Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067
Alcoholism Alcoholism is a chronic substance abuse disorder. People who suffer from alcoholism are so preoccupied with alcohol that they cannot function normally. In the United Kingdom, as of 2001, alcoholism afflicted 8 percent of the population. In Brontë’s novel, Huntington and several of his friends are heavy drinkers. Lord...
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Alcoholism is a chronic substance abuse disorder. People who suffer from alcoholism are so preoccupied with alcohol that they cannot function normally. In the United Kingdom, as of 2001, alcoholism afflicted 8 percent of the population. In Brontë’s novel, Huntington and several of his friends are heavy drinkers. Lord Lowborough and Mr. Hattersley each reform their lives, unlike Mr. Huntington and Mr. Grimsby. Lord Lowborough and Mr. Huntington both particularly seem affected by traditional signs of alcoholism. They drink to excess often and are even driven to the point of drinking alcohol early in the day to help themselves feel better. Lord Lowborough sees that he has a problem and with supreme effort and willpower, overcomes his addiction. Mr. Huntington never really believes he has a problem and gradually sinks into poor health until he is overcome by an internal injury, resulting from a fall from his horse. His son, Arthur, is made ill by the very smell of alcohol, a physiological sign of his psychological abhorrence for the substance that has so altered his father.
Mr. Hattersley, although he drinks heavily with his friends, does not seem to be afflicted by alcoholism as much as by a lifestyle problem. Once he resolves to spend his time in the country with his wife and stay away from London, he becomes a happy man. Mr. Grimsby, by contrast, continues to live an intemperate life, gambling and drinking and eventually dies in a brawl. The message Brontë is sending to her readers is abundantly clear: overindulgence in alcohol leads to ruin whereas moderation or abstinence leads to happiness.
Piety is the state of being devout, in matters of religion and in matters of social or familial obligations. The daughter of a minister, Brontë was a pious woman who nonetheless struggled with her devotion several times during her short life. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, pious characters are rewarded. Despite extraordinary hardship as a young woman, Helen is firmly devoted to her religion and its moral precepts. Against all odds, she ends up a rich woman, happily married to a loving husband. After she and Mr. Huntington are estranged but still living in the same house, Mr. Hargrave declares his love to her, but Helen is not the least bit tempted from her loneliness. She dislikes Mr. Hargrave, but she is also offended that he would suggest she violate her marriage vows because those vows were made before God and are sacred. Later, at Wildfell Hall, she also rebuffs Gilbert without hesitation for much the same reason except that this time her choice is much more poignant because she does, in fact, love Gilbert.
Other characters rewarded for piety in this novel include Mary Millward and Richard Wilson, who marry after being secretly engaged. They are regarded by many of their neighbors and relations as dull and uninteresting, but Helen quickly forms a friendship with Mary, drawn to her sensibility and strong moral sense. Mary, like Gilbert, is one of the few people who refuse to believe anything scandalous about Helen without knowing her true background. They sense in her a good nature that is not easily bent to vice. Milicent Hattersley is also rewarded in the long run when her husband reforms his bachelor ways and dedicates himself to his family, his religion, and his home. Although wild as a young man, Mr. Hattersley, by his own declaration, was only waiting for someone to rein him in.
Brontë further emphasizes the importance of piety with her numerous biblical references within the story. It was more common in nineteenth-century Western literature to allude frequently to the Bible because of the central importance this text played in people’s lives.
In nineteenth-century England, marriage was an extremely important institution. Many women were raised with the understanding that their job, as young women, was to secure a good husband. For some, good was defined variously, as rich or loving or handsome or titled. Women were encouraged to marry young and to have children. Although there was pressure on men to marry also, education and business experience were important for middle-class men, so that they could maintain themselves, attract a wife, and support a family. Husbands were often considerably older than their wives.
Once married, a woman was in charge of the servants and the children. Her husband was head of the household and responsible for managing the family’s income. In a high-class home, as seen at Grassdale Manor, this responsibility would entail keeping track of rents and inheritance. In a middle-class household, like that of the Markhams, the head managed the family business—in this case, a farm. In Brontë’s novel, marriage is first treated by many of the characters as a stepping stone to some greater goal. Mr. Huntington loves Helen’s beauty and is perhaps driven by his own reckless nature (reckless because he could have married Annabella, with whom he later has an affair). Helen is misguided by ideas of romantic love and duty into the delusion that she can repair her husband’s conduct. Hattersley declares that he wants a pliant wife who will not interfere with his fun, but the truth that comes out later is that he really wants quite the opposite. Milicent is too shy and deferential to argue against the man who claims her hand. Lowborough wishes to be married to ease his loneliness; Annabella wants to be rich and have a title. Jane Wilson also seeks wealth.
What the reader learns over the course of the novel is that marriage is not an institution to be taken lightly. Helen is the guiding light on this point because although she is firmly against Huntington once they are estranged, she does not leave him until she believes their son is in danger. Also, she returns home to nurse her husband when all others have abandoned him. Her example guides Esther Hargrave toward making a more careful choice in mate, although Esther’s delay in marrying angers her family. Gilbert’s love for Helen is somewhat tempered by consideration for her hardship and higher status, but these differences are ultimately not an obstacle because Helen returns his love. Although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not a novel written in a romantic style, it is still much about the courtship and marriage plot, about what realistically works and what does not.