How classes have different class conditions, communities and values in both North and South and The Road to Wigan Pier Essay

‘Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society’ – Karl Marx: In light of this view examine how ‘classes have different class conditions, communities and values’ in both ‘North and South’ and ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’


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Elizabeth Gaskell’s social novel is set in the industrial town of Milton in the North of England. Where protagonist Margaret has been involuntary forced out of her home and settles with her parents in Milton. The industrial revolution progressively takes impact leaving employers and workers clashing in the first organised strikes. Margaret is in favour of equality between the classe and among the working class citizens of Darkshire she encounters Bessy Higgins. The wedge between John Thornton, a mill manufacturer, and Margaret Hale steadily increases, yet, they confide in one another till the very end of the novel. The novel reflects Margaret’s understanding of the complexity of labour relations and her impact on mill owners, and her conflicted relationship with John Thornton.

Similarly, George Orwell’s sociological investigation ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ accounts of the bleak living conditions among the working class in Lancashire in the first half of his work. The second half is an essay focused on middle-class upbringing and questioning British attitudes towards socialism. The investigation opens new ideas for readers about the conditions both working class and middle class faced, and challenges stereotypes attached to these classes. Ideas based on ‘class condition, community and values’ can be identified in both ‘North and South’ and ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. Both authors share a similar view on society and sympathise for the working class throughout the texts.

Point 1: ‘Class Conditions’

The ‘class’ system in society is explored in both literary texts, Gaskell clearly delves into how classes are portrayed in ‘North and South’ and uses the locations of Milton and Hampshire, to indicate the mannerisms of the upper class and lower class. Margaret notices people from the north dressed differently ‘most of them well-dressed as regarded the material, but with a slovenly looseness which struck Margaret as different from the shabby, threadbare smartness of a similar class in London.’ Gaskell uses concrete vocabulary such as ‘shabby’ and ‘material’ to create visual imagery for the readers to distinguish between the classes in different locations. The word ‘struck’ encapsulates the impact Margret had from the observing the dirty loose ‘well-dressed’. As well as the term ‘slovenly’ highlighting how untidy and dirty citizens of Darkshire looked, alluding to the idea that many of these people in ‘slovenly’ ‘material’ did not care much of their appearance. In comparison to the south, people have cheaper, but more stylish clothing, which help identify the two class sets present in society. This leads to the idea that groups of people from different towns dress differently, but, could be identified what class set they belonged to by looking at their attire. However, it could be argued working class individuals dress this out as a result of low income.

Another way in which Gaskell represents class is through individual occupation and explores the conditions that the working class labour in. Nicholas Higgins clearly addresses the matter regarding the abominable conditions the working class are forced to work in. As a result of these working condition it has left Higgins’ daughter terminally ill; ‘what wi’ hard work first, and sickness at last, hoo’s led the life of a dog. And to die without knowing one good piece o’ rejoicing in all her days!’. With ‘work’ coming first and ‘sickness’ (health) coming after this echoes what society thought was more important at the time. This led to organised strikes that occurred within the trade union where a group of workers would come together to fight for their rights and will attempt to challenge the current system. Gaskell uses working class attire and working conditions in order to show how working class was represented during the 1800s.


In comparison, Orwell’s sociological investigation focuses on working class struggles with working occupation and housing conditions. Orwell ‘inspected (a) great number of houses’ and extracted information to describe the poor housing conditions the working class lived in. There is an emphasis placed towards the end of this sentence rather than the beginning, which is also known as end-focus. Orwell may have deliberately used this particular syntax to drawn attention to the singled out word ‘houses’. Working class families owned property of their own despite their low income preventing them to fully furnish their houses. Orwell also uses concrete vocabulary when describing the ‘dreadful room in Wigan’.

The ‘packing cases’ and ‘barrel staves’ used to build ‘furniture’ enables the reader to visualise how many working class home owners decorated their rooms. The furniture used in working class homes may have not been out of choice, but as a result of low income from their jobs. Which highlights that many working class workers were not employed in high positions jobs, but were manual workers. Orwell describes these houses with impeccable detail, often using long sentences when doing so. As Orwell continues to list all the items he sees in one sentence. This helps the reader imagine how crowded and messy these houses must be which shows the readers the conditions working class lived in. Orwell also recognised the lack of space in each home; ‘the congestion in a tiny room where getting from one side to another is a complicated voyage between pieces of furniture’. The term ‘congestion’ has an effect on the readers making them feel uneasy and heavy putting them in a ‘complicated’ situation. Orwell’s sociological research not only focuses on the working class occupation, but focuses on the individual’s life, including ‘the English palate, especially the working-class palate, (which) now rejects good food almost automatically’.

The ‘English palette’ varied for each class set as it was totally dependent on the income each household received. The upper class and middle class would have had common types of food and some of which including an eight course dinner. The middle class diet was heavily focused on eating meat all day long. Meat was normally been eaten during all eight courses including desserts, whereas working class had a simpler, yet non-nutritional diet as a result of low income. ‘Revisiting Orwell’s Wigan Pier’ explains further into Orwell’s investigation for the studies that were based on working class individuals. The depression of 1930s spawned a number of minutely researched studies, establishing who the unemployed were, where they lived, in which industries they had worked, what age they were likely to be (Pearce, 1997). Many research studies were revolved around working class individuals as people wanted a feel of how it would be to in their shoes and to show society the real image of working class communities. The research should attempt to challenge the current system to help the working class. Both Orwell and Gaskell define class with the things people own, wear, eat or work in.

Point 2: ‘Community’

The subject of communities is presented in both ‘North and South’ and ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.

Communities are structured through class backgrounds, with groups of people sharing the same beliefs and values which help to form one group. Gaskell uses both North and South locations which are constantly explored in the novel to identify some of the communities present. One visible example of how community is demonstrated in ‘North and South’ is the working class community who come together for unity. ‘An’ I say again, there’s no help for us but having faith I’ th’ Union’. The dialect here changes once handed over to a working class character to speak. Nicholas embodies the voice for the working class community as he speaks for ‘us’ referring to the working class community.

Having ‘faith’ not in religion but the ‘union’ was as ironic at the time. This was because the Church of England was very powerful during the 1800s. Religion affected the behaviour of ordinary people and had great influence over people’s life, yet, at the same time, the first seeds of doubt were sown. Working class weren’t usually very religious hence having faith in something socially constructed as the ‘union’ helped form a strong working class community. Those striking hold a great emphasis of faith hoping they will change and challenge the current system. This educates the audience that the working class had a strong community in the late 1800s as most individuals faced the same situation and would come together to form one solution. However, modern readers may respond with shock. Individuals within society today are aware of the vast amount of help available for those who need it such as occupational centres for unemployed citizens.


Orwell focuses on the different subcultures formed within the working class community. Orwell investigates the different groups and explains why an individual cannot be place themselves in a category, but, groups of people can be categorised into different sectors from society based on judgements on occupation, values and dialect. The working class community is fragmented with many subcultures involved. Some employed, some unemployed, leaving some with basic literacy skills whilst other have none. Orwell has meets a few people who have acquired the ability to succeed with their righteous educational background ‘to meet unemployed men of genuine literary ability’ was considered rare at the time. ‘Genuine literary ability’ refers the skill set as well as mind set for the love of learning. Education at the time was only tailored for those who could afford it and those who couldn’t were inadequate within the education field. This helped form one subculture within the existing community, but left many to form or join another group. Orwell also explores the group of ‘(men) man who cannot read without discomfort’.

Orwell found out those without literary skills were forced and pushed towards the direction of work. Most working class labourers were manual workers such as working in coal mines. If an individual had no chance of finding a job on the market due to skills they were left to go ‘occupational centres which were started a few years ago to help the unemployed’. ‘Occupational centres’ were set in the early 1900s they’re main aim was to help the unemployed. This is significant as society is progressively changing during the decades. In the late 1800s society did little to help the poor but encouraged the division between the classes even further. These centres aimed to help people gain new skills and participate in activities such as “carpentering, boot-making, leather-work, handloom-weaving, basket-work, sea-grass work, etc; the idea being that the men can make furniture not for sale but their own homes”.

To avoid using ‘barrel staves’ as pieces of furniture. Orwell’s sociological study allows the audience to know the different groups involved in one community that share the same beliefs and values expressed in different ways, which help to form subcultures. William’s definition on community briefly argues what it means to be part of a community and how the definition of the word has changed over different centuries. 3. (C16) A sense of common identity and characteristics group; senses and a particular quality of relationship. From C17 there are signs of the distinctions which became especially important from C19, in which community was felt to be more immediate than society, although it must be remembered that society itself had this more immediate sense until C18 (Williams, 1985, p. 73).

‘Characteristics’ could have included men who could little literary skills which formed one type of group within the working class community. William’s essay helps explore the idea of how communities were formed overtime. This helps to understand how the working class community was formed and how they were distinguished from other communities. Both texts examine how communities how formed and what happens within working class communities. From Gaskell’s novel the audience are aware that society did little to help the working class. In comparison to Orwell’s investigation he visited a few of the occupational centres they opened up to tackle the unemployment problem, alluding to idea that public perceptions on the working class community were slowly starting to change and how subcultures were part of the working class community.

Point 3: ‘Values’

Both writers explore how people from different backgrounds have certain values they believe in. Gaskell uses many characters in her novel to explore what values means to someone and how they carry out their beliefs. Margaret is in favour of equality between the working class and middle class, yet firmly knows her place in society when talking down to her maid: ‘Dixon,” she said, in the low tone she always used when much excited, which had a sound in it as of some distant turmoil, or threatening storm breaking far away. “Dixon! You forget to whom you are speaking.’ There is a sudden change in tone for when Margaret calls out to ‘Dixon’. She later exclaims her name ‘Dixon!’ with the use of an exclamation mark. This is done to get the attention of Dixon as well as to remind Dixon that she belongs to a lower class. The sentence structure towards the end is short and snappy which reflects the way in which Margaret speaks to Dixon. As a result of Dixon’s actions the readers are reminded about the hierarchy system in society and the great amount of value Margaret has for her class background, even unconsciously.

Working class individuals valued equality and status, yet were denied these things in the 1800s. This is shown through the Higgins family who usually ‘clemmed’ for political changes in the public sphere. They would starve as they were politically hungry for change within society. Middle class values were at the expense of the working class community. Middle class rejected the idea of equality between the classes and wanted to remain dominant in society, this is also known as hegemony. Margaret Hale values her position in society, as well as Thornton’s mother warning her son not to fall in love with a girl from a different background to his own. ‘Take care you don’t get caught by a penniless girl, John.’ ‘Penniless’ is deemed to being worthless as well as useless, John’s mother does not want Margaret to ruin the families’ reputation as image almost meant everything in the early 1800s. Clearly, as seen in this work class perception determined how the public would perceive you and how you were ranked in society.


Orwell’s account in Wigan Pier informs the readers what the working class valued. Many working class people valued their homes despite the awful housing conditions and many would rather have a falling roof over their head than be out on the streets. Orwell states ‘almost everyone will tell you that he wants a house of his own’ even if the house is situated “in the middle of an unbroken block houses and hundred yards long’. Despite the congested amount of space people still yearn for their property. For many individuals to own a house of their own allows one to have a sense of pride and authority over others. Orwell visits many houses which have turned into a bed and breakfast and has realised many house owners are unable to care for their home and provide the fundamental necessities within a home such as heating due to their low income. However, because many people need somewhere warm to stay they would much prefer a ‘beastly place’ than sleep out in the streets. The working class also valued their jobs despite the horrendous pay and working conditions for individuals involved in the trade union.

‘The average gross earning per week is £2 15s. 2d’, coal mining is a dangerous industry with a ‘little under than 1,300 being killed every year’ ‘and one in six being injured’. Although the figures show the danger of being a coal miner, employment has improved the lives of many as well as their standards of living. Brooke’s essay focuses on employment being beneficial In Britain during the 1950s, working class living standards were undeniably improved by full employment and comprehensive welfare provision (Brooke, 2001). As a result of this those employed from a working class background value their jobs. Values differ to both working and middle class civilians. Society enable people to believe their values despite not changing much, an example of this is the continuous strikes that members of the working class community had held against their trade union. Both authors clearly explore how values were represented in society during two different time periods. In the 1800s people valued their image mostly middle class citizens valued this. In comparison to working class in the late 1900s wanted a job in order to provide food over the table.


Class conditions, community and values are explored similarly in both texts. Both Orwell and Gaskell clearly show how classes are represented through two different time periods and illustrate how society would perceive the working class and the middle class. Class is a dominant theme in both texts and overlap with the two other subject matters of this essay. Both writers briefly talk about communities and values and how these are formed through class backgrounds. For example a working class community will share similar values in comparison to a middle class community having different values. Both writers clearly focus on how class shapes individuals and what their position is in society with their beliefs and values and the community they belong in.