Wuthering Heights – Critic’s Reviews Essay, Research Paper
The “problem” of Wuthering Heights is the “problem” of Catherine Earnshaw and
Heathcliff. How has the relationship between these two characters been read over the last 150 years? To what extent has cultural context varied these reading and how, in particular, has it influenced your own reading?
Wuthering Heights has been the subject of much criticism throughout its history as critics and historians alike try to discover Bronte’s meaning and intentions behind the work. The controversial relationship of Catherine and Heathcliff has puzzled and fascinated critics since its publication in 1847. Many agree that the focus of the novel lies in the dominance of Catherine and Heathcliff s relationship on the entire generations of Linton s and Earnshaw s but disagree on how that relationship should be viewed. Contemporary reviews reflected the immorality they saw in the play, due to the Victorian conventions of novels at the time. As times have progressed and society became more evolved we saw the
novel in a different light to those that were first established. The modern era romanticised the novel through focussing on imagery; animal, natural and barrier. In post-modern terms the novel is seen to reveal a number of themes relating to family dysfunction, social and class struggles, gender and race.
The relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff is to say the least, passionate and tempestuous and fraught with problems which occurred due to the social conventions and boundaries of the time. Catherine is forced to marry Edgar Linton because she has no prospects of a future if she marries Heathcliff. As she tells Nelly (p.76) she loves Edgar only because he “is handsome and pleasant to be with”, “young and cheerful” and “because he loves me”. The spiritual nature of the relationship also confused the Victorians as did the dramatic emotion with which they expressed their love for one another. Cathy’s death, through her control of appetite comes about as a result of the frustration anger she feels for both Heathcliff and Edgar, because they have caused her so much pain in forcing her to choose between her duty and propeitry (Edgar) and her one true love (Heathcliff).
In the early years of it’s publication Wuthering Heights was described as “a disagreeable story despite it s power and cleverness” (Atheneum, 1847) and a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors (Graham s Lady Magazine, 1848). Although the critics recognised Bronte’s talent as a writer they did not approve of the themes of the novel nor the behaviour of the main characters. As far as they could see, there was no moral framework to the story nor did Bronte end up ultimately condemning the lovers for their profane relationship.
Middle-class Victorians saw the book as un-Christian because it rejected the idea of Heaven and instead created a new place where Cathy and Heathcliff could be together, even in death. This place, along the moors, symbolised freedom from society s boundaries in life, and in death, represented a place stronger and more natural than the Christian Heaven . It has been argued recently that Bronte rejected patriarchal Christianity in the novel simply because, at her time, it was unsympathetic to women like her. There has been no suggestion, however, that Bronte was anything but a devout Christian.
As a Victorian novel, Bronte promptly defies the protocol of authorship at the time by constructing her two main and most memorable characters with qualities that were considered quite inappropriate for a proper lady or gentleman to have. Through the eyes of Nelly, the main narrator, Heathcliff is presented as vindictive, vengeful and violent while Cathy is considered selfish and vain. The Victorians also saw their love as a destructive, demonic, intensely erotic and incestual, rather than a spiritual bond as it ends up consuming the lives of everyone around them, people such as Linton and the younger Catherine whom the Victorians approved of.
Later critics, particularly after Victorianism, became infatuated with the Gothic aspects of the novel. The ghosts, dreams and the supernatural element in Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship was discussed and debated by various critics as they argued that Catherine and Heathcliff transcended reality into this other world in the moors where they could finally be together. Derek Traversi in the Dublin Review, 1949 speaks of the spirit of metaphysical passion and a consuming desire for a completeness unattainable – separated from theological differences altogether remote from that of a St. John of the Cross .
The modern critics which viewed the novel in their timeframe from about 1914 to 1960 explained the relationship by focusing on such features such as animal and barrier imagery and symbolism, time sequence, narrative methods and comparisons of the characters to aspects of nature. In particular, Lord David Cecil s theory on the storm and calm influenced many modern critics with regards to their views on nature and Wuthering Heights. E.M Forster from his article Prophecy from the book Aspects of the Novel, 1927 says Wuthering Heights is filled with sound – storm and rushing wind -a sound more important than words and thoughts. Great as the novel is, one cannot afterwards remember anything by Heathcliff and the elder Catherine. They cause they action by their separation: they close it by their union after death…even when they were alive their love and hate
transcended … in our sense of the word she (Emily Bronte) was a prophetess: because what is implied is more important to her than what is said .
In this way, modern critics also tried to conform it to the traditional love story by foregrounding the romantic elements of the novel. They made Heathcliff and Catherine seem acceptable as lovers because of their tragic social circumstances and their depth and intensity of their love.
This perhaps came about as a result of the need to gloss things over – to make everything seem more wonderful and pleasant than it really was. During this time period the world was in the throes of war, and in political and social tumult. The disappointment of the war and the hardships and changes it brought about, left most people in a very pessimistic humour.
The characters in the novel mystified the critics, for no character in the book was simply good or bad. Heathcliff, for example, was presented by some as a romantic, handsome hero and others as a demonic and evil villain. Even Charlotte Bronte didn’t know what to make of the character Heathcliff and once wrote, “…whether it is right or advisable to create a character like Heathcliff, I do not know. I scarcely think it is.”
Dorothy Van Ghent, an influential modern critic on the subject of the Brontes, speaks of the savage cruelty and violence in the novel because Even in the weakest of the souls there is an intimation of the dark Otherness, by which the soul is related psychologically to the inhuman world of pure energy, for it carries within itself an otherness of it s own, that inhabits below consciousness .
Post-modern critics take into account the evolution of our society in areas such as gender, race, class and psychology when analysing the relationship and in particular, certain literary theories are contemplated which deal with Marxism, Freudianism, and racism.
Heathcliff s ambiguous race and social background are considered as is the decision of Catherine to marry Edgar because of conventions at the time and her uncertain future if she did not. Post-modern critics are sympathetic to Catherine; they empathise with her rebellious nature in such a conformist culture, her determination and willful character make her easy to relate to.
Marxist criticism has seen the novel in terms of its social relations, looking for the correspondences between the novel and the political, social and economic conditions under which it was produced. Perhaps the most famous Marxist analysis of the novel comes from Terry Eagleton in Myths of Power where he discusses the decision that Catherine makes in choosing Edgar Linton for her husband rather than her lover, Heathcliff. Eagleton describes the decision as an act of bad faith because of her preference for the more socially acceptable Linton. By this act, she is in fact, denying her own selfhood or social self, which is her love of Heathcliff.
Feminist critics have argued that we can see Cathy as a modern women living in a time where she was bound by the conventions and regulations that ordered that society into its coherent form, but challenged them and when she became so frustrated by them, eventually gave up. We can see her as a victim of her time, as we can Heathcliff who because of his ambiguous race and lack of power or wealth takes revenge on the people that made him so unhappy.
Heathcliff is a difficult character to sympathise with however, because of his destructive nature and his manipulation towards Isabella, Catherine Linton and his own son, Linton. The violence he displays is, to say the least, cold-blooded and calculated. The extent of his revenge not only seeks out those who have afforded him his unhappiness but the entire households of Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights.
The psychoanalytic or Freudian approach, discusses the mental stability of the characters and tries to discover the motivation behind the characters actions. Catherine s willful destruction of her own body is seen as a result of her frustration and deprivation of Heathcliff s love – I ll try to break their hearts by breaking my own (p.116) and many critics agree that Catherine shows the signs of a victim of anorexia in the last stages of her life, as she seeks for attention and starves herself till her death.
Hagan in Control of Sympathy in Wuthering Heights, when commenting on Catherine s passionate nature, recalls the same scene when Catherine is near death. Hagan shows that Catherine has an ability to love with fierce passion, something that only herself and Heathcliff share. “I ll not be there by myself; they may bury me twelve feet deep, and throw the church down over me, but I won t rest till you are with me. I never will” (p108). Hagan shows that by Emily Bronte s use of sympathy, the reader cannot pass moral judgment on the characters. Even though Catherine is committing adultery, and Heathcliff
is planning a brutal career of revenge, the reader still carries sympathy for them. Because Catherine chose to marry Edgar, she created a disorder in their souls. Bronte, Hagan says, modifies our hostile response to Catherine and Heathcliff by always finding a way to express their misery.
The two narrators of the novel, Lockwood and Nelly Dean are obviously characters of their time. Their refusal to sympathise with the main characters of the novel and their lack of understanding of the passion between Cathy and Heathcliff allows us to discount their views as valid or important. Lockwood is presented as a pretentious imbecile whose romantic views soon become discouraged as he encounters the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. Nelly, the ubiquitous and ever voyeuristic servant, displays the integrity and intelligence of a tedious narrator and her involvement in the story make us somewhat wary of her opinions.
In the 21st century, a time filled with questions and thoughts of the future, what do we consider of a archaic novel, written almost 150 years ago? Some might say it has no relevance to a society which has modernized so much since the days of Victoria s reign, yet the themes of the novel still affect us deeply. Some are attracted by the wild bursts of passion and spontaneity, others because the setting is so far removed from the urban sprawl of modern cities and some detest the novel because it bears no resemblance to the lives we lead today.
The novel, along with its great historical significance, still provokes thoughts on themes such as love, freedom and recently, feminism. The novel presents the characters as they are, not judging nor condemning but one feels that in the end, Catherine and Heathcliff are if not admired then certainly liked, not because of their actions, but because of the passion and intensity of their love. Other characters are liked also, but it is these two fiery and ultimately, ethereal lovers that are most remembered and appreciated.
Bronte s use of sympathy is so well done that the reader continues to view Heathcliff and Catherine as victims, rather than immoral and corrupt villains. Hagan states that in the end, “we do not condone their outrages, but neither do we merely condemn them. We do something larger and more important: we recognize in them the tragedy of passionate natures whom intolerable frustration and loss have stripped them of their humanity”. (2100 words).