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The major conflict is the happiness of Helen and her son Arthur. Having married foolishly, under the mistaken notion that a woman's love can compensate for a man's wrong intent, she finds herself torn between watching her husband mistreat their young son and running away with their child. During that time period, the law gave the man sole rights to his wife and children. For Helen to run away with their son was a dangerous double breach of the law. To survive as fugitives in the home that she had shared with her brother in their childhood, Wildfell Hall, Helen has to live in cautious secrecy. Nosy and gossipy, opinionated neighbors don't help this goal very much!
‘But, my dear, I call that doting,’ said my plain-spoken parent. ‘You should try to suppress such foolish fondness, as well to save your son from ruin as yourself from ridicule.’
‘Ruin! Mrs. Markham!’
‘Yes; it is spoiling the child. ... he should learn to be ashamed of it.’ [...]
My mother attempted to appease her ...; but she ... abruptly turned the conversation.
The second part of Helen's conflicted quest for happiness occurs when a handsome neighboring man (the narrator), Gilbert, develops an affection for her, visiting her and following her about when she paints and eventually growing to love her. She explains the presence of her brother Lawrence by letting Gilbert read her diary, which also reveals the story of her husband, Huntington.
The conflict is resolved when Huntington becomes seriously ill and requires help, which Helen feels it her obligation to give. After nursing Huntington though a long illness, and through a relapse, Helen is freed from her early wrong-headedness and stubbornly arrogant choices by Huntington's death. To add to the resolution, her uncle soon afterward also dies, and Helen is left with his fortune. When Gilbert comes to find her, the resolution is crowned by their engagement and eventual marriage.
‘But this is too much happiness,’ said I, embracing her again; ‘I have not deserved it, Helen--I dare not believe in such felicity: and the longer I have to wait, the greater will be my dread ... a thousand things may happen in a year!--I shall be in one long fever of restless terror and impatience all the time. ....'
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