The Exploration of the Gender Question in Wuthering Heights
In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë explores the gender identity of both herself and her characters. She published the book under the name of Ellis Bell, which many readers took to be that of a man. As critic Nicola Thompson points out, most critics at the time noted the book’s “‘power,’ a characteristic invariably associated in Victorian literary criticism with male authors” (Thompson 346). Indeed, the novel was deemed by some as “too ‘male,’ and perhaps therefore not suited for a ‘feminized’ reading public” (Thompson 361). In a biographical preface to the novel’s 1880 reprint, Emily’s sister Charlotte explains that the sisters chose to write under assumed names to protect themselves from the scrutiny often faced by Victorian female writers. Given the reaction to Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë clearly achieved this objective.
The issue of the author’s gender raises an interesting question about literary interpretation. One feminist outlook is that gender should not affect analysis of a work; the words should be all that matter. Emily Brontë never revealed the book’s true, female authorship, but perhaps it was only her untimely death that precluded her disclosure. We cannot assume from her decision to write as Ellis Bell that she would have supported a genderless interpretation of the novel; rather, we might look at the way Brontë portrays gender in Wuthering Heights to gain a better understanding of her beliefs on this issue. With this perspective, we see that the tumultuous plot of Catherine and Heathcliff’s love affair represents Brontë’s tumultuous struggle for gender identity in a Victorian society consisting of only male or female ideals.
According to Jean E. Kennard, “Brontë’s sense of her sexual identity would have been modeled on what the nineteenth century called ‘sexual inversion,’” (Kennard 19). Kennard defines ‘sexual inversion’ as “not, like homosexuality, only a question of desire, of the choice of sexual object, but implies a much wider range of cross-gender behavior. […] Sexual inversion in women involved […] ‘masculine’ behavior” (Kennard 19). The idea of ‘masculine behavior’ is easily apparent in Brontë’s work. Her writing style not only was considered masculine by reviewers and critics of Wuthering Heights, but fellow villagers described her “more like a boy than a girl” (Kennard 22). Many others who met her described her masculine as well, including a girl she had worked with, a servant, and Ellen Nussey, a close friend of Charlotte Brontë (Kennard 22). Her own father called her “the Major,” a very ‘masculine’ nickname (Kennard 22).
Based upon Kennard’s claims that Brontë’s gender identity was one of ‘sexual inversion,’ one can begin to regard the lives of Catherine and Heathcliff as a representation of Brontë’s ideals of gender and sexuality. Wuthering Heights becomes a reincarnation of Brontë’s own transformations by fulfilling the ideal presented by Charlotte Goodman of the male-female double Bildungsroman in which the “paired male and female protagonist […] appear to function as psychological ‘doubles,’ for each character is intensely involved with the psychic life of his or her counterpart” (Goodman 31).
One must first view the characters of Catherine and Heathcliff not as two separate beings, but rather as a reflection of one another. In the novel, Catherine confesses this ideal to Nelly: “[Heathcliff’s] more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same […] Nelly, I am Heathcliff—he’s always, always in my mind—not as a pleasure, any more than I am a pleasure to myself—but as my own being” (Brontë 59-60). Catherine herself struggles with society’s ideals of how a proper woman should behave. Her encounters with Edgar Linton forces her into the ‘proper’ image of a Victorian young lady: “a very dignified person, with brown ringlets falling from the cover of a feathered beaver, and a long cloth habit which she was obliged to hold up with both hands […] displaying fingers wonderfully whitened with doing nothing, and staying indoors” (Brontë 37-38). Catherine represents the part of Brontë that desires to survive in a Victorian society in which females can only have feminine traits, and males can only contain masculine traits. Brontë uses Catherine to display the desire to rid herself of masculinity, and as Catherine’s death implies, the inability to do so. Catherine becomes weakened and ill with the attempt to coincide her two loves—Edgar and Heathcliff. Edgar represents her desire to be part of society, while Heathcliff remains the underlying truth of who she truly is. Catherine dies of childbirth, an act that associates itself with proper Victorian women’s duties. Although the tension between Catherine’s masculinity and feminism causes her to weaken, in the end, she dies as she is about to fulfill the Victorian feminine ideal of motherhood.
During the novel, the character of Heathcliff disappears only to return “a tall, athletic, well-formed man […] even dignified, quite divested of roughness though too stern for grace” (Brontë 70). When Catherine passes away, all of the degradation Heathcliff has endured spurs a bitter design for revenge. Heathcliff’s childhood bitterness, his revenge plot, mirrors what one can imagine Brontë’s state while writing Wuthering Heights. The novel’s violence and vulgarity stem from Brontë’s inner revengeful-Heathcliff. As Heathcliff ages and begins to accept his past, he only wishes to be reunited with his Catherine in death. Catherine’s ghost haunts him, he confesses to Nelly: “filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object, by day I am surrounded with her image!” The final reunion of Heathcliff and Catherine in death would end the schism between male and female, just as Brontë wishes to connect her masculine and feminine traits into a third gender, one without limitations.
Catherine and Heathcliff’s separation and desire for reunification reveal a woman who found herself in the undefined middle ground between being a “woman” or a “man.” Goodman states,
“The double form of the Bildungsroman, with its focus on both a male and a female protagonist, appears to be particularly congenial to the woman novelist who wishes to emphasize the way in which a society that rigidly differentiates between male and female gender roles limits the full development of women and men alike […] the male-female Bildungsroman dramatizes the limitations imposed on both the male and the female protagonist in a patriarchal society where androgynous wholeness no longer is possible” (Goodman 31).
However, the ending of Wuthering Heights does not necessarily prove that Brontë ever did find gender unity. Perhaps Wuthering Heights is only a representation of what Brontë wished for, not what she had already accomplished; after all, despite her ‘masculine’ writing she was also considered “conventionally feminine in her artistic passivity and innocence” in her sister’s view (351). While she did not successfully meld the masculine and feminine parts of herself in life, in Wuthering Heights she admirably explored the connection and possible unity between the two.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1996.
Goodman, Charlotte. “The Lost Brother, the Twin: Women Novelists and the Male-Female Double Bildungsroman.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. 17: 1 (1983): 28-43.
Kennard, Jean E. “Lesbianism and the Censoring of Wuthering Heights.” NWSA Journal. 8: 2 (1996): 17-36.
Thompson, Nicola. “The Unveiling of Ellis Bell: Gender and the Reception of Wuthering Heights.” Women’s Studies. 24: 4 (1995): 341-367
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