What is the meaning of the title of Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and does it point to a theme?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The title focuses attention upon the tenant; it is her story, and she is located at Wildfell Hall. The peculiar name for this manor house takes on new significance when the meanings of the compounded words {wild +fell} are considered. Like the story, the meaning of Wildfell has two loci, or two centers of significance, based on the meanings of "wild" and "fell."  

Wild means uncultivated country, as in a wild countryside. Fell is used in Northern England to designate a moor or a highland plateau. Thus the most obvious usage of "wildfell" is that the location of Helen's hidden haven is described: she is at a place that is a uncultivated highland moor. This accords with the mood of the description given by Gilbert that opens the story:

I plodded home from the fields, one cold, damp, cloudy evening towards the close of October.

At another level, "wild" and "fell" take on different significance. Wild can also mean unrestrained violence and can refer to human violence. Fell also means cruel and fierce, which is how Shakespeare uses it in Julius Caesar as spoken by Antony: "All pity choked with custom of fell deeds." At this level, "Wildfell Hall" relates to the important theme of violence among friends and family, a truth that Brontë wanted to expose:  

if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts--this whispering, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes .... (Ann Brontë, "Preface" to Second Edition)


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