Women’s Bodies in Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” Research Paper
Updated: Jun 24th, 2021
Each historical period produces its own ideals of feminine beauty, and the Victorian era is no exception. According to Hoffman-Reyes, morality, chastity, fragility, decency, docility, and frigidity were among the main “outwardly demure attributes” of Victorian feminine beauty (9). These qualities were expected from 19th-century women and encouraged through various conventional practices and behavioral norms, including engagement in work, eating, grooming, and other activities.
Based on this, a beautiful female body may be regarded as an “aesthetic artifact” crafted through the values and concepts of the dominant ideology (Hoffman-Reyes 1). Thus, it is also valid to say that the images of female bodies in literature convey symbolic meanings that allow readers to interpret them within a broader cultural and social context of historic times when a literary piece was written. Considering this, the following question may be asked: which social and cultural qualities does Catherine’s body image in Wuthering Heights has and how does it evolve throughout the plot?
At the beginning of her adulthood, Catherine is represented as an ideal of 19th-century feminized beauty. Living in Thrushcross Grange after her injury, she engages in customary practices and adopts the local lifestyle. With the help of her mistress who tried to raise Catherine’s self-respect “with fine clothes and flattery,” the character changed her manner of dressing (Brontë and Brontë 43). From “a wild, hatless little savage jumping into the house, and rushing to squeeze us all breathless” Catherine transformed into “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 that she might sail in” (Brontë and Brontë 44).
Although this manner of dressing and looking was considered beautiful, the character later found it restricting. However, not only did this feminine clothing limited her movements but also interfered with her independence, freedom of choice, and behavior. For instance, Catherine might not untie her hat herself as it could disarrange her curls (Brontë and Brontë 44). This image of a dignified lady whose very dresses seem to not allow her to relax and move easily is in sharp contrast with Catherine’s body image as a child.
Further Research What is the setting of Wuthering Heights? When Does Wuthering Heights Take Place? Where does Wuthering Heights take place? What is the Meaning of the Name Heathcliff? What genre is Wuthering Heights? How is Heathcliff a Byronic Hero?
Before the injury and a few-week stay in the Grange, the character was both freer and happier. She could race with Heathcliff, walk in the moors, and enjoy all other things that children like doing. It is valid to say that the earlier state of freedom was Catherine’s true identity, whereas the later transformation into a lady can be regarded as its loss. Through wearing more lady-like clothes, she began to comply with social and cultural expectations of what a Victorian woman should look like and how she must behave.
Consequently, she started to realize these restrictions and the detrimental effects of the cultural environment on herself. In the end, this realization and the drastic difference between the imposed body image and her natural inclinations led the character to an intense identity crisis and a state of psychological distress.
Based on the abovementioned observations, it is valid to say that the literal limitations of Catherine’s new manner of dressing correspond with the more metaphorical ones. Her new clothes and the overall body image serve as symbols of female suppression in the society of the 19th century. As the character transits into womanhood, she loses the freedom of expression and the ties with everything that brought her joy before.
Brontë, Emily, and Anne Brontë. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Hoffman-Reyes, Lisa Michelle. Subversive Beauty – Victorian Bodies of Expression. Dissertation, University of South Florida, 2014.
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