Narrative Styles In The Openings Of Wuthering

Heights And Silas Marner Essay, Research Paper

Silas Marner and Wuthering Heights are two novels in which the past is very important in an understanding of the circumstances of the present. Both novels deal with the thwarting of passions and their deformation into ugliness. Yet both novels are also concerned with ways in which evils and wrong choices can be made right as time passes. In both novels the past informs the present, and through actions of characters willing to address the past, the evils of the past can be alleviated or resolved in ways which suggest hope and spiritual progress.

In the opening of both of these novels the authors invite the readers into the strange worlds which are the location of the tales. George Eliot uses a storytelling form, in which she, as omniscient author appears as the guide towards understanding the action. In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte employs a unique narrative style, allowing secondary characters to tell the story of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. In both novels the opening chapters prepare the reader for the intricate weaving of character, psychology, landscape and situation.

Although Wuthering Heights is about the love relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine, the story is told mainly form the perspective of Nelly Dean, a servant in the employ of Ernshaw’s who makes it very clear from the outset of her narrative that she never like Heathcliff. One could wonder if her perspective is to be taken as truth, considering the problems of subjectivity of voice, if it were not for the introduction, at the very opening of the novel, in which the minor character, Mr. Lockwood, opens the novel with his observations on the chaos he finds at Wuthering Heights. In opening the novel in a present tense, with an outsider from the city commenting on the strange behaviour he finds at Wuthering Heights, Bronte Brings the readers full force into the world of the characters, enabling the reader to see the strangeness from the perspective which anyone would view it, if like Lockwood, they came upon Heathcliff, young Cathy, Joseph, Zillah and Hareton.

At this point in the novel the reader has no more relationships between the characters, their past or their futures, than Lockwood does. As a result, as a narrative strategy, it is an excellent one to introduce a novel which has a very strange, forbidding tone throughout. The novel is set in an isolated area of England, in the moor district. As a result it lends itself to the kinds of passion and heightened sensibility which characterizes a view of this isolated countryside, in contrast to the normal life of a town or a city. Lockwood, who comes form the city, to escape it and find solitude, is surprised by the residents of Wuthering Heights as much as he is fascinated and repulsed. In a sense, he becomes, like the reader, interested to uncover the mysteries of the place.

We know that Lockwood is a bit of an odd character himself. He calls Wuthering Heights, at first, “a perfect misanthropist’s Heaven.” (Bronte: 45) He wrongly attributes his own characteristics to Heathcliff commenting that “Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us.” (Bronte: 45) While Lockwood maintains that he seeks solitude, it is clear from this sentence, as well as from other comments he makes that in fact, he is a lonely man who has difficulty relating to others. As a result, the problem of lack of meaningful human communication between people is introduced very early in this novel. Lockwood interprets Heathcliff’s reticence as shyness or reserve, stating “I felt interested in a man who seemed more exaggeratedly reserved than myself.” (Bronte: 45) At this point in the novel it is unclear to the reader what extent of a role Lockwood will play in the novel.

We are introduced into his confidence when he confesses that he was falling in love with a young girl he met while on another vacation. “While enjoying a month of fine weather at the sea-coast, I was thrown into the company of a most fascinating creature, a real goddess, in my eyes, as long as she took no notice of me.” (Bronte: 48) Lockwood describes how his interest in her catches her attention, but then leads to confusion, as he does not return her glances directly, or follow up on the possibility of romance. As the novel will reveal in its course, this behaviour on the part of Lockwood makes him as far as possible in character from Heathcliff, who is torn by another worldly passion and desire for Catherine. He is not as Lockwood perceives him at all, but rather a very brutal man who gives vent to all his passions, whether positive or negative, with an intensity matched only by the brutality and intensity of the landscape itself.

We learn information about Heathcliff from Lockwood. It is the kind of common view of many with regard to Heathcliff. For example Lockwood, describing Heathcliff notes that “He is a dark skinned gypsy, in aspect, in dress, and manners a gentleman, that is as much a gentleman as many a country squire.” (Bronte: 47) There is an air of condescension in his description of this rural man, as well as a fascination and romanticization of the life of people in the rural countryside. This novel, as it develops will dispense with this romantic view of the “homely, northern farmer with a stubborn countenance, and stalwart limbs…” who “by instinct” has a reserve which “springs from an aversion to showy displays of feelings.” (Bronte: 47)

However, in observing the way in which he is treated by Heathcliff, Cathy, Joseph and Earnshaw, the author introduces a mixture of comedy and horror to the proceedings. The behaviour of the inmates of the house towards Lockwood is unkind and strange; their attitudes towards one another are even more peculiar. Lockwood has an interesting style of narrative voice. He is able to talk about the different behaviours of the characters in a way that creates a vivid picture of what he is seeing, which imparts mystery to the reader. Cathy is described as sullen and angry with “her forehead corrugated, and her red underlip pushed out.” (Bronte: 53) This makes the reader think of fire and out-of-control passion, images central to the development of the novel. In addition she is described by Lockwood as being of “an admirable form, and the most exquisite little face that I have ever had the pleasure of beholding.” (Bronte: 53) Joseph is described as “vinegar-faced”. (Bronte: 51) Hareton is gruff, he growls, his appearance is bearish. (Bronte: 53) Lockwood’s connection with Heathcliff is quickly dismissed, with Lockwood’s pronouncement that in the manner with which he talks to others he reveals himself to be “a genuine bad nature.” (Bronte: 54)

When Lockwood returns to Thrushcross Grange, and engages Nelly in the story of the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights, the story proper begins, with Nelly both confirming Lockwood’s suspicions about Heathcliff, but also enabling both Lockwood and the reader to begin to understand the strange reaction that Heathcliff has to Lockwood’s horrific dreams of the church and of the presence of the child ghost, Cathy, whose hands grip onto Lockwood’s and will not let go. Describing the dream, Lockwood maintains,

“Terror made me cruel, and, finding it useless

to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled

its wrist onto the broken pane, and rubbed it

to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked

the bedclothes.” (Bronte: 67)

This is a very violent, extreme image. Through it Bronte makes the point that anyone who enters into the world of Wuthering Heights will begin to exhibit more animalistic or unconventional behaviours, as if a curse rests over the entire house, which is haunted by spirits.

Heathcliff’s reaction to the dream, his sinking into tears and despair, reveal that there are other sides to Heathcliff. We become aware, through Lockwood’s narrative, that there is some terrible dark secret overhanging the manor, and it has something to do with the relationship between Heathcliff and the departed spirit who appears in Lockwood’s dream, The rest of the novel illuminates that relationship, and engages the reader in its terrifying details, which are provided by Nelly, who, apart form Lockwood, becomes our only witness to the motivations and actions of the characters.

The presence of images of dark, cold and bareness, contrasted with flame and light are introduced in these first few chapters, and begin the process of building the narrative structure of the novel, both its story and its symbolism. Lockwood describes the land on which the house sits as “hard with a black frost.” (Bronte: 51) This is contrasted with the “radiance of an immense fire” (Bronte: 52) which has been started by Hareton. The contrast, between cold and heat, between present, past and future is foreshadowed in these images, which will be elaborated upon and developed throughout the novel.

George Eliot in her novel Silas Marner takes a different narrative approach. She tells the story in a more detached, philosophical voice, commenting on the nature of the characters, their motivations and behaviours from the position of omniscient narrator. This enables her to write this story as a kind of elaborate fable about good and evil, superstition and faith, despair and hope. The novel begins with the assertion that what we are about to read takes place in a distant past, “In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses.” (Eliot: 51) It is, as she writes a superstitious age, when the profession of the weaver was regarded with some suspicion, with people in the rural areas, “not quite sure that this trade of weaving, indispensable though it was, could be carried on entirely without the help of the Evil One.” (Eliot: 51) However, as the opening, and the body of the novel reveals, human emotions are universal, and fears, misunderstandings, betrayal as well as hope transcend place and time.

Silas Marner is a weaver, a strange man who appears in the village of Raveloe. As a stranger, he is immediately distrusted in the small, closed world of the village where the majority of the novel takes place. However, as in Wuthering Heights, the appearance of individuals and the events of the present rest on the problems of the past. The omniscient voice enables Eliot to contrast the perceptions of Marner by the villagers, with the truth of why he is the way he is. He is described as a man who “invited no comer to step across his door-sill, and he never strolled into the village to drink a pint at the Rainbow.” (Eliot: 54) In the opening chapters of the novel we learn about Marner’s past which no one else has knowledge of, as well as of his present obsession with hoarding gold coins, which have become a substitute for him for human companionship.

Told as a tale in which almost every detail enjoys some commentary of a philosophical or moral nature, Eliot moves from one observation to another, from one narrative strand to the next. In the novel’s opening, the reader therefore, through Eliot’s style, becomes engaged in the conflicts plaguing Marner’s soul, as well as the problems of superstition and over-zealous religious worship. Marner is described as having a “fervid nature,” (Eliot: 56) as well as a physical illness, catalepsy, which causes him to go into trance-like states. We learn in the first chapters that he was once a resident of Lantern Yard, where he was deeply involved in a “narrow religious sect”. (Eliot: 56) Betrayed by his friend William Dane, he is thrown out of the church, accused of stealing money from the dead Deacon. Marner is described as a young man thoroughly involved in this strange sect, and after his banishment, unable to reconcile his belief in God with the mistreatment he has received from his community. As a result he loses his faith in God and is unable to replace it with any other more tempered religious conviction.

Eliot writes that “Poor Marner went out with that despair in his soul — that shaken trust in God and man, which is little short of madness to a loving nature.” (Eliot: 61) Through her narrative style she is able to draw sympathy for her characters, as well as point out their faults. Thus she is able to build important details, such as Marner’s inability to communicate with the people in the new region he comes to as they are so different in temperament than he is, as well as the way in which Marner, as a stranger, is viewed by the community. She writes, “Nothing could be more unlike his native town … than this low, wooded region, where he felt hidden even from the heavens by the screening trees and hedgerows.” (Eliot: 63) In a philosophical vein she comments that people in exile live in a kind of dream world in which “the past becomes dreamy because its symbols have all vanished, and the present too is dreamy because it is linked with no memories.” (Eliot: 63) The purpose of the novel is to demonstrate how this spell of dreamy emptiness and disillusion is broken when Marner finds a way, through Eppie, to reintegrate into the community of mankind, and learn wisdom in the process.

Although the styles of the novels are very different, each is concerned with the extremes of passion: either ruthless desire for revenge as in the case of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, who is seeking a way to gain control after loss of his relationship to Catherine, or in Silas Marner, the process of emerging from a state of lifelessness caused by an equally deep betrayal and displacement. Bronte presents her narrative in round about ways, through other voices and characters who witness the events of the past; Eliot presents her novel as a tale told by an omniscient narrator. Both forms serve the narrative development in each case very well, and contribute to the tone of the novel excellently, allowing theme and symbol to rise along with plot and story in intricate ways.


1. Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Penguin Books, London:


2. Eliot, George. Silas Marner. Penguin Books, London: 1967.


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