Helen Graham pays a call on the Markhams, bringing Arthur (Jr.) along with her. She explains to Mrs. Markham that she has to keep him with her at all times. Her servant isn’t up to being in charge of a moody child, and they are each other’s most cherished companions. Since Arthur is not able to walk great distances, she hasn’t yet returned the Wilsons’ or Millwards’ visits. Mrs. Markham warns Helen against being a doting parent, saying it will open her up to ridicule. Helen responds sharply and in a way that shocks the Markhams. Gilbert thinks that his first impression about her temper was the right one. She is beautiful but unpleasant.
Mrs. Markham feels confident enough in her own skills as a mother to tell Helen how to parent Arthur. Even just in what we see from Gilbert’s perspective, Helen, as a single mother and presumed widow, receives a great deal of unwelcome advice. When she fails to take such advice and in fact bristles at the interference, Gilbert judges her harshly. Her temper is clearly not compliant, and in this culture women are supposed to be compliant at all times.
Gilbert, occupied with a farmer’s magazine, had been observing Helen from a distance. Then Arthur (Jr.) approaches him, attracted again to Gilbert’s dog, Sancho. Arthur ends up on Gilbert’s knee, perusing along with him the farmer’s magazine, but Helen grows alarmed and calls her son back to her side. Mrs. Markham then invites Helen to a house party, but Helen says she never goes to such things. Helen and Arthur partake of cake but refuse the offer of wine. Just the smell of wine makes Arthur sick, Helen says, and she herself has worked hard to make sure he hates it. The Markhams find Helen’s words funny, but she is in earnest, and Gilbert scolds her, saying that if she wants her son to be virtuous, she must teach him to conquer challenges on his own, rather than making sure he is never challenged in the first place.
Helen’s attitudes toward drinking shock the villagers of Linden-Car, who find her not only odd and unfeminine but narrow-minded and overprotective. Though he is a single man whose experience with children is limited, Gilbert feels as justified as his mother in dishing out parenting advice to Helen, a woman he hardly knows. The hierarchy here is clear: men’s opinions are valuable and worth listening to, and women are in need of counseling.
Helen disagrees with Gilbert’s assessment of the situation. There are, she contends, so many temptations and rough paths in life that her decision to smooth the way for her son in some areas could not possibly deprive him of life’s challenges. Mrs. Markham enters the conversation, expressing her fear that Helen’s approach to mothering will make a girl of little Arthur, “a mere Miss Nancy of him.” She volunteers to enlist the Reverend Millward, who, Mrs. Markham says, will counsel Helen on how best to school the child on avoidance of evil. Helen grows impatient, asking if Gilbert is suggesting she throw Arthur into situations where he is bound to be tempted, but Gilbert defends his position, arguing that you can’t expect an oak sapling to flourish in the outdoors if it has been first given an easy start in a hot house.
Inherent in Mrs. Markham’s concern about little Arthur becoming a “mere Nancy” is the idea that boys are superior to girls. Likening little Arthur to a sapling, Gilbert argues that Helen should expose her boy to sin and corruption in small doses so as to prepare him for the real world. Ironically, Helen knows all about sin and corruption, but Gilbert assumes he is wiser and more experienced in the ways of the world simply because he is a man.
Helen then asks Gilbert if he would apply the same principal to the female sex. He says he would not. Helen proceeds to argue that such a stance is thus unforgivably hypocritical, using Gilbert’s oak metaphor against him. Gilbert’s stance suggests that girls and women are so inherently wicked that they cannot withstand any amount of temptation without giving into it and having their delicate, flower-like natures ruined. If Gilbert insists that boys need to be exposed to reality rather than protected from it but that girls must be sheltered at all costs, then he is saying that males are made of stronger stuff than females.
According to Gilbert and Mrs. Markham, boys should be raised in a way that encourages them to develop physical and emotional fortitude, and girls should be raised with their fragile natures in mind. Such a method guarantees that one sex will always have dominion over the other.
Helen says that her solution would be to acquaint girls with some knowledge of what might lie before them so as to arm them ahead of time. If, however, she were to think that her son would someday become “a man of the world” through glancing acquaintance with evil, she would rather he die tomorrow.
Helen is advocating for a more equal approach to child-rearing than that championed by Gilbert and Mrs. Markham, but her thoughts on men of the world are somewhat extreme and she, too, reveals a measure of hypocrisy here.
Helen then tells Gilbert that she would welcome a visit from him and Rose soon. She could tolerate his counsel more than that of the Reverend Millward, she says, because she would be less shy in admitting she had no intention of following Gilbert’s advice than she would the advice of a religious man. Gilbert is offended by her speech specifically and by Helen’s treatment of him in general. He feels that she is determined to think the worst of him. Gilbert admits that it’s possible, thanks to the indulgence of his mother and sister, that he has learned to have too high opinion of himself. Still, he believes Helen has been unfair to him from the first.
Helen knows that no matter who visits her (Gilbert, the Reverend Millward), she can look forward to that visitor telling her how she can best live her own life. At least with Gilbert, she doesn’t have to put on a show of reverence. Gilbert, who is sensitive and easily hurt, doesn’t appreciate Helen’s wry wit. His sensitivity is perhaps due to too much pampering at home (and his society’s elevation of men in general).