The Half Brothers is a Victorian short story written by Elizabeth Gaskell. Elizabeth Gaskell has written many short stories but this is one of her best. In “The Half Brothers” Gaskell manages to evoke various feelings from her readers such as admiration, pity and disapproval for different characters. Apart from these reactions she evokes from the readers, she manages to build up and hold suspense for long periods of time during the short story. In her later work such as in The Half Brothers she shows sympathy for the problems of the poor Victorian factory workers and those suffering from poor housing.
Gaskell’s strong background of Christian religion has a direct influence on her writing. She is very definite about what is good and what is evil and has a strong moral sense. A contemporary writer of Gaskell’s time, Charles Dickens, commented on her fondness for deathbed scenes and certainly these are a feature of “The Half Brothers” Gaskell makes us feel sympathy and admiration towards the two main characters. She evokes these feelings from us for Helen and Helen’s son Gregory. She manages to make us feel sympathy for Helen because of her circumstances, poverty, isolation and being widowed so young.
Gaskell shows us the extent of her problems and how they are all building up on Helen at once. Gaskell does this in a very effective way by listing all of Helens problem in one long sentence ‘and he fell into ill health, died of consumption before they had been three years man and wife, leaving my mother a young widow of twenty, with a little child just able to walk, and the farm on her hands for four years more by the lease, with half the stock on it dead, or being sold off one by one to pay the more pressing debts, and with no money to purchase more, or even to buy the provisions needed for the small consumption of everyday.
‘ Gaskell emphasises Helens youth a lot ‘scarcely seventeen’. This helps us to feel sorry for Helen, as she was still not mature enough to deal with all these problems. Helen has to carry on with the farm and now to make things a lot worse her little girl dies of scarlet fever; Helens problems are now excessive ‘as if my mother’s cup was not full enough’. Gaskell also uses pathetic fallacy to make the funeral scene more poignant.
Gaskell evokes our sympathy once again from us when she says that Helen is now unable to work and unable to support herself now because her eyesight is starting to fail her and is unable to work for the sewing merchant. When Gaskell introduces Preston into the story she brings attention to his age ‘old bachelor long past forty’. We become disappointed for Helen as she marries someone who is twice her age, and even worse someone who she does not even love, she has a good chance now of becoming widowed again.
She wouldn’t naturally chose someone twice her age and the only reason why she is marrying Preston is that he ‘had promised to take good charge of her boy, and let him want for nothing, either in way of keep nor of education’. Gaskell puts a lot of emphasis on his age and is very continues to repeat it, he seems socially inadequate and pathetic by beginning ‘to twirl his hat by the way of being agreement… ‘ The marriage to Preston shows how twisted and distorted her life is, causes for joy are her sorrow, marriage is a joyful time for people but for her it brings distraught – connection to when she was pregnant with Gregory.
Gaskell made it very clear to her audience using explicit language that ‘she did not love him’ – puts it very bluntly. When it comes to Helen’s deathbed scene, she dies just the way she has lived. She doesn’t give up when living or dying ‘uncomplaining patience which she had acted through her life’ – example of how stoical she is. At the last few minutes of her life, Helen smiles at Preston the first ever smile she had during their marriage ‘her first smile at him’ Throughout the story, we see Helen having to go through pain and hardship, time and time again.
She trys to make the best out of a bad situation when her husband dies and leaves her with the farm. Instead of giving up she plans how cope with what little she has left. Helen wants to be a very independent woman. She becomes upset that she cannot provide for her child after losing her eyesight and is unable to work. We admire her for self-respect. Her sense of pride can be seen in how she took to heart ‘that she could no longer support Gregory’. She trys her best to continue on with her life and makes the best of things.
Gaskell emphasis the fact that Helen constantly puts the welfare of her son Gregory at top priority even above her own happiness. When there is not much food to eat, Helen goes without so that Gregory could have more food. There is a connection between this and when she marries Preston – both for the welfare of her child, places her happiness as a last priority. Even though Helen did not love Preston and did not want to marry him, she makes the best of the marriage ‘did all that she could to please……… and a more dutiful wife’ Gregory’s life seems to be similar to his mother’s life in ways.
Ever since Gregory was a small child everyone, apart from his Mother, treated him harshly. Preston takes an immediate disliking to him and begrudges him from the start and was competing for Helen’s affections. Even when Gregory was only a young child and ‘had got into some mischief’ He took out his anger on him. Gaskell is trying to stick up for Gregory by saying ‘as children do’ was suggesting the innocence of the child. Preston creates rivalry between the two for Helen’s love ‘innocently wrestled… ‘ which is not fair on a child, for all it wants is love and attention.