The urge label Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) a bildungsroman is tempting. The titular heroine Mary Barton transforms from a misconceived young girl to a mature young woman by the end of the novel. The nature of her growth involves being on the verge of marrying into wealth to realizing her true feelings for the man she really loves; yet according to the events as they unfold, how she develops does not equate that of a complete psychic change. In Mary’s case, a thorough psychic change is not even wholly necessary.
Where parts of the narration might suggest that Mary is a schemer, at an early age, she most pointedly is not. After dinner one evening, before the trade-market crashes and the entire neighborhood becomes destitute, a suggestion is made by the locals to enjoy more evenings of brotherly joviality. After innocently making an untoward comment, a friend of the family becomes inclined to exclude herself from such gatherings, because she feels she’s humiliated herself. Mary hugs her — bringing tears to her eyes — and condemns the idea, implying that everyone makes mistakes. She brightens the atmosphere of the moment by even assuming a portion of the blame. The narration then tells us that years later, Alice did “bless Mary Barton for these kind and thoughtful words” (19). During this stage of the storytelling, we get the feeling that Mary was, in essence, from birth an incarnation of goodness. Her ideas about marrying into wealth are more about deflecting the traumas of family poverty than they are about a woman trying to secure wealth for herself to serve her ego.
Mary’s beauty is the means by which she intends to advance her circumstances, by marriage, but this beauty cannot act as a life-solution in the event of her mother’s death, nor in other instances of shock. At the age of thirteen, she helps in “all the last attentions to the dead” and calmly cries, but reserves “the full luxury of a full burst of grief till she should be alone” (21-22). These emotions derive from her innate goodness. A few years later, as she comforts Mrs. Davenport upon the death of her husband, “she ended by crying herself as passionately as the poor widow” (72). And when the Wilson twins die, “Mary’s heart melted within her as she witnessed Jem’s sorrow” (78). Mary Barton has been subjected to emotional trauma throughout the span of her teenage years, the specter of death haunting her around every corner. Sorrow and compassion, they act as catalysts in conjunction with her good nature so that she seeks to make life better, by whatever means possible, to keep her father from meeting with the same fate as her mother and others.
Following the pivotal shift of her attention, the realization of who she really loves, Mary’s tortured experiences meet with the same kind of emotional reactions. One instance involves the mishap of Jem’s misunderstanding, which causes him to avoid her. With the thought of her father’s failing health combined with Jem’s avoidance, “Mary’s cry was ever the old moan of the Moated Grange” (157). Though this cry is different from her reaction to Margaret’s singing, “to keep in a tear which would have fain rolled out” (97), both are grounded in the same principle of goodness. Though some of Mary’s behavior had been guided by her ability to attract men, Mary’s virtue as a human being has remained principally intact and comes from a steady pattern of knowing how she truly feels.
The Free Dictionary defines the bildungsroman as “a novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character.” To be fair, Mary Barton could be labeled a semi-bildungsroman. Mary’s development is based on a mixture of natural morality combined with the ambition to make life better, alongside a dose of hormones which probably drove her to flirt with her “other lovers” (43). While Mary does experience something of psychological and intellectual development as a result of her desires for life-betterment, her moral compass towards the end of the novel functions in nearly the same manner as it did when the novel began. She’s always been a good person, whereas a bildungsroman tends to consider characters who are more to the extreme in their defects with regard to the navigation of their lives.
Now, if any argument could be made, it would be that Mary actually behaves immorally when she declines the offer to marry into wealth, for as a result of this action, her father ends up dying.