In Anne Bronte’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the character of Helen Graham challenges the inequality of gender in society. This inequality, at worst, fosters abuse and the silent oppression of women while, at the very least, it reproduces the same oppressive social system from generation to generation. Helen’s debate at the Markham house addresses this societal reproduction. The role of the mother in the raising of a child is dependant upon the gender of the child. For boys, learning from experience is most valued. For girls, virtue is attained through the sheltering of their innocence. Helen believes in moderation for either gender, particularly since experience has taught her well and made her no less virtuous. As Helen’s full story unfolds, Gilbert Markham and the audience of the novel are educated about the horrors that can exist if societal expectations of women remain unchallenged. Because Helen remains moral regardless of the experiences she faces and is rewarded with love and happiness in the end, Bront? demonstrates that to break from those aspects of tradition that foster vice, abuse and inequality can and must be a success.
The social values and customs of the early 19th Century are of importance to study because remains of those gender imbalances are still present in society today. To understand where gender inequality fails and reproduces oppression for women can help to pinpoint ways in which it can be remedied. Historic trends provide commentary through literature, allowing for study of causes and effects of this division. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall provides such a social commentary as it is the first novel of its kind to reveal the harsh reality of those women who suffered the worst of oppression at the time.
Materials regarding this line of inquiry are present in JSTOR. A cursory search provided three pertinent points of reference and more surely exist. The first is “Cultural Reformation and Cultural Reproduction in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Russell Poole, the second is “Feminism and the Public Sphere in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Rachel K. Carnell, and third is “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Narrative Silences and Questions of Gender” by Carol A. Senf. As for the application of theory, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism provides a wealth of information.
Theoretical application can move in several directions. Feminism is an obvious lens through which the novel can be viewed. Gayle Rubin speaks of women as a social gifts for societal connection. For the women in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, consideration of societal connections is of high important as mothers are continually concerned with their daughters’ acceptance of socially respectable gentlemen. To move just outside the feminist realm, Franz Fanon speaks of being defined in relation to “other.” Although this novel does not deal with racism, it does deal in the oppression of women as they are defined by men. Women, like Fanon?s description of black men, are imprisoned within the nature of their bodies by social structures outside their own being. Additionally, Althusser is applicable. As a Marxist, he speaks of repressive and ideological state apparatuses such as religion, school, family, laws, and political systems which have a cyclical effect on the reproduction of society. These apparatuses reproduce gender roles and class distinctions in addition to the reproduction of labor Althusser discusses. Because Helen moves, as a woman, beyond the limitation of class distinction when she marries Gilbert, she contradicts those apparatuses doubly.