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 about the man she 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 dinner-goers to enjoy more evenings of brotherly joviality. After innocently making an untoward comment, a friend of the family feels inclined to exclude herself from such future gatherings, a sense of humiliation rising in her being. Mary hugs the poor woman — bringing tears to her eyes — and condemns the notion, implying that humans are subject to making mistakes. She even brightens the atmosphere of the moment by assuming a portion of the blame. The narration then provides an anachronistic moment of inspiration by forwarding Alice’s years and remarking how she did “bless Mary Barton for these kind and thoughtful words” (19). During this stage of the storytelling, Mary is an incarnation of goodness. Though she’s annoyed by the prospect of a betrothal to her childhood friend Jem, her agitation arises not only from the seemingly brother & sister type nature of their relationship, but from the trauma Mary endures, trauma which feeds the idea to marry into wealth.
Mary’s beauty is the means by which she intends to advance her life by marriage, but her beauty cannot act as a life-solution in the event of her mother’s death, nor 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). 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). When the Wilson twins die, “Mary’s heart melted within her as she witnessed Jem’s sorrow” (78). Mary Barton is 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.
Proceeding the pivotal shift of her attention, the realization of who she really loves, Mary’s tortured experiences meet with the same kinds 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 and 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 in tact.
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 initially-developed morality combined with the ambition to make life better, alongside a dose of hormones which probably drive her to flirt with her “other lovers” (43). While Mary does experience something of psychological and intellectual development, her moral compass towards the end of the novel functions in nearly the same manner as it did when the novel began. 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.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Penguin Classics, 1997. Print.