What do you make of the title, “Wives and Daughters: An Everyday Story”? In what way is this an “everyday story”? In what way is it not?
What purpose is served by the opening scene in which Molly awakes for her day of visiting the neighboring aristocratic estate of Cumnor Towers? Which themes of the novel are introduced?
What other novels or novelists may have influenced the writing of Wives and Daughters? For example, how does Gaskell’s focus resemble or differ from that of Jane Austen in Emma, Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre and Villette, or George Eliot in Silas Marner and Adam Bede?
Does Molly enjoy her visit at the Towers? What social criticism is expressed in her reactions and her remarks on her return?
What do we learn about class relationships in the novel’s opening chapters? What position is held by Mr. Gibson? To what other ranks and social classes are we early introduced? (e. g. the Hamleys, the Misses Brownings, Lady Harriet, Mr. Preston, the Hamley’s butler and other servants, etc.)
What is indicated by the social position of women in this society by the description of female characters—e. g., Mrs. Kirkpatrick, the Misses Brownings, the female servants, Mrs. Hamley, etc.
How do their spheres differ from those of the men represented? Is this hampering?
What views are advanced/represented on the education of women? Are Mr. Gibson’s views enlightened? Which of the novel’s characters are attracted to education or books?
What are some features of Gaskell’s style throughout? Which scenes, objects, or emotions are carefully described? What are some ways in which the novel delineates character?
Throughout the novel, which literary topics or authors arouse interest? Which of these are Gaskell’s fellow Victorians? (Tennyson)
What do we know of Mr. Gibson? Which of his traits add interest to the novel? What do we learn of his past romantic life?
Does his relationship to his daughter seem unusual for its period? Would it be unusual today? What circumstances contrive to intensify their bond?
Is Mr. Gibson a good employer—in his own view, your view, and the author’s view? How does he react to his apprentice’s attempt to address a letter to his daughter? Would this be considered wrong by modern standards? Why was it considered wrong by Mr. Gibson?
Do you feel he made a correct/just decision in firing his maid Berthia? How does his servant Jean take revenge?
Does Mr. Gibson’s sudden proposal to a woman he scarcely knows after years as a widower make sense? What are presented as his motives?
Why does he not court Mrs. Kirkpatrick over a longer period of time and develop an assessment of her character?
What does the reader know of Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s past actions and character? What have been her claims to character and respectability? What seem to be her motives for marriage?
Are there cues regarding her past which the reader is later able to recognize as significant?
What rules regarding courtship and the selection of marriage partners seem shared by many of the novel’s characters? For example, what views of the range of appropriate mates are held by Mr. and Mrs. Hamley and Mr. Gibson?
Of which of these views does the author approve, if any?
What are some features of the wedding between Mr. Gibson and Mrs. Kirkpatrick?
What purpose is served by presenting Robert as the least favored Hamley son? By the contrasts between Osberne and his brother?
What causes the marriage of Mrs. Kirkpatrick and Mr. Gibson to be unhappy? Are both to blame?
What are some ways in which Mrs. Gibson restrains Molly’s natural impulses? To what extent does Molly resist? What are some irritating features of Mrs. Gibson’s conversation?
What are important features of the relationship between Mrs. Hamley and Molly? Her relationship to Squire Hamley?
It has been claimed that the character of Robert may be based on Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species had appeared in 1859. What critique of conventional education may be contained in his portrayal?
Why do you think the author chooses Cambridge University rather than Oxford for his education? How rare would a university education have been in the period in which this novel was set? A good scientific education?
Are any scientific issues important to the novel?
What are Molly’s personal traits? Is her behavior consistent with Victorian norms for women? In what ways does she seem “Victorian” rather than modern?
What are some ways in which the author’s views on morality or other topics enter the novel, through the narrative voice or statements by the characters? Which characters are permitted to express her views most directly?
On what basis do Cynthia and Molly become friends? What are some contrasting elements of their characters and abilities? How does their friendship further the novel?
What effect does Cynthia’s presence add to the Gibson family dynamics? To the reader’s understanding of Mrs. Gibson?
What views does Gaskell seem to hold on the importance of relationships between women? Are these central to the book?
What mysteries are introduced the first third of the novel, and what purpose does each seem to serve?
What is added to the plot by the fact that it is Molly who first learns of Osborne’s secret marriage?
What ironic light is cast on Squire Hamley’s views by his son’s marital choice? On Mrs. Gibson’s desire for her daughter to marry the heir of Hamley?
What seems the importance of Lady Harriet to the plot?
What role does gossip play in the novel? Which characters are especially guilty in hastening to tell tales?
On what occasion is Molly the victim of gossip and inference? Who is able to help her clear her name?
What is added to the plot by the account of Osborne’s gradual decline? How does the narrator judge the rift between Osborne and his father?
Is his wife in fact a suitable partner? What is the effect of her appearance in person at Hamley Hall at the time of her husband’s death? Are there melodramatic aspects to the scenes surrounding Osborne’s death?
What important role does Molly play in enabling Osborne’s wife and son to visit Hamley Hall? What is her response to the grieving wife?
What helps reconcile Squire Hamley to the loss of two of his family members? What is Roger’s role in these changes? How has he helped ensure that Osborne’s son will inherit the estate?
What is added to the plot by the revelation of earlier “scandals,” including Cynthia’s prior engagement? What are Mr. Preston’s offences?
In what constituted the “scandal” of Cynthia’s prior relationship with Mr. Preston? Is this portion of the plot perhaps a bit euphemistic?
What has been her criterion in the selection of a marriage partner? That of her mother?
What has been lost by Gaskell’s inability to complete the final chapter? Are the editor’s inserted remarks helpful and appropriate?
To what extent do the characters as portrayed accept or justify the class hierarchies in which they are embedded, and to what extent do they critique or revel against them?
Would you say that the authorial voice behind them is “no respecter of persons,” or does she too justify or normalize some of the class-inflected views of her characters?
Judging by this novel, what do you think is Gaskell’s attitude toward inheritance plots? Toward the view that goodness should be rewarded with unearned wealth?
This novel was written ten years after the publication of North and South, and seventeen years after Mary Barton. Some consider it her best work. How has her writing changed in the intervening years?
Do you agree that this novel is superior to Gaskell’s earlier ones, and if so, in what ways?
Is Wives and Daughters a didactic novel, and if so, what lessons does it attempt to teach? Is it successful in doing so?
What are some strengths of Gaskell’s novel? Do you find weaknesses?