How does Elizabeth Gaskell elicit sympathy for Helen, Gregory and even William Preston in the short story ‘The Half-Brothers’? ‘The Half Brothers’ is a story about the struggles of an ordinary family in England in the 19th century written by Elizabeth Gaskell and published in 1858. Elizabeth Gaskell was born in Chelsea, London in 1810; this was the Victorian era, where the role of women was far different to the way it is today.
In this short story we can see many characteristics of Elizabeth Gaskell’s own life and the country at the time. For example, one of the tragedies in the story is that Helen’s daughter dies of scarlet fever, Gaskell suffered this same tragedy, but with her son. Also, Gaskell had a religious background, this shows through in her writing, as there is a rather religious theme to the story, and many religious references. In the story, there are three main characters. The first that we read about is ‘Helen’.
Helen is the core character in the story because without her, none of the events would take place. She is the mother of Gregory and the narrator and she is also William Preston’s wife. Having married very young and moved away to a rented farm bought by her first husband, Helen is to find that many tragedies await her in later life, such as her husband and her daughter dying, being in serious debt and marrying a man she does not love. The second main character is Gregory. Gregory is Helen’s first son, by her first marriage.
Gregory is born into a difficult situation, and there is much tragedy waiting for him, too, such as his step-father (William Preston) having a grudging dislike for him, and then, in the climax of the story, meeting death himself. The last main character is William Preston. He is the wealthiest farmer in the area and asks for Helen’s hand in marriage, but her reluctance to marry, and then talk to him makes William rather cold towards her and Gregory. This story is named ‘The Half Brothers’ because the narrator is Gregory’s younger brother and William Preston’s son.
Though we never find out the name of the narrator we find out a lot about his character and his relationship with Gregory, his half brother. Elizabeth Gaskell shows sympathy first for Helen by illustrating the adversities she had faced in her life, she almost lists these disasters, from debt, to death, to despair, the techniques and descriptions used would make any reader feel Helen’s distress. The story starts with a short sentence to draw you in, and makes you curious: ‘My mother was twice married. Instantly you feel a curiosity about the mother character (Helen). She then moves on to tell us that her mother never spoke of her first husband, “She never spoke of her first husband, and it was only from other people that I have learnt what little I know about him. ” We get a slight sense of sympathy for the narrator here, because he had to rely on other people to learn about his mother. Elizabeth uses emotive language and alliteration then, “I believe she was scarcely seventeen when she was married to him: and he was barely one-and-twenty. The alliteration emphasises the age of the young married girl and this is the first time that you feel empathetic and slightly anxious for Helen, because she and her husband are so young to be moving away. “He rented a small farm up in Cumberland, somewhere towards the sea-coast…” Here, the description of the setting is brief, but enough for the reader to once again feel anxious because to be living in the North on the mountains is not a good place for a farm, so again you feel anxious for Helen and her husband, and there is a sense of foreboding disaster.
Then, less than a paragraph into the story, the first in a chain of unfortunate events happens to Helen. Elizabeth uses emotive language to portray her husband’s death: “But he was perhaps too young and inexperienced to have the charge of the land and cattle: anyhow his affairs did not prosper, and he fell into ill health, and died of consumption before they had been three years man and wife. ” Again, there is emphasis on the age of Helen’s husband. His death is briefly described, suggesting that his death was also brief, and that it happened very quickly to the young couple.
The emphasis on their ages gives the feeling that they are rather vulnerable, and also the image that they were too young to cope on their own, and the death of Helen’s husband adds to this. At this point we feel a lot of empathy for Helen because she has just lost her husband. Elizabeth Gaskell continues to almost list the next few adversities, helping make the reader feel very compassionate towards Helen. “Leaving my mother a young widow of twenty, with a little child only just able to walk, and the farm on her hands for four years by the lease, with half the stock on it dead, or sold off one by one to pay the more ressing debts, and with no money to purchase more, or even to buy the provisions needed for the small consumption of every day. ” This quote is filled with emotive language. The list of Helen’s hardships makes the reader feel even more sympathy for Helen, and even more anxious, feeling there is worse still yet to come. “There was another child coming, too; and sad and sorry, I believe, she was to think of it. ” The use of alliteration on the words ‘sad’ and ‘sorry’ here really emphasise the fact that another child could only make Helen’s situation worse, and the harsh sound of the words accentuates their meaning.
Next, Elizabeth uses particular words to create the image of something without having to describe it too much. “A dreary winter she must have had in her lonesome dwelling, with never another near it for miles around…” The word dreary suggests a long winter; the drawn-out sound of the word creates the image of a long, cold season. Also, the phrase ‘lonesome dwelling’ creates the image of a very rural setting, where it is just Helen with her child on her farm. It gives a sense of isolation and makes the reader feel sorry, once again, for Helen.
Suddenly, there is a sentence which gives the reader a sense of hope, thinking that things could be looking better for Helen. “Her sister came to bear her company, and they two panned and plotted how to make every penny they could raise go as far as possible. ” The words ‘planned’, ‘plotted’ and ‘penny’ give an image of determination; the strident sound of the words makes the situation seem a little better because there may be something that could help Helen, and the fact that Helen now has the company of her sister.
Then, we are once again sympathetic for Helen, because even more disaster was looming for her. “I can’t tell you how it happened that my little sister, whom I never saw, came to sicken and die; but, as if my poor mother’s cup was not full enough, only a fortnight before Gregory was born the little girl took ill of scarlet fever, and in a week she lay dead. ” The emotive language used by Elizabeth brings back the compassion we have for Helen.
That her child would die just weeks before her baby was to be born is a lot to deal with when so much else has happened, we feel complete empathy for Helen here. There is a biblical metaphor used: “as if my mother’s poor cup was not full enough’, this is referring to the cup of sorrows from the bible and gives the image that Helen is a Christian and that things could not get worse for her. Also, the last seven words of the sentence are all mono-syllables; this has a large impact because it makes the death of the young girl seem very fast and matter-of-fact. My mother was, I believe, stunned by this last blow. My aunt has told me that she did not cry; Aunt Fanny would have been glad if she had; but she sat holding that wee lassie’s hand, and looking in her pretty, pale, dead face, without so much as shedding a tear. ” Elizabeth uses a lot of emotive language and alliteration here, for example ‘stunned by this last blow’ suggests that Helen has been able to just cope with the other things that have happened to her, but not the death of her child.
Also, the fact that Helen did not cry gives the image that she was just too shocked and dismayed to cry, and so had no way of expressing herself over her hardships. The fact that local dialect is used also has an impact as it emphasises how young the girl was. The alliteration in ‘pale, pretty, dead face’ also has an impression because it underlines the fact that she was young, beautiful, and a wasted life because she is dead. “It was all the same, when they had to take her away to be buried.
She just kissed the child and sat her down in the window-seat to watch the little black train of people (neighbours – my aunt, and one far-off cousin, who were all they friends they could muster) go winding away amongst the snow, which had fallen thinly over the country the night before. ” Once again, emotive language is being used, and Helen’s reaction is not normal, suggesting lots of underlying distress. Also, pathetic fallacy is used. The fact that the snow fell ‘thinly’ over the country makes the situation seem cold and not comforting like a seasonal thick layer of snow might. When my aunt came back from the funeral, she found my mother in the same place, as dry-eyed as ever, So she continued until after Gregory was born; and, somehow, his coming seemed to loosen the tears, and she cried day and night, day and night, till my aunt and the other watcher looked at each other in dismay and would fain have stopped her if they had but known how. ” Again, there is use of emotive language, and the repetition of ‘day and night’ makes the time seem very long.
And that the coming of her new child finally makes Helen cry makes the reader feel even more empathy for her. In the next part of the story, there is yet another event of misfortune as Helen begins to lose her eyesight and so cannot sew, therefore not being able to make any money. We feel a deep sense of sadness for Helen, as it seems that her life cannot get worse: “But, by-and-by my mother’s eyesight began to fail …” This could also be an effect of their poverty, adding to the bad situation for Helen. It must have been with the heavy crying she had had in her day…” Emotive language is used again here as Elizabeth suggests that the loss of Helen’s eyesight is due to her continuous weeping, which obviously it isn’t, but this builds a sad image at the thought that the thing Helen needs most to help her family and to survive, is being taken away from her and that it is her own fault.
There is also a sad image built up by the way Elizabeth Gaskell describes Helen’s family’s struggles with even the simplest, yet most needed things. Aunt Fanny herself had not as much to eat, even the commonest kind of food, as she could have done with; and as for Gregory, he was not a strong lad, and needed, not more food – for he always had enough, whoever went short – but better nourishment and more flesh-meat. ’ We feel sorry for Helen, Gregory and Aunt Fanny at this point, because they have so little and can hardly afford the things they need. Then, there is a slight twist in the story as Helen gets a proposal for marriage from William Preston, a wealthy farmer. ‘He was reckoned an old bachelor…’ There is then a sudden sense of apprehension as we learn that William Preston was ‘long past forty’, a large contrast from Helen’s previous husband who was a young man (just a few years older than her) when he died. This makes us anxious because we instantly worry about another death for Helen as he is so much older than her. The reader worries whether Helen would have to nurse him in her own ill-health, and there is a rather anxious atmosphere.
As we read through how William and Helen had come to the marriage proposal, there is a very foreboding feeling. We realize that Helen will marry William Preston, but only for his money and wealth, for ‘Helen’s eyesight would never be good for much again, and as William Preston’s wife she would never need to do anything…’ In a way, Helen has sacrificed herself for the well-being of her family, and it is thought that William Preston only wants a wife for a son to carry on the farm after him. But she did not love him, and he soon found out. She loved Gregory, and she did not love him. Perhaps, love would have some in time, if he had been patient enough to wait; but it just turned him sour to see how her eye brightened and her colour came at the sight of that little child, while for him who had given her so much, she had only gentle words as cold as ice. There is much emotive language as we learn more about the relationship between William Preston and Helen. There is growing jealousy from William towards Gregory, and we can feel it by the way Helen describes how Helen reacts to both of the characters. For example, ‘To see how her eyes brightened and he colour came at the sight of that little child…’ We can instantly see that Helen’s baby from her first marriage means far more to her than her husband.
Pathetic fallacy and similes are also used here when Elizabeth describes the way Helen talks to William as ‘gentle words as cold as ice’, this suggests that her words have no feeling and are simply said with an air of obligation. There is then a large contrast as Helen describes the love Helen has for Gregory as ‘gushed out like a spring of fresh water’, this is also a simile and in large contrast with the way she speaks to her husband, this suggests again that she much prefers her son to her other half.
Emotive language is here used again when Elizabeth is describing William’s feelings towards to child: ‘He wanted her to love him more, and perhaps that was all well and good; but he wanted her to love her child less, and that was evil wish. ’ The harsh sounds of ‘evil’ and ‘wish’ emphasise the desire William has for this child’s love to be his. This makes the thought seem even worse.
As we build up to Helen’s death, we feel complete empathy for Helen as we remember the things she has had to face in her life, the love’s she had lost and the loves she has gained, and in looking out for the love of her life, her son, she falls into an argument with her husband, a relationship which has been deteriorating since it started: “One day, he gave way to his temper, and cursed and swore at Gregory, who had got into some mischief, as children will; my mother made some excuse for him…” The arguing and strain on Helen means that she ‘took to her bed before her time’ and her child is born prematurely.
Elizabeth Gaskell uses emotive language as she describes William’s feelings in that one moment: “My father was glad, and proud, and sorry, all in a breath’ glad and proud that son had been born to him; and sorry for his poor wife’s state, and to think how his angry words had brought it on. ” The fact that this man has so many emotions running through his mind in such a short amount of time displays the sort of emotions Helen had had to go through over a long period of time; this makes the reader sympathetic, once again, towards Helen.
Elizabeth Gaskell uses emotive language again as she describes Helen’s last moments: ‘One of her lasts requests was to have Gregory lay in her bed by my side, and then she made him take hold of my little hand. Her husband came in while she was looking at us so, and when he bent tenderly over her to ask her how she felt now, and seemed to gaze on us to little half-brothers, and a grave sort of kindliness, she looked up in his face and smiled, almost her first smile at him…’ There is a large contrast here between Helen’s situation and her reaction, for she knows she is going to die and yet she is smiling; this is a huge contrast.
There is also a lot of compassion building as we see that even in death, Helen is selfless – the act of placing the half-brother’s hands together suggests that she wants Gregory to look after his younger brother. Elizabeth’s use of emotive language makes the reader feel a lot of sympathy for Helen, and sadness because a character we’ve grown to like is going to die.
Helen’s death is described in brief mono-syllables: ‘In an hour she was dead…’ This technique emphasises the fact that Helen is dead without describing her death in great detail; it is the same technique Elizabeth Gaskell used when describing Helen’s daughter’s death – it has a large impact. Throughout the entire story we feel much sympathy for Helen, this is created by the variety of techniques Elizabeth Gaskell uses, and though the death of Helen is highly significant in the story, it is not the end of the story just because it is the end of Helen’s life.
Elizabeth Gaskell uses many techniques to elicit the same type of sympathy for Gregory throughout the story. Through the story, we are told many things about Gregory and his life so far. We are aware that Gregory is born into a rather bad situation, so even as he is born we feel much sympathy for him. With his mother recently widowed before his birth, and rapidly losing her sight, he is never to know his father; he lives on a farm that is catered for by few people, with few animals, so his family do not have any money, even for the essential things, such as food and clothing.
We begin to feel even sorrier for Gregory after Helen has married William Preston, because, with Gregory not being his biological son, William takes a strong dislike towards him: “And he took a positive dislike to Gregory…” But his distaste for Gregory is purely because he knows that his wife cares more for her son than for him: “She loved Gregory, and she did not love him…” Elizabeth uses fast, mono-syllables here to put across the fact bluntly and matter-of-factly, the pace of the sentence really emphasises the point.
Elizabeth Gaskell uses a simile to describe Helen’s love for Gregory: “ready love that always gushed out like a spring of fresh water…” This simile has already been mentioned, but referring to how it applies to Helen, it applies to Gregory in a different way.
It works very well because it gives the image of ever-flowing, fresh water running continuously, and this is exactly like Helen’s love for the child, and this is what really angers William – We feel sympathetic towards Gregory here, because he hasn’t done anything wrong to William, and he cannot help the fact that his mother loves him, but William still dislikes Gregory, and this is going to make Gregory’s like difficult.
The reader feels glad that Gregory has Helen, because without her he would be left with William Preston, this fact makes us even more sympathetic towards Gregory when his mother dies. The reader feels very compassionate towards Gregory throughout the story because William Preston is constantly making sly comments, but one day he let his temper get the better of him and he “cursed and swore at Gregory” The hard sounds of the words ‘cursed’ and ‘swore’ emphasise the words and their meaning, and William’s anger towards Gregory.
After Helen’s death, there is more sympathy created, not only by the fact that Gregory has lost his mother, but because William Preston found a way to blame Helen’s death on him. “He was a man who liked better to be angry that sorry, so he soon found out that it was all Gregory’s fault and owed him an additional grudge for having hastened my birth. He had another grudge against him before long. – The repetition of the word ‘grudge’ builds up much negative feeling for Gregory from his step-father. “Then she made his take hold of my little hand…” Elizabeth Gaskell’s emotive language makes this small act seem much larger than it is, we take it as a sign that Gregory is to look after his younger brother, we feel sympathetic for Gregory again here because he is under pressure to make sure his half-brother stay’s safe, this symbolic hand holding makes the gesture seem like a promise.
After Helen’s death we find that Gregory is ignored by most of the family: “She did not often think about him, she had fallen completely into the habit of being engrossed by me, from the fact of my having come into her charge as a delicate baby…” And this builds up our empathy for him. Elizabeth Gaskell again brings up the repetition of the word ‘grudge’ to emphasise William’s dislike for Gregory: “My father never got over his grudging dislike for his tep-son, who has so innocently wrestled with him for the possession of my mother’s heart. ” Elizabeth uses a metaphor here to emphasise the fact that there seemed to be a fight in William’s eyes for Helen’s love, adding to his dislike for Gregory, which in turn adds to the readers sympathy for Gregory. Alliteration is then used to describe what Gregory had become as he had got older: “Gregory was lumpish and loutish, awkward and ungainly…” The sharp beginnings on the words ‘lumpish’ and ‘loutish’ emphasise their meaning.
Also, the words ‘awkward’ and ‘ungainly’ give an image of someone who is clumsy and not quite sure what to do with themselves. These words are also onomatopoeias and difficult to say, which, again, emphasises their meaning. Elizabeth uses sibilance to describe the way Gregory was treated – “And many a hard word and sharp scolding did he get from the people about the farm…” The rough sound to the words makes them sound rather threatening, and this builds our empathy towards Gregory.
The narrator then goes on to tell us that he feels guilty at the way he treated his older half brother: ‘I am ashamed – my heart is sore to think how I fell into the fashion of the family and slighted my poor orphan step-brother. ’ There is emotive language used here to describe The Narrator’s thoughts on his brother. The phrase ‘heart is sore’ emphasises the negative feeling that the narrator has when thinking about the way he treated his brother.
Also, the word ‘slighted’ is a very harsh, fast sound, and this emphasises the word’s meaning, and the phrase ‘fashion of the family’ suggests that everyone around Gregory’s farm treated Gregory in the same, cruel way. There is a large contrast between the narrator and Gregory, not only in their sense of character, but in the way they were treated, this adds to our sympathy for Gregory as he has had a much harder life than the narrator. There is more use of alliteration, then, as Gregory’s reaction to his situation is described. He used to turn silent and quiet – sullen and sulky…” The words ‘silent’ and ‘quiet’ are harsh sounding and so contrast with their meaning, and the sibilance in ‘sullen and sulky’ makes the words sound almost like a sigh and this emphasises Gregory’s reaction. Gaskell then uses repetition: ‘my father thought it; stupid aunt Fanny used to call it. But everyone said he was stupid and dull and this stupidity and dullness grew upon him. ’ The repetition of the words ‘stupid’ and ‘dull’ accentuate them and make them sound even more insulting.
We feel sympathy for Gregory as we read this sentence, because Gaskell makes Gregory’s life seem like a circle, the more he is treated this way, the more ‘stupid’ and dull’ he becomes. We are then told about Gregory’s school life: ‘When we were sent to school, it was all the same. He could never be made to remember his lessons; the school-master grew weary of scolding and flogging…’ The words ‘scolding’ and ‘flogging’ are harsh sounding, and this emphasises their meaning and adds to the negative feeling.
The fact that Gregory was sent away from school has sympathetic effect because, one again, there is a sense of rejection for Gregory; that nobody wants him around. We are then, again, presented with a religious reference and theme as we learn that despite his upbringing, Gregory is a model Christian: ‘ Yet he was not a cross lad; he was patient and good natured, and would try to do a kind turn for any one, even if they had been scolding or cuffing him not a minute before. But very often his attempts at kindness ended in some mischief to the very people he was trying to serve, owing to his awkward, ungainly ways. We are sympathetic towards Gregory here, because the story suggests that Gregory is a very good man, and would not bring harm to any one; he is almost unable to see through his acts of kindness because of himself. There is again repetition of the words ‘awkward’ and ‘ungainly’ emphasising Gregory’s personality, reflected on his upbringing. Gaskell goes on to write about what Gregory does after his school life has ended: ‘Gregory was made into a kind of Shepard, receiving his training under old Adam, who was nearly past his work.
I think old Adam was almost the first person who had a good opinion of Gregory. ’ The fact that Gregory becomes a Shepard could once again indicate religion, and it would suggest that Gregory is almost like the good Shepard, Jesus. Also, the name Adam could once again be a religious reference, referring to ‘Adam and Eve’ of the bible. Gaskell’s use of the adjective ‘old’ suggests wisdom. The story goes on to talk about the Narrator and how, one day, he was sent on an errand over ‘the fells’.
The narrator gets lost among the mountains and snow begins to fall, at a large contrast with Gregory, the narrator just gives up and awaits his inevitable fate, he assumes and accepts that he is to meet his death until he hears Gregory’s dog, Lassie’s bark: ‘ Was it Lassie’s bark – my brother’s collie? …’ we are here reminded of William Preston’s dislike for Gregory as we learn that William abuses the dog, simply because it belongs to Gregory: ‘My father always kicked it whenever he saw it, partly for its own demerits, partly because it belonged to my brother.
On such occasions Gregory would whistle Lassie away, and go off and sit with her in some outhouse. ’ This is quite a contrast between Gregory and his father figure, as Gregory is kind and caring towards the dog, but William is cruel and abusive. We feel sorry for Gregory here because we are reminded about how Gregory himself was treated, rather like the dog; scolded and rather like an outcast. We learn that Gregory has come out to look for the narrator when he did not return home.
This makes the reader feel a large sense of compassion towards Gregory as we see that, despite his difficult upbringing, Gregory has become a model Christian, and we can once again see the religious theme occurring in the subtext. Also, the way Gregory speaks could be linked to the bible; this could be Gaskell’s way of showing that Gregory is a good Christian: ‘Don’t you know the way home? Asked I. I thought I did when I set out, but I am doubtful now. The snow blinds me, and I am feared that in moving about just now, I have lost the right gait homewards. We are, again, presented with a religious reference here: ‘He had his Shepard’s staff with him. ’ – It is almost as if Gaskell is preaching Gregory’s Christianity to the reader, the repetition of religious references emphasises Gregory’s faith and is very symbolic. We feel much empathy for Gregory, as despite the way his brother has treated him in the past, Gregory has kept his promise to his mother and looks after him. The reader feels touched that Gregory shows such selflessness, and puts his own life in danger for his brother.
We also see that Gregory is very sensible, and once again he shows Christian traits as he: ‘Was more guided by Lassie. ’ – we see a large contrast between Gregory and his brother as Gregory struggles through the weather without complaining, whereas his brother become very dramatic: ‘But the tedious motion scarcely kept my very blood from freezing. Every bone, every fibre in my body seemed first to ache, and then to swell, and then to turn numb with the intense cold. My brother bore it better than I, from having been more out upon the hills. ’ The narrator then becomes stubborn: ‘‘I can go nor farther’, I said, in a drowsy tone.
I remember I suddenly became dogged and resolved. Sleep I would, were it only for five minutes. If death were to be the consequence, sleep I would. ’ The repetition of ‘sleep I would’ emphasises the stubbornness of the narrator, and makes the contrast between him and Gregory even more obvious. Gaskell reminds us again of the presence of Gregory after the narrator’s speech (for the narrator here has been complaining about the cold and we have nearly forgotten the presence of him) – we see again the way that Gregory speaks, in the second person, which is recognised in the bible, here again we have the religious theme: ‘‘It is of no use. Said he, as if to himself. ‘We are no nearer to home than we were when we started, as far as I can tell. Our only chance is Lassie. Here! Roll thee in my maud, lad, and lay thee down on this sheltered side of this bit of rock. Creep close under it, lad, and I’ll lie by thee, and strive to keep warmth in us. Stay! Hast gotten aught about thee they’ll know at home? ’’ – We see Gregory’s selflessness again here as he sacrifices himself to keep his brother warm.
We also feel a large sense of empathy, and feel touched by Gregory’s actions for his brother, and almost proud that he has kept his promise of protection, even though his brother has mistreated him. There is also dialect used, the repetition of ‘lad’ suggests a friendly, kind attitude, even though his brother hasn’t been kind. We see that Gregory is an intelligent person, even though he was sent away from school, as he decides to send a sign home to tell his step-father and family that they are safe. ‘Hie thee, Lassie, hie thee home! Gaskell uses cross-references in the story as she reminds us of when Helen died, and we once again feel sympathy for Gregory: ‘Thou canst not remember, lad, how we lay together thus by our dying mother. She put thy small, wee hand in mine – I reckon she sees us now; and belike we shall soon be with her. Anyhow God’s will be done. ’ We feel sorry for Gregory as he recalls the death of his mother, but we also feel the emotional impact of Gregory’s memories and we almost feel proud that Gregory has done his uttermost to ensure his promise to his mother.
Gaskell again introduces the dialect into Gregory’s speech, where it is used, the words are emphasised such as the word ‘wee’ (which was consequently used in the beginning of the story) to describe the size of something, it accentuates the meaning, so the something that is small, seems even smaller. There is also another religious reference here as Gregory, unlike his brother, accepts his fate – ‘God’s will be done. ’ This reminds us again of Gregory’s Christianity, he and his mother had the same reaction to their death. They are not afraid of it, because it means they will go to heaven and be closer to god.
All through the scene of Gregory’s death, there is almost an extra layer of supernatural, as they lie and await their death. As we learn that Gregory has died and the narrator hasn’t, we feel a sense of sadness, almost as if Gregory was the hero of his own life. We understand that Gregory had a very hard life, and so did not fear Death. There is a sense of admiration for Gregory because he gave up so much for his brother, and even though he had a difficult life, deprived of love and affection, he still became a good, honest Christian.
All through the story, right up to his death, we feel sympathy and admiration for Gregory, and we feel sad as he dies, as it feels as though the reader has got to know his character. Throughout the story ‘The Half Brothers’ we feel mixed emotions towards William Preston, Gregory’s step-father. There are times when we feel sympathy for him, and begin to understand why he has treated people the way that he has, but other times we feel a sort of hatred for his character – our feelings towards William Preston are far from consistent throughout the story.
William Preston is a wealthy, middle-aged farmer who we first hear of when we are told that he has asked for Helen’s hand in marriage. When he is first introduced, he is presented as a rather nervous, shy man: ‘He sat down and began to twirl his hat in way of being agreeable. ’ We begin to feel sympathetic for William as we believe that he is very nervous at the thought of asking Helen to marry him.
When William is first brought into the story, we are told that he ‘Was reckoned an old bachelor; I suppose he was long past forty, and he was one of the wealthiest farmers thereabouts and had known my grandfather well, and my mother and my aunt in their more prosperous days. ’ The fact that William had known other members of Helen’s family makes him seem like a rather ‘safe’ man because he is not a new person to be introduced to Helen straight away, he is vaguely familiar, and he also has the ‘advantage’ of age, which could be good for Helen as her previous husband was so young.
Also the fact that William Preston was ‘one of the wealthiest farmers thereabouts’ makes him again seem safe, because he has just what Helen needs for her family – money. At first Helen is not very pleased with William’s proposal: ‘One Sunday, however, my aunt Fanny stayed away from church, and took care of the child, and my mother went alone. When she came back, she ran straight upstairs, without going into the kitchen to look at Gregory or speak any word to her sister, and aunt Fanny heard her cry as if her heart was breaking; as she went up and scolded her right well through the bolted door, till at last she got her to open it.
And then she threw herself at my Aunt’s neck, and told her that William Preston had asked her to marry him…’ Helen’s reaction to William’s proposal makes the reader feel sympathetic towards William because, although he does not know of Helen’s reaction, we become aware that if Helen does marry him, it is not going to be out of love and that Helen does not really want to marry him, and it is purely, at this moment, out of desperation.
We begin to feel as though William is a good, honest man, not only because he has made a good, honest living, but because he promises, after his proposal, to look after Helen’s son: ‘And had promised to take good charge of her boy, and to let him want for nothing, neither in the way of keep nor of education…’ The reader starts to feel as though William Preston can only be good for Helen after her many disasters, though our opinion changes throughout the story.
As time goes on, William begins to get rather jealous of Gregory, because it becomes obviously apparent that Helen loves Gregory far more than she could ever love William, and this makes William acquire a dislike for Gregory: ‘Perhaps, love would have come in time, if her had been patient enough to wait; but it just turned him sour to see how her eye brightened and her colour came at the sight of that little child, while for him who had given her so much, she had only gentle words as cold as ice. – Gaskell’s use of the word ‘sour’ makes William’s feelings towards Gregory seem very … because of the harsh sound of the word. Gaskell also uses a simile ‘as cold as ice’ – this almost makes us feel sympathy for William, as it is true that he has given her a lot, and yet she cannot love him, but because of William’s negative actions towards Gregory, the reader distances themselves from William because he seems so jealous and envious of the little child: ‘He was so jealous of the ready love that always gushed out like a spring of fresh water when he came near. As William lets his inner feelings surface, he begins to taunt Helen, and their relationship begins to get worse: ‘He got to taunt her with the difference in her manner, as if that would bring love: and he took a positive dislike to Gregory…’ Gaskell uses lexical sets to describe William’s feelings towards his ‘family’, words like sour, evil and taunt emphasise William’s feelings, and are a part of this ‘negative feeling’ lexical set.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s use of all the techniques I have mentioned gives the reader insight into William and Helen’s relationship, ensuring the reader knows it is strained. William loves Helen with all his heart, but this love is not returned. The constant reminders of Helen’s love for son feeds William’s insecure jealousy and their relationship gets continually worse. The writer has evoked sympathy for William, but we then learn that his dislike for Gregory has over-powered him and he curses and swears at the child.
The readers’ sympathy begins to diminish as William becomes someone who takes their anger out on a small child. Yet again soon after we then have a sudden change of attitude and begin, once again, to feel sympathy for William as his son is born and he ‘was glad, and proud, and sorry, all in a breath…’ We feel sorry for William, almost as if he is asking forgiveness by feeling all these emotions, and we are reminded that here can be another side to William Preston.
Although, the sympathy we feel does not last as William is ‘a man who liked better to be angry than sorry, so he soon found out that it was all Gregory’s fault, and owed him an additional grudge for having hastened my birth. He had another grudge against him before long. ’ Gaskell’s repetition of the word ‘grudge’ makes it seem as if William always has something to be angry at Gregory for, also the sound of the word (harsh and rough) makes these ‘grudges’ seem almost violent, and we once again are distanced from the character as we lose all sympathy for him.
The character of William Preston is at quite a contrast from Helen, as we feel sympathy throughout for Helen, the amount only increases, never decreases, whereas with William the reader is constantly having their mind and their attitude towards him changed by his actions. Our minds are changed once again as we begin to feel sympathetic towards William because of the loss of his wife. We are reminded that even though Helen did not love him, William Preston loved Helen with all his heart: ‘My mother began to sink the day after I was born.
My father sent to Carlisle for doctors, and would have coined his heart’s blood into gold to save her, if that could have been; but it could not…’ Gaskell’s use of metaphor here contributes to our sympathy, as it is symbolic for how much William loved her ‘Would have coined his heart’s blood into gold’ the imagery of William giving his blood and heart emphasises just how much he loved Helen, and it shows that he would have given his life to save her, his selflessness towards his wife makes us feel empathetic to William and we forget about all of his previous wrong doings.
We continue to feel sympathy for William as we get over Helen’s death, as we realise that he is now left with two children ‘My father would have been glad to return to his old bachelor life, but what could he do with to little children? ’ This makes us feel sympathy for William because we realise that the one person that he loved has gone, and yet he is left to be reminded of her every day by his children. We are told that William ‘needed something to love’ and this makes us feel, again, sympathetic towards him, as this could suggest that he has been looking for someone to love his whole life, and now that Helen is gone, he has nothing.
We feel glad that he has his new baby to love, but also slightly anxious because this means that Gregory is to be starved of the love and attention he needs – the contrast between the ways the two children are treated by William is very apparent here, and there is positive and negative feeling towards William by the reader. As the story goes on there are various hints of the way William treats Gregory, we slowly begin to lose our sympathy for him yet again.
We are not told much more about William until Gregory goes out to look for the narrator when he is lost. We are then told that Gregory has a dog, Lassie, and William treats the dog almost as badly as he treats Gregory, and simply because of whom it belongs to: ‘An ugly enough brute, with a white, ill-looking face, that my father always kicked whenever he saw it, partly for its own demerits, partly because it belonged to my brother…’ We lose our sympathy for William here when we learn about the way he treats Gregory’s dog.
We begin to feel that William is an all around cruel person, the fact that he hits the dog just because it is Gregory makes him seem like a person with no moral sense. This is at a large contrast with Gregory who is nothing but nice to his dog. As the story goes on to talk about the narrator, William Preston is left in the back of our minds, and the reader is still unable to make a decision about his character, for even though he has done many horrible things, and mistreated things for no reason, he has had moments where we feel that he has needed sympathy.
At the end of the story, when William is introduced back to tell the narrator of Gregory’s untimely death, we feel sympathy for him as we see that he is not just a stern, hard man, but the fact that he has real feelings, even for Gregory who he has mistreated for his whole life. We also have a character change, as we see that William has become an old man, this makes him seem more vulnerable and prone to emotion: ‘A look passed from one to another – my father’s stern old face strove in vain to keep its sternness; his mouth quivered, his eyes filled with unwonted tears. – William’s presentation of emotion makes the reader feel very compassionate towards him, and it seems that he is sorry for everything he has done. We are reminded again of the religious theme as William talks about forgiveness: ‘I would have given him half my land – I would have blessed him as my son, – oh, God! I would have knelt at his feet, and asked him to forgive my hardness of heart! ’ Gaskell’s use of alliteration on ‘hardness of heart’ makes the phrase seem like a sob, as if William is weeping, this emphasises William’s want for forgiveness.
We can relate William’s ‘speech’ to Christian tolerance, and how Christians will willingly forgive, and this could once again suggest that Gaskell was almost trying to preach her faith. As William and his family try to move on and get over Gregory’s death, William is constantly reminded of the way he mistreated Gregory and his cruel actions by the dog ‘Lassie came and went with never a word of blame; nay, my father would try to stroke her, but she shrank away; and he, as if reproved by the poor dumb beast, would sigh and be silent and abstracted for a time. Gaskell uses sibilance her with the words ‘sigh’ and ‘silent’, this makes the speech seem rather soft, and calm, which gives the image that William is no longer angry and inconsistent in the way he acts. The fact that William is affected now, by the way that he is reminded of his actions shows a change in character, and we feel sympathetic for him as he finally realises that the way he acted was wrong. Gaskell then uses a flash forward technique and we are at the time of William Preston’s death ‘My father’s last words were, ‘God forgive me my hardness of heart towards the fatherless child! And what marked the depth of his feeling of repentance perhaps more than all, considering the passionate love he bore my mother, was this: we found a paper of directions after his death, in which he desired that he might lie at the foot of the grave, in which, by his desire, poor Gregory had been laid with our mother. ’ At the very end of the story we feel sympathy for William, and a certain sense of happiness for him, happiness that he saw the error of his ways, but sympathy that he died regretting what he had done to his stepson.
We can see again the Christian references as the forgiveness theme rises up once again, and we can again see just how much William Preston really loved his wife, for he was buried by her feet, this symbolises respect and begging, begging for forgiveness, and to be there eternally. Also, the fact that William gave up his grave next to his wife so that his son could lay with her makes the reader feel almost proud that in death William finally did something good for the son that he mistreated so much through all of his life.
Throughout the story the reader feels many mixed emotions for William Preston, and the sympathy that we feel at the end is not consistent through the rest of the story. At first we feel that William is a good man, but then our mind is changed various times throughout because of the many cruel things he does, but at the end, we forgive him – this could be Gaskell’s way at the end of the story of showing us that we are all Christians at heart, and that we should all forgive, and the story ends with us feeling sympathy for William.
The story ‘The Half Brothers’ could be said to be sentimental. Oxford School Dictionary defines the word sentimental as ‘An Adjective showing or arousing tenderness or romantic feeling or foolish emotion. ’ But sentiment to most people simply means a surge of many different emotions, or a memory with many emotions attached. An example is the death of a loved one – which can fill a person with sadness or can simply remind that person of lovely memories. To me this is sentiment.
There are parts of the story that are sentimental, in the sense of melodramatic, for example, the number of tragedies that Helen faces, because there are so many of them in a short space of time. Also, the number of deaths could be sentimental because there are so many, but in my opinion it is sentiment, not sentimentality, because it evokes emotions in the reader and, although this is just a story, the reader feels all the sentiment of the characters because of all the techniques used by Elizabeth Gaskell.
William Preston’s last request could also be sentimental because it is almost over the top, but it is still a sign of respect, and a selfless gesture, so it could be more sentiment, it is almost romantic that William wants to be buried at his wife’s feet because it does show such respect and love. And that he gives up the space next to his wife for his son makes the reader feel glad that William learned from his mistakes, and this is showing sentiment.
Another example of sentimentality would be the narrator’s melodramatic speech in the mountains when he believes he is going to die, “I stood still and shouted again; but my voice was getting choked with tears, as I thought of the desolate, helpless death I was to die, and how little they at home, sitting round the warm, red, bright fire, wotted what was to become of me, – and how my poor father would grieve for me, – and it would surely kill him too…” this is sentimental, but in the sense that it is over-done and dramatic, and we get a feeling that the character is rather spoiled and this does not evoke any sympathy within the reader.
I think that the story overall is not sentimental in the sense that it is melodramatic, but it uses sentiment in an effective way. In my opinion there are parts of the story that could be over-emotional, but I think Gaskell’s way of writing it, and the techniques she uses make it work. I don’t think the story is exaggerated as such, I think that it is highlighting some of the problems that you could face in the 19th century, and telling the story of someone who happened to have such bad luck that she faced them all.
Although, because it is unlikely, if you look at it logically, that any one person would have all the bad luck, and hard choices to make as Helen does, it could be said to be over-emotional and too sentimental, but in my opinion, because there are parts of the story that are very touching (for example when the narrator is born and placed next to his brother, and Helen smiles) I think the tragedies and joys are balanced, but because there are such large contrasts between them, the story overall is not sentimental, but filled with sentiment.
Although many people would still say that because there is such a heavy religious theme to the story, and because there are so many disasters the story is over-exaggerated, I personally think it is a story that uses sentiment to touch the reader, and evokes emotion. Although, Elizabeth Gaskell’s constant preaching could have a negative effect on the story because it is so obvious and constantly apparent, but at the time it was written it could’ve been expected and not preachy, it could just seem that Gaskell is preaching because the reader was not around in the 19th century era.
Overall I liked the story ‘The Half Brothers’, I feel that the story is a touching, but tragic story of a family that faces many struggles, but overcomes them, and in the end learns from the mistakes each member has made. I feel that if there were a moral to the story it would be that everyone should learn to forgive and try to act to other people as you would like to have them act to you, and you should appreciate the people around you more, because when they’re gone you realise how much you miss them, and how you should’ve treated them when they were there.
I think that Elizabeth Gaskell’s aim with ‘The Half Brothers’ was to get the reader to exercise Christian tolerance, and I think she succeeded because in the end William Preston is forgiven by the reader, and this shows that the reader has been effected by the story.