The Many Women of Wuthering Heights
If the setting of a novel is 19th century Europe, there is a good chance that the women in the novel will be treated as a means to an end rather than as autonomous beings who have intrinsic value in and of themselves. This is the case in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. In the twelfth chapter, Catherine, who is feverish and desperate, cries out “I wish I were out of doors — I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free” and then asks herself “why am I so changed” (92)? The contrast that she draws here between her childhood and womanhood points to the freedom that she felt as a child and the apparent oppression that she is experiencing as an adult woman. Readers are introduced to a number of women in this novel, each of whom, like Catherine, face the same fate – marriage, childbirth and, for some, death. To be a woman in the world of Wuthering Heights is to give oneself up to marriage and childbirth which, more often than not, results in death; as a result, women lose all autonomy which is why Catherine yearns to be a girl again – she is yearning to be free of her inevitable female destiny.
The first two women of importance are Mrs. Earnshaw, mother of Hindley and Catherine, and Mrs. Linton, mother of Edgar and Isabella, neither of whom have a storyline of their own because, outside of their husbands and children, they have no being, no value. Mr. Earnshaw is “the old master” in the Earnshaw household and his wife is to stay at home and wait with the children while he goes on a business trip (Bronte 25-26). She has no property, no money, no work with which to busy herself; her job, her place, her role is entirely wrapped up in her husband and children. She dies about two years after this business trip occurs (27). Her entire story is told in three pages because she has so little worth. Her husband goes on a business trip, she waits for him, feeds her children and puts them to bed and when he returns, she dies. Mrs. Linton’s storyline is just as skimpy. At one point, she is mentioned when she allows her children to go to a party at the Earnshaw household, so long as they are kept away from Heathcliff (39). Later on in the story, she takes care of Catherine when she gets a fever, but Mrs. Linton gets the fever as well and dies soon after (65). Her story is told in just two pages because, like Mrs. Earnshaw, there is nothing of importance about her other than the fact that she has a husband and two children. They are her primary worth and without them, she would amount to nothing. Here are two adult women who are granted no freedom, who are assigned no value. Their purpose is simply to marry and to bear children; they are nothing more than a means to an end that is useful to the men and children in their lives.
Two women of the next generation have a similar fate. Both of them marry, both of them have a child and both of them die soon after. The difference between Frances Earnshaw, the wife of Hindley, and Isabella Linton, the wife of Heathcliff, is that their deaths occur on a different timeline. The death of Frances is a direct result of childbirth while Isabella’s death takes place a few years after she has a child. The first introduction to Frances is in chapter six when Hindley returns home for his father’s funeral and to everyone’s surprise, “he brought a wife with him” who is described as having “neither money nor name to recommend her” (32). This first impression implies that her primary worth is that she is a wife, that she has a husband. We learn nothing about her life, her past, her interests or her story other than the fact that she has married Hindley and is now a wife. The next step is for her to become pregnant and to have a child and this occurs in chapter eight. She delivers a little boy named Hareton, but she dies just a few days later (47). Her husband should be grateful because, as he is told, “it’s a blessing your wife has been spared to leave you this son” (46). Her purpose has been served. She has married and she has given Hindley a son. There is really nothing left for her to do, so she dies. This is what being an adult woman is – marrying, bearing children, dying. Isabella Linton’s storyline is nearly the same, other than the fact that it takes a few years for her to die after she bears a son for her husband and again, we have an example of a female character who really has no narrative outside of her marriage and her child. She and Heathcliff elope (97-98). A short while later, “she had a son born” who was “christened Linton” (135). Two chapters later, she dies and Linton is taken to Wuthering Heights to live with his father. Isabella’s story is extreme because Heathcliff’s sole reason for marrying her was to have a son who could possibly marry someone in an effort to gain Thrushcross Grange as an inheritance. This is the most blatant example of treating a woman as a tool. Heathcliff sees no value in Isabella other than in her ability to marry him and to bear him a son. Other than that, her storyline is dead, much like her autonomy. She is utilized as an object, she is a means to end, she serves a purpose. Again, we learn nothing about her life outside of her husband and son because they are her primary worth. Without them, she means nothing to the world of Wuthering Heights. And with them, she means even less. She is an object who completes a task and then is left to die. Her destiny is dark, dismal. In fact, the destiny of all adult women in Wuthering Heights seems bleaker and colder with each portrayal of a female character.
With the appearance of Catherine Earnshaw Linton, we finally meet a female character who fights against that dreadful female destiny, but is ultimately unsuccessful. From the beginning, Catherine is painted as a feisty character who is “too mischievous and wayward” and she writes in her diary that she and Heathcliff “are going to rebel” (28, 14). When she grows older, she falls in love with Edgar Linton and eventually, the two marry (65). Part of her reasoning when marrying Edgar is to use his money to help Heathcliff rise up into a better life, but she does not realize that as a woman, she will have no say in how she and her husband spend their money and, in fact, she will have absolutely no control over money, finances or property because she is only a woman; she is not granted that power (60). After marrying Edgar, Catherine declines fairly rapidly. She becomes withdrawn, sullen and depressed. After giving birth to little Cathy, she dies within two hours because she had been starving herself for quite a few days leading up to the birth (121). Why had she declined in this way and why was she subjecting her own self to such bodily torments? Certainly, her depression and anorexia had a lot to do with Heathcliff whom she was much more in love with than with Edgar. But even more so than that, she had lost all sense of self-identity or worth. This happened to every woman in this story because they were all treated the same: as objects whose primary end in life was to marry a man, have one or two children for him and then die. This is exactly what happens to Catherine just as it happened to Isabella and Francis before her and Mrs. Earnshaw and Mrs. Linton before all of them. She tried to rebel. She tried when she was just a child with Heathcliff. She tried when she was engaged to Edgar to use his money and status to help Heathcliff. But she was sadly unsuccessful. And this is why she cries out “I wish I were out of doors — I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free” because to be a girl at least meant that she was not completely helpless (92). It meant that she had at least some control over herself, her body. But when she reached adulthood, her destiny was inevitable: marriage, childbirth, death.
Regrettably, each of these women lived in a world where this was the norm. It was normal and it was accepted to treat a woman as an object, to use her as a means to an end. It is hard to wish for adulthood if you know that your adulthood will result in the entire giving up of yourself. And this is why Catherine yearns to be a girl again – she yearns to be a girl again because she was free. She was not subject to every whim and desire of her husband or child. She was free to do and act as she pleased. But to be a woman meant to give up oneself, to marry, to have a child, to die. How can we blame Catherine for being desperate to avoid that?
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 1996. Print.
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