Gothic Elements and Atmosphere in Wuthering Heights

April 13, 2021 by Essay Writer


This essay sets out to explain the convention of the Gothic genre presented in both Wuthering Heights and Villette. The Gothic elements employed by the authors vary and are different from one another. However, this essay aims to review the supernatural elements of Gothic in both novels as a manifestation of mental breakdown, madness and past trauma. In the first half of the essay, I’m going to demonstrate how Charlotte Brontë uses psychological haunting to illustrate an internal splitting in Lucy Snowe. I will thus argue that Lucy Snowe’s illness is due to her environment and the figure of the nun shows a psychological struggle within Lucy Snowe’s mind. In the second half of the essay, I’m going to demonstrate Emily Bronte’s portrayal of intense human emotions demonstrated by acts of madness and supernatural occurring within a Gothic atmosphere. As well as the forbidden love between Heathcliff and Catherine which leads to a Gothic splitting of their psyche that eventually result in their insanity and death.

Psychological Haunting in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette

What contributes mainly to the novel’s reputation as a gothic, is Charlotte’s use of Psychological haunting. Robert B. Heilman in his essay, “Charlotte Brontë’s ‘New’ Gothic” states that, “Charlotte leads away from standardized characterization toward new levels of human reality and hence from stock responses toward new levels of human reality, and hence from stock responses toward a new kind of passionate engagement” (99). David Jones believes that the range of phantasmagorical effects and visual technologies that are deployed create both illusion and revelation, and concealment and exposure, “The phantasmagoria as registered in this novel consistently reveals its Gothic pedigree, its alliance with repressed energies and its paradoxical ability to both deceive the viewer and expose hidden realities: to project light through the world of social appearances and hypocrisy” (Jones 109). In Villette, Gothic conventions operate at the same time as psychological and social conventions (DeLamotte 229).

In her novel, Charlotte Brontë explores homelessness, poverty, physical unattractiveness, sexual discrimination or stereotyping that impose self-burial on women. Snowe rarely voices her protest. She is tormented by the fact that she has bought survival at the price of being invisible. She has been dispossessed not only of meaning and goal, but also of her own identity and power. Snow is bound by the limits of her own mind- a dark and narrow cell (Gilbert and Gubar 403). According to Hume, Gothic has an interest in the characters’ psychology so it displays their reactions towards shocking and terrible situations (283). Thus, it is Snowe’s psychological conflict towards various incidents during the course of the novel that gives birth to the uncanny. Joseph Allan Boone is one among many critics who drew on psychoanalysis in the novel. He noted that, “Brontë employs various strategies to create a narrative in which Lucy’s mental life takes precedence over external reality” (Boone 37).

One of the earliest moments of hesitation in Villette, is Lucy’s buried domestic past and the reader’s uncertainty concerning “the [relevant] factors of silence, solitude, and darkness in her life” (Hennelly 425). Lucy never discusses where she is from, her parents, or what led to her living with the Brettons. When she does discuss what occurred in her childhood it is in storm metaphors: “there must have been a wreck at last. I too well remember a time – a long time, of cold, of danger, of contention. To this hour, when I have the nightmare, it repeats the rush and saltness of briny waves in my throat, and their icy pressure on my lungs” (Brontë 94). This nightmare is the closest the reader gets to an idea of what happened to Lucy’s family. In Villette, she has a difficult time fitting into her new society, unable to reconcile her Protestant ways within Roman Catholic Villette.

The novel’s supernatural incidents begin with the appearance of the nun. According to Vrettos, The nun becomes a metaphor for all acts of displacement in Villette, “a liminal figure that reveals the dual structure and underlying malady” (68). In Gothic literature, the narrator or protagonist almost always spends some time of his or her account attempting to rationalize their ghostly encounters. It is this trope that brings Gothic literature to “[enter] the haunt of the psychological” (Berenbaum 38). Lucy wonders if the vision of the nun is real or the result of nervousness or madness. In reality, it is Lucy’s unrequited feelings that seem to be manifesting themselves in the appearance of this nun. She encounters this uncanny iterations of her main love interest in order to emotionally move away from those unacceptable and unrequited feelings. Therefore, it is possible to connect this ghostly nun with Lucy’s repressed passion, fear and doubts.

When she works as a teacher at Madame Beck’s school, she encounters a nun who is believed to have been buried alive in the garden because she broke her vows of chastity, “for some sin against her vow” (Brontë 131). Her first encounter with the ghost directly follows her musings about Dr. John. After Lucy finally reads the letter from him, she says, “A passing seraph seemed to have rested beside me, leaned towards my heart, and reposed on its throb a softening, cooling, healing, hallowing wing. Dr. John, you pained me afterwards: forgiven be every ill—freely forgiven—for the sake of that one dear remembered good!” (Brontë 276). Later, this joy is interrupted by the appearance of the nun, “Something in that vast solitary garret sounded strangely. Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed, a stealthy foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor cloaks. I turned: my light was dim; the room was long – but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure of all black or white, the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white (Brontë 325). Later, Lucy is at the height of her hysterical moment: “Reader- tell me I was nervous, or mad; affirm that I was unsettled by the excitement of that letter; declare that I dreamed: this I vow- I saw there- in that room- on that night- an image like- a NUN” (Brontë 325). This description of “an image” is qualified even further by the word “like”; this is not a nun, but it resembles a nun. The supernatural nun is linked to Lucy’s frustrated love for Graham, just as the nun is tied to Lucy’s letters from him (Hirlte 6).

After Dr.John falls in love with Paulina, and as he moves further away from Lucy, her inner splitting becomes more apparent. Ginevra asks Lucy, “Who are you Miss Snowe? […]But are you anybody? (Brontë 394). Lucy’s psyche is not the same as it was when she received her letter from Dr. John, she states: “I felt, not happy, far otherwise, but strong with reinforced strength” (Brontë 381). This reinforced strength comes from no longer needing to depend on Dr. John.

In her second encounter with the nun the scene is once again set with gothic tones. Lucy decides to bury Dr.John’s letter at the base of the pear tree, “One great old pear-tree – the nun‘s pear-tree – stood up a tall dry as skeleton, gray, gaunt, and stripped. A thought struck me – one of those queer fantastic thoughts that will sometimes strike solitary people” (Brontë 379). Her description of the pear tree mirrors her feelings for Dr. John, stripped, now a skeleton. The second nun is linked even more closely to Lucy’s inner workings. Here, Lucy ‘neither fled nor shrieked’; rather, she even stretches out her hand and tries to touch the nun. “I felt if not brave, yet very desperate, and desperation will often suffice to fill the post and do the work of courage. I advanced one step. I stretched out my hand, for I meant to touch her. She seemed to recede. I drew nearer: her recession, still silent, became swift” (Brontë 381). She does not want to drive the spirit away she wants to ask this of it. She seeks an answer. But this question is not so much about the true nature of the phantom as of the identity of herself after the loss of Dr. John (Soya 19). The first two incidents with the nun, place Lucy in a position where she is trying to reconcile her inner and outer realities (Hirtle 80).

The third appearance of the nun is in the middle of Paul’s confession of love. He tells Lucy that they were born under the same star. Here, the supernatural plays a very important role in the relationship of these two because both of them have ‘seen’ the ghost. Not only does the supernatural intercede to confirm the tie between the two, but dignifies it as well. This is because, according to Paul, the apparition’s business is ‘as much with you [Lucy] as with me [Paul]. “I anticipated that. Whether this nun be flesh and blood, or something that remains when blood is dried, and flesh is wasted, her business is as much with you as with me” (Brontë 457). The fact that these two see the nun together is not a coincidence. The nun ‘is born’ from the dark trunk after writhing in labour pains, violently shaking and tearing the leaves of the tree. Both Paul and Lucy witness the symbolic ‘birth’: it is the birth of their new relationship (Brokaw 57). He understands her better than any other character, because he can see Lucy’s repressed personality traits manifesting themselves when no one else in the novel can. When they see the nun together, they share a mysterious bond of kindred nature. It is Monsieur Paul’s similarity with Lucy Snowe that allows him to understand her, and his understanding that allows him to push her towards self-recovery. Monsieur Paul is one of the only characters that is not a double of any traumatic figure in Lucy’s early life. Because of this, he is able to assist Lucy in the self-discovery and self-analysis by which she will eventually cure herself (Brokaw 32).

Lastly, there is a logical explanation forthcoming from the narrator. The nun Lucy grapples with ultimately is nothing more than a long bed bolster, “What dark, usurping shape, supine, long, and strange? … It looks very black, I think it looks – not human … Will it spring, will it leap out if I approach? Approach I must. Courage! One step! My head reeled, for by the faint night-lamp, I saw stretched on my bed the old phantom – the NUN (Brontë 569). Then Lucy destroys the nun; she kills the repressive forces and unchains herself from restrictions, “In a moment, without exclamation, I had rushed on the haunted couch … I tore her up – the incubus! I held her on high – the goblin! I shook her loose – the mystery! And down she fell – down all round me – down in shreds and fragments – and I trade upon her” (Brontë 569).

The significance of the reappearance of the ghostly nun lies not in its unreality, which is discovered near the end of the novel, but rather in Lucy’s reaction to it. She identifies with the nun as a fragment of her suppressed personality. When she is finally able to destroy the nun, she is expressing her conquest of the tendency to suppress. Her description seems victorious in tone: “I could afford neither consternation, scream, nor swoon […] I was not overcome. Tempered by late incidents, my nerves disdained hysteria […] I defied spectra […] In a moment, without exclamation, I had rushed on the haunted couch; nothing leaped out, or sprung, or stirred; all movement was mine, so was all the life, the reality, the substance, the force; as my instinct felt. I tore her up […] I held her on high […] I shook her loose […] and down she fell- down all around me- down in shreds and fragments- and I trod upon her” (Brontë 533). Lucy no longer sees the ghost as an aspect of herself. However, this victory is somewhat short-lived. It is at this point that she discovers that the ghost is a farce. Thus, it is most symbolic of Lucy’s realization of her trauma’s effect on her own personality. She is able to destroy her traumatic repression, and move forth. Some may see Lucy’s oppression and repression as a demonstration of her defeat and resignation, but as Lucy struggles to define herself against patriarchal norms and to find a way of expressing and acknowledging her own emotions (Hause 76). She escapes from Gothic horrors and gains a victory over them, thus, she creates a place for herself in society (DeLamotte 287-288).

Madness and Supernatural in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a classic example of the Gothic romance. Brontë uses mysteries, often involving the supernatural narrated with horror. In her book, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia has listed some of the outbreaks of violence and Gothic elements which can be found in the novel. She states that: “We witness or hear of whipping, slapping, thrashing, cuffing, wrenching, pinching, scratching, hair-pulling, gouging, kicking, trampling, and the hanging of dogs. Hindley hopes his horse will kick out Heathcliff’s brains. Catherine, bitten by a dog, would not cry out even ‘if she had been spitted on the horns of a mad cow.’ Isabella shrieks ‘as if witches were running red-hot needles into her.’ Heathcliff ponders ‘flinging Joseph off the highest gable, and painting the house front with Hindley’s blood.’ He throws a tureen of hot applesauce in Edgar’s face. Hindley shoves a carving knife between Nelly’s teeth and threatens to push it down her throat. Nelly fears Heathcliff ‘smashing Hareton’s skull on the steps.’ Heathcliff says of Edgar, ‘I’ll crush his ribs in like a rotten hazel nut!’ The moment Catherine ceased loving Edgar, ‘I would have torn his heart out, and drunk his blood!’ ‘I have no pity!’ Heathcliff cries. ‘The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails!’ Isabella says Heathcliff is adept at ‘pulling out the nerves with red hot pincers’; he seized her heart, ‘pinched it to death’, and flung it back to her. He hurls a dinner knife at her, cutting open her neck” (Paglia 449-450). When reading Wuthering Heights, all the elements of Gothic and outbreaks of violence mentioned by Paglia, are apparent as frequent as the theme of insanity, of hallucinations, anxiety, and mental breakdown. As explained by Linda Bayer-Berenbaum, “mental and nervous disorders are excellent themes for Gothic stories because the illusions of the deranged often resemble traditional beliefs and superstitions” (38).

Heathcliff one of the Gothic heroes, endures a traumatic and mysterious childhood. Like Lucy Snowe, we are never told where Heathcliff’s parents are or where exactly he comes from or what his past life was like, and this leads to his exclusion throughout the novel, “Cathy was a young lady and the Lintons made a distinction between her treatment and mine” (Brontë 51). The supernatural elements accomplished by Heathcliff’s madness add to the strange gothic atmosphere of the novel. His madness reflects the interweaving themes of the novel; the insanity affects not only the characters themselves but also those close to them. He is tormented by Catherine and his thirst for vengeance. His passion destroys both himself and those around him. He knows that he cannot live without his love, so he resorts to madness to fulfil his need to be one with Catherine. The first incident of Heathcliff’s madness occurs when Mr.Lockwood first stays in the house. Heathcliff does not know that Mr. Lockwood is sleeping in Catherine’s room. Therefore, when he hears the screaming, he thinks it is Catherine’s ghost. He is disappointed to see that it is Mr. Lockwood, and after he asks him to leave, Heathcliff opens the window and calls the spirit of Catherine, “Come in! Come in! He sobbed. Cathy, do come. Oh do- once more! Oh! My heart’s darling! Hear me this time- Catherine, at last!” (Brontë 28).

After Cathy’s death Heathcliff begs her spirit to haunt him, this action is unnatural, he does not wish for her to rest in peace but to exist only to be with him, “Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always -take any form-drive me mad” (Brontë 296). While he was preparing Edgar’s coffin, he had the gravedigger open Catherine’s coffin. Desperate to be with her in death, he knocks out one side of her coffin, so that they may lie together for eternity.

Near the end of the book his madness intensifies. After nights of wandering around the moors, and many days without food, Heathcliff has completely lost his senses. When he returns home the night before his death, Nelly hears him say Catherine’s name as though she was with him. There is also a strange happiness in his face, “’Come now,’ I exclaimed, pushing some bread against his hand, ‘eat and drink that, while it is hot: it has been waiting near an hour.’ He didn’t notice me, and yet he smiled. I’d rather have seen him gnash his teeth than smile so. Mr. Heathcliff! Master! I cried, ‘don’t, for God’s sake, stare as if you saw an unearthly vision. Don’t, for God’s sake, shout so loud,’ he replied. ‘Turn round, and tell me, are we by ourselves?’” (Brontë 331). He believes Catherine has been haunting him for years, and now that he is near death, he acts as though Catherine’s spirit is with him.

In the novel, Catherine also shows mental instability. Heathcliff’s fight with Edgar, results in Cathy’s illness; and it seemed to affect her reasoning, as if to be driving her mad. “It terrified me. I thought she was going mad’’ (Brontë 84). Cathy becomes ill because of a discrepancy between her inner and outer realities: she has to choose between living outside of societal norms with Heathcliff and living well within society‘s bounds with Edgar but separated from her soul mate Heathcliff. This discrepancy results in a tearing of her psyche. Cathy‘s struggle with her realities leads to a transference of illness to Heathcliff. With both her psyche and illness split, Cathy cannot fuse her two realities together and recover (Brokaw 30). Catherine refuses all food and drink for several days. She does not understand why she is not getting her way, and becomes paranoid. Catherine goes mad when it is clear that social acceptance of her feelings for Heathcliff is impossible (Haggerty 72).

Perhaps the moment that most obviously exemplifies Cathy‘s estrangement from herself through the course of her illness is the mirror scene. This scene highlights the correlation between the supernatural, or gothic tones, and illness. Cathy thinks that she sees her own ghostly double in the mirror. Nelly narrates the chilling anxiety that Cathy experiences in not being about to recognize herself in the mirror:

It does appear odd – I see a face in it! … Don‘t you see that face? She enquired, gazing earnestly at the mirror.

And say what I could, I was incapable of making her comprehend it to be her own; so I rose and covered it with a shawl.

– It’s behind there still! She pursued, anxiously. ―And it stirred. Who is it? […] Oh! Nelly, the room is haunted! I‘m afraid of being alone” (Brontë 123).

Their love and dependency on each other is obsessive. Their separation causes unbearable force that drives both of them insane. This becomes evident through Heathcliff’s purpose for his revenge, his obsession with Catherine and his relationship with the young generation.


In both Wuthering Heights and Villette, madness and mental breakdown are in part constructed from their traumatic past. Lucy is unable to address her past life and her environment as a foreign Protestant woman in the Roman Catholic intensifies her inner conflict. For Catherine, a socially approved life with Edgar Linton and one outside of societal norms with Heathcliff that her psyche tears and she becomes sick. While Cathy makes a choice (to marry Edgar), Heathcliff is separated from Cathy against his will further tearing his psyche. Cathy, faces problems because her psyche had been previously split between herself and Heathcliff making it impossible to reconcile her realities if Heathcliff is not part of both her inner and outer realities. Heathcliff also has difficulties reconciling his realities after Catherine dies; he cannot adjust to living in a world without her and resorts to madness. The supernatural events in Wuthering Heights are presented more ambiguously than those in Villette; at the end of Wuthering Heights, the supernatural events continue to create moments of hesitation and are not resolved but eventually become accepted. For instance, Lockwood meets a little boy who swears he has seen Heathcliff and Catherine’s ghosts wandering around in the moors. Whereas, in Villette the supernatural events turn out to be uncanny and the reader witnesses a logical explanation for the apparition. The moment Lucy no longer attributes the nun, she is able to question the boundaries of the supernatural experience Lucy’s honest conversations with M. Paul regarding the supernatural events help to quell the moments of hesitation and leads to Lucy’s ability to recover from her illness and reunite her psyche. Whereas Heathcliff does not wish to discover any logical explanation about his madness and the supernatural. He longs for the uncanny to haunt his life and take him with itself; that’s the only way he could finally be united with his love.

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