Challenging the Reproduction of Gender Inequality in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

In Anne Brontë‘s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, ideological apparatuses, as defined by Marxist theorist Louis Althusser, work to mold and sustain vast differences between men and women in the early nineteenth century. Each gender is groomed to occupy a separate societal sphere, men as master of the public realm and women as mistress of the domestic. These distinctions foster inequality and oppression of women, yet they are consistently reinforced by both genders within the patriarchal system. The danger of such inequality, at worst, allows for the abuse and silent oppression of women while, at the very least, it reproduces the same oppressive social system from generation to generation. Helen Huntingdon, the novel’s heroine, is the tool by which Brontë experiments with an alternate existence. Helen challenges the traditional role of motherhood by raising her son Arthur differently than a more traditional mother, Mrs. Markham. She also takes issue with the oppressive nature of marriage for women. By examining the cycle in which inequality of gender is enforced and reproduced, Bront? successfully confronts the traditional Victorian ideals which foster inequality, vice and abuse.

Brontë’s Markham family is the epitome of late nineteenth century societal views. The topics that Mrs. Markham, as an authority on traditional Victorian motherhood, uses to reprimand Helen are telling of the general opinion of her day. Her first criticism is of Helen’s wine restriction for her young son, Arthur, which in turn leads to a critique of Helen’s child rearing practices in general. “If you would have your son walk honourably through the world, you must not attempt to clear the stones from his path, but teach him to walk firmly over them — not insist upon leading him by the hand, but let him learn to go alone” (Brontë 28). Mrs. Markham is arguing that a young boy’s education requires experience, not shelter, and that a mother’s role is to be unobtrusive, not overbearing. Mrs. Markham undermines her own authority by requiring a man with religious authority, the vicar, to validate her claim on this tradition. [M. Millward will] tell you the consequences; he’ll set it before you as plain as day, and tell you what you ought to do (Brontë 30). In doing so, Mrs. Markham maintains a discriminatory stance for herself and broadcasts it among her parlor. In the vicar’s absence, Gilbert defends the veracity of his mother’s words, unaware of his own role in reinforcing the societal precedent. He reiterates what his mother had said, that Helen must not shelter her son like a hot-house plant. “Shielding it from every breath of wind, you could not expect it to become a hardy tree, like that which has grown up on a mountain-side, exposed to all the action of the elements” (Brontë 30). Laura Berry?s scholarly article, Acts of Custody and Incarceration in Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, addresses this ideology:

Brontë’s fictions deny the idea of sentimentalized motherhood as a potential haven from imprisoning or torturous anti-familial or institutional structures. If homes imprison, mothers do not, in this novel, liberate The family then is the place where gender difference is created. It is by protection and influence that a mother forms a daughter; but making a man of a boy is achieved in giving him a liberal hand. (Berry )

Essentially, as is evident within the previous passages, mothers are expected to remain in the domestic realm and to mature their sons through the freedom of experience, an effort championed by free men and sanctioned by the church. Interestingly, both genders within the same family share this male-centric point of view, one perpetuated unawares until Helen challenges the requirements of motherhood.

Mrs. Markham is not without defiance within her own household. Her daughter Rose naturally opposes her mother’s reverence toward her brothers, sensing through her societal innocence, the disparity between herself and them. She complains to Gilbert when asked to make him tea once tea time is over, you we can’t do too much for you. I’m nothing at all. I’m told not to think of myself? (Brontë 53). Rose is young and still in training. Her burning opposition is repeatedly snuffed out by her mother’s constant discipline in accordance with the laws of gender. You know, Rose, in all household matters, we have only two things to consider, first, what?s proper to be done, and secondly, what’s most agreeable to the gentlemen of the house anything will do for the ladies? (Brontë 53). According to feminist theorist Judith Butler in her essay “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,” the body becomes a cultural sign:

Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them; the construction ‘compels’ our belief in its necessity and naturalness. (Butler 2500)

Rose doesn’t naturally understand the distinction between genders because it doesn’t naturally exist. Mrs. Markham, having fully absorbed gender ideology, believes that not only must she conform, she must teach Rose to conform as well; to submit to the rules of difference is preferable to the punishment offered if either one of them does not.

This snapshot of Victorian life demonstrates that religion, motherhood and education are the vehicles which perpetuate rather than challenge the rule of inequality. According to Marxist theorist Louis Althusser in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” an imaginary social construct is used to coerce submission to and reproduction of the labor condition. This ensures the power of the ruling class:

Of course many contrasting Virtues (modesty, resignation, submissiveness on the one hand, cynicism, contempt, arrogance, confidence, self importance, even smooth talk and cunning on the other) are taught in the Family, in the Church in a variety of know-how wrapped up in the massive inculcation of the ideology of the ruling class that the relations of exploited to exploiters, and exploiters to exploited are largely reproduced. (Althusser 1495)

The domestic realm espouses the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA), particularly as it functions within the previously mentioned private, rather than governmental, realms of religion, family and education. In addition to class division, this enforced separateness also applies to gender, illustrating the masculine social power driving women into submission. Within Helen?s first marriage to Huntingdon, she has assumed the role of modesty and submission in response to his self importance, smooth talk and cunning. Helen understands the failure of this system for women and seeks an escape from its grasp.

Brontë intentionally creates the Markham setting ripe for Helen’s retort, allowing her to challenge not only the way in which men are socially groomed, but to rebuke the male dominant religious authority over the subject. Mr. Markham here, thinks his powers of conviction at least equal to Mr. Millward’s. “If I hear not him, neither should I be convinced though one rose from the dead” (Brontë 30). Holding fast to her spirituality while simultaneously rejecting the domination of religion, Helen directs her rebuttal to Gilbert, specifically challenging the unseeing portion of his male point of view. She asks how he would raise a girl as compared to a boy:

You affirm that virtue is only elicited by temptation; — and you think that a woman cannot be too little exposed to temptation … It must be, either, that you think she is essentially so vicious, or so feeble-minded that she cannot withstand temptation whereas, in the nobler sex, … exercised by trial and dangers, is only further developed. (Brontë 30-31)

By exposing the duplicity between the rearing of young men and women, Helen logically questions whether or not Gilbert believes feminine character and virtue is inherently fallible. Gilbert trapped within the machine of a defunct society, objects. “Heaven forbid that I should think so!” (Brontë 31). Herein lies exposed a great contradiction between the practice of a disguised lack of faith in women and the heralded ideal of the virtuous “angel in the house.”

Seeking balance and equality, Helen defends her practice as a mother with a strong presence in her son’s life. She breaks from prevalent expectations saying:

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. Now I would have both so to benefit by the experience of others, and the precepts of a higher authority, that they should know beforehand to refuse evil and choose the good, and require no experimental proofs to teach them the evil of transgression. (Brontë 31)

According to Helen’s declaration, Brontë rejects the idea that such freedom afforded young men should be fully experienced only to later be reigned in through marriage. She also rejects the opposite extreme of sheltering young girls to the point where they have no self-actuated sense of wisdom and virtue, ill preparing them for independence and strength in difficult times. Scholar Elizabeth Gruner, in her essay “Plotting the Mother: Caroline Norton, Helen Huntingdon and Isabel Vane,” says of the same passage quoted above:

Helen’s argument here neatly defends the novel, as teaching by others’ experience, and her own maternal practice, while simultaneously undercutting any conception of an essential gender identity. Masculinity and Femininity are taught in this novel and can be played, revised, changed as Gilbert himself learns. (Gruner 312)

A compromise must be met. The possibility exists, for which Helen is an example, where each gender benefits from preparedness to function in all aspects of society rather than to perform supplementary roles from separate spheres of a distinct division.

As Rose requires constant reminders to conform to her feminine identity, Gilbert also requires more than one lesson in his education to break free from engrained gender perspective, demonstrating how deeply entrenched the importance of gender identity is to the commonwealth. The town gossip darkens Helen’s true virtue because, as a wife who left her husband regardless of his abuse, she no longer fits within the ideal of “angel in the house.” Here the machine manipulates Gilbert once more. Performing his gender duty, he avoids Helen, punishing her for doing her gender wrong (Butler 2500). Silence aggrieves the lovers, and Gilbert finds himself “deceived, duped, hopeless, my afflictions trampled on, my angel not an angel, and my friend a fiend incarnate” (Brontë 102). Not until Helen offers her journal, appointing a witness for her story, does Gilbert escape his torment. While he does loosen his grip on the feminine definition, the reader is left to wonder if this change is binding. Scholar Russell Poole, in his article “Cultural Reformation and Cultural Reproduction in Anne Brontë‘s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” argues:

Helen’s diary is often identified as the means of instruction but we should not exaggerate its effect. A few of [Gilbert’s] comments as a narrator suggest that a mitigation of his more aggressive traits has occurred subsequent to marriage rather than before it and certainly not as a precondition of it. (Poole 863)

Gilbert is like a child under the instruction of Helen, one in constant need of a reminder not to fall into old habits, learning who Helen is as a person, not as a misunderstood cog in the gender hierarchy. Regardless of Gilbert’s retention level, more importantly demonstrated is the fact that silence must be broken by women and their stories acknowledged by men before change can occur.

Brontë appears to fall short under the contemporary lens of feminism when Helen’s relationship flourishes with Gilbert and their wedding merely reinserts her into the same system from which she fled. Her property becomes Gilbert’s; it is he who must grant permission for Helen’s aunt to stay in the home that was once hers; and Arthur “he was my own Helen’s son, and therefore mine” (Brontë 469). Gilbert makes a statement of claim on both mother and son, as if they are property to be owned. This reads as if Brontë could envision no practical solution for the plight of women. Although she is not able to write Helen out of society’s grasp, all is not lost. Rather than becoming an example by which women may redeem their power, Helen, more realistically for Brontë’s time becomes the subject for discourse among Brontë’s readership. Scholar Carol Senf, in her essay “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Narrative Silences and Questions of Gender,” explores the value in Brontë’s delineated story telling technique, one by which Helen’s tale is both divulged edited through Gilbert:

Like the unique narrative structure, the wife’s story framed by that of her husband, this emphasis on domestic life especially on the relationships of men and women during courtship and marriage encourages the reader to focus on questions of gender, especially to see the way that nineteenth-century notions of marriage consigned women to silence. (Senf 450)

As Helen’s full story unfolds, Gilbert and the audience of the novel learn of the horrors that can exist when expectations of women remain unchallenged. Beyond that initial lesson, a more subtle lesson is also divulged. Helen’s experience of oppression and abuse, that which had been locked within the confines of her journal until shared with Gilbert, becomes the property of Gilbert once they marry. Personal expression is no longer her own. Brontë, may not have had the vision to free Helen from the stranglehold of mastership without denying her love, yet she offers this subjection up to all of society to reform as a whole.

These social values and customs of the early nineteenth 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 of women can help to pinpoint ways in which it can be remedied. Historic trends provide commentary through literature, allowing for study of the causes and effects within this division. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in particular, provides a most valuable 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 of the time. Without discussion of the process by which women perpetuate their oppression, the importance of the challenge posed by Bront? is unable to be fully appreciated for the impact it has had in liberating the minds of women and imparting change upon a nation.

Works Cited:

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.” Ed. Vincent Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 1476-1508.

Berry, Laura C. “Acts of Custody and Incarceration in Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 30.1. (1996): 32-55. JSTOR. 4 April 2007

Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. New York: Oxford University Press. 1992

Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 2488-2501.

Gruner, Elisabeth Rose. “Plotting the Mother: Caroline Norton, Helen Huntingdon, and Isabel Vane.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. 16. 2. (1997): 303-325. JSTOR. 4 April 2007

Poole, Russell. “Cultural Reformation and Cultural Reproduction in Anne Brontë‘s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 33.4 (1993): 859-873. JSTOR. 28 March 2007

Senf, Carol A. “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Narrative Silences and Questions of Gender” College English. 52.4 (1990): 446-456. JSTOR. 28 March 2007