Sample Discussion Topics for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Glen Downey, Ph. D., Department of English, University of British Columbia

Chapters 1-15

1. In the opening chapter, Gilbert and Fergus are explaining to their mother what they have spent the day doing. What is the significance of this brief scene?

2.What is the significance of the first description we get of Wildfell Hall in the long third paragraph of Chapter 2?

3. Chapter 3 deals with the question of how to raise a young boy. What do you make of this debate, and does the novel come down on one side or the other?

4. Near the end of Chapter 6, Gilbert observes his mother and sister making busy preparations in the kitchen. How do you interpret the inclusion of this scene?

5. Fergus often says things out loud that others would only dare whisper in private. What do you think about his comments to Helen Graham in Chapter 7 when he suggests that gossiping is a kind of game? Is it?

6. Chapter 9 makes a big deal out of "eyes." What is their importance to this point in the novel?

7. In Chapter 12, Markham debates whether or not he should reveal his love to Helen. What do we make of the language he uses in trying to convince himself to do so?

8. Take a close look at the encounter between Gilbert and Mr. Lawrence in Chapter 14. How would you characterize Bronte's depiction of the assault?

Chapters 16-22

1. In Chapter 16, Helen's aunt uses the language and imagery of military engagement to describe courtship. How consistent is Bronte with the use of this metaphor, and why do you think she uses it?

2. Helen says that she is an excellent physiognomist: someone who can determine a person's character by their looks. Do you think Bronte supports the science of physiognomy, or is she critiquing it in her novel?

3. What do we make of Helen's thought processes in the long opening paragraph that begins Chapter 18?

4. In Chapter 18, what is the significance of the fact that Helen is unable to adequately draw Huntingdon's portrait?

5. What is the significance of hunting in this part of the novel?

6. In Chapter 20, what is the significance of the part played by Helen's uncle?

7. The early stages of Chapter 22 find Huntingdon revealing that Lowborough is a recovering gambling addict. What is the significance of his description of the evening when Lowborough finally gives up gambling?

Chapters 23-43

1. What is the significance of Helen's father being an alcoholic?

2. Why is Helen deceived by the profligate Huntingdon, and yet always seems to be on her guard against the far less offensive Hargrave?

3. What analogy can be made between Helen's difficulties in checking Hargrave's advances in the chess game and her inability to draw Huntingdon's portrait (and thereby, "contain" him)?

4. The language of chess can make for all manner of innuendo and double meaning. Support this idea with reference to the chess game between Helen and Walter.

5. What are the similarities and differences between the "Two Evenings" in Chapter 33?

6. In Chapter 37, Helen is attempting to do her best to avoid Walter Hargrave's attentions. What are some of the differences between Hargrave's pursuit of Helen, and Gilbert's pursuit of her earlier in the novel?

7. Do you ever have the sense that Helen's characterization as a moral woman goes overboard--if so, is this a weakness in Bronte's writing or is there something else at work here?

8. Why does Bronte allow Hattersley to be reformed and yet makes Huntingdon pay for his profligacy with his life?

Chapters 44-53

1. Chapter 45, in which Gilbert is reconciled both to Helen and her brother, reminds us that there are a great number of parallel episodes in the novel. What are the effects of some of these parallel scenes?

2. In Chapter 46, Gilbert takes a great deal of delight in nursing Mr. Lawrence back to health. What are the reasons he gives and what is to be made of the language with which he describes this experience?

3. In Chapter 50, Gilbert tells Halford--and therefore, us--what has happened to some of the other characters in the story. What is Bronte's point in having Gilbert do this?

4. What is to be made of the fact that the novel ends with Gilbert's voice and not Helen's? Is this merely what needs to happen from a purely structural point of view, or is there something more disturbing at work?

5. The field of literary onomastics examines the significance of names and naming in literature. What is the significance of Bronte's use of names in the novel?


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