“The Half Brothers” By Elizabeth Gaskell
“The Half Brothers” is a short nineteenth century story, written by Elizabeth Gaskell, first published in 1858. Elizabeth Gaskell was well known for her ‘fondness’ of deathbed scenes and long, delirious illnesess brought about by grief. The style of her stories contian a lot of over sentimentality, bordering on the melodramatic.
“The Half Brothers” is set in rural, Victorian Britain, written as a first person narrative, containing many Victorianisms, for example;
“He was barely one- and- twenty…” and the words,
“fain” and “bade”.
“Of Mice and Men is a twentieth century novel, written by John Steinbeck in 1937, as a third person narrative. It is set on a ranch, in rural America. The language used contains many Americanisms such as,
“…jungle-up…,” meaning to set up camp. Again, this story is sentimental.
The characters in both books come from a poor social background.
The narrator in “The Half Brothers” is autobiographically portraying his family background. He mentions his mother’s first husband who died of consumption, three years after they were married.
At this time his mother had a young daughter and was pregnant with her second child. This second child was born a week after the daughter died. He was Gregory, the narrator’s half-brother. William Preston was Helen’s second husband, and the narrator’s father.
The two main characters, Gregory and his half-brother were blood relatives but were not close to one another. Gregory was three years older than his half brother but did not feel protective or affectionate towards him. This is in sharp contrast to George and Lennie. They were not related but George felt responsible for Lennie and had affection for him.
Gregory was born one week after the death of his sister. His mother was a widow and at the time of his birth, devastated by the loss of her daughter:
“She just kissed the child, and sat down on the window-seat to watch the little black train of people go winding away…”
This metaphor emphasises her sadness. She was unable to show her emotions until the new baby was born, but:
“His coming seemed to loosen the tears.”
Helen worked for the Great Glasgow Sewing Merchants but her eyesight deteriorated and she could no longer do fine sewing and earn money.
Helen met William Preston who was a wealthy farmer, “long past forty”, Helen was only twenty-three. He offered her marriage and financial security.
“At last William Preston and her were wed.”
Helen continued to give Gregory all her love while she treated William coldly:
“While for him who had given her so much, she had only gentle words as cold as ice.” This simile emphasises her lack of feeling for William Preston. For Gregory she had:
“Love that gushed out like a spring of fresh water.”
This simile and onomatopoeia again shows the depth of her feelings.
William Preston began to resent Gregory and one day lost his temper with him. Helen was pregnant and gave birth that day, ‘before her time’. Helen’s death shortly followed this, leaving the half brothers to be brought up by William Preston and Aunt Fanny. The brothers lived in the same house but had very different upbringings. William Preston and Aunt Fanny lavished affection on the narrator.
Katherine Mason 10 TH S Southmoor 39555
William resented Gregory and Aunt Fanny showed him little attention. Gregory was described as:
“Lumpish and loutish”, the use of alliteration emphasises Gregory’s description. He was also:
“Awkward and ungainly.” Here we see repetition for emphasis. Awkward is almost synonymous to ungainly. We also see a link between Lennie and Gregory; they are clumsy, ‘awkward and ungainly’.
The narrator uses repetition for emphasis again when describing Gregory as “stupid” three times in two sentences. Gregory did badly at school as he was always in trouble and learned very little.
“The school master grew weary of scolding and flogging.” The verb “flogging” is used to portray the severity of the punishment. In contrast, the narrator did well at school and was called:
“The cock of the school.”
We are now at the point of the story where Gregory is 19 years of age and the narrator is 16 years of age.
In this melodramatic and sentimental story, there have already been three deaths. Firstly, Helen’s first husband fell ill and died of consumption after a marriage of three years; the next tragedy was the death of Helen’s first child, a daughter who died of Scarlet fever; the third death was Helen, following the birth of the narrator. This passage illustrates Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘fondness for death bed scenes’.
The death of Helen is described using many Victorianisms and language that the modern reader can’t relate to. The narrator states that his father;
“…would have coined his heart’s blood into gold to save her.” This metaphor emphasises William Preston’s love for Helen.
Elizabeth Gaskell describes Helen’s last moments with great sentimentality. Elizabeth Gaskell gains the reader’s sympathy when she describes how Gregory was brought and laid beside his new half brother in their dying mother’s bed. The narrator says:
“She made him take hold of my little hand.” I think the adjective “little” makes the two small boys seem very vulnerable and the reader feels sympathy for them. In modern day terms, this scene would seem quite “cheesy”.
At the age of 19 the narrator was sent on an errand by his father to a place about seven miles by road but only four miles over the fells. His father warned him to make his return journey by road as the evenings were closing in early and often became misty. Adam, the old shepherd who was now, “paralytic and bedridden” had also warned of a downfall of snow. The narrator decided not to heed the warnings and set off to return over the fells. This situation has similarities to the lead up to Lennie’s death in “Of Mice and Men”. Both men find themselves isolated. As darkness fell, the narrator soon became lost. The narrator states:
“…it seemed so weird and strange in that noiseless expanse of darkness.”
I think that this statement creates an element of fear and suspense. As the snow started to fall, the narrator began to panic losing all sense of direction. Elizabeth Gaskell describes this scene in detail. We begin to picture the black, darkness that surrounds him and his fear, as the ground on which he stood was boggy and threatened to suck him in. All his courage failed him as he started to shout but did not really expect anyone to hear.
“Only the noiseless, pitiless snow kept falling thicker, thicker- faster, faster.” The repetition used in this quote is very effective in that it builds up the suspense and tension for what is about to happen.
The narrator begins to think about his family:
“…how my poor father would grieve for me- it would surely kill him- it would break his heart, poor old man! Aunt Fanny too- was this to be the end of all cares for me?”
This passage is very descriptive. Elizabeth Gaskell builds up the tension by describing the weather conditions and the terrain in detail. The narrator’s emotions are described in such a
Katherine Mason 10 TH S Southmoor 39555
way that we can almost feel his panic and fear. A Victorianism is used to describe how he is lost:
“…and lead me whither I knew not.”
Even though we can feel the terror of the narrator, it is hard to feel sympathetic towards him. He comes across in the story as a rather self-centred person. This is in contrast to Lennie in “Of Mice and Men” who did not understand the situation he was in and became very vulnerable and therefore we felt sympathy for him.
When the narrator was at the height of his fear and beginning to despair, he heard a dog bark:
“Was it Lassie’s bark- my brother’s collie? – An ugly brute, with a white, ill- looking face…”
This comment shows that he is not an animal lover. This comment shows that he is not an animal lover, he was only pleased to hear the dog for his own sake. Gregory, on the other hand loved the animal and would spend a lot of time alone with it. Here sees another link to Lennie as he also loved animals and sometimes preferred their company to humans.
The dog was called Lassie and it is ironic that since this book was written, many Hollywood films were made about a heroic dog named Lassie who went to people’s rescue.
Shortly after the narrator heard the dog’s bark, Lassie appeared out of the night followed by Gregory, “Wrapped in his Maul.”
Gregory insisted that they start walking, but admitted that he was unsure of which direction to take.
“…I have lost the right gait homewards.”
Gregory bore the cold weather better than the narrator, who was not used to being out on the hills. As the narrator became more and more weak and drowsy, Gregory wrapped him in his shawl and told him to lie down in the shelter of a rock. He tied a handkerchief, which Aunt Fanny had hemmed for the narrator, around Lassie’s neck and commanded the dog to return home. This was their only chance. Gregory lay beside the narrator to warm him and they held hands. This was reminiscent of how they had both been placed by the side of their dying mother after the narrator’s birth.
Lassie made it home and guided rescuers back to the two half brothers. The rescuers found the narrator wrapped in Gregory’s shawl and coat, cold but alive. Gregory was in shirtsleeves with an arm over the narrator and a quiet smile on his face. He was dead.
Gregory died in a deserted place beside his half brother. He sacrificed his life for him. Lennie also died in a deserted place with George. George sacrificed Lennie’s life because he knew he was a danger to himself and others.
We could not help feeling sympathetic towards Lennie, he never meant any of the bad things he did, and only dreamt of a life with George and rabbits. Lennie was
unaware that he was about to die. Gregory knew the risks of the fells and chose to risk his life to save his half brother. He had had a miserable life and was treated as an outsider by his family. I don’t think he valued his life very highly.
I think that the melodramatic reaction of William Preston to Gregory’s death was because he felt guilty. He gave him nothing he was alive but said that he would have:
“…blessed him as my son- had he lived.” The reader knows that if he had lived, this would not have happened. His desire to have Gregory laid at the foot of the narrator’s, mother’s grave was meant to impress others, to make amends for the past. I don’t find it very convincing.
After George shot Lennie, he did not need to justify his actions. He felt he had done the right thing.
I prefer John Steinbeck’s style of writing to Elizabeth Gaskell’s as it is much easier to understand. He creates his characters and atmosphere in a convincing way without all the melodrama used by Elizabeth Gaskell.
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