Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights is a key text in the English literary canon. The first and last novel of the short-lived life and career of Emily Bronte, the novel lends itself to analysis through various disciplines such as psychoanalysis, race, gender and cultural studies. For example, it could be read under the feminist framework as much as one can make Marxist interpretations of it. In this vein, it displays characteristics of both the Romantic Movement in literature even as its characters and settings project Victorian values and virtues. This essay will pursue this angle in detail, laying out how the Romantic aspects of the novel counter pose the Victorian socio-cultural values in creating a work of high originality and enduring relevance.
The Victorian period is loosely associated with the reign of Queen Victoria during the latter half of the 19th century. Some of the praiseworthy developments of this period is the concept of the orphanage, which was a symbol and product of social solidarity and support. In terms of values in the personal and interpersonal domains, qualities such as “thrift, cleanliness, hard work, self-reliance, self-respect, and national pride” were thought of as lofty. (Alexander) Concepts such as family honour, personal integrity and social status were given importance during this period. In contrast, the Romantic Movement in the arts in general and literature in particular, promoted laissez-faire approach to human interpersonal relations, which promoted a primacy for feelings and emotions as opposed to tradition, customs and social norms. But what is interesting is that these two opposing tendencies operated simultaneously toward the end of the Victorian epoch, leading to a vibrant cultural dialectic. Wuthering Heights is a classic example that captures all the contradictions, confusions and complexities of such a discourse. Literature scholar Beth Newman’s thinks of novels as “fictive engagement with a specific social world”. (Close) Hence, there is much more to Wuthering Heights than its outward mythic romance. In effect, the novel treats such issues as “slave trade, the evolving middle-class family, politics and class structures,” etc, through the microcosm of a household “torn between Romantic longing and the Victorian domestic ethos.” (Close)
One of the cultural markers of the Victorian era is how gender roles were rigidly defined. In Wuthering Heights we see internal conflicts in various characters’ minds, as they try to abide by while also resisting the then accepted gender roles and social norms. This is especially true with respect to the thoughts and behaviour of Catherine and Heathcliff. To quote, “the elder Catherine resists until her death being an angel in the house; Heathcliff rails against the story he inhabits”. (Close) In this sense, the novel is “mediated through conventional Victorian narrators – and readers – who deal in the domestic realism aligned with Thrushcross Grange.” (Close)
Emily Bronte shows In Wuthering Heights how even affairs of the heart are mediated by prevalent social values of the Victorian era. One example is Catherine’s choice of her husband. Though her bond with Heathcliff is very strong – she once mentions “Heathcliff is more myself than I am.” (Bronte, 100), it is to Edgar Linton that she ultimately offers her hand in marriage. What is at play is the Victorian emphasis on social class and status and all its attendant prestige. Catherine’s social aspirations make her accept Edgar’s proposal for marriage. She intuitively recognizes that Edgar is wealthy and thus she shall be “the greatest woman of the neighbourhood”. (Bronte, 97) She then goes on to make a list of high-flown romantic declarations that don’t weigh up to her professed strong bond with Heathcliff – “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”. (Bronte, 99) Further down the story, she says “If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger. . . . Nelly, I am Heathcliff.” (Bronte, 101) The imagery employed by Catherine can be interpreted thus:
“A moonbeam suggests that which is delicate, ephemeral, and pale; frost connotes a surface coating easily melted by the heat of the sun. Lightning rends the sky, consumes its victims who are caught unaware; fire represents not only the heat of passion, but also the eternal suffering of those lovers consigned to the Inferno for their rejection of all social, moral, and religious constraints.” (Fragola)
Catherine’s imagery thus captures the ongoing tussle between Romantic ideals and Victorian ethos in the novel in general and in her own thoughts in particular. There’s further evidence of this dialectic playing out in Catherine’s consciousness. Catherine’s statements down the narrative imply how
“there is no transcendence, no intention of a spiritual afterlife. Her life is connected to Heathcliff rather than to a higher being…Whenever Catherine inexplicably shifts from passionate love to the longing for material wealth, she rails against Heathcliff and calls him a stable boy, thereby demonstrating her preference for a life of comfortable social conventions.” (Fragola)
A key feature of Victorian social norms is the various rites of passage that members of the society are expected to go through. In a highly conservative and rigidly defined society of the Victorian period, these processes are ritualized and taken seriously. Victor Turner, the renowned British cultural anthropologist, has contributed to our understanding of Victorian value systems and how they functioned. One of his key theories is that of liminality (pertaining to crossing of thresholds), which is relevant to a discussion of Wuthering Heights. The Victorian period, which is often referred to retrospectively as the ‘Age of Transition’ occupied chronologic space between traditional agrarian societies and the more organized industrial societies of today. The Victorian period also represents the “liminal period par excellence”. (Hennelly) Turner emphasized that