The first half of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall consists of Gilbert Markham’s letters to his brother-in-law, Jack Halford, in which he chronicles his daily life in the country village of Linden-Car, while the second half is largely made up of Helen Graham’s diary. The bulk of Helen’s entries concern her tumultuous marriage to the libertine Arthur Huntingdon. The effect of this split narrative is that the lessons contained in Helen’s diary entries often serve as refutations of the conventional wisdom espoused by the villagers whom Gilbert profiles in his letters. Those villagers, including Gilbert’s mother, Mrs. Markham, and the parish minister, Michael Millward, champion a system that privileges male fulfillment over a woman’s right to happiness. The example of Helen’s disastrous union with Arthur Huntingdon and Milicent Hargrave’s with Ralph Hattersley makes Brontë’s point clear, however: a system of laws and cultural norms that first teaches women that they have very little value outside the home, and then requires that they rely on men not only for necessities like food and shelter but also for personal happiness and romantic fulfillment often ends in a form of enslavement. Women are little more than property in this scenario and men their masters.
Gilbert Markham’s mother has very rigid ideas about a woman’s role in the home, believing that the woman’s job is to please the man, while the man’s job is to please himself. Gilbert finds her philosophy simplistic and biased in favor of the male sex, but he only raises minor objections and, in general, Mrs. Markham’s opinions on marriage are shown to reflect the opinions of the inhabitants of Linden-Car.
As a proper and loving Christian wife, Helen works diligently in the first months and years of her marriage to please her husband, but she gradually discovers that there is no pleasing him. She follows to the letter the prescription put forth by Mrs. Markham for a happy marriage, but her efforts only end in misery. Moreover, the societal rules that prioritize a man’s right to happiness over a woman’s only serve to prolong Helen’s misery, and she remains with Arthur for years after their love has died, hoping that her kindness and generosity will change him for the better. What happens instead is Arthur sinks further and further into alcoholism, while also beginning a torrid affair with Lady Lowborough. By spending most of his days drinking, carousing, and flirting and making love with his friend’s wife, Arthur exemplifies Mrs. Markham’s idea that husbands should please themselves.
Helen is not the only woman in the novel victimized by this imbalanced system. Her good friend Milicent Hargrave likewise marries into trouble when she accepts Ralph Hattersley’s proposal. Hattersley is a good friend of Arthur’s and wants Milicent for a wife mainly because she is too timid to restrain his wild conduct. While Hattersley is off carousing with Arthur and his fellow hedonists, Milicent suffers greatly. Later, Hattersley reforms his behavior, making Milicent a happy woman, but not before many of her youthful years are wasted in anxiety and grief.
Walter Hargrave, brother to Milicent and Esther, is held up as an example of manly perfection by both his mother and sisters, and it’s true that he isn’t as poorly behaved as Arthur and Hattersley, but that is a low bar indeed. Helen sees through his smooth façade to the selfish and conniving man underneath, but she is one of the only ones, because Hargrave seems like a good man in comparison to his companions.
Women, by contrast, are not evaluated on such a generous curve. This double standard is clear in the chapters told from Gilbert’s point of view, where Helen comes under suspicion simply for living on her own. Mrs. Markham, Reverend Millward, and even Gilbert himself lecture Helen on the dangers of doting too much on little Arthur (her son) and of going to extreme lengths to protect him from the ways of the world. Mrs. Markham even suggests that if Helen continues to shelter little Arthur from reality, she will make “a mere Nancy” of him. Gilbert agrees, comparing Helen’s mothering to the care one might give a tree. If you keep the tree inside a greenhouse for too long, when it comes time to expose it to the elements, it will die. If, however, the gardener is careful to expose the tree to short stints of difficult conditions, it will thrive. When Helen asks Gilbert if his analogy applies to the female sex—that is, whether girls should also be exposed to the rough ways of the world—he answers in the negative. Inherent in both of these arguments is the idea that the male sex is somehow superior to the female, that men are made of stronger stuff than women. It’s obvious to Mrs. Markham and her sympathetic audience that if little Arthur were to be in any way effeminate, that would be undesirable in the extreme, and that it is Helen’s job to make a man of him.
Helen’s diary entries expose the flaw in Mrs. Markham’s and Gilbert’s thinking. Little Arthur gets his fair share of exposure to drinking, cursing, and being disrespectful to women, thanks to his father and his friends, and that exposure doesn’t make him into a stronger or better man. Rather, it makes him unmanageable and moody, and Helen has to work hard to break him of these bad habits. Throughout the book, it often falls to women to prop up or serve as good influences on the men and boys in their lives. Arthur Huntingdon, Ralph Hattersley, and even Lord Lowborough are so weak in both moral fiber and willpower that they verge at times on the pathetic. Brontë’s narrative shows that men could actually benefit from being more like women in the areas of moderation, patience, and kindness.
Throughout the book, wives are expected to be paragons of virtue and understanding, and to suppress their needs entirely in the service of their husbands. Men, on the other hand, are permitted to behave badly, abuse their wives, and neglect their children. Members of so-called “respectable society” rarely censor men for such crimes, saving their vitriol and judgement for women who dare to defy the establishment in any way. Brontë shows that Helen’s decision to leave her husband is the right one, despite the disincentives. Moreover, Brontë suggests that Helen is able to take this difficult step because she has deep reserves of strength to draw on. That depth is, to a certain extent, courtesy of the difficult years she has spent as the wife of Arthur Huntingdon. She is in effect living proof that Gilbert’s theory of conditioning a tree, while correct, can also be cruel. The fact that the villagers fail to recognize that depth while at the same time judging her harshly reveals the shallowness of their understanding and the punitive hypocrisy that women like Helen, Milicent, and Esther are subjected to.
Gender, Sexism, and Double Standards ThemeTracker
Gender, Sexism, and Double Standards Quotes in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
“No matter, my dear,” said I; “it is what every respectable female ought to know; and besides, though you are alone now, you will not be always so; you have been married and probably—I might say almost certainly—will be again.” “You are mistaken there, ma'am,” said she, almost haughtily; “I am certain I never shall.” “But I told her, I knew better.”
I have not yet said that a boy should be ought to rush into the snares of life—or even willfully to seek temptation for the sake of exercising his virtue by overcoming it; I only say that it is better to arm and strengthen your hero, than to disarm and enfeeble the foe; and if you were to rear an oak sapling in a hothouse, tending it carefully night and day, and shielding it from every breath of wind, you could not expect it to become a hardy tree, like that which has grown up on the mountainside, exposed to all the action of the elements, and not even sheltered from the shock of the tempest.
Well then, it must be that you think they are both weakened and prone to err, and the slightest error, the merest shadow of pollution will ruin the one, while the character of the other will be strengthened and embellished—his education properly finished by a little practical acquaintance with forbidden things. Such experience, to him (to use a trite simile), will be like the storm to the oak which, though it may scatter the leaves, and snap the smaller branches, serves but to rivet the roots, and to harden and condense the fibres of the tree. You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience,
while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others.
Then you must fall each into your proper place. You’ll do your business, and she, if she’s worthy of you, will do hers; but it's your business to please yourself, and hers to please you.
Because, I imagine there must be only a very, very few men in the world, that I should like to marry; and of those few, it is ten to one I may never be acquainted with one; or if I should, it is twenty to one, he may not happen to be single, or to take a fancy to me.
It is not indeed, to be supposed that you would wish to marry anyone, till you were asked: a girl's affections should never be won unsought. But when they are sought—when the citadel of the heart is fairly besieged, it is apt to surrender sooner than the owner is aware of, and often against her better judgement, and in opposition to all her preconceived ideas of what she could have loved, unless she be extremely careful and discreet.
I have consulted her; and I know her wishes coincide with yours; but in such important matters, I take the liberty of judging for myself; and no persuasion can alter my inclinations, or induce me to believe that such a step would be conducive to my happiness, or yours—and I wonder that a man of your experience and discretion should think of choosing such a wife.
I have such confidence in him, aunt, notwithstanding all you say, that I would willingly risk my happiness for the chance of securing his. I will leave better men to those who only consider their own advantage. If he has done amiss, I shall consider my life well spent in saving him from the consequences of his early errors, and striving to recall him to the path of virtue—God grant me success!
She is a daughter of earth; you are an angel of heaven; only be not too austere in your divinity, and remember that I am a poor, fallible mortal.
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!
“A man must have something to grumble about; and if he can't complain that his wife harries him to death with her perversity and ill-humour, he must complain that she wears him out with her kindness and gentleness.”
“But why complain at all, unless, because you are tired and dissatisfied?”
“To excuse my own failings, to be sure. Do you think I'll bear all the burden of my sins on my own shoulders, as long as there's another ready to help me, with none of her own to carry?”
“There is another life both for you and for me,” said I. “If it be the will of God that we should sow in tears, now, it is only that we may reap in joy, hereafter.”
“I do not insult you,” cried he: “I worship you. You are my angel—my divinity! I lay my powers at your feet—and you must and shall accept them!” he exclaimed impetuously, starting to his feet—"I will be your consoler and defender! And if your conscience upbraid you for it, say I overcame you and you could not choose but yield!”
“It gives me little consolation to think I shall next behold you as a disembodied spirit, or an altered being, with a frame perfect and glorious, but not like this! —and a heart, perhaps, entirely estranged from me.”
“No, Gilbert, there is perfect love in Heaven!”
“So perfect, I suppose, that it soars above distinctions, and you will have no closer sympathy with me than with any one of the ten thousand angels and the innumerable multitude of happy spirits round us.”