Brontë, Emily: Title Commentary

views updated


Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights


SOURCE: Ward, Mary A. Introduction to Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, pp. xviii-xxxix. London: John Murray, 1899.

In the following excerpt, Ward discusses the genesis of Wuthering Heights from the influence of German Romanticism to the unique temperament of Brontë herself.

Emily Brontë, like her sister, inherited Celtic blood, together with a stern and stoical tradition of daily life. She was a wayward, imaginative girl, physically delicate, brought up in loneliness and poverty, amid a harsh yet noble landscape of hill, moor and stream. Owing to the fact that her father had some literary cultivation, and an Irish quickness of intelligence beyond that of his brother-clergy, this child of genius had from the beginning a certain access to good books, and through books and newspapers to the central world of thought and of affairs. In 1827, when Emily was nine, she and her sisters used to amuse themselves in the wintry firelight by choosing imaginary islands to govern, and peopling them with famous men. Emily chose the Isle of Arran, and for inhabitants Sir Walter Scott and the Lockharts; while Charlotte chose the Duke of Wellington and Christopher North. In 1829, Charlotte, in a fragment of journal, describes the newspapers taken by the family in those troubled days of Catholic emancipation and reform, and lets us know that a neighbour lent them 'Blackwood's Magazine,' 'the most able periodical there is.' It was, indeed, by the reading of 'Blackwood' in its days of most influence and vigour, and, later, of 'Fraser' (from 1832 apparently), that the Brontë household was mainly kept in touch with the current literature, the criticism, poetry, and fiction of their day. During their eager, enthusiastic youth the Brontë sisters, then, were readers of Christopher North, Hogg, De Quincey, and Maginn in 'Blackwood,' of Carlyle's early essays and translations in 'Fraser,' of Scott and Lockhart, no less than of Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge. Charlotte asked Southey for an opinion on her poems; Branwell did the same with Hartley Coleridge; and no careful reader of Emily Brontë's verse can fail to see in it the fiery and decisive influence of S. T. C.

So much for the influences of youth. There can be no question that they were 'romantic' influences, and it can be easily shown that among them were many kindling sparks from that 'unextinguished hearth' of German poetry and fiction which played so large a part in English imagination during the first half of the century. In 1800, Hannah More, protesting against the Germanising invasion, and scandalised by the news that Schiller's 'Räuber' 'is now acting in England by persons of quality,' sees, 'with indignation and astonishment, the Huns and Vandals once more overpowering the Greeks and Romans,' and English minds 'hurried back to the reign of Chaos and old Night by distorted and unprincipled compositions, which, in spite of strong flashes of genius, unite the taste of the Goths' with the morals of the 'road.' In 1830, Carlyle, quoting the passage, and measuring the progress of English knowledge and opinion, reports triumphantly 'a rapidly growing favour for German literature.' 'There is no one of our younger, more vigorous periodicals,' he says, 'but has its German craftsman gleaning what he can'; and for twenty years or more he himself did more than any other single writer to bring the German and English worlds together. During the time that he was writing and translating for the 'Edinburgh,' the 'Foreign Review' and 'Fraser,'—in 'Blackwood' also, through the years when Charlotte and Emily Brontë, then at the most plastic stage of thought and imagination, were delighting in it, one may find a constant series of translations from the German, of articles on German memoirs and German poets, and of literary reflections and estimates, which testify abundantly to the vogue of all things Teutonic, both with men of letters and the public. In 1840, 'Maga,' in the inflated phrase of the time, says, indeed, that the Germans are aspiring 'to wield the literary sceptre, with as lordly a sway as ever graced the dynasty of Voltaire. No one who is even superficially acquainted with the floating literature of the day can fail to have observed how flauntingly long-despised Germanism spreads its phylacteries on every side.' In the year before, (1839) 'Blackwood' published a translation of Tieck's 'Pietro d'Abano,' a wild robber-and-magician story, of the type which spread the love of monster and vampire, witch and werewolf, through a Europe tired for the moment of eighteenth-century common-sense; and, more important still, a long section, excellently rendered, from Goethe's 'Dichtung und Wahrheit.' In that year Emily Brontë was alone with her father and aunt at Haworth, while her two sisters were teaching as governesses. 'Blackwood' came as usual, and one may surely imagine the long, thin girl bending in the firelight over these pages from Goethe, receiving the impress of their lucidity, their charm, their sentiment and 'natural magic,' nourishing from them the vivid and masterly intelligence which eight years later produced Wuthering Heights.

But she was to make a nearer acquaintance with German thought and fancy than could be got from the pages of 'Blackwood' and 'Fraser.' In 1842 she and Charlotte journeyed to Brussels, and there a certain divergence seems to have declared itself between the literary tastes and affinities of the two sisters. While Charlotte, who had already become an eager reader of French books, and was at all times more ready to take the colour of an environment than Emily, was carried, by the teaching of M. Héger acting upon her special qualities and capacities, into that profounder appreciation of the French Romantic spirit and method which shows itself thenceforward in all her books, Emily set herself against Brussels, against M. Héger, and against the French models that he was constantly proposing to the sisters. She was homesick and miserable; her attitude of mind was partly obstinacy, partly, perhaps, a matter of instinctive and passionate preference. She learnt German diligently, and it has always been assumed, though I hardly know on what first authority, that she read a good deal of German fiction, and especially Hoffmann's tales, at Brussels. Certainly, we hear of her in the following year, when she was once more at Haworth, and Charlotte was still at Brussels, as doing her household work 'with a German book open beside her,' though we are not told what the books were; and, as I learn from Mr. Shorter, there are indications that the small library Emily left behind her contained much German literature.

Two years later, Charlotte, in 1845, discovered the poems which, at least since 1834, Emily had been writing. 'It took hours,' says the elder sister, 'to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication.' But Charlotte prevailed, and in 1846 Messrs. Aylott & Jones published the little volume of Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. It obtained no success; but 'the mere effort to succeed,' says Charlotte, 'had given a wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued. We each set to work on a prose tale: Ellis Bell produced Wuthering Heights, Acton Bell "Agnes Grey," and Currer Bell also wrote a narrative in one volume'—'The Professor.' For a year and a half Wuthering Heights, in common with 'Agnes Grey' and 'The Professor,' travelled wearily from publisher to publisher. At last Messrs. Newby accepted the first two. But they lingered in the press for months, and Wuthering Heights appeared at last, after the publication of 'Jane Eyre,' and amid the full noise of its fame, only to be received as an earlier and cruder work of Currer Bell's, for which even those who admired 'Jane Eyre' could find little praise and small excuse. Emily seems to have shown not a touch of jealousy or discouragement. She is not known, however, to have written anything more than a few verses—amongst them, indeed, the immortal "Last Lines" —later than Wuthering Heights, and during the last year of her life she seems to have given herself—true heart, and tameless soul!—now to supporting her wretched brother through the final stages of his physical and moral decay, and now to consultation with and sympathy for Charlotte in the writing of 'Shirley.' Branwell died in September, and Emily was already ill on the day of his funeral. By the middle of December, at the age of thirty, she was dead; the struggle of her iron will and passionate vitality with hampering circumstances was over. The story of that marvellous dying has been often told, by Charlotte first of all, then by Mrs. Gaskell, and again by Madame Darmesteter, in the vivid study of Emily Brontë, which represents the homage of a new poetic generation. Let us recall Charlotte's poignant sentences—

Never in all her life had she lingered over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now. She sank rapidly. She made haste to leave us. Yet while physically she perished, mentally she grew stronger than we had yet known her. Day by day, when I saw with what a front she met suffering, I looked on her with an anguish of wonder and love. I have seen nothing like it; but indeed I have never seen her parallel in anything. Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone. The awful point was, that while full of ruth for others, on herself she had no pity; the spirit was inexorable to the flesh; from the trembling hand, the unnerved limbs, the faded eyes, the same service was exacted as in health.…She died December 19, 1848.

'Stronger than a man, simpler than a child:'—these words are Emily Brontë's true epitaph, both as an artist and as a human being. Her strength of will and imagination struck those who knew her and those who read her as often inhuman or terrible; and with this was combined a simplicity partly of genius partly of a strange innocence and spirituality, which gives her a place apart in English letters. It is important to realise that of the three books written simultaneously by the three sisters, Emily's alone shows genius already matured and master of its tools. Charlotte had a steady development before her, especially in matters of method and style; the comparative dulness of 'The Professor,' and the crudities of 'Jane Eyre' made way for the accomplished variety and brilliance of 'Villette.' But though Emily, had she lived, might have chosen many happier subjects, treated with a more flowing unity than she achieved in Wuthering Heights, the full competence of genius is already present in her book. The common, hasty, didactic note that Charlotte often strikes is never heard in Wuthering Heights. The artist remains hidden and self-contained; the work, however morbid and violent may be the scenes and creatures it presents, has always that distinction which belongs to high talent working solely for its own joy and satisfaction, with no thought of a spectator, or any aim but that of an ideal and imaginative whole. Charlotte stops to think of objectors, to teach and argue, to avenge her own personal grievances, or cheat her own personal longings. For pages together, she often is little more than the clever clergyman's daughter, with a sharp tongue, a dislike to Ritualism and Romanism, a shrewd memory for persecutions and affronts, and a weakness for that masterful lover of whom most young women dream. But Emily is pure mind and passion; no one, from the pages of Wuthering Heights can guess at the small likes and dislikes, the religious or critical antipathies, the personal weaknesses of the artist who wrote it. She has that highest power—which was typically Shakespeare's power, and which in our day is typically the power of such an artist as Turgueniev—the power which gives life, intensest life, to the creatures of imagination, and, in doing so, endows them with an independence behind which the maker is forgotten. The puppet show is everything; and, till it is over, the manager—nothing. And it is his delight and triumph to have it so.

Yet, at the same time, Wuthering Heights is a book of the later Romantic movement, betraying the influences of German Romantic imagination, as Charlotte's work betrays the influences of Victor Hugo and George Sand. The Romantic tendency to invent and delight in monsters, the exaltation du moi, which has been said to be the secret of the whole Romantic revolt against classical models and restraints; the love of violence in speech and action, the preference for the hideous in character and the abnormal in situation—of all these there are abundant examples in Wuthering Heights. The dream of Mr. Lockwood in Catherine's box bed, when in the terror of nightmare he pulled the wrist of the little wailing ghost outside on to the broken glass of the window, 'and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes'—one of the most gruesome fancies of literature!—Heathcliff's long and fiendish revenge on Hindley Earnshaw; the ghastly quarrel between Linton and Heathcliff in Catherine's presence after Heathcliff's return; Catherine's three days' fast, and her delirium when she 'tore the pillow with her teeth;' Heathcliff dashing his head against the trees of her garden, leaving his blood upon their bark, and 'howling, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears;' the fight between Heathcliff and Earnshaw after Heathcliff's marriage to Isabella; the kidnapping of the younger Catherine, and the horror rather suggested than described of Heathcliff's brutality towards his sickly son:—all these things would not have been written precisely as they were written, but for the 'Germanism' of the thirties and forties, but for the translations of 'Blackwood' and 'Fraser,' and but for those German tales, whether of Hoffmann or others, which there is evidence that Emily Brontë read both at Brussels and after her return.

As to the 'exaltation of the Self,' its claims, sensibilities and passions, in defiance of all social law and duty, there is no more vivid expression of it throughout Romantic literature than is contained in the conversation between the elder Catherine and Nelly Dean before Catherine marries Edgar Linton. And the violent, clashing egotisms of Heathcliff and Catherine in the last scene of passion before Catherine's death, are as it were an epitome of a whole genre in literature, and a whole phase of European feeling.

Nevertheless, horror and extravagance are not really the characteristic mark and quality of Wuthering Heights. If they were, it would have no more claim upon us than a hundred other forgotten books—Lady Caroline Lamb's 'Glenarvon' amongst them—which represent the dregs and refuse of a great literary movement. As in the case of Charlotte Brontë, the peculiar force of Emily's work lies in the fact that it represents the grafting of a European tradition upon a mind already richly stored with English and local reality, possessing at command a style at once strong and simple, capable both of homeliness and magnificence. The form of Romantic imagination which influenced Emily was not the same as that which influenced Charlotte; whether from a secret stubbornness and desire of difference, or no, there is not a mention of the French language, or of French books, in Emily's work, while Charlotte's abounds in a kind of display of French affinities, and French scholarship. The dithyrambs of 'Shirley' and 'Villette,' the 'Vision of Eve' of 'Shirley,' and the description of Rachel in 'Villette,' would have been impossible to Emily; they come to a great extent from the reading of Victor Hugo and George Sand. But in both sisters there is a similar fonds of stern and simple realism; a similar faculty of observation at once shrewd, and passionate; and it is by these that they produce their ultimate literary effect. The difference between them is almost wholly in Emily's favour. The uneven, amateurish manner of so many pages in 'Jane Eyre' and 'Shirley;' the lack of literary reticence which is responsible for Charlotte's frequent intrusion of her own personality, and for her occasional temptations to scream and preach, which are not wholly resisted even in her masterpiece 'Villette;' the ugly tawdry sentences which disfigure some of her noblest passages, and make quotation from her so difficult:—you will find none of these things in Wuthering Heights. Emily is never flurried, never self-conscious; she is master of herself at the most rushing moments of feeling or narrative; her style is simple, sensuous, adequate and varied from first to last; she has fewer purple patches than Charlotte, but at its best, her insight no less than her power of phrase, is of a diviner and more exquisite quality.

Wuthering Heights then is the product of romantic imagination, working probably under influences from German literature, and marvellously fused with local knowledge and a realistic power which, within its own range, has seldom been surpassed. Its few great faults are soon enumerated. The tendency to extravagance and monstrosity may, as we have seen, be taken to some extent as belonging more to a literary fashion than to the artist. Tieck and Hoffmann are full of raving and lunatic beings who sob, shout, tear out their hair by the roots, and live in a perpetual state of personal violence both towards themselves and their neighbours. Emily Brontë probably received from them an additional impulse towards a certain wildness of manner and conception which was already natural to her Irish blood, to a woman brought up amid the solitudes of the moors and the ruggedness of Yorkshire life fifty years ago, and natural also, alas! to the sister of the opium-eater and drunkard Branwell Brontë.

To this let us add a certain awkwardness and confusion of structure; a strain of ruthless exaggeration in the character of Heathcliff; and some absurdities and contradictions in the character of Nelly Dean. The latter criticism indeed is bound up with the first. Nelly Dean is presented as the faithful and affectionate nurse, the only good angel both of the elder and the younger Catherine. But Nelly Dean does the most treacherous, cruel, and indefensible things, simply that the story may move. She becomes the go-between for Catherine and Heathcliff; she knowingly allows her charge Catherine, on the eve of her confinement, to fast in solitude and delirium for three days and nights, without saying a word to Edgar Linton, Catherine's affectionate husband, and her master, who was in the house all the time. It is her breach of trust which brings about Catherine's dying scene with Heathcliff, just as it is her disobedience and unfaith which really betray Catherine's child into the hands of her enemies. Without these lapses and indiscretions indeed the story could not maintain itself; but the clumsiness or carelessness of them is hardly to be denied. In the case of Heathcliff, the blemish lies rather in a certain deliberate and passionate defiance of the reader's sense of humanity and possibility; partly also in the innocence of the writer, who, in a world of sex and passion, has invented a situation charged with the full forces of both, without any true realisation of what she has done. Heathcliff's murderous language to Catherine about the husband whom she loves with an affection only second to that which she cherishes for his hateful self; his sordid and incredible courtship of Isabella under Catherine's eyes; the long horror of his pursuit and capture of the younger Catherine, his dead love's child; the total incompatibility between his passion for the mother and his mean ruffianism towards the daughter; the utter absence of any touch of kindness even in his love for Catherine, whom he scolds and rates on the very threshold of death; the mingling in him of high passion with the vilest arts of the sharper and the thief:—these things o'erleap themselves, so that again and again the sense of tragedy is lost in mere violence and excess, and what might have been a man becomes a monster. There are speeches and actions of Catherine's, moreover, contained in these central pages which have no relation to any life of men and women that the true world knows. It may be said indeed that the writer's very ignorance of certain facts and relations of life, combined with the force of imaginative passion which she throws into her conceptions, produces a special poetic effect—a strange and bodiless tragedy—unique in literature. And there is much truth in this; but not enough to vindicate these scenes of the book, from radical weakness and falsity, nor to preserve in the reader that illusion, that inner consent, which is the final test of all imaginative effort.

Nevertheless there are whole sections of the story during which the character of Heathcliff is presented to us with a marvellous and essential truth. The scenes of childhood and youth; the up-growing of the two desolate children, drawn to each other by some strange primal sympathy, Heathcliff 'the little black thing, harboured by a good man to his bane,' Catherine who 'was never so happy as when we were all scolding her at once, and she defying us with her bold saucy look, and her ready words;' the gradual development of the natural distance between them, he the ill-mannered ruffianly no-man's-child, she the young lady of the house; his pride and jealous pain; her young fondness for Edgar Linton, as inevitable as a girl's yearning for pretty finery, and a new frock with the spring; Heathcliff's boyish vow of vengeance on the brutal Hindley and his race; Cathy's passionate discrimination, in the scene with Nelly Dean which ends as it were the first act of the play, between her affection for Linton and her identity with Heathcliff's life and being:—for the mingling of daring poetry with the easiest and most masterly command of local truth, for sharpness and felicity of phrase, for exuberance of creative force, for invention and freshness of detail, there are few things in English fiction to match it. One might almost say that the first volume of 'Adam Bede' is false and mannered beside it,—the first volumes of 'Waverley' or 'Guy Mannering' flat and diffuse. Certainly, the first volume of 'Jane Eyre,' admirable as it is, can hardly be set on the same level with the careless ease and effortless power of these first nine chapters. There is almost nothing in them but shares in the force and the effect of all true 'vision'—Joseph, 'the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself, and fling the curses to his neighbours;' old Earnshaw himself, stupid, obstinate and kindly; the bullying Hindley with his lackadaisical consumptive wife; the delicate nurture and superior wealth of the Lintons; the very animals of the farm, the very rain- and snowstorms of the moors,—all live, all grow together, like the tangled heather itself, harsh and gnarled and ugly in one aspect, in another beautiful by its mere unfettered life and freedom, capable too of wild moments of colour and blossoming.

And as far as the lesser elements of style, the mere technique of writing are concerned, one may notice the short elastic vigour of the sentences, the rightness of epithet and detail, the absence of any care for effect, and the flashes of beauty which suddenly emerge like the cistus upon the rock.

'Nelly, do you never dream queer dreams?' said Catherine suddenly, after some minutes' reflection.

'Yes, now and then,' I answered.

'And so do I. I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after and changed my ideas: they've gone through and through me like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind. And this one; I'm going to tell it—but take care not to smile at any part of it.'

Nelly Dean tries to avoid the dream, but Catherine persists:—

'I dreamt once that I was in heaven.'

'I tell you I won't hearken to your dreams, Miss Catherine! I'll go to bed,' I interrupted again.

She laughed, and held me down; for I made a motion to leave my chair.

'This is nothing,' cried she: 'I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy! That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other. I've no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heatchliff so low, I shouldn't have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.'

'The angels flung me out into the middle of the heath—where I woke sobbing for joy'—the wild words have in them the very essence and lifeblood not only of Catherine but of her creator!

The inferior central scenes of the book, after Catherine's marriage, for all their teasing faults, have passages of extraordinary poetry. Take the detail of Catherine's fevered dream after she shuts herself into her room, at the close of the frightful scene between her husband and Heathcliff, or the weird realism of her half-delirious talk with Nelly Dean. In her 'feverish bewilderment' she tears her pillow, and then finds

childish diversion in pulling the feathers from the rents she had just made, and ranging them on the sheet according to their different species: her mind had strayed to other associations.

'That's a turkey's,' she murmured to herself; 'and this is a wild duck's; and this is a pigeon's. Ah, they put pigeons' feathers in the pillows—no wonder I couldn't die! Let me take care to throw it on the floor when I lie down. And here is a moor-cock's; and this—I should know it among a thousand—it's a lapwing's. Bonny bird; wheeling over our heads in the middle of the moor. It wanted to get to its nest, for the clouds had touched the swells, and it felt rain coming. This feather was picked up from the heath, the bird was not shot: we saw its nest in the winter, full of little skeletons. Heathcliff set a trap over it, and the old ones dared not come. I made him promise he'd never shoot a lapwing after that, and he didn't. Yes, here are more! Did he shoot my lap-wings, Nelly? Are they red, any of them? Let me look.'

'Give over with that baby-work!' I interrupted, dragging the pillow away, and turning the holes towards the mattress, for she was removing its contents by handfuls. 'Lie down, and shut your eyes: you're wandering. There's a mess! The down is flying about like snow.'

I went here and there collecting it.

'I see in you, Nelly,' she continued, dreamily, 'an aged woman: you have grey hair and bent shoulders. This bed is the fairy cave under Penistone Crags, and you are gathering elf-bolts to hurt our heifers; pretending, while I am near, that they are only locks of wool. That's what you'll come to fifty years hence: I know you are not so now. I'm not wandering: you're mistaken, or else I should believe you really were that withered hag, and I should think I was under Penistone Crags; and I'm conscious it's night, and there are two candles on the table making the black press shine like jet.'

To these may be added the charming and tender passage describing Catherine's early convalescence, and her yearnings—so true to such a child of nature and feeling—for the first flowers and first mild breathings of the spring; and the later picture of her, the wrecked and doomed Catherine, sitting in 'dreamy and melancholy softness' by the open window, listening for the sounds of the moorland, before the approach of Heathcliff and death:—

Gimmerton chapel bells were still ringing; and the full mellow flow of the beck in the valley came soothingly on the ear. It was a sweet substitute for the yet absent murmur of the summer foliage, which drowned that music about the Grange when the trees were in leaf. At Wuthering Heights it always sounded on quiet days following a great thaw or a season of steady rain.

Lines which, for their 'sharp and eager observation,' may surely be matched with these of Coleridge, her master in poetic magic, her inferior in all that concerns the passionate and dramatic sense of life:—

All is still,
A balmy night! and though the stars be dim,
Yet let us think upon the vernal showers
That gladden the green earth, and we shall find
A pleasure in the dimness of the stars.

Of what we may call the third and last act of Wuthering Heights, which extends from the childhood of the younger Catherine to the death of Heathcliff, much might be said. It is no less masterly than the first section of the book and much more complex in plan. The key to it lies in two earlier passages—in Heatchliff's boyish vow of vengence on Hindley Earnshaw, and in his fierce appeal to his lost love to haunt him, rather than leave him 'in this abyss where I cannot find her.' The conduct of the whole 'act' is intricate and difficult; the initial awkwardness implied in Nelly Dean's function as narrator is felt now and then; but as a whole, the strength of the intention is no less clear than the deliberate and triumphant power with which the artist achieves it. These chapters are not always easy to read, but they repay the closest attention. Not an incident, not a fragment of conversation is thrown away, and in the end the effect is complete. It is gained by that fusion of terror and beauty, of ugliness and a flying magic—'settling unawares'—which is the characteristic note of the Brontës, and of all that is best in Romantic literature. Never for a moment do you lose hold upon the Yorkshire landscape and the Yorkshire folk—look at the picture of Isabella's wasteful porridge-making and of Joseph's grumbling rage, amid her gruesome experience as a bride; never are you allowed to forget a single sordid element in Heathcliff's ruffianism; and yet through it all the inevitable end developes, the double end which only a master could have conceived. Life and love rebel and reassert themselves in the wild slight love-story of Hareton and Cathy, which break the final darkness like a gleam of dawn upon the moors; and death tames and silences for ever all that remains of Heathcliff's futile cruelties and wasted fury.

But what a death! Heathcliff has tormented and oppressed Catherine's daughter; and it is Catherine's shadow that lures him to his doom, through every stage and degree of haunting feverish ecstasy, of reunion promised and delayed, of joy for ever offered and for ever withdrawn. And yet how simple the method, how true the 'vision' to the end! Around Heathcliff's last hours the farm-life flows on as usual. There is no hurry in the sentences; no blurring of the scene. Catherine's haunting presence closes upon the man who murdered her happiness and youth, interposes between him and all bodily needs, deprives him of food and drink and sleep, till the madman is dead of his 'strange happiness,' straining after the phantom that slays him, dying of the love whereby alone he remains human, through which fate strikes at last—and strikes home.

'Is he a ghoul or vampire?' I mused. 'I had read of such hideous incarnate demons.' So says Nelly Dean just before Heathcliff's death. The remark is not hers in truth, but Emily Brontë's, and where it stands it is of great significance. It points to the world of German horror and romance, to which we know that she had access. That world was congenial to her, as it was congenial to Southey, Scott, and Coleridge; and it has left some ugly and disfiguring traces upon the detail of Wuthering Heights. But essentially her imagination escaped from it and mastered it. As the haunting of Heath-cliff is to the coarser horrors of Tieck and Hoffmann, so is her place to theirs. For all her crudity and inexperience, she is in the end with Goethe, rather than with Hoffmann,1 and thereby with all that is sane, strong, and living in literature. 'A great work requires many-sidedness, and on this rock the young author splits,' said Goethe to Eckermann, praising at the same time the art which starts from the simplest realities and the subject nearest at hand, to reach at last by a natural expansion the loftiest heights of poetry. But this was the art of Emily Brontë. It started from her own heart and life; it was nourished by the sights and sounds of a lonely yet sheltering nature; it was responsive to the art of others, yet always independent; and in the rich and tangled truth of Wuthering Heights it showed promise at least of a many-sidedness to which only the greatest attain.


  1. For any one who has waded through Hoffmann's Serapion-brüder—which has become for our generation all but unreadable,—in spite of the partial explanation which the physical violence of these tales may perhaps offer of some of the minor detail of Wuthering Heights, there is only one passage which memory will in the end connect with Emily Brontë. The leading idea of the stories which make up the Serapion-collection—if they can be said to have a leading idea—is that all which the imagination really sees—man or goblin, monster or reality—it may lawfully report. 'Let each of us try and examine himself well, as whether he has really seen what he is going to describe, before he sets to work to put it in words.' The vividness of the Romantics,—as compared with the measure of the Classicalists; there is here a typical expression of it, and it is one which may well have lingered in Emily Brontë's mind.


SOURCE: Senf, Carol A. "Emily Brontë's Version of Feminist History: Wuthering Heights." Essays in Literature 12, no. 2 (fall 1985): 201-14.

In the following essay, Senf discusses the Victorian interest in the idea of history as a context for Wuthering Heights, countering the prevailing critical view that Brontë's authorial vision was limited only to her own time and place.

Perhaps more than the people of any period before or since, the Victorians were acutely aware of history, an awareness fostered by both intellectual developments and political and social events and one that, at mid-century, resulted in university reform and the establishment of history as a legitimate profession. The immediate result for most Victorians, however, was not a systematic approach to either the past or the present but simply a profound interest in anything that might be included under a broad umbrella called "history."

When first confronted with the artifacts of ancient civilizations, which explorers brought home with them, the Victorians began to think about the past; and they were made even more conscious of the changes that take place over time by what Walter L. Reed calls "theories and events in a world … beyond history … by new scientific theories in biology and geology (Werner, Hutton and Lyell, Lamarack, Cuvier, and Darwin) and of course most profoundly by the political events of the Revolution in France."1 Immersed in a historical period that was changing before their eyes, they attempted to come to grips with the present and even to predict the future. As a result, the nineteenth century was, as Andrew Sanders states, "an acutely historical age" which "believed in the efficacy of the study of the past … avidly collected the relics and the art of the past" and "rejoiced … in the idea of being enveloped by Time, past, present, and future."2

In addition, James C. Simmons explains that people in the nineteenth century became aware that the past was "profoundly different from the present," a realization "nurtured and encouraged by the profusion of historical romances which provided many Victorian readers with their sense of the historical past."3 He adds, however, that writers (he cites Dickens, Kingsley, Edwin Abbott, Dean Frederic W. Farrar, and Cardinals Wiseman and Newman as examples) often used the historical romance "as a medium for the discussion of contemporary problems; the past for them would reflect the present."4 Similarly, Roy Strong, who in Recreating the Past: British History and the Victorian Painter links Victorian history painting to the historical novel and to history itself, reinforces the notion of relevance: "History to the Victorians was practical wisdom. It was presented in nationalistic terms as the evolution of a people and their culture."5 Both Simmons and Strong thus assert that Victorian artists often chose historical subjects that helped them come to terms with their own times.

While many Victorian writers probed the past for subject matter, others revealed their interest in history by focusing on their own time instead of on some remote period. As a result, when one thinks of the great nineteenth-century writers of history, the names Carlyle, Macaulay, Ranke, Michelet, Burckhardt, and Tocqueville come to mind. When one thinks of historical novelists, one is likely to think of Lytton, George Eliot, or Thackeray, but not of Emily Brontë. Sanders, Simmons, and Lukács, for example, don't even mention her in their studies of the historical novel; and Keith Sagar's study of Wuthering Heights restates the prevailing view that she was uninterested in history: "Emily Brontë had no social life, few relationships outside the household, and neither knew now cared about the world beyond Haworth."6 However, another view was expressed by Arnold Kettle who thirty years ago reminded readers that Wuthering Heights takes place "not in a never-never land but in Yorkshire;"7 and recent studies by Terry Eagleton, Rosemary Jackson, David Musselwhite, and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar also focus on her response to the times in which she lived.8

Although Wuthering Heights will not meet everyone's definition of history, not only because those definitions are both complex and varied, but because history includes so many facets (including the current systematic studies of political and constitutional development, biography, social evolution, and economics), it is, in fact, a profoundly historical work. First, because Wuthering Heights narrates events that took place during a particular period (in this case, the early nineteenth century, when England experienced rapid industrialization and repercussions from the recent revolution in France)9 and because it creates vivid representatives of that period, it meets Hayden White's definition of history: "a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse that purports to be a model, or icon, of past structures and processes in the interest of explaining what they were by representing them. "10 More important, Wuthering Heights also provides a symbolic reading of the movement of history, one that—like those of Brontë's contemporaries, Macaulay, Marx, and Engels—reveals a belief in evolutionary development: that each age evolves from the previous one and that history itself reveals a gradual and progressive movement for the betterment of man, not only materially but intellectually and spiritually as well. However, Brontë in one way surpasses these historians—by writing a novel that, unique among literature of its time, reveals that this evolution towards a greater social good will not be complete until women enter the mainstream of history.

To argue that Wuthering Heights explores the question of historical evolution is not to argue that Brontë was necessarily influenced by the same thinkers who influenced other Victorians.11 A highly original writer, Brontë assimilated the history that was taking place around her, material from the past, and her own uniquely personal vision. Although a work of genius, Wuthering Heights was not created in an intellectual vacuum, for Brontë was familiar with classical historical texts, including Goldsmith's History of Rome, Hume's History of England, and Scott's Life of Napoleon Bonaparte;12 she was also a pragmatic observer who watched history unfold. An avid newspaper reader like the rest of her family, she had an additional reason for keeping abreast of current events. Because she had taken some of the money that she and her sisters had inherited from their aunt and invested it in the railways, she watched the newspapers carefully and, according to Charlotte, read "'every paragraph and every advertisement in the newspapers that related to railroads.…'"13 Furthermore, as Eagleton explains, she lived during a historical period when the impact of modern industrialism brought far-reaching social consequences to the area where she lived,14 a period in which the power base shifted from rural areas to large industrialized towns and cities. It was a period of intense and sometimes violent confrontations between individuals and classes, a time that resembled the conclusion of Lockwood's first dream when "Every man's hand was against his neighbour."15 Such enormous social changes had a profound effect on the lives of individuals.

To construct a feminist history, it is necessary to combine an interest in history with an interest in women as a unique group of people. There are no letters to indicate that Emily shared Charlotte's interest in "the woman question," but evidence other than Wuthering Heights reveals her interest in women's condition. Gérin, for example, uses Gondal material to suggest Brontë's preoccupation with strong women characters16 and also alludes to Emily's interest in Queen Victoria. Apparently concerned with the manner in which Victoria would use the immense power given to her, Brontë named one of her Gondal heroines Augusta to assert her "regal status" and to comment on "the known fact that the name had been refused the Princess Victoria at her baptism by her uncle George IV because it had sounded ominously imperious in his ears."17

Reading history and newspapers and being interested in Queen Victoria and the condition of women do not make Emily Brontë unique, however, since these interests were shared by other people of her time. The mark of her genius is that she combines so many insights into historical evolution and the condition of women into a highly original work. In Wuthering Heights, when she writes her version of historical development, she incorporates her awareness that most women do not have Victoria's access to power. Thus she concludes her novel with a vision of what might happen if the relationships between the sexes (relationships that give men power over women and certain men power over other men and make women either passive victims or sly manipulators) so familiar to patriarchal history were replaced by something both more feminine and more egalitarian. Moving away from the mythic world of Gondal to the more realistic world of Wuthering Heights, she also chooses a realistic heroine, the younger Catherine, to embody her feminist vision, the final stage in her history. No longer a queen, her heroine has power over only her own life.

Brontë reaches this concluding vision by examining three distinct historical stages in the novel, each represented by a particular family or person: the Earnshaws, yeoman farmers, are the remnants of an earlier historical period;18 the Lintons, landed gentry, are the ruling class at the time the novel was written;19 and Heathcliff, an odd and seemingly contradictory mixture of primitive nature and modern capitalism, is the power of the future.20 A natural man at the beginning, Heathcliff later acquires the tools of patriarchy and uses these tools to bring about his revenge. When he returns after his three-year absence, he is no longer merely a representative of nature. The great unknown, Heathcliff is a product of both an urban and a rural environment. Although both Catherine and Mrs. Dean associate him with the unchanging forces of nature, Mr. Earnshaw apparently finds him in Liverpool; and Heathcliff presumably acquires his later sophistication in the city as well. As both a natural force and a representative of modern capitalistic development, however, Heathcliff opposes the gentry, the group in power at the time the events of the novel take place. In both cases, he is a vital force of unpredictable power.

In addition, in the courtship and projected marriage of Cathy and Hareton, Brontë reveals the peaceful merger of capitalistic economic power with the traditional political power of the landed gentry, a merger that would have been familiar to her contemporary readers. She also adds a feminist twist because their mutual acceptance of one another provides a glimpse of a more egalitarian, more feminine future.

Moreover, although Wuthering Heights suggests that Brontë shares the Victorian belief that history is progressive, it also reveals that, more than many other historians, Brontë realizes that the violence and irrationality of the primitive past have been transformed, not eliminated, in the present.21 She reveals, for example, that violence, which is an integral part of Hindley's power over others, remains in Edgar Linton, the despicable Linton Heathcliff (who acquires his love of power in the city, not from his father), and the effete Lockwood—described by one critic as Brontë's view of "what is wrong with the present state of society."22 Early in the novel, she has Lockwood unwittingly reveal his desire for power, his skill at psychological violence, and his ability to manipulate others when he relates his seacoast experience:

I "never told my love" vocally; still if looks have language, the merest idiot might have guessed I was over head and ears: she understood me at last, and looked a return—the sweetest of all imaginable looks. And what did I do? I confess it with shame—shrunk icily into myself like a snail; at every glance retired colder and farther; till, finally, the poor innocent was led to doubt her own senses.…By this curious turn of disposition, I have gained the reputation of deliberate heartlessness, how undeserved, I alone can appreciate.

(p. 15)

Although Lockwood relates this episode as proof that he is unworthy of a "comfortable home," it is evident from the conclusion of the passage that he sees nothing intrinsically wrong in his overt manipulation of the young woman. A complete egotist, Lockwood focuses on his behavior, not on the victim of it. Brontë, however, uses this brief episode both to illustrate a shift in the modern world from physical violence to psychological cruelty and to indicate that men continue to have inordinate power over women. As Gilbert and Gubar comment, "Thus if literary Lockwood makes a woman into a goddess, he can unmake her at whim without suffering himself."23 Brontë is also aware that, although the sheer physical power that men have over other men is diminishing, men still have power over women. The young woman of Lockwood's choice, like Catherine Earnshaw and most other women during this historical period, had apparently learned to consider herself only in relation to men. Having no strong sense of individual identity, she comes to doubt her sanity as well as her intrinsic value when she sees herself through Lockwood's indifferent eyes.

Lockwood's rejection of the young woman at the seacoast is not as openly violent as the behavior of either Heathcliff or Hindley, but it is Brontë's first indication that supposedly civilized men can be both cruel and perverse. Later in the novel, she uses Lockwood's response to the little ghost girl to reveal that the civilized man can be as openly violent as his primitive ancestors:

As it spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child's face looking through the window. Terror made me cruel; and finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes.…

(p. 30)

This is one of the most horrifying scenes in the book precisely because Lockwood's violence is so openly directed against a weaker individual and because only a day's residence in the primitive world of the Heights unleashes the violence masked by Lockwood's urbanity. Similarly, when Heathcliff returns, his civilized veneer serves merely to mask the primitive nature of his passions.

The violence of Lockwood and Heathcliff and the presence of ghosts in the novel are Brontë's ways of suggesting that history—although progressive—does not move in a straight line; shadows from the past continue to exert their influence on the present. The cruelty and exploitiveness of the male characters also provide objective reasons for changing patriarchal history by introducing gentleness and cooperation, virtues generally associated with women—in short, of making history more feminine.

Brontë is aware that history is more than the objective events, that it is also the subjective narration (or interpretation) of these events. Lockwood, the novel's first narrator, is also the novel's chief historian. Therefore, it is significant that the first word in the text is the date "1801,"24 a date which immediately focuses the reader's attention on Brontë's interest in the recent past. (Had she been interested only in writing a romance, she could have chosen any historical period or even a timeless era, such as those she had used in the Gondal saga. Instead she chooses Yorkshire and a period of significant historical change in England, when the Industrial and French Revolutions made most Englishmen aware of change over time.) Almost immediately thereafter, Lockwood confirms his interest in history by commenting on the antiquity of the house:

I detected the date '1500,' and the name 'Hareton Earnshaw.' I would have made a few comments, and requested a short history of the place from the surly owner, but … I had no desire to aggravate his impatience, previous to inspecting the penetralium.

(p. 14)

Initially more interested in the remote past than in the present and curious about the origins of Wuthering Heights, Lockwood is soon caught up in the history of his own times when he is confronted by the strange behavior of Catherine Heathcliff and the even more enigmatic behavior of Heathcliff himself.

Brontë reveals, however, that the historian must understand the past before he can come to grips with the present; and she emulates one method common to nineteenth-century historians when she confronts Lockwood and the reader with a number of artifacts from the past.25 The first, of course, is the house itself, which Lockwood attempts to "read" as the remnant of a past civilization.26 Named for a distant patriarch and therefore literally a relic of the past, the house remains an enigma to Lockwood. More important, however, are the artifacts he discovers at its interior when a snowstorm forces him to spend the night in Catherine Earnshaw's childhood bedroom, the heart of the house.

The first of the artifacts in the bedroom is "nothing but a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small—Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton" (p. 25). Nothing but a name! Yet that repetition of names is a key that unlocks the mystery of patriarchal history as well as the history of Wuthering Heights. Although she is not a trained historian, Emily Brontë has insights that surpass those of Hume, Macaulay, and John Richard Green,27 historical writers who attempted to expand their readers' understanding of historical development by showing that history includes social as well as political development. Brontë's genius is that she also shows how the lives of women and other groups previously ignored even by these historians can influence the course of historical development.

The story of Wuthering Heights is not the story of Hareton, the patriarch, or even of Heathcliff, the character who initially piques Lockwood's curiosity. It is the almost buried story of Catherine, mother and daughter. Although Lockwood continues to be more interested in Heathcliff and never understands this fact, the reader eventually discovers that decyphering the mystery behind Wuthering Heights necessitates understanding these three names as well as the name over the door—in short, understanding both patriarchal history and women's hitherto buried history. This revelation—that understanding history includes understanding the victims of patriarchal history as well as the patriarchs themselves—makes Emily Brontë seem so much more modern than most Victorian historians. (The most notable exception to this generalization is another woman novelist, George Eliot.)

The second artifact—the marginalia in her book, which Lockwood describes as "faded hieroglyphics"—records a period of innocence in the first Catherine's history before she was aware of the power that patriarchy has over her. The freedom of the marginalia thus contrasts with the names on the windowsill, names that suggest the limited choices—spinsterhood or marriage—available to Catherine.

Lockwood's curiosity about these artifacts, his confrontation with the little ghost girl, his interest in Heathcliff's response, and his romantic fascination with the younger Catherine combine with his illness to bring him to Ellen Dean, the novel's second historian, who explains the significance of the "faded hieroglyphics."

Unlike Lockwood, Mrs. Dean is an "eyewitness" to most of the events in Wuthering Heights. However, while Mrs. Dean should be a more reliable historian, Brontë reveals that both she and Lockwood are to be distrusted because their prejudice in favor of the present makes them ineffectual historians, or at least historians who are guilty of distortion. Lockwood, for example, shows that he is definitely the product of his historical period when he mistakes a brace of dead rabbits for Catherine's house pets. Although, like most gentlemen of his time, he goes hunting—he mentions, for example, his invitation "to devastate the moors of a friend, in the North" (p. 241)—Lockwood is apparently unfamiliar with people who hunt for food instead of sport (or with people who keep game in the front parlor). Accustomed to pampered and protected women with a sentimental attachment to their pets, he is even more uncomfortable with the younger Catherine's recognition that the dogs at the Heights are working animals, retrievers and herding dogs, and with her refusing both his assistance and his offer of companionship. Such behavior (as well as the fact that, while he does not work, he can travel to the seacoast and rent Thrushcross Grange for a year) suggests that he is a member of the landed gentry. (The sons of factory owners and tradesmen at this period were more likely to join their fathers in business.) His overall fastidiousness reveals him as something of a dandy as well.

Ellen Dean, on the other hand, appears to be a simple rustic, but she is actually much more. Characterized by Gilbert and Gubar as "a stereotypically benevolent man's woman,"28 she is also allied with the forces of the landed gentry. For example, when she first begins to tell her story to Lockwood, she makes a curious slip: "Hareton is the last of them, as our Miss Cathy is of us—I mean, of the Lintons" (p. 37). This statement might be interpreted simply as a servant's identification with the family she serves except that Nelly had been reared at the Heights and is currently employed by Heathcliff. Moreover, she identifies herself with the Lintons when she confesses with pride that she is familiar with books—the way by which history is usually transmitted: "I have read more than you would fancy, Mr. Lockwood. You could not open a book in this library that I have not looked into, and got something out of also … it is as much as you can expect of a poor man's daughter" (p. 59). That Nelly is a reader links her conclusively with the bookish Lintons. Furthermore, confessing her familiarity with books may be her way of telling Lockwood and the reader that she is also familiar with the wills and other documents by which patriarchal culture and patriarchal power are transmitted from generation to generation. She certainly knows the law well enough to act for Cathy until the younger woman learns to manage her affairs. A "poor man's daughter" and a servant to the gentry, Mrs. Dean recognizes power when she sees it. More important, being a survivor, she generally sides with that power or, at least, rarely challenges it openly.

Oriented to the present instead of to the past (with Hindley's death Mrs. Dean shifts allegiance from the yeomanry to the gentry) or the future, Lockwood and Mrs. Dean are confused by Heathcliff and Catherine and the primitive forces that they represent. Lockwood initially believes that Healthcliff is simply a man like himself whose "reserve springs from an aversion to showy displays of feeling—to manifestations of mutual kindliness" (p. 15), and Nelly's story does not convince him that the forces of raw nature continue to influence the present. Therefore, believing that these primitive forces have been removed forever, he concludes the novel with the pious assertion that the dead are at rest. Similarly, Ellen Dean admits her preference for Edgar over Heath-cliff.29 She is extremely critical of the adult Catherine's desire to be "a girl again, half savage, and hardy, and free" (p. 107); and she doesn't even try to understand the peculiar love that Heathcliff and Catherine feel for one another. Her response to Heathcliff's suffering at Catherine's death is characteristic of her prejudices:

He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast getting goaded to death with knives and spears.

I observed several splashes of blood about the bark of the tree, and his hand and forehead were both stained; probably the scene I witnessed was a repetition of others acted during the night. It hardly moved my compassion—it appalled me.

(p. 139)

Incapable of understanding this asocial passion, Mrs. Dean prefers the younger Catherine because her "anger was never furious; her love never fierce; it was deep and tender" (p. 155). Because she cannot understand the primitive forces in Catherine and Heathcliff, her rendering of events is bound to be distorted.

While the first half of the novel focuses on the past, the second half, which details Heathcliff's revenge, follows a pattern familiar to Brontë's contemporaries. Heathcliff, who represents primitive, natural forces in the first part of the book, comes to resemble many nineteenth-century capitalists after his return; and he uses the sophisticated strategies by which many of them gained economic and political power during the period. His acquisitions of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange is typical of both their using wealth gained through industry or trade to acquire landed property and their marrying into established families to gain respectability or power or both.30

Although recognizing this historical pattern is easy, interpreting its significance is much more difficult. Thus it is not surprising that critical responses to the conclusion of Wuthering Heights have been mixed. Q. D. Leavis, Tom Winnifrith, and John Hewish believe that the old world has yielded to the new while Rosemary Jackson and Gilbert and Gubar believe that the conclusion is the victory of tradition over innovation.31 However, because the text suggests a slightly different view of history, I want to offer a third interpretation of this conclusion, a period that begins with Lockwood's departure from Thrushcross Grange and his return the following year.

Bored with the misanthropic role he had chosen to play and with his attempts to understand Wuthering Heights, Lockwood leaves the area and vows never to pass another winter there. Before departing, however, he concludes with his version of how that history might have ended: "What a realization of something more romantic than a fairy tale it would have been for Mrs. Linton Heathcliff, had she and I struck up an attachment, as her good nurse desired, and migrated together into the stirring atmosphere of the town!" (pp. 240-41). Had Brontë wished merely to reproduce what was happening in England at the time she wrote, this migration from country to city would have been the logical conclusion. However, because that marriage would ignore both Catherine's needs and Lockwood's desire for power over women, it would merely repeat the other unhappy marriages in the novel—the first Catherine's marriage to Edgar or Isabella's even more disastrous marriage to Heathcliff. Wanting to create a version of history that is both more feminine and more egalitarian, a history in which women are no longer the victims of patriarchal history, Brontë concludes her novel with a different kind of marriage.

When Lockwood returns, the new historical epoch has already begun. Heathcliff is dead, and Cathy stands to inherit his fortune, which includes both the Heights and the Grange. Recognizing that economic independence gives women some freedom from masculine power (the first Catherine, having no money of her own, had been more or less forced to make a "good marriage"), Brontë makes her heroine an heiress like the heroines of her sister Charlotte's novels—Jane Eyre, Shirley Keeldar, and Lucy Snow. However, realizing that true power and identity demand more than wealth, Brontë undercuts the importance of wealth in her heroine's future. Thus, she has Cathy plan to marry her cousin Hareton at a period when her fortune would automatically belong to her husband.

Although the projected marriage might appear to be another version of the conventional happy ending which will produce more unhappiness by giving Hareton absolute power over Cathy, it is not, as Leo Bersani states, "as if Emily Brontë were telling the same story twice, and eliminating its originality the second time."32 Bersani is correct to focus on the numerous repetitions in the novel. However, he doesn't recognize that the marriage of Cathy and Hareton provides a unique twist to the familiar plot and illustrates a shift in the history of patriarchal power.

To understand that difference fully, the reader must understand that Hareton and the younger Catherine differ from their predecessors in several important ways. When Cathy enters his life, Hareton is what Heathcliff terms "a personification of my youth, not a human being" (p. 255). Hareton is thus in the same state of graceless nature that Heathcliff was when the first Catherine said that it would degrade her to marry him; however, Hareton is apparently without Heathcliff's greed or his desire for power over others. The younger Catherine is similarly different from her mother and from her two aunts. True heir to the Lintons and therefore conscious of rank and power, she initially treats her boorish cousin like a servant and attempts to make both him and the servants subject to her commands. However, disinfranchised from her economic and social heritage, Catherine soon learns to interpret life differently and to recognize Hareton's human equality. The scene in which she makes peace with him is proof of these changes. Instead of responding with the Earnshaw violence or the Linton manipulation, Catherine plants a friendly kiss on Hareton's cheek to make peace. When this gesture fails to elicit the desired response, she wraps a book as a present and asks Mrs. Dean to be her messenger: "And tell him if he'll take it, I'll come and teach him to read it right … and, if he refuse it, I'll go upstairs, and never tease him again" (p. 248). Rather than try to dominate him or seduce him (an attempt to gain power that is typically used by those without power), Cathy leaves Hareton free to choose.

Hareton chooses to accept her offer, and the two become as oblivious to Heathcliff's threats as the first Catherine and Heathcliff had been to the violence of Hindley and Joseph. Despite the apparent similarities, however, the two relationships are quite different. The love between Heathcliff and Catherine had been primitive, violent, elemental, and frequently as cruel as those natural elements. Catherine confesses, "I am Heathcliff—he's always, always in my mind—not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself—but as my own being" (p. 74). The love between Hareton and Cathy, on the other hand, is more conscious and mature, partially because it begins when they are older, partially because it develops over books. However, unlike the other "readers" in the novel, Cathy and Hareton use these written texts (the legacy of patriarchal culture) to establish a relationship that extends far beyond anything they might have learned directly from the texts or from the human models around them. For example, the pragmatic Mrs. Dean reads books to understand the power she sees around her. The romantics, Lockwood and Isabella, attempt to model their lives on the material they find in popular romances and fairy tales; and Gilbert and Gubar demonstrate that these romantic fictions reinforce the traditional sexual roles that give power to men. Thus Lockwood pretends to worship women, but his "phrases, like most of his assumptions, parody the sentimentality of fictions that keep women in their 'place' by defining them as beneficent fairies or amiable ladies."33 The same works that have taught Lockwood to exert power over women have prepared Isabella to be a passive victim:

Ironically, Isabella's bookish upbringing has prepared her to fall in love with (of all people) Heathcliff. Precisely because she has been taught to believe in coercive literary conventions, Isabella is victimized by the genre of romance. Mistaking appearance for reality, tall athletic Heathcliff for 'an honourable soul'…she runs away from her cultured home in the naive belief that it will simply be replaced by another cultivated setting.34

Another reader, Edgar Linton asserts his power over his wife by ignoring her needs for human warmth and escaping to his library; and Joseph uses the printed word to justify his harsh behavior. In a marvelous scene, which briefly hints at the social and economic power given even to a factotum like Joseph and denied to virtually all women, he "solemnly spread his large Bible on the table, and overlaid it with dirty bank-notes from his pocket-book, the produce of the day's transactions" (p. 249). These people, no matter how well they have learned the lessons of partriarchy and the way to gain power over others, are hardly healthy role models for the people who will initiate a new stage in historical development.

Although Brontë is silent about the titles of the books Cathy and Hareton discuss, practically any book would have reinforced the human role models found in their society. Even though they are victims of patriarchal power, Cathy and Hare-ton reject the role models they saw around them or found in books, refusing to follow them blindly. Therefore, as the first members of a more egalitarian historical stage, they are different from their contemporaries because their relationship is based on cooperation and trust rather than on dominance. Eagleton notices this difference although he seems unaware of its larger significance: "The culture which Catherine imparts to Hareton in teaching him to read promises equality rather than oppression, an unemasculating refinement of physical energy."35 Thus the younger Catherine and Hareton—strong individuals nonetheless—use their strength to support, not to manipulate, the other. In this way, they are unlike their equally strong ancestors.

By using literal genealogy to symbolize economic and cultural development, Brontë shows how one historical stage evolves naturally into the next. Despite apparent repetitions, the conclusion is unlike the beginning; and it provides a glimpse—merely a glimpse—at a feminist version of history. For example, the Hareton Earnshaw who prepares to leave Wuthering Heights is not the same Hareton whose name is carved over the door; and Cathy is his strong and equal partner, not his nameless bride. Her history will not be scrawled at the interior of the house—hidden from the world—as her mother's had been: it will not be a faded hieroglyphic, but the articulate history of an equal partnership.

Free of oppressive models, Cathy and Hareton represent the next stage of historical development. As a result, Brontë shows that they are not haunted by the past in the same way as Heathcliff and the other characters, including the pragmatic Ellen Dean. Although pretending not to believe that Heathcliff and Catherine walk the moors, she tells Lockwood about the shepherd boy who claimed to see them; and she refuses to stay at the Heights at night. Having rid themselves of their oppressive past, Cathy and Hareton are, as Lockwood grumbles jealously at the conclusion, "afraid of nothing" (p. 265), including the ghosts of an oppressive past.

Having rid themselves of the burden of the past, Cathy and Hareton must leave Wuthering Heights, the masculine house with its hidden feminine center. The move to Thrushcross Grange is not an entirely satisfactory move in terms of historical theory even though Bersani demonstrates that "the Lintons are somewhat squeezed out" by the union of Cathy and Hareton.36 Eliminating the Lintons may be Brontë's way of combining the best of the old with the best of the new. It may also be a concession to the direction in which history was moving at the time Brontë wrote. To ask her to do more is to insist that she write the kind of feminist Utopian fiction that was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman or the kind of science fiction currently being written by feminist writers such as Ursula LeGuin. Such writers have had to leave their society—even their planet—behind. Brontë attempts something much more revolutionary in suggesting that the next stage of historical evolution, the stage of equality, will develop naturally and logically from the old. Having Cathy and Hareton move to Thrushcross Grange is her way of suggesting that they do not have to leave their old world behind.

Having seen too many of the problems associated with traditional marriage, both as symbol and as reality, modern feminists are usually uncomfortable with the anticipated marriage of Cathy and Hareton. However, seeing that it differs from the other marriages in Wuthering Heights, readers should see it as a softening—a feminizing—of patriarchal history, and therefore, as the first tentative step toward a less oppressive world for both men and women.


  1. Walter L. Reed, "A Defense of History: The Language of Transformation in Romantic Narrative," Bucknell Review, 23 (1977), 42.

    Georg Lukács also credits the French Revolution with making people aware of historical progression: "It was the French Revolution, the revolutionary wars and the rise and fall of Napoleon which … made history a mass experience.… During the decades between 1789 and 1814 each nation of Europe underwent more upheavals than they had previously experienced in centuries. And the quick succession of these upheavals gives them a qualitatively distinct character, it makes their historical character far more visible than would be the case in isolated, individual instances: the masses no longer have the impression of a 'natural occurrence.'" Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1962), p. 23.

  2. Andrew Sanders, The Victorian Historical Novel 1840-1880 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), p. 1.

    In his study of the Victorian historical novel, James C. Simmons documents the nineteenth-century interest in history: "The volume of historical research swelled to such proportions that … for the thirty-five year period between 1816 and 1851 books on history and geography far outstripped fiction, titles in the latter category being a full third fewer than in the former." James C. Simmons, The Novelist as Historian: Essays on the Victorian Historical Novel, Studies in English Literature, 88 (The Hague: Mouton, 1973), p. 31.

  3. Simmons, p. 27.
  4. Simmons, p. 21.
  5. Roy Strong, Recreating the Past: British History and the Victorian Painter (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1978), p. 32.

    Lukács also connects the interest in history with nationalism when he discusses Scott's historical novels: "He is a patriot, he is proud of the development of his people. This is vital for the creation of a real historical novel, i.e. one which brings the past close to us and allows us to experience its real and true being. Without a felt relationship to the present, a portrayal of history is impossible" (p. 53).

  6. Keith Sagar, "The Originality of Wuthering Heights," in The Art of Emily Brontë, ed. Anne Smith (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976), p. 121.
  7. Arnold Kettle, "Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights," in Twentieth Century Views of Wuthering Heights, ed. Thomas A. Vogler (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 28.
  8. Terry Eagleton, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975); Rosemary Jackson, "The Silenced Text: Shades of Gothic in Victorian Fiction," The Minnesota Review, 13 (1979), 98-112; David Musselwhite, "Wuthering Heights: the unacceptable text," in Literature, Society and the Sociology of Literature (Proceedings of the conference held at the University of Essex, 1977), pp. 154-60; Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979).
  9. John Kenyon, The History Men: The Historical Profession in England Since the Renaissance (Pittsburgh: Univ.of Pittsburgh Press, 1983) also links the Victorian interest in history to the French Revolution: "As the careers of men like Macaulay, Carlyle, and Froude show, there was an enormous appetite for history in Victorian England, and a new belief in its importance. The movement for university reform in general at last forced modern history into the degree syllabus.…The international reputation of Mommsen and Ranke drew attention to England's comparative backwardness. At the same time the French Revolution was a cataclysmic interruption of the orderly development of human history, calling for an explanation which presumably historians were best equipped to give" (p. 144).
  10. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1973), p. 2.
  11. Winifred Gérin does make one interesting connection between Macaulay and Brontë: "From his various literary contacts (and Branwell still had some, like Macaulay, Hartley Coleridge, Edward Baines, from his Bradford days) he learnt that fiction was the most profitable form of literary hack work at the time." Emily Brontë: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 180.
  12. Winifred Gérin, Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), p. 24. Gérin also mentions the books that Mr. Brontë used to teach his daughters: the Bible, Magnall's Historical Questions, Lindley Murray's Grammar, and Goldsmith's Geography (p. 22). Certainly the first two books would have reinforced the children's interest in history.
  13. Gérin, Emily Brontë, p. 163; she cites Charlotte's letter to Miss Wooler on April 23, 1845.
  14. Eagleton notes: "The Brontës' home, Haworth, was close to the centre of the West Riding woollen area; and their lifetime there coincided with some of the fiercest class-struggles in English society.… Their childhood witnessed machine-breaking; their adolescence Reform agitation and riots against the New Poor Law; their adulthood saw the Plug strikes and Chartism, struggles against the Corn Laws and for the Ten Hours Bill" (p. 3). One of the first to notice the historical origins of Wuthering Heights, which he calls "an expression … of the stresses and tensions and conflicts … of nineteenth-century capitalist society," (p. 42) Kettle comments on an interesting exhibit in the Haworth museum: "a proclamation of the Queen ordering the reading of the Riot Act against the rebellious workers of the West Riding" (p. 42). Less interested in industrialism, Gérin also comments on contemporary influences: "… in August 1845 Bran-well was sent to Liverpool in the care of John Brown after his dismissal by the Robinsons. It was the time when the first shiploads of Irish immigrants were landing at Liverpool and dying in the cellars of the warehouses on the quays. Their images, and especially those of the children, were unforgettably depicted in the Illustrated London News.… The relevance of such happenings within a day's journey of Haworth … cannot be overlooked in explaining Emily's choice of Liverpool for the scene of Mr Earnshaw's encounter with Heathcliff" (pp. 225-26).
  15. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. William M. Sale, Jr. (New York: Norton Critical Editions, 1963), p. 29. All future quotations will be to this edition and will be included in the text.
  16. Gérin, Emily Brontë, pp. 22-23.
  17. Gérin, Emily Brontë, p. 23.
  18. Gilbert and Gubar observe that Wuthering Heights is "close to being naked or 'raw' in Levi Strauss's sense—its floors uncarpeted, most of its inhabitants barely literate, even the meat on its shelves open to inspection …" (pp. 273-74).
  19. Following their argument that Wuthering Heights is a myth of the war between nature and culture, Gilbert and Gubar explain that Thrushcross Grange is "clothed and 'cooked': carpeted in crimson, bookish, feeding on cakes and tea and negus" (p. 274).
  20. Gilbert and Gubar argue that Heathcliff's general aim "… is to wreak the revenge of nature upon culture by subverting legitimacy" (p. 296).
  21. Leo Bersani comments on the numerous repetitions in the novel: "There are obvious differences between the two situations, but in each case children are tyrannized or neglected (or both) by a man grief-stricken at the loss of a loved woman. And this similarity tends somewhat to dilute Heathcliff's originality. When we look at the novel in this way, certain configurations of characters begin to compete for our attention with the individual characters themselves." A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1969), p. 199.
  22. Irving H. Buchen, "Metaphysical and Social Evolution in Wuthering Heights," The Victorian Newsletter, 33 (1967), 18.
  23. Gilbert and Gubar, p. 289.
  24. Charles Percy Sanger states that the date was what first brought him to study the book more closely. Sanger, who also wrote Rules of Law and Administration relating to Wills and Intestaces, demonstrates that Brontë knew the laws of property and inheritance. His article is included in the "Essays in Criticism" section of the Norton Critical Edition of Wuthering Heights, pp. 286-97. A more recent article by Barbara Gates shows that Brontë was also familiar with both the law and the lore of suicides. "Suicide and Wuthering Heights," The Victorian Newsletter, 50 (1976), 15-19.
  25. Kenyon mentions at least two historical methods when he explains that Macaulay's "technique was thus entirely divergent from that of his contemporary Ranke, who forcefully argued that the sources must be allowed to tell their own story.…[It] was the historian's function to establish and evaluate these sources, which would then impose their own pattern on his narrative; in fact, the material would construct its own story. This ideal, which was never fully realized, even by Ranke himself, nevertheless dominated the historical thinking of the nineteenth century" (p. 85).
  26. A number of critics have focused on "reading" in the novel. Included in this group are Musselwhite and Carol Jacobs, "Wuthering Heights: At the Threshold of Interpretation," Boundary 2, 7 (1979), 49-71.
  27. According to Kenyon, Green was "the first historian of England who tried to give equal weight to social as well as political development, and to include art and literature" (p. 161). Kenyon also refers to the Scottish reaction against narrative or biographical history in the previous century: "John Logan, in his Elements of the Philosophy of History, published in 1781, deprecated the current preoccupation with the achievements of great men—'All that legislators, patriots, philosophers, statesmen and kings can do,' he wrote, 'is to give a direction to that stream which is for ever flowing.' The great Adam Ferguson, in his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) had already sketched out a 'total' history, covering commerce, social habits and the arts as well as politics and war.…The brief general chapters on trade and social trends tacked by Hume onto his account of each reign were a hesitant step in the same direction …" (pp. 57-58). Such historians were working along the same lines as Brontë.
  28. Gilbert and Gubar, p. 291.
  29. Gilbert and Gubar call Nelly Dean "patriarchy's paradigmatic housekeeper, the man's woman who has traditionally been hired to keep men's houses in order by straightening out their parlors, their daughters, and their stories … and she expresses her preference by acting throughout the novel as a censorious agent of patriarchy" (pp. 291-92).
  30. John Hewish relates a true story of a Halifax man on whom Brontë may have modeled Heathcliff. This man was taken into the household as a dependent nephew, but "he was clever and unscrupulous enough to gain control of their business" in much the same way that Heathcliff gained control of the Linton and Earnshaw land. "Heathcliff, to the extent that he is a villain of property melodrama … may owe something to this man." Emily Brontë: A Critical and Biographical Study (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1969), p. 47.
  31. Leavis's article, "A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights" is found in the "Essays in Criticism" section of the Norton Critical Edition of Wuthering Heights, pp. 306-321; Tom Winnifrith, The Brontës and Their Background: Romance and Reality (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1973).
  32. Bersani, p. 222
  33. Gilbert and Gubar, p. 261.
  34. Gilbert and Gubar, p. 288.
  35. Eagleton, p. 28.
  36. Bersani, p. 199.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]



With regard to the rusticity of 'Wuthering Heights,' I admit the charge, for I feel the quality. It is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath. Nor was it natural that it should be otherwise; the author being herself a native and nursling of the moors. Doubtless, had her lot been cast in a town, her writings, if she had written at all, would have possessed another character. Even had chance or taste led her to choose a similar subject, she would have treated it otherwise. Had Ellis Bell been a lady or a gentleman accustomed to what is called 'the world,' her view of a remote and unreclaimed region, as well as of the dwellers therein, would have differed greatly from that actually taken by the home-bred country girl. Doubtless it would have been wider—more comprehensive: whether it would have been more original or more truthful is not so certain. As far as the scenery and locality are concerned, it could scarcely have been so sympathetic: Ellis Bell did not describe as one whose eye and taste alone found pleasure in the prospect; her native hills were far more to her than a spectacle; they were what she lived in, and by, as much as the wild birds, their tenants, or as the heather, their produce. Her descriptions, then, of natural scenery are what they should be, and all they should be.

Brontë, Charlotte. Excerpt from a Preface to Wuthering Heights, from first edition of 1847. In Wuthering Heights, edited by Mary A. Ward, pp. liv-lv. London: Bigelow, Brown, & Co., 1900.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

About this article

Brontë, Emily: Title Commentary

Updated About content Print Article