Bronte and Shelley
Paradoxical question: How could a young woman without much formal education & with little experience of life envision (much less write!) such a remarkably transgressive book like Wuthering Heights? Echoes of Mary Shelley? Consider how gender, class, & religion are understood in relation to the production of “valued” writing—i.e. determining factors of Western patriarchal legitimacy (well-to-do, formally educated, well-traveled me exclusively or rightfully “deserve” voice, autonomy, ample textual space) are challenged & critiqued. This is the outlook of the patriarchal audience to whom Charlotte’s “Biographical Notice” is addressed, & Charlotte wished to assert the conventionally “feminine” (meek, ethereal, dependent, nurturing, self-sacrificial, etc.) in her late* sisters’ Gothic-Romantic writing. *Emily died in 1848; Anne died in 1849 Literary critic J. Hills Miller writes of the frame device & shifting POV in Wuthering Heights: “Each technical device contributing to the celebrated complexity of narration in Wuthering Heights has its precedence in modern fictional practice from Cervantes down to novelists contemporary with Bronte.
The time shifts, narrators-within-narrators, the double plot, the effacement of the author, and the absence of any trustworthy and knowing narrator who clearly speaks for the author are used strategically in Wuthering Heights to frustrate the expectations of a reader such as Lockwood.” Parallels with Frankenstein? ? Rebellion (pg.16) in keeping with Shelley’s radicalism (emphasis on transcendence through love) & Heathcliff’s characterization as a Byronic hero. Lockwood: his reliance on strict social codes & series of observational blunders (off-base interactions with Heathcliff, Hareton, & Catherine) Strangeness: uncertainty/ambiguity, emotional volatility + Lockwood’s dreams Religious Experience: Joseph + formal, unconventional, “hypocritical” expressions Landscape: properties, effects of isolation, & natural/elemental imagery in setting description (Bronte’s poeticism?) Wuthering Heights recognizes the strong presence of a superstitious oral tradition in the remote society it depicts. When Lockwood “transcribes” the “regular gossip” (pg. 26), i.e. the largely unscripted narrative of Nelly Dean, this signifies a historical transition between oral & written narratives. Nelly, as narrator, reveals a preference for the mythic tales recounted by English “country folk” for generations.
The influence of oral tradition is also rooted in Bronte’s own upbringing—the storytelling she heard from her father, Reverend Patrick Bronte, their servants, & the method of memorizing/repeating aloud stories that was a major component of her informal education. The book’s construction is difficult & awkward, but it’s also innovative in its layered technique. According to critic Robert Gleckner, the distinctive narrative structure of Wuthering Heights creates “an intensely dramatic, all-pervading present, of which the past and future are integral parts.” Nelly = primary narrator + main character. She is related to the plot in very specific social & personal ways, & she has a compelling, complex personality.
To this end, she is much more than a fly on the wall—she is physically present for key events, acting as a sounding board for the other characters, passing judgement in the moment & also in hindsight, forming alliances, & acting to prevent or promote certain outcomes in high-stakes situations. ? Do you think Nelly is simply a foil to the surreal story & its characters? In what ways might her characterization pose problems? Are these flaws technical “side-effects” of forcing Nelly (along with her obvious unreliable biases) into all of the novel’s conflicts, so she can narrate them to Lockwood? Centrality of nature as a living force: the fierceness of animals, the unrelenting qualities of natural elements (fire, wind, water) are epitomized by Bronte’s poetic rhetoric—the creative rhythms of the environment as well as the repetition of active verbs & light/dark imagery.
His background is invented/borrowed, malleable, untenable. His singular name sets him constantly at odds with clear self-definition & the unconditional acceptance of society—a grown-up “street urchin” disguised as a gentleman. Nelly the housekeeper narrates a tale to Lockwood the tenant—their social & economic roles, as well as teller & listener are, on a basic level, pre-determined. ? How are patriarchal conventions maintained as well as subverted in their dynamic? Lockwood doesn’t mention anything to Nelly about his bizarre ghostly encounter the night before. Why? THEMES: Banishment/Exclusion/Displacement Power Struggles + Breakdown of Primary Relationships Social Mobility + Freedom Voyeurism Nelly, the “villain”? ? Nelly responds to situations with a certain busy-body-ness, dogged self-interest, & inflated sense of moral authority. Nelly rejects her own culpability in events, & expresses a desire to avoid in the present moment any drama, embarrassment, or overt challenge to the patriarchal status quo, which the more “passionate” and “rebellious” characters typically cause—much to her dismay! Only occasionally is Nelly fully self-aware—displaying fleeting compassion for Heathcliff or kindness toward Catherine, but she never recognizes/accepts her own “reduced” condition in terms of class & gender, as servant & woman.
She bows to the pressures of a hierarchical system of power, & she is actively complicit by conforming to its double standards, especially with respect to moral codes: “I’ve had many a laugh at her perplexities and untold troubles, which she vainly strove to hide from my mockery. That sounds ill-natured—but she was so proud, it became really impossible to pity her distresses, till she had been chastened into more humility. I’ve said I did not love her [Catherine], and rather relished mortifying her vanity now and then; besides she hurt me extremely…She never had power to conceal her passion.” (pg. 53, 55) After returning from a 5-week convalescence at the Thrushcross Grange, Cathy succumbs to the societal & gendered pressures she has, up to this point, successfully avoided by living as a “rude savage” (pg. XXX) She is now forced to recognize insurmountable cultural differences between herself & Heathcliff & what their futures hold—apart or together. Heathcliff, at an existential loss in the aftermath of Catherine’s physical & moral “transformation,” tries to conform & “elevate”—however futilely—his status, in order to rival Edgar for Catherine’s love: “Nelly, make me decent, I’m going to be good…I wish I had light hair and a fair skin, and was dressed and behaved as well, and had a chance of being as rich as he will be. I must wish for Edgar Linton’s great blue eyes and even forehead. I do—and that won’t help me to them.” (pgs. 44-45) Heathcliff’s sudden departure is triggered by more than hearing Catherine’s acceptance of Edgar’s marriage proposal.
This scene is over-the-top and full of tension, climaxing with Heathcliff leaving Wuthering Heights just as Catherine declares that it would “degrade” her to marry him (an added layer of pathos—she doesn’t know he is listening, but Nelly & the reader do!) before she has the chance to assert that “he will never know how much [she] loves him.” In Catherine’s misguided view, marrying Edgar will not result in a separation from Heathcliff—in fact, it is her clear intention that this union with Edgar (i.e. as “the greatest woman of the neighborhood,” her elite social position, its influence, & substantial wealth) will allow her to help Heathcliff rise & escape Hindley’s oppression. Bronte does not want the reader to underestimate how Hindley’s actions—specifically, his cruel, systematic abuses as “master” & “patriarch”—have informed Catherine’s motivations. Nelly dominates the narration in Wuthering Heights—controlling the selection of events & proposing how these events should be interpreted. Under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, Bronte was disguised in her dealings with a male-dominated literary world, & used her (male & female) narrators to echo her own unique agency as a woman writer.
Bronte, as the author, exerted complete control over how the narrative unfolded, & it provided her with an escape from the marginalization and constant supervision she experienced in patriarchal society. Social identity is defined by the structures of family, gender, & land/money inheritance. Catherine emerges as Heathcliff’s double because she is marginalized by her sex just as Heathcliff is marginalized by class—in different but parallel ways, they are both underestimated, excluded, & alienated. Marriage provides a long-term means of survival for women—plus, some indirect power. Yet, since wives are also expected to be mothers, there is some inherent risk as evidenced by Frances’ death shortly after childbirth (Mary Wollstonecraft! The perils of maternity!).
In marriage, a man might be able to overlook his potential wife’s lack of a family name & money, as with Hindley & Frances, but a woman faces much dire circumstances in choosing a husband: “If Heathcliff and I married we should be beggars.” (pg. 64) Lockwood, as men are permitted to do, can easily survive outside of the institution of marriage—he does not need a wife for an income, entrance to the public sphere, or to fulfill some notion of “masculine duty.” Marriage for men can be an afterthought as opposed to an all-consuming priority for women. Is Nelly a friend or foe? “Well, we must be for ourselves in the long run…” (pg. 72) Nelly’s prejudices, her moral compromising & justifications & calculated omissions are present to complicate more trusting views of her benevolence in the text. Her perspective is one that embodies a “commonsense conventionality,” a complete integration of the values of the same hierarchical system she serves which, in turn, oppresses Catherine and Heathcliff. But how much does Nelly’s conformity, her (un)conscious promotion of the status quo mirror that of the reader?
According to Bronte biographer Lucasta Miller, “part of the [narrative] function of the novel is to offer us a cautionary tale about the dangers of interpretation…it alerts the reader to the dangers of misreading but also suggests that ambiguity and plurality are inescapable facts.” Heathcliff is driven to and beyond the margins of society. Perhaps he understood his leaving Wuthering Heights as a means to mysteriously (Bronte devotes no textual space to explaining the specific means by which Heathcliff obtains his fortune, which leads the reader to speculate as to the extent of his sociopathic methods) fix his life’s two-fold problem: revenge on Hindley & regaining his relationship with Catherine. Second Arrival of Heathcliff: compare & contrast the 2 scenes (pgs. 29-30) & (pgs. 72-76) The boundary-flaunting love between Heathcliff and Catherine is at the center of the novel, yet there is an inclination to read their passion as “non-sexual” or “limitedly sexual,” or that their love (rooted in childhood & the natural world) transcends the bounds of traditional sexuality. However, how much of this is owing to the moral complications of their “sibling bond” (i.e. the taboo of incest)? And how much is owing to the social norms reflected in 19th century writing—in other words, sexuality isn’t absent or bypassed, rather it is concealed? Despite Heathcliff’s total (futile?) transformation, Catherine’s marriage remains an insurmountable barrier between Heathcliff and Catherine; moreover, her acceptance of that marriage, which Heathcliff frustratingly respects, makes the barrier self-enforced, and even more frustrating. Catherine’s conceited suggestion that Heathcliff has not thought of her during his absence elicits the bitter reply that her marriage implies that she thought of him much less. ? Catherine and Heathcliff’s antagonism coexists with their love!