Gilbert Markham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Gilbert Markham as a Predatory Male in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

At the end of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, readers mostly see it as a triumph of love and matrimony; where a bad husband dies, and a better man takes his place in the woman’s life. However, through close speculation, one can see that men in the novel are different but equally terrible as husbands and heroes. Instances of adultery, violence, dominance, stalking and emotional abuse are projected by both men, leaving Markham as no obvious hero. Where some people believe Gilbert Markham is a hero to Helen Huntingdon, this essay asserts that Gilbert Markham is actually a predator of Helen Huntingdon, the prey, and therefore an untrustworthy narrator. Through clear events in the novel as evidence, it can be argued that Markham is as much a predator as Helen’s husband, Arthur Huntingdon. Markham is no hero, only a jealous hunter.

Although there is more than one instance of preying by several different male characters, Gilbert Markham starts off as the first encounter. It begins as Markham finds a fascination within Helen while he is presumably dating Eliza Millward. Throughout the next few chapters, he continues to explain the feelings he has towards both women and how he feels that he doesn’t need to decide between them at this time. Being the first clue of Markham’s domineering temperament, readers discover the narrator as a typical nineteenth-century male main character. “That story is circumvented at the outset with Helen Graham’s ambiguous status as widow/wife, and yet the pressure of that traditional narrative is such, and the cultural expectations for beautiful women are such, that Gilbert’s story strives to become that narrative as her falls out of love with Eliza Millward and into love with Helen Graham and begins to write himself into the narrative as the rescuing figure of the maligned and misunderstood lady,” (Langland 37). Clearly, Markham has created a game of love versus socialism versus selfishness as he mentions his love for these two women. Having barely met Helen, he already loves her but has loved Eliza for a while before the story began- proving evidence towards his womanizing behavior with no good intentions towards either of the women. Perhaps the display of affections declared by our narrator seems as plenty of evidence towards the love scheme, however, as Markham being the narrator, readers are forced to look at the story from a step back to understand Markham’s real purpose in the story, to enhance the aspect of male dominance and violence. Markham is displaying the selfishness he has towards his belief that he can and should have any woman that he wants. His word play and continuous display of affection in his narration speak in the voice of domineering masculinity and not of a sensitive or emotionally-confused male character.

As the story continues, Markham continues his charade of heroism and violently attacks the man who is rumored to be the father of little Author, Helen’s son. Later, it becomes known that Fredrick Lawrence is Helen’s brother, keeping her safe as she escaped from her husband, posing no threat to Helen or Markham. Markham’s fall into gossip and his violent altercation towards Lawrence provide readers with indifference to the narrative as heroism and more as an obsession. Not only does Markham harm Helen’s beloved brother, but he also doesn’t tell anyone the truth about it, even after he finds out who Lawrence was to Helen. Only in the end does Markham apologize and visit Lawrence when he had become ill after the altercation, which may not even be the truth as this is a letter to his brother-in-law and not a trustworthy narration. It seems that Markham’s purpose was to steer away from any threat there would be towards Helen, but Markham himself felt threatened by the other male figure in Helen’s life. In this instance, Markham has clearly proven that he is a violent and jealous person and has no true intentions to protect Helen. With Eliza still in the picture, and Helen being only Markham’s friend, Markham has played off his domineering intentions of womanizing these ladies to let Lawrence know that he, in fact, can do so by attacking and threatening him. Langdon argues, “Although Gilbert Markham pretends to disregard the storm of rumor surrounding Helen Graham that the community circulates his behavior reveals that he accords rumor great authority. When he adds what he calls (the evidence of my senses,) he feels his position is unassailable just at the point where it is most vulnerable. We, as readers, appreciate the limitation of Gilbert’s perspective, the ways he, in focalizing events and other events, has generated a cloud of misapprehension shaped by his own needs, fears, and desires,” (Langdon 38, 39). On the contrary, Markham’s perspective for this event is greatly deceiving and not at all appreciated. His attitude for Lawrence and for his own actions adds fair evidence towards his disapproving agenda against other characters in the novel. By Markham explaining his feelings of the attack mediocrely, he becomes an unreliable narrator to the controversial narrative, as if he is purposely deceiving the readers to make himself look relatable. By cheating the reader of realistic experiences, Markham has become completely untrustworthy for telling the events later to occur.

Also, Markham’s deceiving perspective isn’t his way of covering up such wonderful and sensitive feelings he has towards the story at all, it is to make himself look better in the eyes of the readers and his brother-in-law, and possibly his own. His needs, fears, and desires are none to be appreciated by the reader, being why Markham left them out of his letter altogether. Markham’s implied feelings may seem respectable to those who by the end of the story believe he has good intentions for Helen. However, it is clear by the following events that he is not the gentleman our heroine is seeking, which who we understood to be her brother, Lawrence. Although not a romantic relationship, readers understand that Lawrence was what Helen needed at this time in her life, and it was he who she had chosen to stay with, no romantic relationship needed. Perhaps, if this would have been the narration of Helen’s, readers would have understood this to be the reason why Helen chose to stay away from Markham and not conceive a relationship with him right away. In Markham’s narration, he explains it to be because of her hurtful husband that Helen can’t be with him, at least until Huntington dies and Helen is a widow. Following Huntington’s death, Helen still decides to stay away from a romantic relationship with Markham until the last chapter of the novel. Perhaps Helen’s decision has nothing to do with needing time to grieve over her dead husband like Markham implies, but for any other reason why she might want to wait. Helen, as our heroine protagonist, has the right to be completely in the dark with the readers about her intentions with Markham, being he has his readers assuming her intentions with no real evidence of his own. Point being, Markham is no confiding narrator in telling the perspective of any character in the novel.

Plainly, readers are expecting for all characters to reach an acceptable moral standard by the conclusion of the novel to make for a compelling story, but the characters do not reach this expectation. Harrison and Stanford assert that “The method Anne chose by which to present this sphere of internal activity and change is that of introspective narration- a ‘first person singular’ confession or recital. It is the means by which her character confess, explain and justify their lives and it is also a discipline through which they arrive at a state of fuller self-awareness- at a knowledge of the existence and their own nature, and how these may best come to terms… We do not discover, then, in her pages any of those brilliantly iridescent studies of character-structure in decay; but find, rather, character in the act of growth; in the act. We may say, of becoming itself; of becoming responsible, moral, and adult; of being weaned from illusion and dream and adapting itself to reality,” (Harrison and Stanford 231). Some readers think that being Helen’s hero and marrying her was Markham’s ceiling of fulfillment. However, it can be argued that Markham doesn’t reach his full potential at all. Hallenback explains, “When he announces to Halford, his brother-in-law and correspondent, that his letter will be an “old world story,” too, he is suggesting a past that no longer exists, representative perhaps of his transformation. The “new” world in which Gilbert lives in 1847, by implication, is one in which the question of Gilbert’s gentlemanly status has been answered affirmatively,” (Hallenback 6). Arguably, Markham’s story of old news is not any old news to the readers or his brother-in-law, therefore leaving Markham with no true ability to call this story like that. Self-fulfillment of becoming a gentleman for his and Helen’s needs are still definitely not proven just by Markham’s description of it being old news. By marrying Helen, life has only added to Markham’s childish intentions because he got exactly what he wanted in the end and didn’t have to change his domineer to become a better man for the novel’s sake or Helen’s. Understandably, Helen has dealt with immature and dominating men since she married Huntington, and perhaps this is why she doesn’t demand better from Markham as her next husband, but this is not a real excuse for Markham. However, Markham’s domineer could still be viewed as respectable, but only in contrast to Helen’s diary explanations of her ex-husband.

As compared to Markham, Huntington committed similar acts by cheating on Helen inside their marriage. Huntington lied, cheated and dominated Helen completely throughout their marriage, showing greatly similar qualities that Markham already has. P. J. M. Scott writes, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall works well as intended: a useful fable of warning of what may be the most frequent matrimonial mistake- that of one party to a marriage entering it, ill-advisedly out of a compulsive affection, with the intent of reforming or changing some major aspect of the other’s nature,” (Scott 90). This assertion could be talking about not only Helen’s marriage to Huntington but also to her romantic relationship and approaching marriage with Markham. Both men in the novel take rolls in events that could lead to assertions like this one, that one party is deceiving the other. However, as for one party changing the other, in the case of Helen and Markham, it is perhaps within both parties. Nash and Suess explain, “Another obstacle, making it difficult for the reader to judge whether Markham would be a fitting husband for Helen, comes in the deliberate omission of Helen’s point of view. Her very silence suggests that her views might not coincide with those of her husband,” (Nash and Suess 220). As this suggests, Markham’s complete use of only his narration and Helen’s direct diary entries is his way of silencing her point of view for the desire to leave the story as his rather impure interpretations of the truth. Perhaps Helen’s decision to stay away from Markham wasn’t so she could meet a certain quota of maturation but was so that Markham might. Some may say that only Huntington is the cheating and lying man that Helen encounters romantically if read-only clearly through the narration of Markham’s, but by reading though the lines of Markham’s text readers can find Markham’s deceiving intentions to over-through all boundaries of a gentleman to get exactly what he wants, Helen, as did Huntington. There are instances where Markham is, directly and indirectly, conniving Helen, such as when he harms her brother and doesn’t tell her the truth and when she leaves and asks him to leave her be, but he frequently visits her brother only to learn what she is doing. These instances prove that Markham is doing just as Huntington, lying and conniving Helen of the truth, but in a lesser degree of harm, therefore; even though Helen did marry Markham at the end of the novel, perhaps she did so after it being made clear that Markham was no great degree more mature than he was ever going to achieve.

Markham’s loving and caring words in his narration could lead readers to believe he is genuine, even though we know at this time that he is unreliable as a narrator. Perhaps if this story was told in Huntington’s perspective readers could see that even he presumably loved her, but through Helen’s diary readers see the truth that people wouldn’t see through Huntington’s perspective. Even though this is true, some readers still appreciate Markham’s narration, even when Helen’s would be more of use. Antonia Losano mentions “Juliet McMaster defends the diary by insisting that it is immediate rather than passive: the diary records Helen and Arthur’s relationship and its deterioration more powerfully than if Gilbert had recorded Helen’s verbal telling of the tale,” (Losano 19). Clearly, Gilbert has made himself untrustworthy even when telling this story in his letter. Helen’s intrusion into his personal letter proves that perhaps even Markham believes that by him telling Helen’s story himself would somehow make it untrue, and by Helen’s diary entry it’s as if Markham is trying to prove to himself and to his readers that he cannot be deceiving at this point in the story. Since Helen didn’t verbally tell Markham these facts but allowed him to read her diary, Markham can then quote what she has said, as if it is proof to his brother-in-law that he is indeed not lying. By this time in Markham’s life he is untrustworthy, even to himself, to tell stories truthfully, being why every event in this letter (besides Helen’s diary entries) he tells lightly and with no detectable meaning except for his great intentions of saving Helen and Arthur, when he might otherwise tell the story in full truth if he was already a believable person. If Markham had told Helen’s perspective without the diary entries, it can be assumed that he would have somehow depicted certain events and falsified the entire purpose of the inclusion, to begin with. Clearly, Markham liked what Helen had to add to his letter and therefore quoted it to add at least some truthfulness to his letter and his conscience. Losano again states interesting information about Markham’s infidelity: “Elizabeth Signorotti offers a caution to Langland and other critics who see Helen’s diary as liberatory: she suggests that Gilbert’s use of Helen’s diary within his letter to his brother-in-law is Bronte’s way of dramatizing male control over Helen. Signorotti notes Gilbert’s duplicity throughout the novel and lays out very compelling reasons why Gilbert is not the noble hero that he pretends to be,” (Losano 21). It is evident for several critics that Markham is untrustworthy as a narrator and his purpose being is to convey a story of male dominance and male interpretation in nineteenth-century literature, and as being such, the narrator is a protagonist coinciding with Huntington.

With the evidence at hand, readers and critics may see that Markham’s presumably great intentions as a narrator, a hero and a romantic partner are all deceiving expectations made at the beginning of the novel. Throughout the story readers expect the narrator to tell a story of triumph to antagonists and added greatness to the loved protagonists; however, in the story of Markham and Helen, readers are disappointed in the events that seem favorable to the goodness of the story but can be seen through a light of delusion and deceptiveness as a creation of a protagonist unfolds. Through clear speculation, it is evident that Gilbert Markham is no hero to Helen, but of a better of the worst two men that she has encountered. As Nash and Suess clarify, “Reaction to Markham is best termed ambivalent, as he is perceived as perfectly innocuous, on the one hand, and as inexplicably violent on the other. Such a curious combination of characteristics is central to the relationship that the author develops between the lovers…Bronte reveals the passionate aspects of Markham’s character which she combines with his pride and petulance to exploit the paradoxical qualities of human nature and, thus, to create a believable portrait,” (Nash and Suess 217). Spoken plainly, Markham becomes believable only through the need of a clear story, and not for the purposes of the truth for the sake of other perspectives.

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Categories: Book Reviews

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2 replies

  1. You are such a great writer.

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