comes with a territory of every systematic help to those less lucky than us, carried away personally or institutionally) and Thornton’s egalitarism (why is his betrayal of the principle during Leonard’s death investigation crucial for his character dynamics as Servetus brilliantly pointed out, but also for romance plot, what Servetus tries to undermine). I always watch the scene when Higgins comes to Hales to ask for help in finding a job, and is forced to leave dirty shoes behind, as ultimatelly ill at ease: he is debased and there is a tinge of grotesque in his sitting barefoot and helpless in a noble drawing-room, between smartly dressed “friends”. We never do see Bessie in Hales’ mansion: reciprocity in paying a call obviously is not part of the mingling with the wretched of the earth (no matter how noble in spirit). It is quite early into 19th century, indeed, so let’s not get too carried away with tolerance, human rights and egalitarian paradigms – and that’s what is great about Servetus’ scrupulousness in tackling age-appropriate concepts and events.

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        • Great read of the “Higgins in the Hales’ parlor” scene. It *is* really uncomfortable (and it’s not clear who scraped off the mud from Higgins’ shoes and put them by the fire — Margaret, or Dixon). A concomitant of what you say, and I didn’t discuss this because I’m not writing about Margaret, ends up being how we see the manufacturers at the Thorntons’ dinner party. It’s too easy for us to think, oh, evil grasping folks who hate the people who work for them and want to oppress them — without remembering for them that Margaret’s humanitarianism / paternalism is a political position, and a great deal of that conversation seems to suggest that they can’t believe that she could possibly be that politically naive.

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  8. I’m really interested in your perspective, your analysis is so insightful and I can see the arguments you have made so well.

    I have a different perspective on the ending. My perspective is more informed by what I think is the underlying spiritual themes of Gaskell – as she was a proud Unitarian. There are mentions of finding solace and comfort in the spiritual all throughout the book. I think the ending shows us some kind of redemption, for both Thornton and Margaret, through renunciation and despite pain and failure. I see Thornton as having to go through his enormous failure at the task that meant more to him than any other, and Margaret as having to let go of her past, her parents, her childhood and her certainty in her own judgenments of people and situations.

    So I find the final scene hopeful and beautiful – that these two people have the courage to try again and live without bitterness and regret, despite all that has happened to them. The flower to me is a symbol of renewal – that, while the past is gone, not all of the good things of it are gone – they can grow again.

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    • Hi, smur: Unitarianism definitely underlies the book. However, the analyses as they emerge in the main posts are made without reference to the book because I’m doing this reading as a source of explanation for Armitagemania, which did not involve the book until I had seen the series at least twenty times.

      IMO the series really falls down on its representation of 19th c. religious themes, but that’s not unusual in our contemporary secular framework. We don’t see what’s at stake for Mr. Hale in resigning his living beyond the financial issues; we don’t see the extent to which the Thorntons’ ideals are underlain by their particular religious stance; Thornton’s friendship and willingness to support Mr. Hale in various ways is presented as matter of a favor to Mr. Bell without reference to what the book hints very strongly is a matter of religious affinity from the very start.

      That I don’t see the ending as hopeful without an indication of a greater change on Thornton’s part is obvious. It’s not enough, if you wish to change, to have everything you love destroyed. That’s step one.

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      • Thanks for your thoughts. Yes I understand wanting to understand an obsession: I am pretty obsessed myself, with North and South and everything Gaskell…. I do think I am obsessed for a reason that relates to my own life, and as others on here have said, where we find a resonance we tend to project from our own lives.
        I know the religious themes are not overt in the series, but I do think they have informed it. I agree that its not enough to have everything you love destroyed in order to change. What causes the change is the response to having everything you love destroyed: is the response bitterness, regret and a closing down to the future, or is the response one of letting go, greater openness and hope? If both Margaret and Thornton had been stuck in their shame, pain, and blame of each other, perhaps that final scene would never have happened.

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        • I think I’ll table the explanation of how I’d respond to this until I get to the post on romance. The question for me is not so much that he can do it, but rather *why* Thornton can change his attitude about Margaret.

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  9. I’m quite late into this analysis of N&S (I’ve read it all in past week), as well as I’m a bit fresh into Armitagemania (4 months, approximately), so I’m largely reading past posts on this blog – utterly fascinating, servetus, needn’t be said (could be considered struck by a kind of Servetusmania as well). Yellow rose is the topic I’d like to refer to. I cannot resist connecting it to the heritage of romanticism, to Novalis’ die blaue Blume, blue flower that symbolizes permanent longing and quest toward eternity, infinity and happiness. Than, I cannot ignore the fact that those roses are wild flower, growing in hedgerows, tough and ineradicable, representing elan vital, as well as the concept of permanent cycle of death and rebirth in vegetative time of nature: as nature did teach romantics about how to live in bleak reality, so it could do for our post-romantic millowner of the first industrial revolution (not to be forgotten that Milton hasn’t got any “nature”, that walks, restorative or consolative, both John’s and Margaret’s, are undertaken in a heterotopic graveyard). But, the most puzzling detail about the rose symbol is the fact that it is in the same way connected to Henry Lennox as is to Thornton: they both offer/pass the rose to Margaret’s hand expecting her hand in return, what makes the rose ambivalent symbol of sexual desire as well as the symbol of conventional marriage consent. “Looking hard” as a principle of any quest, of any Faustian peramanent striving, doesn’t really affirm only sticking to the same principle, but can point to readjusting of the principle-content while staying principled. I could go much further, but find it indecent for the first encounter:-)

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    • Thanks for the comment and kind words, belizec, and welcome to the blog. You’re welcome to make comments at any length and of any register of erudition that you like. I try to respond to them as I can, but I find that it’s often very hard to make serious comments in too much brevity myself, so I appreciate thoughtful comments from readers that go into detail.

      *Very* nice point about flower symbolism in Romanticism / wake of Romanticism, though I can’t help pointing out that a common meaning of yellow roses in Victorian flower language was “farewell.” (I also have a hard time reading Thornton specifically in light of Novalis, but that’s also because I identify with Thornton and always feel myself unpleasantly overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of nausea, when reading Novalis).

      I like the reading of roses as a symbol of persistence of natural ideals, although that’s very consistent with or parallel to the romantic reading of the end of the episode . I’ve been being asked to write about sex and the Victorians for awhile, and that’s certainly an aspect of this scene, I agree. Part of the problem, here, is that my own attitude about sex is so severely separated from that of the Victorians that I’m stymied to provide a personal reading of this scene that’s about sex (beyond noting that I wish Thornton would kiss me that way and then I would drag him off into the ticket office for some pursuit of the kiss.) My personal issues are all either about G-d or work, hence this reading, which emphasizes the work problematic.

      Most importantly: enjoy Armitagemania! It’s been really wonderful for me, both emotionally and (dare I say) productively.

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  10. I am late to the party, but I did re-watch N&S. I believe Thornton changes. I see the hero’s journey played out in a way, that I find satisfying. You do lover to stir the pot. The ending is about love, not so much romance, but love. Here’s a man who’s lost everything, but in the end gains the true gift love.

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    • actually, the reason this stuff has appeared here only 2.5 years into the blog (about 1.5 years too late!) is that I was afraid until now of writing how I felt. I knew it wasn’t going to make me friends. But if I’m going to get to the end of my own Hero’s Journey I have to put a little more pressure on myself to be honest.

      Love. Whatever. I don’t say that to criticize anyone who has a strong belief in the concept, but I have no idea what the word means.

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    • and I’m not saying that to be a pain, @Rob, I just really don’t know what the word means, and it’s not clear to me even what it would mean in the limited sense of this series. I have never understood the “love” aspects of this series all that well — except as the thing that makes everyone “love” it.

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  11. I guess bec even tho Margaret and Thornton are deeply flawed and a bit silly they found a way to love one another. I wouldn’t say that Glaskel is terribly romantic, but she finds love in a dark place.

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    • Something she does better than the series, I think, is make the characters more subtly plausible. Which makes thinking about love easier for me.

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  12. I really like (‘love’) when you are writing about Mr.Thornton, thank you Servetus!:)
    I admire (‘love’) your style of writing and I envy you to having the analytical mind. However,there are rare moments when I’m even glad that I can’t see why..”this ending is not romantic ; it’s catastrophic”. 😉

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  13. Your post and the readers’ comments are very intriguing and I appreciate the expantion of ideas. However I believe Thornton did change — as well as Margaret. And my interpretation is not based on any analysis of the movie, book or history, but solely on the acting skills of RA. As RA portrays Thornton in the end (mostly through his demeanor), not only is he a changed man, but he’s done a complete about-face. In a lot of fiction as well as reality, the loss of what’s most important — work, marriage, home, etc — provides opportunity for a new beginning. That’s how I read the ending. I know it’s simplistic, but that’s usually how I see things.

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    • I respect the right of my readers to view the outcome of the series differently, but I just don’t see that — though I’m very much a caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt person and maybe a literalist on top of that. I think I’ve defended my position on this adequately, however. There’ll be more writing on this topic shortly. 🙂

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  14. I find your reading utterly persuasive, and I only want to add one note: that there’s one way that Thornton has succeeded, and that’s in winning Margaret over to his way of thinking. Their personal romance has become so soaked with Thornton’s romance of hard work that together they’re willing to throw good money after bad. We can only hope that Henry remains her financial advisor.

    I’ve run into similar conundrums when I talk about these kinds of fantasies with my students. They say, “But you *do* have to work hard to do well!” They remind me, “But you *do* have to be optimistic and honest!” even though they know that sometimes the bad guys finish first and that someone who cheated on the physics final got the best score in the class and that the richest guy in their dorm is related to a white-collar criminal who embezzled millions. So what am I telling them? that they *shouldn’t* work hard to become better writers and thinkers? That their hard work won’t pay off in any way?

    That’s the problem: I’m invested in parts of this game — hell, I’m *implicated* in this game. Just because I can see that some people are hopeless romantics about it doesn’t mean I’ve checked out.

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    • Wrestling with this: it seems like to be honest you have to say: virtue is its own reward. But then you risk essentially pushing them into a situation where they can’t see the world around them because they’re so focused on the rewards of the virtues you’ve instilled in them. The rain falls on the good and the evil means you can’t assume that certain kinds of behavior is rewarded — but it shouldn’t mean that you don’t irrigate.

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  15. […] the usefulness of this Thorin metaphor, given that Thornton, with whom I identify so much, fails, in an atmosphere of disturbing signs about his likelihood of recidivism, so that I’m completely pessimistic about his chances for changing the fate of Marlborough […]

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  16. […] the Armitagemania level — Not that there may not be issues with this declaration, as my fears about Mr. Thornton portend. Blind vision is dangerous. But I saw the other side of those fears for the first time in — a […]

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  17. First of all bravo for this total stalker website that masqurades as critical theory. Richard Armitage is not merely eye candy! I had a warm fuzzy feeling when that dreamboat Mr Thornton gave Margaret the rose from her home. To me it said that Thornton was a real friend to Margaret and that he knew how much those roses meant to her. Friendship is at the heart of real love. He wants to keep all of the integrity of the Hale’s alive, even if the new minister in Helstone is afraid of dissent. He didn’t just want to have some token wife. He loved her whole family who gave him intellectual discourse, real morality, and more importantly a non Norman Bates style love. He said they were hard to find because the truth about her feelings for him were hard to detect due to the fact that she hid a) her secret love for him and b) she did not in fact have another lover and c) she took the heat for her brother by doing something principled which d)made her more attractive to him due to her being a Unitarian style martyr.

    Her principle was stupid in the long run but he loves her because they are both the same. I find your interpretations of this story very interesting because I see Margaret as a total Unitarian who is about bucking popular opinion for humanitarian reasons because I grew up Unitarian. Gaskell had a Unitarian father who left his church and a Mancunian Unitarian minister for a husband. I see much of the morality talk being about Thornton seeing Mr Hale and Margaret as genuine intellectuals and not a bunch of snob hypocrites who talk about Plato but judge people because of their status. I don’t know too many “gentlemen” who don’t care what someone’s father did for a living to this day.They are both not “good enough” for the upper class. That’s why he’s so disappointed with Margaret, aside from the fact that he is totally stalking her- is he going for lessons, really?( When you have the major hots for someone do you just happen to stop by their house? Who stops by the person they are obsessed with’s house to see their father?)

    As far as the work thing goes, what about Mr Hale’s work as Thornton’s teacher, and what about Margaret’s former job as a teacher? Is the real work of this story the work Mr Hale and Margaret do on Thornton’s head? Is she not his teacher and does the student not end up teaching the teacher? Margaret is beyond cruel to both of the men who want her but it takes a man she sees as a brute to make her realize that.

    In the book I noticed that Margaret admits her love in the context of Thornton being recieved by her snooty relatives as respectable because of his work. She’s never noticed his success before and it seems that his being “cool” all of the sudden with her rich friends has made her warm up to him, along with her realizing that she was horrible to him and judged him as well.

    I think the roses in the book represent him being a part of her real home. She is the archetypical virgin in the gated garden and he brings her the rose from this secret place. He “understands her completely”, better than herself, and that is how he has gained access without her knowledge. The garden is the real business deal that makes light of the loan. He’s been there for her out of a real and fraternal love that doesn’t involve sex technically. He finally gets the nerve to challenge her refusals by getting physical in a business meeting. He knows she loves him because she is there for him when he is at his most vulnerable and isn’t the confident businessman we’ve known throughout the story. She can let him into her space now because he has proven that he is now equal to her in his purity and vulnerability. He takes on a loan from the one person who has matched him in wit and and heart. They are both too smart for their own good.

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    • First of all, thanks for this fantastically rich comment, and welcome. I’ll respond as soon as I can but it will probably be tomorrow. There’s a regular commentator on this site who’s always reminding me / urging me to take the Unitarian connection more seriously.

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    • Liz

      Really loved your viewpoint- it’s more with my line of thinking- Great analysis!

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