Gcse English Coursework 19th Century Poetry Essay

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How does Elizabeth Gaskell elicit sympathy for Helen, Gregory and even William Preston in the short story ‘The Half-Brothers’?

‘The Half Brothers’ is a story about the struggles of an ordinary family in England in the 19th century written by Elizabeth Gaskell and published in 1858. Elizabeth Gaskell was born in Chelsea, London in 1810; this was the Victorian era, where the role of women was far different to the way it is today. In this short story we can see many characteristics of Elizabeth Gaskell’s own life and the country at the time. For example, one of the tragedies in the story is that Helen’s daughter dies of scarlet fever, Gaskell suffered this same tragedy, but with her son. Also, Gaskell had a religious background, this shows through in her writing, as there is a rather religious theme to the story, and many religious references. In the story, there are three main characters. The first that we read about is ‘Helen’. Helen is the core character in the story because without her, none of the events would take place. She is the mother of Gregory and the narrator and she is also William Preston’s wife. Having married very young and moved away to a rented farm bought by her first husband, Helen is to find that many tragedies await her in later life, such as her husband and her daughter dying, being in serious debt and marrying a man she does not love. The second main character is Gregory. Gregory is Helen’s first son, by her first marriage. Gregory is born into a difficult situation, and there is much tragedy waiting for him, too, such as his step-father (William Preston) having a grudging dislike for him, and then, in the climax of the story, meeting death himself. The last main character is William Preston. He is the wealthiest farmer in the area and asks for Helen’s hand in marriage, but her reluctance to marry, and then talk to him makes William rather cold towards her and Gregory. This story is named ‘The Half Brothers’ because the narrator is Gregory’s younger brother and William Preston’s son. Though we never find out the name of the narrator we find out a lot about his character and his relationship with Gregory, his half brother.

Elizabeth Gaskell shows sympathy first for Helen by illustrating the adversities she had faced in her life, she almost lists these disasters, from debt, to death, to despair, the techniques and descriptions used would make any reader feel Helen’s distress. The story starts with a short sentence to draw you in, and makes you curious: ‘My mother was twice married.’ Instantly you feel a curiosity about the mother character (Helen). She then moves on to tell us that her mother never spoke of her first husband, “She never spoke of her first husband, and it was only from other people that I have learnt what little I know about him.” We get a slight sense of sympathy for the narrator here, because he had to rely on other people to learn about his mother. Elizabeth uses emotive language and alliteration then, “I believe she was scarcely seventeen when she was married to him: and he was barely one-and-twenty.” The alliteration emphasises the age of the young married girl and this is the first time that you feel empathetic and slightly anxious for Helen, because she and her husband are so young to be moving away. “He rented a small farm up in Cumberland, somewhere towards the sea-coast…” Here, the description of the setting is brief, but enough for the reader to once again feel anxious because to be living in the North on the mountains is not a good place for a farm, so again you feel anxious for Helen and her husband, and there is a sense of foreboding disaster. Then, less than a paragraph into the story, the first in a chain of unfortunate events happens to Helen. Elizabeth uses emotive language to portray her husband’s death: “But he was perhaps too young and inexperienced to have the charge of the land and cattle: anyhow his...
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