They have enraptured us through the centuries, the enigmatic individuals who captivate on the written page. Their stories are so varied that few hold the same distinctions, from the tormented and darkly manipulative Heathcliffe to the mild-mannered and exceptionally compassionate Colonel Brandon. It is difficult to choose a favorite among literature’s numerous leading men, but among them stands the complex and mysterious form of John Thornton, a haunting shadow that dominates the pages of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South.
Though he has the notable distinction as being compared to Jane Austen’s misunderstood Mr. Darcy, John Thornton’s complexities surface in a much darker volume than the light-hearted romance between Lizzie and Darcy. The backdrop for the novel is the North of England, known for its industry, in the small town of Milton. It is both a social contrast between the more reclusive, gentlemanly notion of life in the South and the profit-lead industry of the North, and an exploration of the nuances of prejudice, mistaken assumptions, and ultimately, love.
In order to understand something of the enigma that is John Thornton, the reader must first be acquainted with his history. After the death of his father in sordid circumstances (unable to cope with great financial loss and ruination, he committed suicide), Thornton worked many years to not only pay off his father’s debts, but to restore his mother and sister to respectability among the merchants of the country. A shrewd businessman, his methods and motivations are often questioned by the inquisitive, morally guided beliefs of the novel’s heroine, Margaret Hale. The two immediately get off on the wrong foot over the dismissal of a careless workman, and it takes numerous pages and many moths for him to win over her approval.
While there are many motivations behind his actions, the primary focus of Thornton seems to be his honor. It is both a sense of moral obligation as the town’s most primary gentleman and interest that drives him to assist Reverend Hale in locating the proper housing when he brings his family to Milton. He also employs the man to instruct him in literature so the Hales might have a suitable income. When Margaret’s name surfaces in the sordid details of a murder investigation, Thornton goes to great lengths to protect her, even though the two are not on the best of terms. He is deeply insulted with her derogatory remarks against tradesmen and men of industry, and proud of his successes in the wake of his father’s demise.
It is this honor that causes him to place financial security ahead of speculation, rather than risk the loss of his workers’ future earnings in an attempt to expand the factory. This decision, and also his attempts to keep his employees well fed, is made against most common business sense… a decision formed of compassion rather than a desire for power. He does not seek a profit so much for himself as to remain assured that his aging mother, his one constant source of inspiration and support, remains well cared for. It is clear that he has attempted in every way to make up for his father’s errors in judgment.
The nuances of his brooding countenance can be explained by the tremendous loss he has suffered. Watching the effects of his father’s suicide on his mother no doubt left a very deep impression. Thornton has attempted to compensate for the pain with an aloof and indifferent nature, an emotional wall against further anguish, but it is clear that he feels things very deeply. Margaret’s refusal of him does not chip away so much at his pride, but his self-assurance that he is a reasonable and decent man. He is not so much cold as he is protective of his emotions and awkward in his manner of expressing himself.
His most domineering fault lies in an excessively violent temper, which occasionally gets the better of him. In a society governed by notions of morality and an insistence upon gentlemanly behavior, it does not suit him well, but the reader must remember that he was not trained the way most men of his standing were. He was raised in the industry as a worker, and it is not surprising he would reflect their more violent mannerisms. He only became the “master” with time, and then began to improve his manners in order to become a gentleman.
The greatest of his virtues, by contrast, is his willingness to change. When we first meet him, our impression of John Thornton is not necessarily a positive one, but through the influence of Margaret Hale, he becomes a much better man. His interests broaden beyond profit and allow his pride to take a beating in the process. He is not the same man at the conclusion of the novel as he was at the beginning. It is this, as well as realizing that she too has changed, that causes Margaret to accept his proposal, a notion that months earlier seemed so abhorrent to her.
Though he may not be so openly charming as the mild-mannered Roger Hamley, or as darkly obscure as the tormented Edward Rochester, there is both virtue and vice to be found in the winning characteristics of Ms. Gaskell’s brooding hero.