Though the semester has only really just begun, class discussions have already gone into great depth about a number of topics, one such topic being the role of hope in Romantic literature. As a result of these class conversations, I have started to view hope as a near necessary element of Romantic literature, though, now that I have begun to critically engage with Wuthering Heights, this view has certainly been challenged, particularly by the character of Hareton Earnshaw. It can be argued that Hareton Earnshaw exists without hope due to the tragic circumstances of his upbringing. His mother died in childbirth and his father dealt with alcoholism and ultimately died indebted to Heathcliff, who in turn raised Hareton without nurturing him in any sense. Indeed, Hareton is afforded no education, no socialization, and, perhaps most upsettingly, no love or affection. While these aspects may lead some to assume that Hareton exists without hope, I can see a parallel between the experiences of Hareton throughout the beginning of Wuthering Heights and the apparent hopelessness latent within Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “England in 1819,” a poem that, in fact, bears a great deal of hope for its readers. The neglect that Hareton experiences throughout the novel mirrors the way in which the people of England were treated by their rulers, as is portrayed by Shelley in his poem. Shelley’s poem depicts a glorious phantom being born from the neglect the people have suffered. Such a phantom seems to be promising some kind of revolution, or perhaps retribution. In that same vein, there is a certain tension that readers can perceive regarding the character of Hareton, one that suggests that despite his neglect, there is a glimmer of hope for him after all. For while Nelly perceives him to be a poor and uneducated servant to Heathcliff, she, and her young charge, Catherine, afford Hareton a great deal of attention and consideration. Thus, despite the neglect that Hareton has felt while in Heathcliff’s care, Nelly’s attention to and occasional praise of his person suggests that perhaps Hareton will, like a glorious phantom, rise above the way Heathcliff has treated him and regain what his father lost.
One of the earliest discussions I can recall from this class is that which was ruled by our attempts to find a definition for Romanticism, the literary movement that dominated the first half of the Victorian period. The need for a definition of this literary movement arose from our conversations surrounding Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus and its apparent rejection of traditional Christian spirituality. Indeed, while Carlyle’s text featured a fair amount of language typically associated with Christianity, what with his frequent allusions to the devil, his work ultimately argues that the only remedy to the tremendous sense of doubt that Teufelsdröckh feels is to access the spirituality that resides inside oneself and one’s natural environment. Teufelsdröckh ceases to view the universe as one great, big dead machine and begins to locate the divinity within himself, as is witnessed in the “Everlasting Yea” section of Sartor Resartus and further observes the divinity of nature in “Natural Supernaturalism.” Thus, Carlyle’s work embodies a Romantic conversion as opposed to a Christian conversion, due to Sartor Resartus’ structural path from a negative ideological pole, to a neutral center, and finally to a positive ideological pole. According to Walter L. Reed, this form correlates with the structure of a so-called Romantic conversion. Additionally, the work aligns with our class’ definition of Romanticism and can arguably be categorized as such. Indeed, Carlyle’s commitment to aiding his readers in their search for spirituality within themselves and within nature identifies Sartor Resartus as an excellent example of Romanticism, or at least, as an undeniable precedent to the genre.
Similarly, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, even in its earliest pages, rejects and critiques traditional Christian spirituality in favor of Romantic spirituality, that is, one that is found and fortified by the self and by nature. Firstly, Brontë, in her characterization of Joseph, Heathcliff’s servant, creates a deft critique of Christianity. She does so through her authorial decision to embed Joseph’s dialogue with long-winded references to scripture and with hypocritical moral lessons grounded in Christian thought. Indeed, Catherine Heathcliff even refers to Joseph as a hypocrite in chapter two, an idea founded upon Joseph’s lack of care or concern for others and that cements the hypocrisy within much of his discourse and behavior. Furthermore, Brontë’s passionate, free-spirited heroine, Catherine Earnshaw, embodies the Romanticism that pervades Brontë’s novel. While confiding to Nelly, Catherine claims that “heaven did not seem to be [her] home and [she] broke [her] heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung [her] out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where [she] woke sobbing for joy.” (Brontë, 25) This quote from Catherine shows that Brontë’s novel rejects Christian tenets of spirituality, as is shown through Catherine’s unhappiness with the Christian idea of heaven and through her love and reverence for Wuthering Heights, the environment in which she was raised and to which she was so attached. Therefore, it can be argued that Brontë’s novel and Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus each strongly adhere to the Romantic theme of locating spirituality within the individual and within nature, as opposed to gleaning spirituality from rigid Christian concepts.
While consuming and considering the assigned readings for this past weekend, my mind was constantly searching for connections between last week’s readings and the texts before me. While I observed many glimmers of possible connections I could make between the two sets of texts, I was most struck by George Eliot’s discussion of how best to mend the position of women in society, and, more generally, how to mend society as a whole. Eliot writes that “there is a perpetual action and reaction between individuals and institutions; we must try and mend both little by little” (Eliot, 7) and goes on to state that this is the only definitive way in which human beings and their creations can be mended.
This idea of mending immediately made me think back to Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, a work whose title translates to “the tailor retailored.” Thanks to the research that Group 6 completed last week, I have a better understanding of the significance of Carlyle’s title and his stance on the idea of mending society. Through their insightful unpacking of Carlyle’s clothing metaphor, I came to interpret Sartor Resartus as a work that urges individuals and institutions to make new clothing and that rejects the notion of “mending.” However, upon reading further works of Carlyle’s, I began to doubt the legitimacy of his radical belief, and now align his views with Eliot’s, who seems to use the works of Mary Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller as platforms upon which he bolsters his own views. Indeed, through my reading of Carlyle’s Past and Present, I realized that Carlyle, like Eliot, advocates for steady, small changes that will more or less preserve the existing social order by preserving the presence of arguably damaging hierarchies within society.
I look forward to discussing in class whether or not Fuller and Wollstonecraft actually argued for the “little by little” mending which Eliot and Carlyle both seem to adamantly support. Being that I have not read either Fuller or Wollstonecraft’s works, I think it will be interesting to see if their ideas were, in fact, more radical than Eliot perceives and manipulates them to be within his review. Should their views be accurately represented by Eliot, I am lead to wonder: was this a mechanism by which each respective author was able to garner any support at all, due to the way in which women were viewed and treated during the Victorian period?
My fondness for Victorian Literature began when I was tasked with reading Jane Eyre in my senior year of high school English. It was the end of the year and I had already completed my formal final exam for the class. Thus, when my teacher gave us one last project, to read and give a presentation on the novel many consider to be Charlotte Brontë’s masterwork, my motivation to complete the task was perhaps understandably low. Despite my exhaustion, there was a preternatural power within Brontë’s writing, and particularly within the characterization of her unlikely heroine, that caused me to devour the novel. It was this same preternatural power that led me to read Jane Eyre for a second time, this time more carefully and more critically. As a result of this second read, I was inspired to read more by Charlotte Brontë and her sisters, Anne and Emily. This summer, I was able to dive deeper into the world of the Brontë sisters by reading Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Villette, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Being that these novels are narrated by or feature a prominent, independent, and arguably controversial female character, I cannot help but wonder what the predominant gender roles were at the time when the Brontë sisters were writing their novels. I also would like to know how much the Brontë’s, through the characterization of their heroines, truly subverted said gender roles? Moreover, can their works be considered examples of proto-feminism? It is my hope that one, some, or all of these questions might be answered by the end of the semester.