Charlotte’s Character and the Theme of Isolation
Charlotte Bronte’s greatest error in her preface to Wuthering Heights is her striking underestimation of Emily Bronte’s understanding of the world and human nature. Charlotte writes that her sister had little knowledge of the practicalities of the world, due to her lifestyle of secluded, quiet observation. Undeniably Emily’s isolationist lifestyle influenced her choices of setting and character, and Charlotte seems to think that this influence was detrimental to her sister’s writing. However, upon close examination of the novel’s underlying themes it becomes clear that not only did Emily have a strong, clear point of view regarding the essential nature of humans, but she chose her unique characters deliberately, as vehicles through which to convey her ideas. She was not, as Charlotte seems to believe, the unwitting victim of an unusual lifestyle, helpless to guide the flow of her ideas, but rather a woman with a definite, if perhaps unpopular, perception of human nature, and a carefully chosen method of expression.
The setting of Wuthering Heights is so surreal and horrifying that it seems impossible to believe, as Charlotte seems to, that Emily did not intentionally chose the locale, aware of the effect that the lonely, rustic setting would have on the reader. Charlotte seems to feel that her sister’s chosen setting was unfortunate, as a great number of readers would have felt it “a great measure unintelliligible, and – where intelligible – repulsive” (xxxiii). Charlotte feels that the unappealing setting was inevitable, considering the environment in which her sister, the author, was raised. In effect, Charlotte appears to believe that Emily Bronte wrote about a rustic locale not because she chose to, but because she could not have chosen otherwise. This point of view, while not entirely unfounded, loses some strength in light of the remarkable ways in which the rustic, isolated locale lends itself to the plot. The Thrushcross Grange/Wuthering Heights area symbolize a microcosm of society, a small, removed world outside of the law and external influences, a world in which true human nature is revealed when taken apart from complex society. Emily Bronte’s setting was essential to her study of the very nature of the human, separated from society, and was certainly a deliberate choice. Whether or not she could have written about a more urban locale is a question that can never be answered, but for Charlotte to say that the author used a rustic setting because she could not understand the way the world truly works is not only unfair and presumptuous, but most likely utterly wrong in view of Emily’s obviously strong imagination.
Charlotte clearly views Emily as far more naÃ¯ve than herself, with a very narrow understanding of the “practicalities” of people and the world. She writes that Emily Bronte’s tendencies towards seclusion caused her to form a notably dark view of the world, as she gleaned her knowledge of people from stories and secondhand information, of which her mind retained mostly “tragic and terrible traits” (xxxv). Therefore, writes Charlotte, Emily’s choice of such terrible characters as Heathcliff, Earnshaw, and Catherine, were inevitable, a “quiescent adoption.” Emily’s characters, however, are so darkly complex and deliberately constructed that it is unlikely that, as Charlotte believes, she “wrought with a rude chisel, and from no model but the vision of [her] meditations” (xxxvii). Heathcliff is perhaps the most remarkable example of Emily Bronte’s very unique, if disturbing, view of humanity. Heathcliff represents the evil that Emily sees as existing everywhere, even outside of societal influences which are so popularly blamed for the evil that arises within humans. This evil emerges through stagnancy, when the soul is deprived of love, passion, excitement. Perhaps Emily feared that evil would arise within her soul, as she languished in her isolated, stagnant environment, and perhaps Heathcliff’s death was Emily’s way of imagining the evil she saw in her own soul vanquished. Charlotte Bronte, however, views Heathcliff as a purely evil character – a demonic figure with no redeemable qualities. Furthermore, she views Nelly Dean and Edgar Linton as symbols of more or less pure good. This black-and-white perception of Emily Bronte’s characters does not give justice to the many layers that are deliberately built into them. Emily does not view people as black-and-white, good-and-bad, but as complex entities unto themselves, regardless of society’s influence.
Charlotte Bronte’s preface to Wuthering Heights presents a gross misunderstanding of her sister’s brilliant work. She clearly views Emily Bronte as a relatively inexperienced, naÃ¯ve writer with more potential that had an opportunity to be realized in her short life. While Charlotte does believe that, in time, her sister would have grown to be able to write about more than what she knew, she neglects to see the great complexities in Wuthering Heights, and the deliberacy of Emily’s choices. Emily Bronte knew exactly what she was trying to convey when she created her characters and placed them in an unusual setting, and although many readers, including perhaps Charlotte, may not grasp the underlying meaning of Emily’s choices, that does not mean they are invalid.
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