The Tenant of Wildfell Hall


Anne Brontë

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Imagery 5 key examples

Definition of Imagery
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" contain imagery that engages... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines... read full definition
Chapter 5. The Studio
Explanation and Analysis—The Portrait of Arthur:

When Gilbert is getting to know Helen, he peruses some of her paintings while she is in another room, taking time to describe with vivid imagery a portrait she made of Arthur, as seen in the following passage:

The bright, blue eyes regarded the spectator with a kind of lurking drollery – you almost expected to see them wink; the lips – a little too voluptuously full – seemed ready to break into a smile; the warmly tinted cheeks were embellished with a luxuriant growth of reddish whiskers; while the bright chestnut hair, clustering in abundant, wavy curls, trespassed too much upon the forehead, and seemed to intimate that the owner thereof was prouder of his beauty than his intellect – as perhaps, he had reason to be; – and yet he looked no fool.

Though Gilbert does not know that this is a painting of Helen’s abusive ex-husband, the detailed imagery captures some of Arthur’s more sinister qualities. For example, the “lurking drollery” in the man’s eyes hints at the ways that Arthur mocked and laughed at Helen. The description of Arthur’s hair as “trespass[ing] too much upon the forehead” similarly signals the ways in which, like his hair, Arthur cannot be controlled. The language of “trespass” is significant as he also trespassed upon Helen and other women, sexually and emotionally.

Here Gilbert shows that he can see through Arthur’s charms (even if just in a portrait of the man) and, also, that he respects and appreciates the attention Helen puts into her art. All of this speaks to Gilbert’s character and sets him up as a better romantic match for Helen.

Chapter 7. The Excursion
Explanation and Analysis—The Seaside Excursion:

When Gilbert and Helen are on a group excursion to the seaside—a place that they are both deeply fond of—they have a moment alone where they look into each other’s eyes. Gilbert captures this moment with imagery that engages several different senses:

She had very fine eyes by the by – I don’t know whether I’ve told you before, but they were full of soul, large, clear, and nearly black – not brown, but very dark grey. A cool, reviving breeze, blew from the sea – soft, pure, salubrious: it waved her drooping ringlets, and imparted a livelier colour to her usually too pallid lip and cheek. She felt its exhilarating influence, and so did I – I felt it tingling through my frame, but dared not give way to it while she remained so quiet. There was an aspect of subdued exhilaration in her face, that kindled into almost a smile of exalted, glad intelligence as her eye met mine.

Figurative language like Helen’s eyes being “full of soul,” her smile showing “exalted, glad intelligence,” and the breeze having an “exhilarating influence”—combined with more descriptive language, such as the dark grey color of Helen’s eyes, the rosy color of her cheeks, and the tingling in Gilbert’s body—makes this moment particularly evocative.

The intensity of the language effectively communicates the deep love that Gilbert and Helen feel for each other, even though they cannot acknowledge their feelings (since Helen is still married to Arthur and she doesn’t want Gilbert to grow attached to her).

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Chapter 12. A Tete-a-Tete and a Discovery
Explanation and Analysis—Gilbert's Lament:

After Gilbert secretly witnesses Helen confide in Frederick and rest her head on his shoulder—incorrectly assuming that they are in a romantic relationship—he laments the loss of his future with Helen, using evocative imagery in the process:

Never did I endure so long, so miserable a night as that. And yet, it was not wholly sleepless: towards morning my distracting thoughts began to lose all pretensions to coherency, and shape themselves into confused and feverish dreams, and, at length, there followed an interval of unconscious slumber. But then the dawn of bitter recollection that succeeded – the waking to find life a blank, and worse than a blank – teeming with torment and misery – not a mere barren wilderness, but full of thorns and briars – to find myself deceived, duped, hopeless, my affections trampled upon, my angel not an angel, and my friend a fiend incarnate – it was worse than if I had not slept at all.

Here Brontë uses strong language that helps readers to feel alongside Gilbert the depth of his despair, such as describing how his thoughts “shape[d] themselves into confused and feverish dreams,” how his life suddenly felt like it was “full of thorns and briars,” and his affections for Helen had been “trampled upon.”

Gilbert’s decision to judge Helen as no longer an “angel” without giving her the opportunity to explain herself as she wanted to shows some of his sexism—he judges her for having a scandalous affair with Frederick when, in reality, Frederick is her brother with whom she is staying after leaving an abusive marriage.

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Chapter 23. First Weeks of Matrimony
Explanation and Analysis—Arthur's Affection:

When Helen and Arthur are first married, Helen describes Arthur’s affection for her, using different kinds of imagery in the process:

He is very fond of me – almost too fond. I could do with less caressing and more rationality: I should like to be less of a pet and more of a friend, if I might choose – but I won’t complain of that: I am only afraid his affection loses in depth where it gains in ardour. I sometimes liken it to a fire of dry twigs and branches compared with one of solid coal, – very bright and hot, but if it should burn itself out and leave nothing but ashes behind, what shall I do?

In implying that she feels like she is more of Arthur’s “pet” than his “friend,” Helen encourages readers to visualize the difference—as a pet, she receives affection but is in no way her husband’s equal. This is not unique to their relationship, but defines many of the romantic relationships in the novel, signaling how unjust power dynamics are tied to gender in British society generally at this time.

By describing how Arthur’s love for her feels more like “a fire of dry twigs and branches” that burns “very bright and hot” before “burn[ing] itself out,” Helen again uses imagery to help readers understand the unsustainability of their relationship as it is. This is also an example of foreshadowing as Arthur’s love does burn out very quickly, and he becomes the cruel and abusive husband Helen did not want to believe he had the capacity to be.

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Chapter 29. The Neighbour
Explanation and Analysis—Helen's Loneliness:

In the darkest days of Helen’s marriage to Arthur, she writes in her diary of how trapped she feels in her loveless marriage, using imagery in the process:

How little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried—doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

Helen’s language here helps readers to understand the depth of her agony—her thoughts and feelings are “cloistered,” while many aspects of her character are doomed to “harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude” or “to quite degenerate […] in this unwholesome soil.”

Through her use of imagery, Helen is indirectly comparing herself to a plant—as a woman, she is trapped in her circumstances the way a plant is. Like a plant that is unable to pick up and move to better growing conditions, Helen is trapped in a society where women have no power or autonomy in their marriages and, like an untended plant, she is starting to slowly perish because of it.

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