Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell's "The Half-Brothers" was first published in The Dublin University Magazine, November 1859. For a text of the story, consult the Heineman school-book in the Windmill series Nineteenth-Century Short Stories, or Professor Mitsuharu Matsuoka's on-line version on his site at the Faculty of Language and Culture, Nagoya University, Japan.

1. In this story, what narrative purposes does Gregory serve?

2. How does Gaskell use Lassie to reveal the natures of the characters?

3. How does the older of the half-brothers feel about the younger?

4. Why does the father (William Preston) unreasonably favour one brother over the other? In what ways is he like the typical step-parent of fairy-tales? How does he differ?

5. Why has Gaskell chosen the first-person, major character narrative point of view?

6. How does a handkerchief play a significant part in the narrator's rescue?

7. What does the following remark reveal about the nature of the narrator?

"I thought it must be the voice of some mocking spirit."

8. Given the narrator's previous treatment of her, explain why you find Lassie's rescuing the narrator plausible or implausible.

9. How is setting employed for more than mere "local colour"?

10. Why does the narrator speak more or less standard English but Gregory north country dialect?

11. Explain whether you find the conclusion of this story tragic or merely sentimental.

12. Gaskell, from Cheshire, moved to Manchester when she married a Unitarian minister whose congregation was in that northern industrial city: which details does she use to make the north-of-England setting convincing?

13. Gaskell was both an associate of and a collaborator with Charles Dickens, editor of Household Words and All the Year Round: how are her style and technique in this story reminiscent of Dickens's in such stories as "George Silverman's Explanation" and "The Haunted Signal-Man"?

What does each of the following tell us about the story?

14. How is the relationship between the two sisters at the beginning of the story significant in terms of the action of the story?

15. To what extent is the story an expose of the social and economic problems of women in the north of England at the time, even though it foregrounds male characters?

16. Explain: "My father was glad, and proud, and sorry, all in a breath. . . ."

17. How does the story of these sons of a Cumberland farmer recall the story of Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament?

18. The protagonist, the younger brother, is sometimes vain and petulant; what environmental factors have conspired to make him so?

19. Why is being trapped in a "pitiless" snowstorm appropriate nemesis for the younger brother?

20. In terms of short story construction, it seems unconventional for Gaskell to introduce a significant character, Lassie, so late in the action: why is this method of bringing in the collie, however, artistically correct here?

21. After using considerable narration, in the last stage of the story Gaskell switches to dialogue: why?

22. What is significant about William Preston's that he be laid "at the foot of the grave" shared by his wife and stepson?


Victorian Web Elizabeth Gaskell

Last modified 25 October 2003