DOI: 10.1093/jvcult/vcad037 ISSN:

‘An Industrial Revelation’ – The Political Apocalyptic in Gaskell’s North and South

Joseph M Otero
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • History
  • Cultural Studies


This essay examines the religious contents of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854–1855 novel, North and South, within the context of Apocalyptic literary traditions from Antiquity, and in the literary and historical contexts accessible to Victorians. Inviting this comparison is the character Bessy Higgins, a terminally ill factory seamstress who quotes the Book of Revelation and reports prophetic dreams of some actual merit. By placing this anachronistically apocalyptic voice amid the working poor of her industrial urban setting, Gaskell effects a return to the original political function of the Apocalyptic genre: the vindication of a disenfranchised underclass. Drawing upon examples from Christian and pre-Christian Antiquity, this essay establishes the generic features of Apocalyptic literature as they pertain to its political function, and identifies key points at which Gaskell’s text aligns with them. Though Gaskell does not replicate the genre’s form in full, North and South being a novel rather than a dream-vision, she nonetheless uses the character Bessy to incorporate apocalyptic concepts, images, arguments, and rhetoric into her otherwise realistic narrative of nineteenth-century class struggle. The result, coded in layers of Biblical reference, is an indictment of the capitalist class, comparing them to the sinners who temporarily inherit the Earth in the Apocalypse of John, after the righteous have been purged from it. The final part of this essay further contextualizes Bessy Higgins within the Methodist traditions contemporary to North and South, and within Gaskell’s intersecting religious and political views.

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