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In 1847, when a novel by Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights was published, feminism or gender equality was an unknown concept, and it was just beginning to emerge as it seemed to be a radical idea to many people. Brontë can be therefore considered a proto-feminist. Women in the Victorian period belonged mainly to the domestic sphere, and the public sphere was for their husbands.
All characters in the novel live in a patriarchal society, in women are submissive to men and Brontë changes this perception of men’s rule. There are a few main female characters in Wuthering Heights and each of them is represented in a unique way. They are her part in challenging the Victorian perception of women. The women in the novel all have strong personalities, and Brontë shows that women can still take many different opportunities and different paths of life. Brontë shows the limits of female power and its natures as well as the female influence through Catherine Earnshaw. She symbolises the rebelliousness of women, which can be observed from her childhood years that she spent with Heathcliff. They were rebels. Together they stood against the rules. While Catherine’s character can be viewed as childish and stubborn, her free spirit might be considered as progressive. Even though she married Edgar to secure her social status, we learn that her marriage is a misguided attempt to help Heathcliff from her brother’s degradation.
How it works
When she says: “And he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood, and I shall be proud of having such a husband” and that “It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now” , it is evident that she is acquainted with what she is expected to do as a woman in the 19th century. She does what was expected of her, even though she loves Heathcliff. Also, in Catherine’s world marrying a wealthy man with a good background was the only way by which a woman could ever hope to get ahead. Her daughter Cathy is very different from the ‘old’ Catherine. She is a born lady and behaves completely different than her mother did. She is a cook, a nurse, and a housekeeper. In other words, where her mother was a savage, she promises to be an ideal Victorian woman. Nelly, the main narrator of the story, represents the power and wisdom of women, as well as the counterbalance between male and female relationships. She is never the centre of the action, but she stands behind everything as she is close with all characters and for some reason, they trust her. She can, however, be considered as a manipulative creature who will go to considerable lengths to maintain the status quo of male authority. She advices Cathy not to marry Edgar for selfish reasons, warns Isabella against Heathcliff and warns Cathy not to write off Hareton.
As she is the narrator of the story and a character in her own story, she attempts to manipulate some characters. For example, in chapter 24, little Cathy tells Nelly that she made fun of Hareton Earnshaw’s inability to write his name, which was his way of trying to impress her. She teased him and laughed at him for it. At once Nelly reprimanded her for being so rude to her cousin and said she should not make fun of him. She saw a hope in a possible relationship between Cathy and Hareton, therefore she started to sow the seeds of love between them. Eventually, she does appear to be an ideal woman in some sense. Isabella Linton is seen as a weak and sort of an effeminate character. However, she is stronger and more powerful than Cathy in some aspects, for example, her marriage to Heathcliff shows exactly the opposite.
The first time when Isabella stopped to consider herself as a victim was when Hindley showed her a gun, he wanted to use against Heathcliff someday. She took the gun from his hand and thought of how powerful she would be with such an instrument. Then she touched the blade. Heathcliff was very abusive to Isabella, in her letter to Nelly, 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…” When she escaped with Heathcliff, her brother Edgar abandons her and claims that she is not his sister anymore. Isabella, however, does an admirable thing for a woman in her times. She leaves her relationship, and she moves to London to start a new life.
Isabella shows that woman can survive only on her own as she takes care not only for herself but also of her son Linton, the child she gives birth to a few months after leaving the Heights. In conclusion, Brontë depicts a world that is quite close to reality, a world that belongs to men. Brontë challenges the Victorian perception of women, to show that a woman can be more than just a wife and a mother. On the other hand, she reinforces the idea by her character Cathy and in some ways Nelly. Another important aspect is the value of education because all the women have received some education, the characters are trying to escape their position by that. She also shows that men and women can live in harmony by Hareton and Cathy and their relationship at the end of the novel.
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