Heathcliff as a Reflection of the Age in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

August 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a perfect parallel to the time in which it was composed. Heathcliff, her protagonist turned antagonist, was brought into a world in which he did not belong, in both a social and economic sense. As he joined the life of two wealthy families who did not appreciate the presence of this undesired “gipsy”, Heathcliff finds himself alone and struggling to be recognized. The only two people in his new life who show him any consideration are Mr. Earnshaw, the proprietor who adopted him, and Mr. Earnshaw’s daughter Catherine, who immediately falls in love with him. When Catherine rejects him to marry the wealthy Edgar Linton, who can provide her with a life that Heathcliff could not, Heathcliff’s self-worth declines until he realizes that his only choice is to turn in the direction of his other ally, Mr. Earnshaw, and become a proprietor as well. Heathcliff’s struggle for a place of value mirrors the societal struggle of the time. As the Industrial Revolution peaked, the working masses struggled for a place, and amidst their cruel treatment searched for a better tomorrow. In her criticism of the context in which she lived, Bronte utilizes Heathcliff’s circuitous rise and subsequent fall as a tool to discuss the inequality among the classes and the necessity to understand the nature of society.Society has always been split. Throughout history, one fact has remained steady; inequality has always existed. In many instances, people have tried to change reality, but to no avail. Despite progress in the field, inequality has maintained its place on the chart of human history. The Industrial Revolution was no different. It began in England in 1750, as an attempt to balance the social scale. Although its achievements were many, in the case of absolute equality, it succeeded only in moving a few steps forward in the long haul. The revolution began gradually; the bourgeoisie had managed victory in their struggle against feudalism. As the years progressed, changes were made. As the landlords increased their holdings and revenues, the results caused redistribution of their land, and the thousands of tenants and farmers were found unemployed. At the same time, the British traders were discovering new markets and thus new factories were established and a series of inventions came into fruition. The displaced workers now had a place to turn, and accordingly began what would soon characterize a productive industrial world. (Greer, 496) As the world became one centered on the economy, the result was not positive for everyone. In 1844, 3 years before the publication of Wuthering Heights, Friedrich Engels published his book The Condition of the Working-Class in England, which later aided to Karl Marx’s research and theory on the subject. Engels exposed the scandalous working conditions, long hours of labor for men, women, and children, and risks involved with machine tending (Sabine, 713). The transfer of production from farms to factories brought together people who needed this new work. The factory owners treated the workers horribly, but they had no choice but to comply or starve. The workers realized that they could have some sort of united power and began to attempt collective action to achieve relief. As they struggled for their rights, they crowded into cities with horrendous conditions: cramped housing, poverty and disease. Although the advent of urbanization brought better education, medical care, theaters, libraries and merchandise from the world over, the poverty-stricken workers did not receive equal share. (Greer, 507) Instead, they were left to wallow in their suffering. People attempted to remedy their situation, but the problem lay in the system itself. Wage earners depended on pay that was not guaranteed. They were a lower class, with fewer rights, and it seemed that no one above them was willing to help. Although Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847, as the Industrial Revolution soared, the story is set in 1801, and the flashbacks that encompass the meat of the novel took place in the 1770s. Bronte wrote the story from a perspective of the 1840s, during the throes of the Industrial Revolution, yet sets the time as 1801, in the middle of the revolution. She does so to show the progress of the characters from the 1770s, at the very beginning of this new-world order, to the 1800s, a time in which the future of the working middle class was hazy. The fact that she wrote it as a contemporary criticism of 1847 was perhaps to enlighten her peers that though the last 100 years had met significant change, positive in many respects, a class had emerged from that success with a dismal vision of reality ­ a reality that begged renovation. The ending of the novel proves this; through Heathcliff’s struggle (and consequent cruelty), the reader is perhaps led to a hope for a happy ending. Bronte disagrees. She writes her ending carefully, to shock the reader into tragic reality. A problem solved created only a new one. Its remedy lay within the source of its trouble: the system. Heathcliff, from introduction, seems an obvious parallel to the thousands of pathetic, poverty-stricken souls crowding the streets of England in their despair. Nellie Dean immediately tells the reader that she doesn’t know “where he was born, and who were his parents, and how he got his money at first.”(44) What we do learn, is that he is immediately disliked. Hindley learned to regard him as “a usurper of his parent’s affection and his privileges; and he grew bitter with brooding over these injuries.”(46) And why not? After all, he was:A dirty, ragged, black-haired child…the master tried to explain the matter; but he was really half-dead with fatigue…all I could make out…was a tale of his seeing its starving, and houseless, and as good as dumb, in the streets of Liverpool; where he picked it up and inquired for its owner. Not a soul knew to whom it belonged, he said; and his money and time being both limited, he thought it better to take it home with him at once, than run into vain expenses there; because he was determined he would not leave it as he found it…Mr. Earnshaw [said] to wash it, and give it clean things, and let it sleep with the children. (45) Heathcliff, found homeless in the streets of Liverpool, is brought home to a wealthy family by a kind man, yet even his introduction to the higher echelons of society is bitter. He is referred to as ‘it’ and is stared at disdainfully. Peter Miles explains Heathcliff’s position best. Until he was given his name, he is merely an ‘it’ and “has spiralled down through levels of depersonalization to a point of negation […] he achieves human and social definition, is translated from ‘it’ into ‘he’, through being ‘christened.'” (Miles, 56) As Nelly Dean enumerated, Heathcliff served as both his Christian and Surname. Although I don’t agree with the analysis of focusing on a first or last name as representative of class, I do agree with the fact that Heathcliff’s one name automatically separates him. He will “never be wholly integrated in name as, say, ‘Heathcliff Earnshaw’…the particular combination ‘Heathcliff Earnshaw’ remains the identity of the dead son alone.” (Miles, 57) He can never be fully incorporated, and he will always be separate and distinct. The very name ‘Heathcliff’ is a surname for some (Isabella, Catherine jr., Linton) and a first name for his dead namesake, but none will bear it with the intensity and distinctiveness that he will. He will create its placement as either a Christian and surname. This ‘christening’ exemplifies his class position throughout his entire life. Even with a name that deems him a member of the family, with his lack of surname, he is still purposefully separated. Steven Vine describes his “‘introduction’ to the family, here, [as] an expulsion from it.”(Vine, 343) Even when he is incorporated into the family, he is still excluded. Vine aptly portrays Heathcliff’s position as a “favorite and pariah”. Although most of the members of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange view Heathcliff as a dirty, unacceptable addition to their lifestyle, “Heathcliff bore his degradation well at first.” (52) Not only did Mr. Earnshaw treat him as a son, but also Catherine immediately was drawn to him. They became best friends and fell in love. As their childhood continued, the two were inseparable. It seemed that their union would be inevitable, despite their class difference and the opposition from the others.The opposition however, was very strong. Catherine is forced to stay at Thrushcross Grange for medical attention following their failed escapade to the household. Isabella (who will ironically be smitten by Heathcliff years later when he returns a wealthy man) implores of her father:Frightful thing! Put him in the cellar, papa. He’s exactly like the son of the fortune-teller that stole my tame pheasant. Isn’t he, Edgar? (55)When Mrs. Linton discovers the situation, she cries in shock:Miss Earnshaw! Nonsense! Miss Earnshaw scouring the country with a gipsy!(55)The entire time that Catherine is detained at Thrushcross Grange, Heathcliff is forbidden to come and visit, with the Lintons’ desire that she and Heathcliff not remain as friendly as before. After all, she is a member of a wealthy family, one whose ownership of Wuthering Heights dates back to at least the year 1500 (21). He is merely a dirty, unwanted “gipsy”. By Catherine’s return to Wuthering Heights five weeks later, it seems that some changes were made:If [Heathcliff] were careless and uncared for, before Catherine’s absence, he had been ten time more so, since. Nobody but I even did him the kindness to call him a dirty boy, and bid him was himself, once a week. (57)Catherine, on the other hand, the former tomboy, was wearing:A grand plaid silk frock, white trousers, and burning shoes; and while her eyes sparkled joyfully when the dogs came bounding up to welcome her, she dared hardly touch them lest they should fawn upon her splendid garments. (57)Although Heathcliff had been an outsider his entire childhood, he always found solace in Catherine. Despite her upbringing, as children, she and Heathcliff were equals. Now, however, the differences in their classes were being proven even by her:I did not mean to laugh at you. I could not hinder myself: Heathcliff, shake hands at least! What are you sulky for. It was only that you looked odd. If you wash your face ad brush your hair it will be all right: but you are so dirty!(58)It seemed that henceforth, Catherine’s interests lay outside of playing, and instead on the wealth and social status of Edgar Linton. She cared for Heathcliff, but did not seem to realize that she could not have both him and Edgar. Arthur Kettle deems it betrayal on the part of Catherine, “kidding herself that she can keep them both, and then discovering that in denying Heathcliff she has chosen death. The conflict here is clearly a social one.” He explains that Thrushcross Grange embodies the “prettier, more comfortable side of burgeois life”, and thus it seduces Catherine, causing her to resent Heathcliff’s lack of ‘culture’.(Kettle, 135)Therefore, despite the shared childhood between Catherine and Heathcliff, it should come as no surprise to the reader 30 pages later, when, searching for Nellie Dean, she bursts into the kitchen with the following declaration:To-day Edgar Linton has asked me to marry him, and I’ve given him my answer.(77)To answer Nellie’s question:Why do you love him?(77)Catherine responds:Because he is young and cheerful…because he loves me…and he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood, and I shall be proud of having such a husband.”(78)Even Catherine, she who had shown Heathcliff love and attention, who had been his playmate and his tender friend, had been captured by the appeal of the wealthier life, and chose to sacrifice her destiny with Heathcliff. Terry Eagleton pinpoints this as the “crucial act of self betrayal and bad faith [in which] Catherine rejects Heathcliff as a suitor because he is socially inferior to Linton; and it is from this that the train of destruction follows.”(Eagleton, 401)Heathcliff entered into the world of Wuthering Heights as a poor, unwanted child, and though he was treated as an inferior by most, he always found appreciation and a sense of equality with Catherine. They were partners in crime and soulmates, with a “deep and passionate need of each other. He, the outcast, slummy, turns to the lively, spirited, fearless girl who alone offers him human understanding and comradeship.”(Kettle, 135) When Catherine rejects him, because he is of an inferior social class, this is the catalyst that leads Heathcliff to his own self-destruction. He leaves shortly thereafter, and when he returns, he is unrecognizable to his former housemates; not in his looks, but in his obvious change is social status. Nellie notices it first, as she lets him into the house:Who can it be? Mr. Earnshaw? Oh no! The voice has no resemblance to his! You are Heathcliff! But altered! Nay, there’s no comprehending it.(90) Now fully revealed by the fire and candlelight, I was amazed, more than ever, to behold the transformation of Heathcliff. He had grown a tall, athletic, well formed man; beside whom my master seemed quite slender and youth like. His upright carriage suggested the idea of his having been in the army. His countenance was much older in expression and decision of feature than Mr. Linton’s; It looked intelligent, and retained no marks of former degradation, A half civilised ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued; and his manner was even dignified: quite divested of roughness, although too stern for grace. My master’s surprise equalled or exceeded mine: he remained for a minute at a loss how to address the ploughboy, as he had called him. Heathcliff dropped his slight hand, and stood looking at him coldly till he chose to speak.[emphasis mine] (92)With his return, the tables had turned for Heathcliff. Instead of appearing to be the inferior being he had once been, he now resembles the upper class that had always scorned him. Bronte continues to assert this transformation throughout the novel. Heathcliff, representative of the lower class, has managed to break the class boundaries and become higher than those who had always deemed him to be lower. Nevertheless, as Eagleton claims, “in a situation where social determinants are insistent, freedom can mean only a relative independence of given blood-ties, of the settled, evolving, predictable structures of kinship.”(Eagleton, 402) Despite his seeming transformation from the lower class to the capitalist bourgeoisie, Heathcliff, with his one name and his lack of kinship and blood ties, imagines to have found his freedom, but he has only gone as far as the social structure will allow. Perhaps this is the reason that despite his success in escaping the chains of his “gipsy” image, Heathcliff’s rise to the top is only a background for his ultimate failure.Heathcliff’s rise came as a result of his jealousy. He had been scorned and mocked his entire life, feeling the burns of inequality daily, finding comfort only in Catherine. As Catherine rejected him for the world he had always watched from afar with the knowledge that he did not belong, he developed strong, sinister feelings as a defense mechanism. Therefore, when he surpassed the equality of those who preceded him, he found himself on the top, pushing them further and further below him. The complete turnaround of their social structure was a mirror image indeed; he who was once below had risen to the top, yet as the mirror shows, the image appeared backwards. His rise was an illusion. Heathcliff joined the world he had always been separated from, yet his integration was the opposite as it should have been; it was backwards. He was still not accepted into either of the nuclear families, and succeeded only in attempting their destruction. The Communist Manifesto published the year after Wuthering Heights and the year of Bronte’s death, proclaimed that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Marx, 57) Marx described Europe at the time as being in the midst of a struggle between the rising bourgeoisie and the developing proletariat. “The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons to bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons ­ the modern working class ­ the proletarians.” (Marx, 68). Although not a worker himself, Heathcliff fell into the description of the proletarian. Bronte, if not arriving at the same conclusion as Marx would, saw the same world as did Marx, and expressed her exegesis of it through Heathcliff. Heathcliff was the lesser equal who struggled for a voice; who took the weapons of the bourgeoisie and used it against them.Seemingly Heathcliff has achieved his goal. Lockwood’s first encounter with him is Heathcliff’s assertion, “Thrushcross Grange is my own, sir.” (19) This attitude is one that Heathcliff will possess from the point of his return. The reader first witnesses his attitude change as he tells Catherine:I want you to be aware that I know you have treated me infernally- infernally! Do you hear? And if you flatter yourself that I don’t perceive it, you are a fool; and if you think that I can be consoled by sweet words, you are an idiot; and if you fancy I’ll suffer unrevenged, I’ll convince you of the contrary, in a very little while!”(105) Heathcliff’s motivation is now to turn in the direction of his only other ally, Mr., Earnshaw. With Catherine’s rejection of him, he realizes that he must follow his kind host’s example, and become a proprietor. Soon, the “dirty, ragged, dark-haired child” owns both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Hindly’s son is his servant, forbidden education, unaware of how the tables had turned. Edgar’s sister Isabella, who had once though Heathcliff to be a “frightful thing”, is treated with cruelty and disdain. Catherine’s daughter Catherine is forced to marry his son Linton. Heathcliff had become cruel and sinister, returning the cruel behavior bestowed upon him by his peers with behavior twice as cruel upon their children. As he says about Hareton:I’ve tied his tongue. He’ll not venture a single syllable, all the time! Nelly, you recollect me at his age- nay, some years younger. Did I ever look so stupid: so ‘gaumless’, as Joseph calls it?[…]I’ve a pleasure in him. He has satisfied my expectations, If he were born a fool I should not enjoy it half as much. But he’s no fool; and I can sympathise with all his feelings, having felt them myself. I know what he suffers now, for instance, exactly: it is merely a beginning of what he shall suffer, though.(188)Hareton, named for his grandfather, the proprietor who had given Heathcliff a home, is treated by Heathcliff with worse treatment that even the horrors with which he was treated by Hareton’s father Hindley. The reader and Heathcliff both are confused throughout the novel by the obvious repetition of names. Perhaps that is an attempt by Emily Bronte for the reader to join the mindset of Heathcliff, and understand that through all of the feelings of inequality he felt growing up among a group who felt themselves superior to him, he views them equally: equally bad. To him, when one treated him badly, they all did, and as a way to quell his old need for recognition and equality, he feigns superiority to all those who treated him poorly. Yet those who treated him poorly and those who he treats poorly are confused in his mind’s eye. The “dance of names” as the Miles eloquently describes it, as several characters possess the same first and last names, remains exclusive of Heathcliff, alone and separate.Kettle suggests that Heathcliff “uses against his enemies with complete ruthlessness their own weapons, to turn on them (stripped of their romantic veils) their own standards, to beat them at their own game.” (Kettle, 139) I disagree. Although Heathcliff did use the weapons of his ‘enemies’, I think that Heathcliff was unaware of his actual goal. His feeling of inequality and his subsequent revenge do not come from a conscious attempt to beat them, rather from a subconscious attempt to join them. His goal was not ruthlessness, just a burning desire for equality. When that equality was never met, he continued with the same tactics that had brought him to a certain point, unaware of its results. Like the lower class between 1750 and 1850, begging integration, Bronte seems to be expressing, his initial separation separated him still. Though the world was characterized by what seemed to be immense progress, the inequality remained, and until the system was revamped, no individual attempt could prove successful. The reader can only glimpse the true reason behind Heathcliff’s behavior when Catherine asks why he and Hindley quarreled. His response is:He thought me too poor to wed his sister.(186)Even as he gained his wealth, in what he thought was merely his rise to a higher quality of life, his deep-set feelings of inequality and low self-worth remained with him, and navigated him through his life. The problem lay not with him, but with the system. By the end of his life, “Heathcliff grew more and more disinclined to society”(259)” and “fonder of continued solitude.”(270) He had never succeeded in joining the classes who had scorned him. Though he did earn money, his individual attempt to escape the tragic reality proved dismal. It was his subconscious awareness that he was different, the same feeling that had propelled his desire to change, restrained him from integration. That desire was not merely his ­ it belonged to the entire lower class in European society. Heathcliff’s individual struggle is Bronte’s expose of the inequality that remained, and the startling reality that it was not the people that needed to be renovated, but the system itself. Heathcliff had managed to surpass his destiny and poor quality of life, but in doing so, he failed in his original goal, to become equal and part of things. Upon his arrival at Wuthering Heights as a child, he had been the outsider of the two nuclear families. Yet even as he gained wealth, though he became as wealthy as them, and perhaps even grew beyond them, he still remained an outsider from their families. Like the masses struggling for a voice, living among the capitalists in their newly built cities yet wallowing in their own filth and poverty, he too wallowed. Yes, he had money, but that was the only thing that had changed. He still remained in the mindset of the poor little boy wandering the streets of Liverpool as he had once been. According to Bronte, the problem lay not within him; he had been treated unfairly his entire life and had managed to raise himself to the same economic level as those who had degraded him. The problem lay in the system. Despite his attempts and even success in earning money, he was still a lower class. The fact that he earned money did not change what he knew to be reality of separateness and inequality. Even if those who had thought him to be low class did not anymore, he still did. Works CitedBronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. London : Penguin, 1994. Eagleton, Terry . “Myths of Power: A Marxist Study on Wuthering Heights.” In: Wuthering Heights: Emily Bronte. Ed. Linda H. Peterson. Boston: Yale UP, 1992. 399-414Greer, Thomas H. and Gavin Lewis. A Brief History of the Western World. 7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1997. 496-508Kettle, Arnold. “Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights,” An Introduction to the English Novel. New York: Harper, 1968. 130-145Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1848. Trans. Samuel Moore. New York : Simon and Schuster, 1964. Miles, Peter. “The Nameless Man,” in: An Introduction to the Variety of Criticism: Wuthering Heights. Hong Kong: Macmillan P, 1990. 53-61Sabine, George H. A History of Political Theory. Ed. Thomas L. Thorson. 4th ed. Fort Worth : Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973. 681 ­ 723Vine, Steven. “The Wuther of the Other in Wuthering Heights,” Nineteenth Century Literature 49 (1994): 339-359

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