Though there is controversy over Brontë's characterizations, one view is that Helen, the heroine and tenant of Wildfell Hall, is harsh and secretive. She perhaps has goodness of nature hidden underneath, but her circumstances bring the unpleasant side of her nature forward. This is clearly seen when Arthur, her son, climbs a wall and nearly falls head-first to potential disaster. Gilbert saves him and calms him by letting him pet Sancho, his setter. Helen comes in search of Arthur and exposes both her fear and her harshness when she demands of Gilbert that he return the boy at once.
‘Give me the child!’ she said, in a voice scarce louder than a whisper, but with a tone of startling vehemence, and, ... fixing upon me her large, luminous dark eyes ... quivering with agitation.
There are definite circumstances that justify her fear and deportment. Yet when these are well and truly past with Huntingdon's death and she can revert to her peaceful nature from before her disquietude, she retains her harshness. This is seen in her conversation with Gilbert after she has received an inheritance from her Uncle:
Helen suddenly snatched [the rose] from my hand, threw it out on to the snow, ... and withdrew to the fire. [...]
‘You did not understand my gift,’ said she--‘or, what is worse, you despised it. I’m sorry I gave it you; ....'
One view of Gilbert, the other main character, holds that he is dissatisfied with his life and disgruntled to be "a sort of gentleman farmer" as his father was before him. Gilbert aspired to unspecified greater things and was encouraged in this by his mother. So both must have been disappointed by the dying wish of Gilbert's father that he follow in his father's footsteps:
I ... succeeded him in the same quiet occupation, not very willingly, for ambition urged me to higher aims, and self-conceit assured me that ... I was burying my talent in the earth, and hiding my light under a bushel.
In this state of discontent, Gilbert derives contentment from the sociability promised by a light in the window and the flirtations of the parson's daughter. This bespeaks Gilbert's dependence upon social engagements to keep his spirits up. This trait is important later when he first sets eyes upon Helen while in church and thinks he would rather admire her from afar than be admitted to the social circle her hard expression, with narrow, compressed lips, would seem to promise.
there was a slight hollowness about the cheeks and eyes, and the lips, ... were a little too thin, a little too firmly compressed, and ... [showed] no very soft or amiable temper; ....
Helen and Gilbert are both arrogant, selfish, foolish people who become angry at little cause, yet who are kind and devoted to those whom they love. Both are capable of sacrifice, but, perhaps, only Gilbert is capable of change as a person:
so deeply was I absorbed in thinking ... what I ought to do or say upon the occasion; whether to give way to my feelings or restrain them still.