Social Class System
The 19th century gave way to various artists, poets, and authors, which criticized and illuminated the society they were raised in. Emily Bronte, one of six siblings, published her only novel, Wuthering Heights, during an era in which social prejudice and classism were at its peak. Often overshadowed by her sister’s, Charlotte, literary works, Emily’s novel was not recognized for its literary merit by 1800 critics. It was not until many years later that Wuthering Heights became popular for its frank criticism of society’s social class system and the betrayal exhibited in most romance novels.
Gothic novels create feelings of gloom, mystery, and suspense and tend to be sensational and dramatic. Common topics of these novels include incest, diabolism, necrophilia, or the supernatural. Also, oftentimes the author crosses the boundaries of two elements, such as life/death, light/dark, and consciousness/unconsciousness. Sometimes the story describes impropriety, taboos, and fears of social chaos or emotional collapse. The Gothic is prevalent in various literature, plays, and media we encounter in our everyday lives. Gothic elements have been adopted by mainstream writing with many authors using it in their novels, like, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
Wuthering Heights is not merely a Gothic novel, but it undeniably contains Gothic elements. Similar to the Gothic, boundaries are crossed, specifically, love crossing the boundary that precariously separates life and death and Heathcliff's transgression through the social class system. Furthermore, Bronte’s novel contains Gothic trappings of “imprisonment, escape, flight, the persecuted heroine, the heroine wooed by a dangerous and a good suitor, ghosts, necrophilia, a mysterious foundling, and revenge”. The Wuthering Heights estate is considered to be the traditional Gothic castle, and Catherine’s appreciation of nature is similar to many Gothic characters. “Like the conventional Gothic hero-villain, Heathcliff is a mysterious figure who destroys the beautiful woman he pursues and who usurps inheritances.” Necrophilia is suggested when Heathcliff views Catherine's corpse and wants to be buried next to her. Also, some critics have concocted the controversial idea that Catherine and Heathcliff engaged in an incestuous relationship. Either because they were raised as brother and sister or because Heathcliff may be Catherine's illegitimate half-brother.
Emily Bronte was always in the shadow of her sister’s, Charlotte, literary accomplishes, such as her most renowned novel Jane Eyre.However, by the 1880s critics started considering Emily’s novel Wuthering Heights to be a greater achievement than Charlotte's. Charlotte's description of her sister as an “unconscious artist” who “did not know what she had done” was disapproved with Charles Percy Sanger’s analysis of Wuthering Heights. In 1826, Sanger organized the chronology of the novel, which affirmed that Emily’s meticulously planned the novel. To this day, critics still debate about the structure of the novel. Mark Schorere believes it is one of the most “carefully constructed novels in English”. However, Albert J. Guerard views it as a “splendid” and “imperfect” novel which Emily is overtaken by. Even Emily’s supporters and admirers perceived her as an “unequal genius”.
The double is a common literary technique of Gothic novels. In Wuthering Heights, Cathy and Hareton’s love doubles that of Heathcliff and Catherine. The novel itself tells two stories, and therefore the second half of Wuthering Heights doubles the first. Although criticized by literary critics, the structure of the novel can be understood when analyzed from a psychological perspective. The novel begins approximately thirty years after the beginning of the narration and only a few months before the end of the story. Bronte’s complex writing technique is evident in the narrative style she uses when alternating between the two characters of Lockwood and Nelly. The story is told through eyewitness accounts of events by Lockwood, then by Nelly. Lockwood's narration is responsible for shaping the framework of the novel while Nelly’s section recounts the specific details of the personal lives of all the characters because she witnessed them firsthand. Because Lockwood and Nelly have different emotional expressions and styles, together their narrations provide a complete story.
Lockwood writes in an educated and eloquent language by using complex sentences and longer phrases. His style appears to be more sophisticated than Nelly’s. In Chapter 15, Lockwood states that he transcribe the rest of the story in Nelly’s words without alterations. Like Lockwood, Nelly is a narrator, as well as a character. She is the housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange and used to one at Wuthering Heights, therefore she has eyewitness accounts of the events happening in each household. Her narrative style differs from Lockwood’s because it uses plain and colloquial language, but that does not imply that her narration is worse. Because it is detailed and interesting, it is more likely to engage the audience’s attention. Her narrative is dramatized with immediacy and energy, which make it the story feel authentic. By using dialogue, the action of the characters seem to play out freely and not feel recreated by the narrator. Therefore, the characters appear vivid and real, which allows them a more intimate connection between the reader and the characters.
Catherine’s father, Mr. Earnshaw, finds Heathcliff as a little boy living alone in the streets and decides to give him a home. When Heathcliff arrives at the estate, the love story between Catherine and him begins. The two children are always together, playing and working in the fields. When they run together into the moors, they find a place of liberty and of free rein. They preferred to roam in the unknown together because when they were in each other’s company it was bliss. They enjoy the beauty of freedom and they forget everything when they are together again.
Catherine and Heathcliff share an innocent love in their childhood, which resembles the love a wife and husband on whom they rely on to keep them safe. The love is not tumultuous and passionate, instead, it holds them gently and shields them from the cruelties of life. They do not question why they love each other because they know that their relationship provides them with safety and unity. In their childlike minds, Catherine and Heathcliff do not attempt to rationalize their love like adults. They do not try to break down their love into components to analyze and judge it. Love is the truth, not a choice but a natural necessity. By not interpreting the meaning of their love, Catherine and Heathcliff are in an innocent state of true love.
Heathcliff was deprived of love during his childhood living on the streets of Liverpool. Because he believes Catherine will not accept the reality of loving an imperfect person, he feels crucified again and again when a rich and handsome suitor, like Edgar, court her. He concludes that he needs to change something about himself for Catherine to view him as a perfect husband. Instead of accepting and wallowing in his fate, he sees there is a possibility for a future with Catherine if he can meet her expectations. When Catherine begins to abandon their love because she values her social reputation more than her relationship with Heathcliff, he leaves to improve his social standing and to be worthy of her love. However, instead of acknowledging his true identity Heathcliff performs the role that society expects from him. As a result, the outcome of this "choice" is that his identity will never be more than a performance of his Otherness. This realization leaves his final demise hollow and unfulfilling. Therefore, Heathcliff becomes an integral role of his environment, which is ironically fulfilling to everyone but himself.
Because Emily’s mother died early in her childhood, she did not receive the love and motherly nurture children desire. Emily’s aunt replaced the mother role of her deceased mother but was a practical-minded old maid with a limited capacity for warmth. Furthermore, her father considered his parental duty to extend only to feeding his children and providing for their education. Like every other home during the 19th century, there existed predefined gender roles in a patriarchal family. Emily’s exposure to society’s expectations throughout her life and the grief she experienced in the early stages of her development transferred to her writing. Suffering and social class system are both major themes of Emily’s novel. Status and family’s reputation defines how one is perceived by society and whether they are viewed as a respected member of society. One must be wealthy in order to raise their social status and care diligently about their reputation.
Catherine confides in Nelly that she loves Edgar for his attractiveness and more importantly, his wealth. She explains that she could never marry Heathcliff because he had been degraded by Hindley, Catherine’s brother when Mr. Earnshaw died. He stripped Heathcliff of his education and forced him to perform working class tasks. When Heathcliff learns about how Catherine betrayed their love he disappears for several years. When he returns, he has transformed from a ragged, poor ploughboy into a well dressed, educated, and wealthy man. Everyone is astounded at his transformation because he no longer retains the marks of his former degradation. Heathcliff successfully transgressed the social classes by acquiring land and becoming rich.
In the short story Vengeful Creditor by Chinua Achebe, the African government offers free primary education. This allows servants and lowly paid workers to return to school. The Emenikes, educated and affluent, are unsatisfied when they lose their servants. However, the government suspends the free program due to higher than expected enrollment. Most of the poor work as servants because they do not have an extensive educational background.Furthermore, the servants no longer want to be paid cheaply and they demand higher wages after joining the program. This relates to Wuthering Heights because when Mr. Earnshaw died, Hindley ensured that Heathcliff did not have an education. This was done with malicious intent because Hindley was aware of the detrimental effects it would have on Heathcliff’s social standing. If an individual was not educated, then they were most likely in the working class. Hindley purposefully did this to Heathcliff and made him work with his hands on the farm. In both Vengeful Creditor and Wuthering Heights, education has a direct impact on one’s position in the social class system.
Lord David Cecil countered the idea that Emily was unaware of what she had accomplished with her novel by identifying the operation of cosmic forces as the central controlling force in the novel. Cecil's theory was a critical milestone for the critic response to Wuthering Heights because the principle of calm and storm provided a comprehensive interpretation which presented the novel as a unified whole. Cecil believed that the forces of calm and storm are neither good nor evil, but were neutral elements. Therefore he concluded that Emily’s novel was not concerned with moral issues and judgments, instead, it presented, in Cecil's view, a pre-moral world. Cecil proposed that the individual's nature and passions do not die with death. Instead, death gave them the freedom to express their individuality and gave them everlasting fulfillment. This explains why Catherine’s spirit haunted Heathcliff and the other characters. Cecil's theory of the “cosmos” being present in Wuthering Heights is just one of the many interpretations attempting to prove the novel is unified in structure.
Bronte’s novel originates from a deep level of the unconscious mind. One side of it represents the presence of the two opposites in regard to existence: the good and the evil, the light and the dark. Before creating Wuthering Heights, Emily made known precisely the thought process of her story in the poem My Comforter.
“So stood I, in Heaven’s glorious sun And in the glare of Hell.
My spirit drank a mingled tone
Of seraph’s song and demon’s moan...”
In this poem, Bronte explores the existence of two opposites, Heaven and Hell. As she strives towards achieving Wholeness, Bronte appears to have suffered unbearably from the intertwined tone of Heaven and Hell. Her soul experienced the intolerable pain of the two opposites and she expressed this in Wuthering Heights. Witnessing good and evil, Bronte felt they were not separate elements but a mixture similar to nature which is comprised of day/night, rain/sunshine, and coldness/heat.
Catherine and Heathcliff’s naive perception of their love in their young, imaginative minds was shattered when they were exposed to the societal standards expected of them. The betrayal and suffering comprise only half of the story of Wuthering Heights. The other half is the finiteness of life and the moral and spiritual development of the characters throughout their lifespan. The themes of the story are to explore the maturation of the characters during the 1800s and how society influences their childhood and their perception of purity and innocence.