The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)
1837–39 Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist shifts the gloomy atmosphere of early Gothic fiction to the streets of London.
1840 Edgar Allan Poe writes stories of intense relationships mixed with Gothic themes of unsettling, crumbling houses; ghosts; and corpses coming back to life.
1847 Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is published: its themes of Gothic domestic abuse and confinement are mirrored in Wuthering Heights.
1852–53 Charles Dickens writes Bleak House and reworks the ruined Gothic castle of earlier fiction as the slum tenements of London in the development of the Victorian urban Gothic.
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is considered one of the most famous love stories in Western culture. This is, however, a questionable assessment: while the intense but doomed affair between its two main characters, Catherine and Heathcliff, is certainly captivating, readers soon discover that – rather than romance – the novel presents a tale of violence, haunting, and abuse. In this book, Emily Brontë expands and reworks Gothic themes in a way that exposes Victorian concerns about gender, class, poverty, and domesticity.
"Oh I am burning! I wish I were out of doors – I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free."
Myth on the moors
The story told in the novel is one of revenge, dependence, and passionate longing, centred on the manor called Wuthering Heights, set in the harsh landscape of the Yorkshire moors. It follows the life of the antihero, Heathcliff, an orphan adopted from the streets of Liverpool by the Earnshaw family. Heathcliff is brought up alongside the family’s daughter, Catherine, and son, Hindley, and the book tells of their complex relationships and power struggles over the following years, Heathcliff’s loss of his soulmate, Catherine, to Edgar Linton, and the revenge he takes.
Structurally, the novel uses a framing device – a separate story within which the main narrative is presented. This frame consists in the tale of the visit of a gentleman named Lockwood to Wuthering Heights. An unsettling encounter with what he believes to be Catherine’s ghost traumatizes him deeply, and he quizzes Nelly Dean, a former servant of Catherine, about the history of the house. The story recounted by Nelly unfolds for the reader as it does for Lockwood.
Wuthering Heights did not enjoy immediate success when it was published in 1847, perhaps because Victorian sensibilities could not cope with its unbridled passion and cruelty. But the tide of public opinion turned when later critics championed the novel. An essay on the work by English writer Virginia Woolf in 1916 marked a shift in how the text was interpreted. Woolf describes the book as being like a fairy tale or myth that is timeless in nature. This perspective on the novel became popular and is current today; however, it tends to ignore or diminish the significance of Brontë’s use of Gothic literary conventions in her narrative, and her work’s own relationship with the literature and issues of its time.
What is particularly striking about Wuthering Heights is the way that it adapts Victorian Gothic themes. Other contemporary writers, such as Charles Dickens, used Gothic elements within realist novels, thus deepening the themes, style, and meanings associated with earlier Gothic literature. Instead of the crumbling medieval castle, for example, Dickens portrayed teetering urban landscapes, rife with poverty and exploitation. In place of the terrifying manor house, with its victimized inhabitants within, Dickens presented the horrifying abuse that occurred in the gloomy London streets outside the home.
Brontë took things further than Dickens, expanding on Gothic literary traditions through the character of Heathcliff, who is brought to the house of Wuthering Heights as a boy. When he arrives in the household, and indeed throughout the story, he is referred to as a “gypsy”. For the Victorians, the word “gypsy” had several connotations: it indicated someone of a different race, and it was also used as an insult for someone who was homeless, a wanderer, and therefore to be feared.
Brontë’s more complex take on the Gothic is also evident in her portrayal of the conflicts within her characters’ minds. Catherine, for example, when forced to choose between Heathcliff and Linton, does not sleep for three days and is unable to distinguish between imagination and reality.
The house in Wuthering Heights is symbolic of the tumult of the story, and of the emotional turmoil of its protagonists. Rather than functioning as a place of refuge from the outside, the home is transformed into a Gothic site of abuse, fear, claustrophobia, exploitation, and oppression.
"Terror made me cruel; and finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro until the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes."
Racial difference and working- class poverty were significant concerns for the Victorians. They fashioned their ideas of respectability and of English national identity through the idealized domestic space of the middle-class home. For example, Dickens himself often depicted clichéd domestic scenes where the respectability of the bourgeois space was contrasted with the literal and moral poverty of the streets outside. Brontë, however, brought the raw realities of the outside into the home, recalling earlier Gothic narratives where households were not sites of refuge or comfort, but spaces of familial abuse. In doing so, she reveals to her contemporary reader that the “slavery” and “homelessness” associated with Heathcliff are also evident within the idealized domestic sphere: in effect, the home is no safer than the crime-ridden Gothic streets.
As an abandoned waif found in Liverpool, Heathcliff has been associated not only with gypsies but also with the slave trade of the period. As a character, he may be seen as a Gothic manifestation of the outside, bringing the terror of the unfamiliar into the domestic environment. Through his strong attachment to Catherine, who, like him, experiences only neglect and abuse within the house of Wuthering Heights, his presence reveals that crime and exploitation were not simply the domain of the urban working-class poor.
The wild moorland setting symbolizes the barbaric threat presented by nature. The desolate landscape, in which it is easy to get lost, is one of the book’s characters.
Lovers or vampires?
Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship is more vampiric than romantic. They draw the life force from each other in pursuit of their needs and revenge, and often mirror each other’s desires and frustrations with society. Heathcliff’s plea to Catherine that “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” is an indicator of how theirs is not a flowery love union, but an existential meeting of souls. Catherine utters a similar line: “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” For her, Heathcliff is not a source of girlish infatuation and she even warns her sister-in-law not to idealize him as the hero of a romance book. Instead, she sees him for what he is: selfish and predatory. She is also a wilfully stubborn and selfish character and her actions mirror Heathcliff’s unbending will.
Bred on poverty and abused at Wuthering Heights for his lower class, Heathcliff desires social power through class elevation, money, and the ownership of property, represented by Catherine. Like other middle-class women of the period, Catherine is herself regarded as a piece of property, a feature of the household in which she is confined. For her, Heathcliff represents a weapon against the respectable middle-class world she is expected to conform to as she enters womanhood.
"My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning."
Gender and the domestic
The relationship between Victorian Gothic and gender is an important aspect of Wuthering Heights that is strongly evident in one of the most violent and famous passages in the novel. When the hapless Lockwood first comes to Wuthering Heights, he expects to find a typical Victorian country house – the kind of domestic home Dickens was famous for writing about, with its comforting hearthside scenes of familial bliss and harmony. Instead, he seems to stumble into the pages of a Gothic novel, where strange dogs attack him, a surly owner banishes him, and a mysterious housekeeper sends him to sleep in a haunted room.
Lockwood’s encounter with Catherine’s child-ghost in her old bedroom culminates in a startling and gory image of him deliberately rubbing the ghost’s bare wrist on the jagged glass of a broken window. This violent, disturbing image could be interpreted as simple Gothic melodrama were it not for the fact that Catherine’s relationship with her home is a complex one. Throughout her life, she experiences households as sites of confinement. She seeks escape from them and yet, ironically, haunts the edges of Wuthering Heights, seeking entry into it after her death. Like Heathcliff, she is a “homeless” character who does not belong anywhere. For her, the real Gothic terror is the house’s inability to accommodate her and her desires. Instead, like Lockwood’s fracturing of her skin in death, her identity is broken in life. Through her, Brontë reveals the limits of the Victorian domestic ideology that was often used to define women in the period.
The destinies of two families are intertwined in Wuthering Heights. Brontë tends to repeat names, often causing confusion in the minds of readers.
Imprisoned by the home
During the 19th century, women were intimately linked with the site of the home to the extent that eminent Victorian critics such as John Ruskin described women’s bodies themselves as private spaces of domesticity. This claustrophobic limiting of women’s lives is an issue that is echoed in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre through the literal imprisonment of a woman within the household. In Wuthering Heights, this Gothic theme of female imprisonment, expressed through Catherine, suggests that the only way out for women is through a violent self-destruction that results in a permanent homelessness.
For Catherine, Victorian domestic ideology is not only a prison, it is also an existential dilemma that makes her question where she belongs and drains her of her life and vitality, leaving only a spectral “shadow” of her former self, first metaphorically, then literally. This is the power of Wuthering Heights and its use of Victorian Gothic elements; it reveals that the fundamental tragedy of the tale lies not in the doomed relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff, but rather in the lack of a true space of belonging for either of them.
The Brontë sisters (Anne, Emily, and Charlotte), shown here in a painting by their brother Bramwell, collaborated on literary works and explored similar themes in their writing.
Born on 30 July 1818, Emily Brontë was the fifth daughter of the Reverend Patrick Brontë. The family lived in the village of Haworth, on the edge of the moors in Yorkshire, a location that had a profound influence on Emily’s writing, and that of her literary sisters, Charlotte and Anne.
Her mother died in 1821, and in 1824 Emily was sent with her sisters to the Clergy Daughters’ School in Lancashire. After the death of her eldest sisters, Elizabeth and Maria, from typhoid, the remaining three siblings returned home. Later, at Haworth, they decided to start publishing their work under male pseudonyms, Emily’s being “Ellis Bell”. Her only published novel was Wuthering Heights (1847), although she and her sisters had brought out a volume of their poems the previous year. Tragically, Emily never lived to witness the success of her novel as she died from tuberculosis just a year after its publication.
Other key works
1846 Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell
See also: Jane Eyre • Bleak House • Oliver Twist • Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque • Great Expectations