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Realism and Illusion in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: Critical Analysis

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The social-political novel and romance ‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell examines the contradictions and real disparities that existed in Milton in the early Victorian era between the south of England, traditionally at the seat of power, and the north of England, which was historically more prosperous but where aristocratic wealth was still primarily derived from landowning. And the north of England, which was strongly embracing manufacturing, as a result of which the population was migrating from rural areas to work in mill factories, which then became a key group in society. Ann Radcliffe’s was named ‘the Shakespeare of Romance writers.’ (Nathan) ‘The Italian’ explores into the complex literary and social issues that confront late-eighteenth-century writers. ‘The Italian’ has a major romantic aspect that is described as sublime imagery, which was a big influence on many of the romantic writers at the time, for instance, Coleridge and Byron.

‘The Italian’ seemed like a response to ‘The Monk’ written by Matthew Davis. The fantastical, supernatural, and satanic elements, on the other hand, are either underplayed or absent entirely. There’s a feeling that this is more like a realistic nightmare, but it’s still tied to the fact that the church is a hideaway for these aristocratic monsters seeking vengeance on the past. The lack of supernatural elements, or at least a lesser amount of it, allows for a more realistic novel, though Radcliffe preferred to write the novel in the gothic terror genre rather than horror, claiming it to be superior.

Hogle agreed with Radcliffe’s view by stating that ‘the words ‘terror’ and ‘horror’ cannot be used as synonyms since they represent different concepts.’ Horror writing is much more explicit, graphic and visually disturbing and Radcliffe tells her narrative as a story of terror, a psychological horror, a narrative that plays with the mind with fear as the determining factor that makes illusion seem real and ‘reality [as not safe].’ Horror shocks one into submission whilst terror, however, is far more subtle and similarly, if not more effective than horror as it does not need the explicitness that horror does.

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Without resorting to overt descriptions of brutality, Radcliffe expertly keeps things tense and the fear going. This fear, as well as the tense feeling that holds one on edge, waiting for something to happen, is revealed in a powerful scene in the book. The tension is increased when Ellena has been captured by the monk and locked in the room, her mind is wandering and someone keeps approaching the door and leaving to do again and again, ‘He quitted it, and traversed the beach in short turns, and with hasty steps; came back again, and bent over it.’ (223) This part of the narrative suggests that the scene is not particularly graphic or gory, but the tension of being held captive and the paranoia and fear that sets in is powerful, particularly when the novel is teetering between what is real and what is an illusion.

Gaskell in her novel, ‘North and South’ strikes a balance between the two, seeing strengths in the pace of life, even more compassionate pace of life in a country village. Even though the poor are just as poor, she does not shy away from that but that it is a more human existence than being at the mercy of machines in a factory. She is aware of traditional values. Margaret Hale, the main character, seems to push back against the notion of manufacturing and trade, as well as the injustices of a worker who is not paid and starves. Gaskell recognises the reality that at the expense of embracing new technology came the experience of living in very unhealthy cities and working in quite unhealthy conditions in the factories, particularly the cotton mills. She conveyed this through her central character, Margaret when she angrily says, ‘Now, in the South we have our poor, but there is not that terrible expression in their countenances of a sullen sense of injustice which I see here.’ (63) The time and effort Gaskell put into weaving the narrative and the contrasting viewpoints and personal struggles of each of the characters really brings out the humanity of the situation at hand to the forefront of the reader which causes to question the reality of the cut-and-dry industrial world.

Gaskell was really unusual for women of her day in that she did not seem to hold the same social distinctions as most women would have done and been trained to do from an early age for instance, she rubbed shoulders with her own servants and thought them as her own friends. She had conversed with working-class people and was practically hands-on in her community and the real poverty surrounding her at that time. It is crucial to understand, when looking at feminist interpretations that Gaskell does things that seem contradictory of feminist critics and reinforces the patriarchy. Gaskell was clearly a strong minded woman and she writes Margaret as a strong woman and a character determined to rid the belief and ‘reject [the] illusion’ that women were inferior in society, which Gaskell fights against to break this gender status quo.

The novel initially starts off with a description of Margaret’s life in the idyllic south of England before moving to the north. The relationship of the parents is a bit shocking as the father does not tell his wife this life-changing decision to move to the north of England until two weeks prior to the move. It shows the reality of how powerless Victorian wives were, which suggests that perhaps ‘reality [is not owns] only safety’ and that illusions could be the only escapism for some who do not have the same strong attitude that Margaret has to speak aloud of the injustices taken place. She writes Margaret as a strong woman, a character who is determined to carve out her own life who does not fall into marriage as a way of surviving yet she is lucky that she does end up with a legacy that ultimately will give her that independence which means she can make a more considered choice when she decides she is going to join her life with someone.

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Realism and Illusion in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: Critical Analysis. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from
“Realism and Illusion in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: Critical Analysis.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
Realism and Illusion in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: Critical Analysis. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Realism and Illusion in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: Critical Analysis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from:
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