The De-Radicalization of Class and Gender in Wuthering Heights
by Lauren Jackson
Emily Bronte, in her novel Wuthering Heights, has been deemed radical in her thoughts, beliefs, and presentation of her characters. But there seems to be a striking dissonance with this belief, being evident in several examples in relation to class and gender. These spheres of society are still cloaked in ideologies of the time that revolve around females and lower classes as lesser. The power of the world rests in upper class and men, this theme is not diminished in Emily Bronte’s novel, despite its attributed radicalism.
Gender and class are never specifically linked in the novel, but both contain elements of subjugation. These realms are subjugated by men, which is a theme present in the contemporary society in which the novel was written. The most telling of the class struggles within the novel lies within the character of Heathcliff. Heathcliff was a character of unknown status and birth, lowering him from the outset in the eyes of the family he was adopted into, and by the general public that knew of the incident. This sentiment is rife in the house from Heathcliff’s very installment: “So, from the very beginning, he bred bad feeling in the house…” (Wuthering Heights, 44). One could argue in a radical paradigm, that Heathcliff went against the grain by being successful in his rise to power and ownership of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. However, the manner in which he attained these properties was through scheming, manipulation, and vengeance. There was nothing of the good or proper in Heathcliff’s business acquirements or his character in general. He could not mistakenly be dubbed a gentleman. Bronte purposefully makes Heathcliff a harsh, dark, and cruel character. At times he could be dubbed a villain, especially when he kidnaps the younger Cathy Linton to satisfy his own purposes of gaining Thrushcross Grange through Cathy’s marriage to Linton. These are all clear examples that class makes one refined and proper, though your star may still be on the ascendant, it is one that will never burn brightly. In fact, Heathcliff’s only redemption seems to be in the love that Catherine Earnshaw bore for him. And perhaps through this love, through Catherine’s eyes, we might see the seed of goodness buried within Heathcliff, yet it is snuffed out so quickly it never has a chance to manifest, and therefore we are left with an image of doom and ill-will.
Gender is also ruled over by men. In the world, men are the ones with power, and females are under their dominion. This is evidenced in the character of Cathy Linton after being forced into marriage with her cousin Linton. Cathy could not leave or flee, could not break her bond with Linton, but was powerless in the face of her male ‘captors’. Heathcliff even gets physical with Cathy: “…but ere she had well secured it, he seized her with the liberated hand, and pulling her on his knee, administered with the other a shower of terrific slaps on the side of the head, each sufficient to have fulfilled his threat, and she been able to fall” (Wuthering Heights, 326).
Isabella was unable to escape the power of Heathcliff once she bound herself in marriage to him, a marriage that was seduced by a dishonest Heathcliff, whose intentions were never born of a pure motive. Thus both females were placed in situations hazardous to themselves, yet no balance could be found. Males dominated their world, and under the men was the only way they could function. On one hand Emily Bronte could be showing us we should feel pity for and sympathize with these characters, that perhaps we should look at them as victims and do something to change this action. But what seems more likely, is that perhaps unwittingly, Bronte was merely reinforcing the standards of the time. Women were under the rule of men, and thus Bronte perpetuates that in her work. Whether it was subconscious, or attempting to draw attention to a wrong, she makes no move to right it or to even begin to show us how we might remedy such a situation.
What appears to be a radical sentiment on Bronte’s part is evidenced in the character of Catherine Earnshaw. However, as I shall illustrate, this apparent radicalism turns to the ideology of the time, and the standard trope of females in literature. Catherine had split affections between Linton and Heathcliff. There was a sort of tenderness or almost-love on her part towards Linton, enough to have married him and made a home with him. She did not wish to leave him despite the fact that she had grown up loving Heathcliff. Her passions and adoration for Heathcliff never died, not even with her final breath. Their love for one another was infinite: “They were silent – their faces hid against each other, and washed by each other’s tears. At least, I suppose the weeping was on both sides; as it seemed Heathcliff could weep on a great occasion like this” (Wuthering Heights, 195).
To have a female character with a seeming wanton way, by dividing her affections between two men, despite the fruition or actuality of the love not being present in the case of Heathcliff, this could be deemed an immoral act by Victorian standards. Thus Catherine must be punished for her inconstancy, and she dies, without her love ever being fully explored with Heathcliff. It is the standard trope for the female to be a victim, a lamb on the slaughter, a sacrifice to the novel to further represent female goodness and morality. Catherine in essence can be a representation of the fallen woman. Cathy Linton, her daughter, on the other hand, stays true and unswerving in her marriage to Linton. Therefore her success in life is radically different from that of her mother’s. She ends in a happy marriage to someone she loves – Hareton- due to her female diligence and preservation of her dignity and morality.
Further portrayed in this instance is Isabella Linton. When she elopes with Heathcliff, a serious misconduct for a woman of the time, she becomes miserable and unhappy for the rest of her life. She is overprotective of Linton and ends up dying without tasting true love. She is also punished for her misbehavior as a woman, not following the order and role set down for her by man. For not only did she rail against Heathcliff in the instance of her marriage, but she also went against her brother Linton, who did not want her even associating with Heathcliff.
It is unclear where Bronte’s sympathy lies when it comes to these complex characters. There is a split personality within the structure of the novel itself by enfolding narratives within narratives and narrators within narrators. It seems to suggest a duplicity of roles and of meaning within the text and within the meaning one can derive from the novel. Therefore it is a safe assumption to believe that Bronte may have felt some radicalism, but tempered it with all she had ever known. Perhaps she wished to shed light on the injustices of society and the ideologies present in her day, but she offers no solutions to the issues presented, and seems to only reinforce these ideas as the norm. Cathy and Catherine are females that are wronged by a society of men, and are punished and rewarded for how they behave within this male world. The power they possess is limited and directly controlled through the men in their lives. Class is seen as a tool by which to become prosperous, and it suggests that inherently people are good, kind, just, and noble when they are born of a higher class. Heathcliff’s character exemplifies this notion by being of a base nature and a base birth, despite whatever status he may claim for himself through dishonorable means.
I believe if Emily Bronte had given us a representation of a female of the lower class she may have been embodied as a prostitute, which is a standard trope of the time, class and gender being linked in the Victorian era. A lower class woman was defined merely as a fallen woman, void of morals and conscience. This accepted invisibility allowed writers like Emily Bronte to shut out a whole world of possibilities and she reinforced this theory by creating only upper class females who were virtuous and good. Catherine Earnshaw’s one flaw was to feel affection for two males, and this ended in her death. Despite this wanton behavior in her thoughts her actions bore no proof of sexual immorality. In fact sexuality is distinctly lacking in the novel. This is suggestive in itself as to how upper class ladies should conduct themselves.
Thus, it is safe to say Emily Bronte was a product of her age, although Wuthering Heights may have been a bit of a mutant novel. It transgresses and transcends through points that may be interpreted as one sees fit. It appears Bronte had radical leanings, but perhaps did not feel safe illuminating them in the garish light of the world. Nevertheless, the stereotypes of the time are adhered to, and radicalism gets shunted to the side and possibly ignored altogether by contemporary readers. Class and gender are still obstacles in today’s world, it is no wonder it was a road block in Bronte’s time. Yet with bright colors and vivid emotions does Bronte paint the characters of her novel and fill us with ideas of what it means to be male or female, and of the lower or upper echelons. No matter what Bronte’s personal view, she creates a world in which it is possible to explore, and in which it is possible to imagine.
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights.
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