The Romantic elements in "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte
Romanticism, the literary movement traditionally dated 1798 to 1832 in England, affected all the arts through the nineteenth century. Wuthering Heights is frequently regarded as a model of romantic fiction. What is more, it is said to construct a biography of Brontё’s life, personality, and beliefs. In the novel, she presents a world in which people marry early and die young, just like they really did in her times. Both patterns, early marriage and early death, are considered to be Romantic, as most artists of the Era died young.
What Brontё describes in the novel is what she knows personally, those are scenes somehow taken from her own life and experience that the reader encounters while reading the novel, and it is to say that her own process of growing up puts a great impact on her writings.
The values she had learnt from her father brought Emily close to nature, the same appreciation of the beauties of nature can be found in Catherine’s character of Wuthering Heights, the author would also spend her free time wandering on the Yorkshire moors.
Similarly, the games Emily played with her siblings developed her imagination to the level which allowed her to create the world of the novel that exists in different literary dimensions (Nestor 2003). Wuthering Heights belongs to the Victorian Era, however, consists primarily of Romantic elements, which is because Brontё was of romantic nature. The novel depicts the story of romantic love, deep passion, it puts emphasis on nature and individual, all these enclosed in original and imaginative form.
There are many aspects of the novel which distinguish it from other works of Emily’s times. The author rejects literary conventions, and one may easily notice that she presents herself in a view of the artist as a supremely individual creator. There is anonymity, the lack of completeness. The story begins with Lockwood’s arrival at Wuthering Heights, he is to participate in the first puzzle the reader encounters. He tries to figure out who Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Linton, and Catherine Heathcliff are. In some way the whole world of the novel is dreamlike, yet those are the dreams that contribute to the lack of comprehension as it is never clear if what happens is only a dream or, indeed, happens in reality.
The dream Lockwood has when he spends his first night at Earnshaw’s house is also a technique that Brontё uses to surprise the reader who would never expect a civilized person, such as Lockwood, to deal with Catherine’s ghost with such a cruelty and violence. “Sometimes the betrayed judgments are simple matters of surprising characterization” (Sonstroem 1987: 39). It is an example of Brontё making it difficult for the reader to rely on the previous impressions of a character.
Wuthering Heights is told by two primary narrators, it begins and ends with Lockwood’s narration. Lockwood is the outsider, he presents the situation as he sees it, and he narrates the entire novel, but being only a guest at Wuthering Heights he knows the story from Nelly Dean. What is more, some parts of Nelly’s story are also taken from other characters, which eventually creates the narration within narration, or so-called ‘Chinese box’ structure. Of the two primary perspectives used in Wuthering Heights, that which is offered by the housekeeper Nelly Dean is the more reliable. Her position as a servant gives her convenient access to both events and the sentiments of the story.
“The voices of Nelly Dean and Lockwood are always in our ears; one or the other of them is always present at a scene, or is the confidant of someone who was present; through Lockwood we encounter Heathcliff at the beginning of the book, and through his eyes we look on Heathcliff’s grave at the end” (Ghent 1987: 11).
Lockwood is objective, reliable, and trustworthy, but he lacks the insider’s touch that is necessary for a lively narration. Nelly, on the other hand, has too much of the insider’s touch, often being involved in the action. Together, the two narrators allow the reader to choose from the two sources to gain the most accurate information. The narration allows the reader to become a little more familiar with the Victorian society, which Nelly represents, yet, the society in the novel is said to be like a window, it allows the reader to see beyond, but to see through it, the window itself must be ignored (Langland: 173).
Brontё also uses the metaphor of the window while presenting the character of Heathcliff, providing him with the features typical of a Byronic hero, whose presence in the Romantic novel is a commonplace. The Byronic hero, so named because it evolved primarily due to Lord Byron’s writing in the nineteenth century, is crudely depicted as a young man, prematurely sated by sin, who wanders in an attempt to escape society and his own memories. It is so when his eyes are described as “the clouded windows of hell” from which the devil looks out. “The fact that Heathcliff’s eyes refuse to close in death suggests the symbol in the metaphorical form (the ‘fiend’ has now got out, leaving the window opened” (Ghent 1987: 18). He is an orphan of unknown origins, he lacks family ties, and rebels against society.
He attempts to win Catherine, now a married woman, back and when that fails marries Isabelle Linton, Edgar’s sister, with the sole intention of torturing her as a way of avenging himself on Edgar for marrying the woman he loved. When Hindley dies Heathcliff takes care of his son, Hareton, in order to treat him as cruelly as Hindley treated Heathcliff, so he can be able to take his revenge on Hindley. To further punish Edgar, Heathcliff kidnaps Cathy, forces her to marry his son, Linton, and by doing it gains possession of Thrushcross Grange and has the authority to treat Cathy as he desires. His own wife asks Nelly whether he is a devil as she says:”Is Mr.Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not is he a devil? I shan’t tell my reasons for making this inquiry; but I beseech you to explain, if you can, what I have married” (Brontё 1981: 137).
What leads Heathcliff to the cruel action he takes is also a factor which gives basis to the Romanticism in the novel – his deep passion. Catherine and Heathcliff’s passion for one another seems to be the centre of Wuthering Heights, given that it is stronger and more lasting than any other emotion displayed in the novel. Their love is based on their shared perception that they are identical. Catherine describes her bond with Heathcliff as if he is the only person that matters to her: “If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger” (Brontё 1981: 83).
After Catherine’s death, Heathcliff digs up her grave so he could lie beside her in the coffin, and be with her in death, this scene is frequently considered to be the most romantic scene in the novel. Heathcliff wanting to be with Catherine in his afterlife is one of the examples of the passion that leads to the situation from which the only escape can be found in death, there is also the one of Isabella wishing she could die to finally be free of her husband. It is the relationship of two protagonists that decides on that Wuthering Heights can be classified as Romantic novel: “Whatever we are to call the mutual passion of Catherine and Heathcliff, it has no societal aspect and neither seeks nor needs societal sanction. Romantic love has no fiercer representation in all of literature” (Bloom 1987: 6-7).
This irresistible passion is also the source of most of the major conflicts that structure the novel’s plot. In Wuthering Heights, in addition to the conflicts between characters there are also the conflicts between the wild nature and tame reason. Brontë constantly plays nature and culture against each other. Nature is represented by the Earnshaw family, and by Catherine and Heathcliff in particular. These characters are governed by their passions, not by reflection or ideals of civility. Correspondingly, Wuthering Heights, the house where they live comes to symbolize a similar wildness. On the other hand, Thrushcross Grange and the Linton family represent culture, refinement, convention, and cultivation.
The later is also represented by Nelly Dean and Mr. Lockwood. “The effect is one of contrast between finite and infinite, between the limitation of the known and human, and the unlimitedness of the unknown and the nonhuman” (Ghent 1987: 11). The two houses are situated far from each other, the distance between them is also stated in their interiors. Thrushcross Grange is the one of light, of “a pure white ceiling bordered by gold” (Brontё 1981: 47) while Wuthering Heights is the one of heat, “Earnshaw rose too and bade her come to the settle, and sit close by the fire” (Brontё 1981: 297).
In addition to these external conflicts, there are also those held within a character, the most significantly the one of Catherine. When Catherine is bitten by the Lintons’ dog and brought into Thrushcross Grange, the two sides are brought onto the collision course that structures the majority of the novel’s plot. Catherine learns how to rule herself, repress her own impulses and becomes a lady. When she returns from Thrushcross Grange, she finds Heathcliff a repulsive person because of his wildness and dirt, “she has learnt, as part of the civilizing influence of the Lintons, that dirt is bad” (Homans 1987: 74).
She knows she will never love Edgar Linton as she loves Heathcliff, she believes in what she calls an existence beyond self, and that her existence beyond her is in Heathcliff, she speaks to Nelly: “Nelly, I am Heathcliff” (Brontё 1981: 83). Although, Catherine has already tasted the civilised life and she decides to marry Edgar. She falls sick and her husband does not leave the library so he could handle her death in the only way he knows how, which is in a mild mannered approach, at that moment Catherine realizes that she attempted the impossible, which was to live in a world in which she did not belong. The Thrushcross Grange she called her heaven, becomes a place of her exile, and Catherine discovers what her true home was.
Wuthering Heights as every Romantic work put a great deal of emphasis on nature itself not only its conflict with the ‘other’ civilized world. The reader cannot fail to notice the deepened appreciation of nature, yet, the story is mostly narrated by Nelly Dean who does not seem to understand the Catherine and Heathcliff’s passion for nature, therefore is unable to describe it as they would. But Brontё, for whom the nature is very significant, finds a way to mention it in the novel. She presents nature not just in its tranquil aspects but also in its wild, stormy moods, mostly by the means of associating it with particular characters and events. “Metaphors drawn from nature provide much of the book’s descriptive language” (Homans 1987: 61), for example when Catherine describes Heathcliff as “an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone” (Brontё 1981: 103).
This pattern of symbolic landscape continues throughout the novel, at Heathcliff’s grieving over Catherine’s death, a symbol for tears is shown in the image of “the dew that had gathered on the budded branches, and fell pattering round him” (Brontё, 1981, 166); after Catherine’s burial, the spring weather turns to winter. Even though, the novel lacks literal description of nature, it gives many of its details and so the reader feels like if experienced the Yorkshire landscape for real. There are, however, few scenes in which we have an evidence of protagonists’ attachment to nature, Cathy’s diary account of their naughty escapade under the dairy maid’s cloak, Heathcliff disappears into a raging storm after hearing Cathy say it would degrade her to marry him. Cathy goes out to the road in search of him,”Where, heedless of my expostulations, and the growling thunder, and the great drops that began to plash round her, she remained calling, at intervals, and then listening, and then crying outright.” (Brontё 1981: 85).
The author inhabits a landscape with people with strange animal or nature names such as Hindley, Hareton, and Heathcliff.
Nature in Wuthering Heights is presented realistically, so are the childhood and the adult’s developing from childhood experiences. The hostility towards children and the abuse of them at Wuthering Heights appears in both generations. Heathcliff was being abused as a child by his older brother, Hindley, there comes the time when Hindley becomes an alcoholic, then dies, and Heathcliff is to take care of Hindley’s son, Hareton. Heathcliff plans to take revenge on his older brother by treating his son the very way that Heathcliff was treated by Hindley. In fact, Heathcliff does not even want his own son for anything except for the revenge. There is also a character of Catherine, who seems to never grow up, she somehow remains innocent and naive like a child, she believes that she does not have to choose between the two men, Heathcliff and Edgar, as if she could avoid making a decision, when her ghost comes to Lockwood, she informs him that she’s lost her way on the moors twenty years ago.
“I’m come home. I’d lost my way on the moor.” As it spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window” (Brontё 1981: 24).
Throughout the novel, there are scenes of mistreatment of children, one leads to another, until they are handed down to the next generations.
Catherine’s ghost appears few times in the novel, each time bringing a similar mystical mood. The supernatural elements, the passion and cruelty, the windy moors, wild nature, dream and madness, all these contribute to the Gothic setting of the novel which is the means of establishing the tension. Yorkshire, its landscape, folklore and people, all shown with taste for the local colour. Brontё finds the nature a living force that drives the characters, extends their passions far beyond existence, meanwhile the same nature co-exists with the civilized world, overcoming the limitations of body, society, and even death.
The wild household of Wuthering Heights is set against the mild and tame Thrushcross Grange, the constant conflict between the nature and civilization changes the relationships between the characters, and the characters themselves, as they go on the journey into themselves searching for deeper truths they explore their limits, manoeuvre between natural impulses and artificial restraint. All of these Romantic elements are somehow closed within the ‘Chinese box’ narration, which sets the order of the story, but leaves a gateway of interpretation by providing it with the key to the unlimited imagination of the author.
Primary source:1) Brontё, Emily1981 Wuthering Heights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Secondary sources:2) Bloom, Harold (ed.)1987Modern Critical Interpretations: Emily Brontё’s Wuthering Heights. New York O Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing.
3) Homans, Margaret “Repression and Sublimation of Nature in Wuthering Heights”, in: HaroldBloom (ed.), 61-78.
4) Nestor, Pauline2003 Introduction and Notes to Wuthering Heights, London: Penguin Books Ltd.
5) Sonstroem, David “Wuthering Heights and the Limits of Vision”, in: Harold Bloom (ed.), 27-45.
6) Van Ghent, Dorothy “On Wuthering Heights”, in: Harold Bloom (ed.), 9-25.
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