With the arrival of a new calendar year, comes the often inevitable evaluation of our personal progress. What actions (or negligence of action!) do we regret, and how do we plan to move forward?
Which characters in North and South may have felt the sharp pang of regret? Let's take a close look at Mr. Hale, whose dramatic decision to leave his position starts the cascade of events that affect everyone else in the story.
Mr. Hale is a quiet thinker; a kind and tender-hearted soul who hates to see suffering and avoids conflict. His avid reading and intellectual pursuits appear to have led him to question some of the doctrines of the Church of England. The thought of leaving his role as vicar had been silently simmering in his mind for years, but its implementation was swift and poorly executed.
At the time Mr. Hale makes his decision, he is acutely aware that his wife feels disappointment in her marriage. He knows his wife expected him to have advanced to a more prestigious position in the church. Marrying him was a step down for Maria, as Dixon never lets him forget. He knows, too, that Mrs. Hale feels her poverty keenly, having given up the opportunity to attend her niece's wedding because she didn't have a new dress to wear.
Feeling pressured to keep his role in the church for the sake of his well-bred wife, Mr. Hale is caught between his wife's expectations and his sense of moral integrity. Ironically, it is at the moment when he is offered a better living by the bishop that he is forced to make his decision: continue to follow the course of what all others expect of him or follow his inner convictions. Mr. Hale finds himself unable to reaffirm his faith in the church doctrine and makes a final decision: he will give up his role as vicar -- a role he anxiously felt he no longer had a moral right to hold.
Once his mind is made up, his resolution is firm, despite the suffering and upheaval he knows this will cause. When Margaret exclaims in great alarm against his decided course, he answers with a stony strength: "You must not deceive yourself into doubting the reality of my words, -- my fixed intention and resolve."
Margaret's world is immediately turned upside down with his decision, and Mrs. Hale's world as well -- the former belle of the county must endure even further reduced circumstances, isolation, and fallen prestige. It's Maria's unhappiness and health that causes Mr. Hale to agonize over his part in bringing her discontent. As soon as they arrive in dreary Milton, he worries about her.
Margaret, I do believe this is an unhealthy place. Only suppose that your mother's health or yours should suffer. I wish I had gone into some country place in Wales; this is really terrible.
He doubts his decision in coming to Milton, but not to have left the Church.
I admire Mr. Hale his strength in making a stand for his own personal ethics and integrity. Breaking from the church and one's chosen profession took great courage at that time. Doing so brought a certain disgrace from society. It's clear Mr. Hale's deepest anguish, however, is having to drag his family through the uprooting, social scrutiny, and material discomfort involved in these decisions. "I wish I could do right without sacrificing others," he laments to Margaret. Ah, but we can never be an isolated entity! All our decisions affect others in some way.
So, in the end, does he regret what he has done? As in real life, the answer is complicated. He still wonders if he did the right thing in moving to Milton. But his resolve to leave his ordained position in Helstone never faltered. He tells Mr. Bell his thoughts just hours before his death:
As I think now, even if I could have foreseen that cruelest martyrdom of suffering, through the sufferings of one whom I loved, I would have done just the same as far as that step of openly leaving the church went. I might have done differently, and acted more wisely, in all that I subsequently did for my family.
However much Mr. Hale might have doubted his choices, the trials they bore were not without their secret benefits. Lives entangled by new encounters are never the same. And it would have been a far-reaching tragedy of a different sort if the Hales had never set foot in Milton.