Elizabeth Gaskell is unfairly biased against men and blindly prejudiced against women in The Half-Brothers and The Manchester Marriage. Do you agree?

The Half-Brothers and The Manchester Marriage were written a long time ago in Elizabeth Gaskell’s lifetime – which was in the mid-nineteenth century. Roles of men and women were different to what they are right now – they were (as you can expect) a bit more backwards to roles of men and women today.

In order to elaborate whether Gaskell was prejudiced and biased against men and women, we need to see what the stereotypes of males and females were in that era. The Industrial Revolution had just started, so women had started to work (out of the house), but only just. Most women were expected to stay at home, do household chores, look after the children and be dutiful wives. Women of this role were probably stereotyped as being very ‘feminine’- in a sense that they were shy, gentle, dutiful and possibly secondary to men. In some cases, they were seen as to being ‘owned’ by their husbands or fathers, and so were expected to be obedient creatures- at least towards men – and the image of men?

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Well, men were the ‘breadwinners’ of the family – house-husbands were unheard of. They were rulers of the house, in charge of all affairs (except the dishes), and thought themselves to be very practical, which also led to the general characteristic of men being quite unemotional – and therefore efficient.

In the two stories, Gaskell has created two main female roles – Alice and Helen. They are both shy – Helen in The Half-Brothers was “very silent by nature” and Alice from The Manchester Marriage is described as a “quiet, grave little creature.” It is probably no coincidence that BOTH the females have this personality trait – this could be Gaskell’s idea of how all women are.

The women in Gaskell’s stories are also very submissive – another commonplace of women at that time. Alice shows her obedience in the story when she obeys her husband’s order without enquiring as to why: “she knew better than to oppose him.” She shows this meekness a number of times – like when asked to be silent on a matter by her husband, she was “implicitly obedient”. The word ‘implicitly’ how it is in her nature to obey, and so here we get another prejudiced characteristic of women.

The emotional aspect of women’s stamp has also been shown. The women are very emotional in both stories, while the men only seem to cry discreetly or in very extreme cases. Helen’s melodramatic behaviour is demonstrated when we learn that she “cried day and night, day and night”, and again when “Aunt Fanny heard [Helen] cry.” Mrs. Wilson, in The Manchester Marriage does her fair share of crying, too: she “burst(s) into fresh tears at every strange face she sees”. Norah, from the same story, also becomes “deeply hurt” when she learns she is being accused of a minor crime. Clearly, the women are characterised as being very emotional creatures, which fits them into the nineteenth century stereotype quite nicely.

As for the men, there does seem to be the same conception against them. They seem to take charge of all situations – in The Manchester Marriage, when Mrs Chadwick loses her brooch, it is her husband who “began to enquire” about it. When Alice says she’ll question the suspect, Mr Openshaw objects, exclaiming, “No! I must speak to her.” This reveals how the men like to handle the situations, even if it is the woman’s affair, and even if the woman offers to do it.

Men also like to be practical – Mr Openshaw demonstrates this by considering himself “too practical” to even have a wife. Even though he does propose later on in the story, when he does he hides any emotion, proposing in as an “indifferent voice as he could assume.” Here, you see a man in the story being unemotional about a sensitive a matter as proposing! William Preston in The Half-Brothers also appears as unemotional – he “always kicked whenever he saw” his stepson’s dog, and he would try to get his shepherd “to speak of [his stepson’s] faults.” Frank, from The Manchester Marriage, also seems to fit this generalization of men. Although he cares for his wife, his love is “violent”, which gives the image of being the opposite of loving and gentle. Gaskell seems to be portraying men as unemotional human beings, but is she correct in doing so?

Before that question can be answered, more areas of the different characters still need to be explored. Although uptil now in this essay it seems as though man and women in Gaskell’s stories fit into categories, there is still another side to the characters…

Take Mr Openshaw, who, by reading this essay, seems like an unemotional control freak. He does have a nicer side to himself. This is shown when he “cut short his dinner-hour” to find a toy for a child he hardly knew. He also gave Alice a life that was “happier than it had ever been before” by marrying her. Furthermore, he is described as having a “warm heart.”

The other men also seem to have gentler sides to their characters. They do have a little emotion – both Frank and Mr Openshaw cry, though not as much as the women. “Big tears came swelling up” in Frank’s eyes when he saw his daughter, and Ailsie in The Manchester Marriage sees Mr Openshaw “shed the only tears she ever saw fall from his eyes.” William Preston also has a soft side: he asks for God’s forgiveness for his “hardness of heart.” Gaskell can’t be blamed for being ‘unfairly biased’ against men for that.

The women do sometimes escape their stereotypes and take control – Aunt Fanny is a strong character and “she had the charge” of the narrator over William. Norah also demonstrates her capacity when she instructs Frank (a man). She tells him, “…you will leave the house now”. These examples show how women can be authoritative and it makes Gaskell’s portrayal of women a little more balanced.

The pigeonhole that was often associated with women – that they are quiet and obedient creatures is contradicted in both stories. Aunt Fanny is described as “a great talker”, and she is quite dominating – this is presented when “[Helen and William] had not asked her advice”. The reason for mentioning this in the story is that it is a surprising fact; they should’ve asked her opinion – which goes to show her importance in the story. Norah also shows her capacity to disobey a man when she refuses to let Frank stay: “you will leave the house now”, and when she refuses to answer Mr Openshaw’s questions, “You’ll get no answer from me.” This boldness and authoritativeness portrays the women as stronger and more important characters, and also contradicts any prejudices.

The title of the essay, the end of which reads, ‘Do you agree?’ leads me to form my own conclusions, which have to consider all the points explored. It seems to me that in some ways, one could say that the men and women have been portrayed according to the author’s own opinion, and that the women have been stereotyped. To a certain extent, the title’s statement is partly true, but I don’t think that they are ‘blind’ prejudices or ‘unfair’ opinions. The author grew up in a time when men and women had very distinct roles in life, not as overlapping as they are now, and that some of the differences shown just reflects the view as society in that time perceived it. Women probably were more timid and submissive in those days – they didn’t have any rights.

As for the men, the same goes to them. They probably were less emotional and more authoritative – and the stories just reflect that. However, the stories also show that men and women are different and that women can have strong personality traits, and men can be gentle, so I think that Gaskell has portrayed them in a fair manner by showing the different characteristics of men and women, but at the same time allowing the readers to see that they are not all as they seem…so I have to say that I disagree with the title’s statement.

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