Class and Culture: Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations

As I had discussed in my comment for Tuesday’s reading, the ontology of gentility is a major topic within Great Expectations, and I think beyond Great Expectations, it is a major topic in Wuthering Heights as well. Naturally, the two characters that receive focus through this lens will be Pip and Heathcliff, and this is due not only because of their meteoric rise in class status, but in how they represent an aberrance in Victorian culture. To wit, Pip is born an orphan, and is accordingly perceived to be emblematic of a baser culture than those of a higher economic status. Pip’s upbringing is not dissimilar to Heathcliff’s, as Heathcliff is an orphan who is rescued and brought up into a higher class status (although he falls from this as well, but he still rises once more). However, the way these two intersect is not in the fact of their shared rise, but how the two rose. In this rise, an element of criminality is unmistakably mixed, and in each, the mix is different. As towards Pip, his benefactor is a criminal. But for Heathcliff, his criminality is of an altogether different sort, and is never explicitly stated. Such as that, the reader, through Nelly’s view, can read Heathcliff as having been a soldier, and since this is Victorian England, there is no mistake that his soldiering was of the colonial type. This is a different kind of criminality, one that is legally validated, but morally questionable. Again, these are not illegal practices, but they are distinctly separate from what the old money gentry would deem acceptable (even if they themselves had a hand in this honeypot). Such as that, both Pip and Heathcliff feel a certain isolation from the prominent figures of old school gentility in their respective spheres. Pip feels himself in isolation from Estalla, and Heathcliff feels himself in isolation from Edgar Linton, with both feeling less than and unworthy in comparison (although, their manifestations of these feelings are distinctly different). Of course, these are false constructions, as most money is unethical in its origin, but the culture that these two are surrounded by deems the old money acquirement of wealth far more moral than both Pip and Heathcliff’s, even if there is little actual difference. Thus, the intersection of class and culture in both of these books demonstrates how culture is used to create class distinctions between people who have the same materiality. I believe further that both of these books is noting the absurdity of this mask, as well as noting the moral hypocrisy that the culturally adept have in their own economic pursuits.

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