John Thornton grew up in Milton, in the north of England with his mother, Hannah Thornton, father, and sister, Fanny Thornton. John's father committed suicide when John was a teenager, forcing John to quit school and work to support his mother and sister. John is able to save money with the help of his mother so that he can pay off his father's debts and eventually run his own cotton mill (Marlborough Mills).
Realising the deficiency in his education, John decides to study under a tutor, Richard Hale. Mr. Hale is a former clergyman who teaches classics to pupils in order to earn a living. Mr. Hale's daughter, Margaret takes an instant dislike to John. She refers to him as a "tradesman" and views him as being part of a trade that she does not like and does not identify with the South. Margaret especially hates the way the workers are treated by the local mill owners, John included, and this contributes to her early dislike of him. Mr. Thornton comes to represent the harshness of the North that Margaret despises. However, John is immediately taken with Margaret. "He did not understand who she was," when he first saw her, "as he caught the simple, straight, unabashed look, which showed that his being there was of no concern to the beautiful countenance, and called up no flush of surprise to the pale ivory of the complexion. He had heard that Mr. Hale had a daughter, but he had imagined that she was a little girl."
John's attraction to and eventual love for Margaret causes him to lose the self-control that he is so proud of. He begins to display "feminine" characteristics such as being emotional and irrational. John's display of "feminine" tendencies challenges Victorian pre-conceptions of gender norms.