In reading Oscar Wilde’s letter “De Profundis,” I noticed some striking similarities to the poem “In Memoriam” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Both works talk of suffering, and Wilde mentions the death of his mother, paralleling Tennyson’s entire poem being about the death of a friend. Wilde states in his letter that “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground.” I understand this to mean that sorrow is in some ways a pact with God, something to be experienced in holy repose, but also has the potential to bring good. After all, we would not have “De Profundis” if Wilde had not befallen upon poor circumstances and if life had not played out in such a way to make him experience so much sorrow. The same could be said of Tennyson, who often meditates on faith and the afterlife in his poem.
In reading of Pip’s ascent to fortune and gentleman status, I am reminded of Heathcliff’s ascent in Wuthering Heights. Both Pip and Heathcliff are propelled to a higher social status at a young age with the help of a benefactor–that is, (most likely) Ms. Havisham in Pip’s case and Mr. Earnshaw in Heathcliff’s. Both characters come from a background in which they were once orphans, though Pip has living familial connections whereas Heathcliff was left to fend for himself on the streets before Mr. Earnshaw brought him back to the Heights.
I am sensing a Victorian motif in the form of “the benefactor,” though Dickens and Bronte take a pretty unrealistic approach to the concept—it is as if both authors are writing of benefactors in an imagined, idealized way instead of as they would exist in real life. It is pretty hard to imagine a case in which a perfect stranger would endow penniless boys with the comfort of a high-class life purely out of the goodness of their heart’s, as is essentially the case in both novels. It should be noted that in Great Expectations, there is a certain social status that comes from being a benefactor as is evidenced by Pumblechook trying to take credit for Pip’s social elevation.
With all of this in mind, I think the argument can be made to look at the role of the benefactor in both novels not as a representation of actual life in Victorian England, but rather as an imagined dream of the working class during the time. The real world doesn’t just plant rich men who want to make you rich on your doorstep, but the thought that this could happen must have been comforting to poor working class people. From this viewpoint, the benefactor is not a real person, but rather an imagined reality in which any of us could be like Pip and score big…pay no mind to the legislative, social, and societal road blocks that squash these dreams as soon as they are put into action.
In “Agnosticism and Christianity,” T.H. Huxley defines the principal behind agnosticism as the belief that “it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.” I agree with this definition and think there is a certain intelligence behind admitting one does not know all there is to know, and simply cannot with the limited information provided to us in life on this Earth. While it is not a direct 1:1 parallel, this line reminded me of Wuthering Heights and got me thinking about the degrees of certainty held by characters in Bronte’s novel—for example, Catherine Earnshaw is certain of her love for Heathcliff, but she is also certain that marrying Edgar Linton is the right course of action for advancing her place in society. These two certainties do not jive well with each other, and it makes me wonder whether or not Cathy as well as other characters in the novel would have lived much happier lives had they not operated in such extreme degrees but rather embraced uncertainty and a lack of knowing. If Cathy had taken this path and not been so set in her ways, perhaps she would have made her peace with the Heathcliff situation and not let it haunt her into adulthood. Instead, we have a cast of characters haunted by the intensity of their past and mistaking that intensity for certain-ness, which ultimately means they cannot move forward. They are married to these faulty ideas out of stubbornness or self-assuredness, and as a result, the quality of all these entangled lives and relationships suffer.
In reading all about Heathcliff’s conniving, vengeful behavior in Chapters 17-25, I am reminded of “The Steam King” by Edwin Mead. Though the character of the Steam King in Mead’s poem is supposed to represent the steam engine itself, perhaps it is most fitting to compare Heathcliff to a machine at this stage in his life–after all, machines typically have one specific purpose, and the same could be said of Heathcliff. He is so enamored with his own rage that Heathcliff’s only true purpose and motivation is exacting revenge and performing spiteful acts.
The children of Wuthering Heights (i.e. Linton and Hareton) unfortunately make up the bulk of the casualties of Heathcliff’s actions, which is a fact echoed in this stanza from “The Steam King”:
Like the ancient Moloch grim, his sire
In Himmon’s vale that stood,
His bowels are of living fire,
And children are his food.
We can easily put Heathcliff in place of the Steam King in this poem and understand how Wuthering Heights could be seen as a substitute for Himmon–in the Hebrew Bible, the Valley of Himmon is a cursed place where kings used to sacrifice their children by fire. Similarly, Heathcliff has made Hareton’s life a hell on Earth, sacrificing his childhood and any possibility to get an education all because Heathcliff hated Hareton’s father, Hindley. After Isabella dies in London, Heathcliff forces his son Linton to join the hellscape of domesticity that is life at Wuthering Heights. In addition, the line “children are his food” from Mead’s poem is reminiscent of how Heathcliff views his son–he has no love for him of course, or even a sense of fatherly obligation, but rather he views Linton as the force of sustenance for his scheme to take control of Thrushcross Grange via marrying off the poor, sick Linton to Catherine Earnshaw. In a book where revenge and obsession are the fuel driving the plot forward, making the comparison between Heathcliiff and the Steam King is not only a frighteningly accurate portrayal; it is also the sad reality of these character’s lives with the tyrant that is Heathcliff.
Poor Heathcliff. I’ve read Wuthering Heights once before and have always felt the most sympathy for his character, though it’s hard to root for any of the characters in Bronte’s novel wholeheartedly. As Nelly’s flashback narration begins and we learn more about Heathcliff’s childhood, I am reminded of “The Cry of the Children” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning because of its portrayal of children in Victorian England. In Chapter 4 of Wuthering Heights, Mr. Earnshaw brings the young, orphaned Heathcliff home from the dirty streets of Liverpool. He is immediately seen as a threat by Catherine Earnshaw’s brother, Hindley, as well as everyone else who comes in contact with him save Cathy and her father.
In Browning’s poem, a sorrowful scene is painted of the conditions under which poor Victorian children live, and indeed it seems as though Heathcliff came from such a background–However, I see the strongest connection between Heathcliff and the poem in Heathcliff’s treatment due to his race. Hindley calls Heathcliff a “gipsy” and “imp of satan”, with both comments being racially-motivated and meant to knock Heathcliff down a few rungs in the social order. This hearkens back to Browning’s poem in the sense that both texts are dealing with the mistreatment of children, though Wuthering Heights delves into the racial aspects and “The Cry of the Children” focuses on hardship brought on by poverty. Clearly, unless one came from an upper’class background and had the world handed to them on a silver platter, live for kids in the Victorian era, whether they lived in a big city of the countryside, was gritty and miserable.
In George Eliot’s article called “Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft,” she states that “There is in some quarters a vague prejudice against The Rights of Woman [by Mary Wollstonecraft] as in some way or other a reprehensible book.” This is not a surprising observation due to the severe opposition to women gaining anything even resembling more rights when Wollstonecraft’s groundbreaking essay was published in 1792. This refusal to accept anything that challenges the status quo reminds me of a sentiment expressed by John Stuart Mill in Autobiography: He states, “My course of study had led me to believe, that all mental and moral feelings and qualities, whether of a good or of a bad kind, were the results of association; that we love one thing, and hate another, take pleasure in one sort of action or contemplation, and pain in another sort, through the clinging of pleasurable or painful ideas to those things, from the effect of education or of experience.” Here, Mill really hits home on exactly why humans are so opposed to change–we as humans are so used to the things we know and have been trained–like Mill said, by either “education or experience”–to accept what we know and be fearful of any diversion from that concept. In other words, people in the 1790s rejected Wollstonecraft’s work not because it wasn’t persuasive, but because the place of women in society was rigidly defined and people could not fathom a world in which women were emancipated beyond their clearly-defined roles.