Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights is a key text in the English literary canon. The first and last novel of the short-lived life and career of Emily Bronte, the novel lends itself to analysis through various disciplines such as psychoanalysis, race, gender and cultural studies. For example, it could be read under the feminist framework as much as one can make Marxist interpretations of it. In this vein, it displays characteristics of both the Romantic Movement in literature even as its characters and settings project Victorian values and virtues. This essay will pursue this angle in detail, laying out how the Romantic elements of the novel counter pose the Victorian socio-cultural elements in creating a work of high originality and enduring relevance.
The Victorian period is loosely associated with the reign of Queen Victoria during the latter half of the 19th century. Some of the praiseworthy developments of this period is the concept of the orphanage, which was a symbol and product of social solidarity and support. In terms of values in the personal and interpersonal domains, qualities such as “thrift, cleanliness, hard work, self-reliance, self-respect, and national pride” were thought of as lofty. (Alexander) Concepts such as family honour, personal integrity and social status were given importance during this period. In contrast, the Romantic Movement in the arts in general and literature in particular, promoted laissez-faire approach to human interpersonal relations, which promoted a primacy for feelings and emotions as opposed to tradition, customs and social norms. But what is interesting is that these two opposing tendencies operated simultaneously toward the end of the Victorian epoch, leading to a vibrant cultural dialectic. Wuthering Heights is a classic example that captures all the contradictions, confusions and complexities of such a discourse. Literature scholar Beth Newman’s thinks of novels as “fictive engagement with a specific social world”. (Close) Hence, there is much more to Wuthering Heights than its outward mythic romance. In effect, the novel treats such issues as “slave trade, the evolving middle-class family, politics and class structures,” etc, through the microcosm of a household “torn between Romantic longing and the Victorian domestic ethos.” (Close)
One of the cultural markers of the Victorian era is how gender roles were rigidly defined. In Wuthering Heights we see internal conflicts in various characters’ minds, as they try to abide by while also resisting the then accepted gender roles and social norms. This is especially true with respect to the thoughts and behaviour of Catherine and Heathcliff. To quote, “the elder Catherine resists until her death being an angel in the house; Heathcliff rails against the story he inhabits”. (Close) In this sense, the novel is “mediated through conventional Victorian narrators – and readers – who deal in the domestic realism aligned with Thrushcross Grange.” (Close)