Church Doctrine and Reform
The major theme of Barchester Towers is the ongoing struggle between the conservative and liberal factions of the Church of England. The conservative, or high-church, faction seeks to preserve the ceremonies and traditions of the older church, usually involving great elaborate musical and spiritual exercises. In Barchester, the Archdeacon and his followers represent the conservative side. The liberal, low-church, wants to abandon symbols and concentrate on personal spirituality. In Barchester, Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie represent the liberal side.
The conservative side is shown as seeking to maintain the status quo at all points. It is also regarded as boring and unconnected to real life by many of the common churchgoers. Many members of the clergy, particularly Dr. Slope, are shown to have taken advantage of the lax accountability among established churchmen and have constructed ways in which they can receive a salary for work they have no intention of doing. Many of these clergyman see their church positions as theirs by right, similar to inheriting property. The practice of hiring curates to manage the day to day affairs of the church further separates the conservative vicars from their congregations.
The liberal side, however, focuses on evangelical rhetoric to win followers. Common churchgoers respond to sermons delivered in this way because they are different and more interesting than the ones given by the conservative preachers. The liberal side presses individual church doctrinal issues in order to force reform. Issues like the formation of Sabbath schools become extremely important because they represent change in how the church groups are conducted, including the religious instruction of children.
In Barchester, these religious issues take on personal significance as each side rejects the other’s ideas about what makes the church. Rather than seeing each other as opposite sides of the same organization, both sides work to establish their own dominance and to make sure that the other side cannot enforce its own views. In doing so, many insignificant issues become very important because they reflect the struggle for power.
The wardenship at the hospital, the deanery of the cathedral, and the smaller concerns of the Sabbath schools all have important consequences in having one side or the other vindicated by public recognition of their cause.
One of the ongoing themes relates to the problems created by rumor and gossip. Much of the plot revolves around the misunderstanding and confusion of people assuming that suspicions are fact instead of going for direct information. Eleanor Bold is at the center of many such misunderstandings, as everyone around her assumes things about her personal life without ever asking her directly about it. Her intended marriage to Mr. Slope is treated as fact based solely on the fact that she continues to talk to him when her family has expressed their disapproval. Her family’s suspicions spin out of control and they decide among themselves that she is planning to marry him when she has no such intention and has not expressed such an intention to anyone.
Because no one tells her what they are thinking, she unwittingly provides more “evidence” in her defense of Mr. Slope. Based on what her family actually says, the conflict lies with Mr. Slope’s religious views and that is what Eleanor addresses. She does not understand that her family is really talking about a romantic relationship because her family members rely on innuendo rather than direct tactics. This repeats itself in the inability of Eleanor and Mr. Arabin to express their feelings directly. Instead they rely on metaphor and assumptions to get the other to understand their feelings.
The character that goes against this trend is the signora, who uses direct language to tell Eleanor exactly how Mr. Arabin feels and urges her to pursue him directly instead of waiting for him to figure out how to tell her he loves her. The signora is not troubled by the social rules of the other characters and can cut through all the rumor and gossip and confront problems directly.
Husbands and Wives
Several sets of husbands and wives, and potential husbands and wives, are presented in the story. Each set shows some variation on what the author considers to be natural and unnatural relationships between men and women.
Dr. and Mrs. Proudie are presented as an unnatural couple because Mrs. Proudie is the dominant partner. The author offers various statements of how Dr. Proudie should rise up and reclaim his rights as the man in the relationship and dismisses him as weak and ineffectual because he does not. Mrs. Proudie, having been allowed to assume this unnatural power, uses it against other men, such as Mr. Slope and the Archdeacon, who both resent being told what to do by a woman.
The relationship between the Archdeacon and his wife is set up in contrast to the Bishop’s. Their relationship is based on mutual respect and it is out of respect that the Bishop’s wife believes that she should obedient to him. When the Archdeacon decides to cut off their relationship with Eleanor, his wife does as he says despite her own feelings on the matter.
Eleanor and Mr. Arabin present what the author assumes is the perfect couple. They are mutually respectful of each other while at the same time recognizing Mr. Arabin’s dominance. Eleanor, who because of her private income from her husband’s death has been leading a life of relative independence for a woman, is now brought under her new husband’s authority.