The Illusion of Time

Something that has always fascinated me about Wuthering Heights is the strange, all-consuming cycle that rages across generations; wrecking one entirely and nearly destroying the second. This cycle’s presence within the narrative of Brontë’s novel is cemented by the repetition of names and the persisting antagonistic relationships between Earnshaws, Lintons, and Heathcliffs. Indeed, once Catherine dies, her role is filled by her daughter, Catherine, who bears the last name Linton, who, in turn, falls in “love” with Linton Heathcliff, himself more reminiscent of his given name rather than his surname. At the same time, an Earnshaw, Hareton, begins to pursue a Linton, Catherine. The actions of this second generation eerily parallel the destructive decisions made by their predecessors and create a suffocatingly cyclical narrative experience for readers of the novel. This perception of time, crafted by Brontë, is arguably a pessimistic one, for it seems to cede that despite the passage of time, nothing really ever changes. While Wuthering Heights appears to end with a glimmer of hope as Catherine and Hareton enter a seemingly stable relationship, a Linton is still paired with an Earnshaw, a recipe that the reader knows is ultimately one for disaster.

This cyclical and cynical view on time exists in conversation and in tension with Thomas Carlyle’s perception of time as is espoused in his work, “Natural Supernaturalism.” Carlyle first muses that time is an illusion, a stance that aligns with what Brontë seems to be arguing within her novel. Carlyle goes on to advocate for a more positive perception of time and urges his readers to “pierce through the Time-element” and “glance the Eternal.” He also proposes that despite distinctions between past and future they both “are” and are therefore a part of the present, a part of the “Everlasting NOW.” This idea is compatible with Brontë’s as her depiction of a relentless cycle that does not change, grow, or decline linearly also essentially collapses past, present, and future. However, the lens with which Carlyle views this collapse of time is far more positive, as he believes that this is the way in which his readers will be able to glance not only the Eternal but God, as well. Brontë, on the other hand, seems to condense time into one stagnant cycle in order to present her readers with some grim truth concerning human nature. Thus, while both Carlyle and Brontë are proponents of atypical and compressed perceptions of time, they each are capable of producing different sensations for their readers that are respectively optimistic and disillusioned.

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