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The Recurrence of Societal Roles Throughout Victorian Literature

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a depiction of the intricacies of class structure during the 19th century; an idea had been addressed to some extent in nearly every piece of Victorian literature we had read thus far. The relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff is perhaps one of the strongest ways that Bronte addresses the plights of minority classes, by injecting it into a bleak love story that cross-examines both women and Africans. Heathcliff’s love for Catherine is unattainable because of his social status. William Blakes’s The Chimney Sweeper and The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point are both representative of some of the struggles of African’s during this time. Heathcliff’s specific situation is more complex, being that he went from poor orphan to being raised as an upper-class individual. Following the death of Mr. Earnshaw, Heathcliff is redelegated so a subservient role due to Hindley’s resentment of him. It is Heathcliff’s role that is the reason Catherine’s love for him is equally unattainable. Catherine must shroud her desires for Heathcliff because to be with him would mean subjecting herself to being viewed as lowly, in comparison to being with Edgar who is a much more suitable partner from a societal standpoint. This can be connected to “Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft”, where the conditions of women and the way in which they are subjected to a position where they have to sort of mold to the sensibilities of their husband.

Children in the Victorian Social Climate

One of the most prevalent parts of the beginning of Wuthering Heights is in its usage of children. One of the most critical and strange scenes in the opening chapters is when Catherine’s ghost talks with Lockwood and laments over here past “twenty years. I’ve been a waif for twenty years!”. The concept of abandonment is a powerful aspect of this scene. Further, descriptions of the abuses within the complex familial history of Wuthering Heights are common. In particular, I found connections back to poems discussed in class such as The Chimney Sweeper. One of the strongest connections is obvious, Heathcliff’s origins as an orphan. The treatment of Catherine and a young Heathcliff by Hindley show a cruel and often unjust upbringing, reminding me of lines from the poem, ‘Who make up a heaven of our misery’. Another strong connection is in Chapter 3, where Catherine is forced to attend sermons. The influence of these sermons on youth brought my mind to the conversations held around religion in The Chimney Sweeper.

What I found to be important was the portrayal of children, especially orphans, from the perspective of Victorian writers. In the elevated social background of the family, the children are required to be educated and shaped. They attend sermons, are made to dress in suitable clothes, and Catherine, in particular, is educated to act “ladylike” in Chapter 7. The strict social conventions of the Victorian era are contrasted especially against young children. This is even more apparent with Heathcliff at his first arrival, an orphan. Early on, he is often described as dirty and is shaped by his environment as he ages.

Challenged Victorian Gender Roles

One thing I noticed while reading Wuthering Heights was the ways women and men were portrayed in some abnormal representations of gender roles, not sticking too closely to gender stereotypes. As Martineau wrote in her piece on government and women’s’ rights, women were often considered the property of their fathers and then their husbands, and were expected to act in a certain way. A “proper” lady did not mix with men in public except formally and with a man at her side. Although Martineau is mostly discussing the political rights (or lack thereof) of women, the social and interpersonal go hand in hand with that. Women of this time were restricted from acting on their own accord, and were expected to be proper and sophisticated all the time. They are expected to stamp out any other impulses while they are still young, and conform to society’s definition of a lady.

Bronte exposes this ugly and repressive side of society through her description of young Catherine Earnshaw’s evolution. At first, Catherine is portrayed as very tom-boyish, running across the moors with Heathcliff all day, refusing to do housework until forced, being reckless and rowdy and spending her time with her brother doing physical activities. When she is sent to the Lintons, however, she loses that personality and instead begins to wear fancy dresses and speak with polite manners as she is under the influence of a family instructed with the task of turning Catherine into a lady. This transformation is portrayed in a negative light, as her relationship with Heathcliff, her closest friend, is damaged. Bronte criticizes the way that society breaks down women and forces to change into someone they’re not, by providing a realistic example of Catherine Earnshaw, and taking her readers on the painful journey of her conversion from a wild, excitable tom-boy to a proper lady.

connection

With all the pieces we have read so far, I consistently see a theme of mistreatment of the lower class. In Wuthering Heights, it is demonstrated by the poor child who is referred to as “it” and banished to the stairs by the family he is staying with, and eventually they deem him unworthy of their house and he is forced back out to the streets. My heart breaks for the poor child lost and alone in the world and seen as nothing because he comes from poverty. This is also seen in The Chimney Sweeper, yet again another child is neglected and forced to fend for themselves. Without parents the chimney sweeping child is forced to live in the streets due to his social class. There is also mistreatment in Wuthering Heights when Hindley uses the rules of class (male inheritance) on Heatcliff to deny him social status as well as an education. In turn, this forced Heathcliff into another, lower, class. Throughout the readings we can see the power higher classes hold always leads to mistreatment and neglect of lower classes forcing them to stay in poverty with no remorse. The less fortunate lower classes are never treated with respect or taken seriously, and left to live life struggling.

Lockwood vs. William Blake

Upon reading the first two chapters of “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte, I think it can be argued that there is a connection between the societal views of Lockwood and how much they may contradict with that of William Blake’s views, especially in the poem “The Chimney Sweeper”. It is clear by the way Lockwood addresses Heathcliff as “a capital flow” and a “dark skinned gypsie” that he feels as though he is above Heathcliff as far as social status goes. Blake in “The Chimney Sweeper” addresses the damages of judging people by class by showing how poor families force even their children to contribute in awful jobs. Lockwood has a very arrogant personality, and he has no concept of others. When Lockwood first enters Wuthering Heights, he notes how the place is probably so dirty because they only have one servant. Lockwood has no concept of the kind of conditions servants are put through in order to make a living, and Blake addresses the dangers of these kind of people in the poem. As long as a guy like Lockwood feels as though servants are eating and breathing, then they should be fine, in Blake’s eyes, even though Blake uses this comparison as irony to show that the working class is struggling.

Mrs. Heathcliff: The Mischievous Woman

When we are first introduced to the master of Wuthering Heights and its residents, Mrs. Heathcliff (Cathy Linton) attracts the attention of Mr. Lockwood who initially mistakes her for Heathcliff’s wife, but later learns that she is the widow of Heathcliff’s son. Cathy’s behaviour in the beginning of the novel reminds me of a passage by Margret Fuller in George Eliot’s “Women in the Nineteenth Century” essay which states that when women are forbidden to enter the same spheres as men in regards to occupation because, “‘such things are not proper for girls,’ they grow sullen and mischievous.” In the interactions Lockwood observes Cathy in, first with Joseph and then with Heathcliff, he takes notice of her formidable character and fierce tongue. In her interaction with Joseph, who criticises her for her relation to Catherine Earnshaw and shames her for not being entirely lady like, her first impulse is to admit her connection to Catherine as a means which makes her a powerful woman, which is something typically frowned upon of in this period. In her interaction with Heathcliff, we see her instinct to defend herself with a witty, and often snide remark which Lockwood describes as “cat-dog combat.” Cathy has her mother’s fiery spirit, and while she has indeed grown sullen under Heathcliff’s harsh reign, she has also grown stronger and more mischievous than she ever was because the innocent Cathy Linton would not have survived a single day in the Heathcliff household. 

Characterizing the Genre: A Sample So Far

As I begin my first read of Wuthering Heights, I wanted to track back to previous texts I have explored, in order to do a check in on how I am painting my picture of the Victorian literature genre so far. The simplest solution: jotting down a list of traits so I can begin to pick up patterns between texts. The poem “England in 1819” by Percy Bysshe Shelley and the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë both possess grim characteristics. Shelley paints his poem with mud and blood –quite literally– in order to emphasize the hopelessness and despair of the kingdom. Likewise, Brontë begins the novel in a bleak and nasty storm followed up by a spirit haunting Mr. Lockwood, leading into him falling ill. These two samples of Victorian literature are illustrating dreary and dark elements, which reflects darker undertones of the genre as a whole. To tie in earlier examples, Carlyle’s “The Everylasting No” depicts elements of depression and frustration. Martineau discusses her frustration and displeasure at the political status of women. The four texts tackle very different issues: a poem about a massacre of civilians, a ramble about the negatives before a conversation, a political discussion on women’s rights, and a gothic novel. However, all of these texts dealt with hopelessness, frustration, and despair, and what three of them resulted in was hope. Carlyle’s “The Everylasting Yea” brought the positives after negativity and apathy, in Shelley’s poem it was hope itself illuminating the dark, and for Martineau, she ended her “Political Non-existence of Women” with a strong, hopeful reinforcement in the ‘consent of the governed’ as in all of the governed, men and women. Despite the hopeless beginning, perhaps what will be revealed in Brontë’s novel, is a hopeful ending. This would continue a pattern of starting and working within the grim and desolate, but ending up optimistic, which could be a formula for calculating the tone of future Victorian texts.

An analysis of how Nelly Dean embodies the themes of education influencing a woman’s relationships in Wollstonecraft and Fullers’ works.

When reading Wuthering Heights, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison between the relationships between men and women George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) discusses in her critical essay on Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft’s works of nonfiction and the way that Emily Bronte depicts the relationships between Cathy Earnshaw and her love interests: Heathcliff and Edgar Linton.  In her essay, Eliot writes that both Fuller and Wollstonecraft assert that “while men have a horror of such faculty or culture in the other sex as tends to place it on a level with their own, they are really in a state of subjection to ignorant and feeble-minded women”. In Wuthering Heights, the influence that Catherine Earnshaw has on Linton and Heathcliff is astounding. Bronte writes, “At fifteen she was the queen of the countryside: she had no peer: and she did turn out a haughty, headstrong, creature… She had a wonderful constancy to old attachments: even Heathcliff kept his hold on her affections, unalterably, and young Linton…” (Bronte 66). Wollstonecraft and Fuller’s books argued for an education of women that exceeded outside of household duties and was well versed in the arts, humanities, and sciences.

While Catherine Earnshaw displayed qualities of a strong, independent woman based on her own outspokenness and free will, she is also deprived of a real education: although as a lady her education is superior to Heathcliff’s, at the same time her education is limited to manners and the ritualistic Christianity she and her brother are taught by Joseph. Nelly Dean, to a certain extent, is not a reliable narrator. She asserts judgement on Catherine based on her actions, her emotions, and the control she has over her relationships. For example, when Catherine discloses her intention to marry Linton and then use his money to assist Heathcliff, Nelly says, “It only goes to convince me that you are ignorant of the duties you undertake in marrying; or else, that you are a wicked, unprincipled girl” (Bronte 83). Bronte seems to be using Nelly to insert the argument seen in Fuller and Wollstonecraft’s works, and further discussed by Eliot: that in order to succeed in marital relationships, a woman must be educated: not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of their spouse.

Hindley the Steam King

Certain parts of the poem “The Steam King” by Edwin Mead remind me of Hindley Earnshaw from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. While I am not claiming that Hindley is comparable to the Industrial Revolution itself, there are certain parallels that can be drawn from the poem and bits and pieces of Hindley’s character.

In the poem, the Steam King is considered a tyrant, much like Hindley has become, especially after the death of his wife. The line “his bowels are of living fire, and children are his food” (11-12) reminds me of Hindley’s abuse towards Catherine, Heathcliff, and especially his own son whom he throws over a bannister in his drunken rage.

Finally, “the sighs and groans of Labour’s sons are music in their ear…” (21-22) reminds me of how poorly Hindley treats those he deems underneath him including his servants and especially Heathcliff.

However, the ending of the poem calls for “right” to prevail and ultimately the downfall of the Steam King. At this point in the book I’m not sure if there is hope for Hindley to change or mend his ways, but I’m rooting for him!

How Catherine’s ghost relates to the past

The complex histories and connections to the past these first few chapters describe paired with the appearance of Catherine’s ghost made me wonder about what the novel is trying to say about connections with the past. The scene in which Lockwood encounters the ghost is ambiguous, Lockwood had been dreaming leading up to the encounter and it is not clear to the reader if what he is experiencing is real or another dream. I think this ambiguity adds to the deeper meaning behind the desperation of the figure of Catherine. The stories Lockwood is told about the history of Wuthering Heights and its inhabitants have a melancholy feel. Even the way the physical setting is described invokes an unsettling feeling. Which is mirrored in the appearance of Catherine’s ghost and also in the different poems about child labor we read for last class. In “The Chimney Sweeper” there is a line that reminds me Catherine’s plea to Lockwood, “A little black thing among the snow/Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!” this is describing a child lost in the starkness of the snow crying because of the labor he is forced to preform. This image coupled with the image of Catherine gives me the same feeling. Desperation. The line that she speaks even echos the child’s weeping, “…but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in—let me in!” I am looking forward to seeing how this theme of melancholy and the past develops as we learn more about these characters and their stories. Right now i would predict that the ghost represents the characters unwillingness to let got of their trauma and cope with life after tragedy so this leaves them in a perpetual state of unrest and sadness.