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Eduardo Palma Martinez Victorian Literature 07/01/2013

A convincing male narrator by a female writer: Gilbert Markham in The Tenant of

Wildfell Hall

This paper argues that Gilbert Markham owes his convincing traits as a male
narrator to Bronts hard-work on his profound characterisation, including
imperfections which, paradoxically, help to create a believable pattern of masculine
conduct. This pattern involves the ability of maintaining a close and warm attitude
towards women but also a distant and cold attitude towards other men. In
particular, Gilberts personal relations with men are characteristic and, what is
more important, coherent with mens behaviour. In contrast, in his relations with
women he seems to be a different person, and that is the reason why men can
identify with this male narrator, in spite of being created by a writer of the opposite

When dealing with Anne Bronts masterpiece The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, few critics
have overlooked the curious narrative structure that characterizes it. As a matter of fact,
the shocking and controversial content of the novel amazing as it is is on a par with
its highly innovative narrative structure. The reason why it is so important is because of
its epistolary form but also its harmonic combination of the two first-person narrators:
Gilbert and Helen. Both parts broke with the models of the Victorian Era, but also
constituted a convincing portrait of the reality of the Victorian marriage.

Particularly surprising is the fact that Bront achieved an undoubtedly

convincing female narrator but, more important, she also achieved a very convincing
male narrator. In spite of the fact that she was a woman, Bront was able to create a man
who behaves like a real man with no trace of femininity or idealism. Gilberts
psychological characterisation shows particular traits which are only present in men,
and the most evident trait of it is his expression of feelings; if we observe Gilberts
behaviour, we will see that as most men do he is unable to express his feelings to
other men, although he is able in some cases to express them to a woman.

On the one hand, we see this inability of expression in Gilberts episode with
Lawrence. Priti Joshi explains this episode quite well:

True, rumours that Helen and Lawrence are lovers lead Markham to attack
his rival, but if we recall that Markham refuses to heed the gossip and only
acts when he has visual proof of the relationship, it is clear that his volatility
and hypermasculinity, not idle village talk, are the sources of the violence.
(Joshi 2009: 5).

It is important to note that Gilbert has visual proof of the relationship, but it is not the
kind of relationship he thinks; otherwise he would not be jealous. That is, he takes it the
Eduardo Palma Martinez Victorian Literature 07/01/2013

wrong way but his volatility deprives him from discovering the truth before it is too
late. Violence could have been avoided easily: if Gilbert had only expressed his
feelings, Lawrence would have told him that he was wrong and that his relation with
Helen was a brother/sister one.

We could think that, by the letter which frames the novel, Gilbert is indeed
expressing his emotions to another man and therefore contradicting the masculinity
stated in this paper: At one point Gilbert contrasts his warm friendship with Halford to his
inability to feel that same kind of bond with Frederick Lawrence (OToole 1999: 720). That,
nonetheless, could be dismissed by the strong didactic power of Helens story which, as
Sarah Halenbeck points out, helps Gilbert correct his behaviour: By displacing much
of the ungentlemanly behaviour onto another character (Arthur) who is confined to the
journal, Bront allows Gilbert simply to read Helens journal, learn about the mistakes
of his predecessor, and correct them through his own behaviour (Halenbeck 2005).
Carol Senf also believes in this learning power of The Tenant: one should note that he
holds these views before he is touched by Helen's terrible story and learns from it the
misery that such unequal treatment can produce (Senf 1990: 452). Thus, Helens story
gives Gilbert the ability to judge wrong attitudes and to break with the conventions of
the moment.

According to many academics, male intimacy is difficult because very often this
inability is consciously desired. That is, men hide their feelings when they would put
them in a vulnerable position, when they would expose them to other men. That is what
an eminence of the Victorian Era claims none other than Charles Darwin in his work
The Expression of Emotions in Man and animals:

With adults, especially of the male sex, weeping soon ceases to be caused
by, or to express, bodily pain. This may be accounted for by its being
thought weak and unmanly by men, both of civilized and barbarous races,
to exhibit bodily pain by any outward sign. (Darwin 1872: 154)

This aspect about men would explain why Halford is supposedly so angry at Gilbert, in
the sense that even though they are best friends, their relation is cooling down. For this
reason, Gilbert sees himself pushed to tell him his story so as not to lose his best friend.

Joshis fragment is also useful to note another important aspect of this episode
which grants masculinity to Gilbert by contraposition, and it is that a woman would not
react the same way; if we consider the episode when Helen discovers Arthurs
Eduardo Palma Martinez Victorian Literature 07/01/2013

unfaithfulness this is more than clear. Although she discovers Arthurs affair by his
word that is, with no possibility of mistake and even though her case is quite more
serious than Gilberts episode, she does not use violence against Anabella. Through
words, Helen expresses how she feels and what she wants, and therefore no violence
needs to take place although it is more justified than in Gilberts case. Thus, by clearly
defining what a woman would do in a situation like this, Bront is characterising Gilbert
as the opposite, attributing him manly actions.

On the other hand, we see Gilberts capability to express his feelings to women
as happens with Helen. Just before Helen gives Gilbert her diary, he expresses how he
felt when he discovered that Helen and Lawrence were close: I turned back drawn by
pure depth of sympathy, and ardour of affection [] If I did wrong, love alone was my
incentive, and the punishment was severe enough; (Bront 1999: 100). This clear
expression of emotions towards a woman contrasts with the attack that Gilbert inflicts to
Lawrence, and therefore makes evident the different treatment towards each sex by
Gilbert, which coincides clearly with the nature of men. In my opinion, this happens
because while kept in womens hands, mens secrets do not make them vulnerable,
since women understand this attitude because it is their own.

In conclusion, Gilbert Markham is a convincing narrator written by a female

writer, Anne Bront, and he owes this quality to the fact, among other things, that the
way he expresses his feelings corresponds to the way that a man would do it. In
particular, the fact that this expression is cold towards men and warm towards women is
what makes things evident, since men tend to hide their feelings among themselves.
However, Helens story has given him the critical attitude that he needed, and he is able
to break with the stereotypes of the hypocritical society in which he lived and open his
heart to his male best friend Halford. Although Gilbert needs a little push, he expresses
his feelings to Halford as he would do to a woman because with him as well as with
women, the fear of being vulnerable the one which Darwin claimed does not exist.
Thus, due to the strong didactic power of Helens story Gilbert learns one very
important thing: he learns to be his own man, and not the one that society expects him
to be.
Eduardo Palma Martinez Victorian Literature 07/01/2013


Primary source
o Bront, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics,

Secondary sources
o Joshi, Priti. Masculinity and Gossip in Anne Bronts Tenant. Studies
in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 49, No. 4, 2009: 907-924.
o OToole, Tess. Siblings and suitors in the Narrative Architecture of The
Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol.
39, No. 4, 1999: 715-731.
o Senf, Carol. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Narrative Silences and
Questions of Gender. College English. Vol. 52, No. 4, 1990: pp. 446-
o Hallenbeck, Sarah. How to be a gentlemen without really trying: Gilbert
Markham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Nineteenth-Century gender
o Darwin, Charles R. The expression of emotions in man and animals.
London: John Murray, 1872.