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Wuthering Heights | Context

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The Victorian Era

The Victorian era began with Queen Victoria's coronation in 1837 when Emily Brontë was 15 years old. Those who lived in the Victorian age had a strong sense of social responsibility toward the poor and lower classes, and artists and innovative thinkers often believed it was their duty to be a good example, which in some ways caused the Victorian age to later be described as "prudish," "repressed," and "old-fashioned." Since the period lasted until 1901, many innovations and historical changes took place philosophically and politically throughout. For example, workers' unions bloomed, and later in the period, Darwinism and Freud's theories revolutionized beliefs about the individual. Emily Brontë, however, came of age in the earlier part of the Victorian era. Although institutional Christianity was beginning to be called into question on a large scale, mass society still abided by religious sentiments and strict social codes. Women were expected to obey their husbands; respectability and sexual propriety were the goals, and anyone who did not follow the implicit rules was criticized or ostracized. The oppressive morality of the time affected Emily Brontë's upbringing, and it caused Wuthering Heights to be initially received unfavorably by critics and the public, for defying the expectations of the time.

Social Class

There was increasing tension among social classes in England during Brontë's lifetime. The Industrial Revolution, which began in the 1770s, was in full swing, and the middle class was growing. However, an upper class of nonworking landowners living off inherited or invested money, such as the fictional Earnshaws or Lintons, still thrived, and subscribed to a strict division between classes. Servants were considered underlings, there to do the bidding of their masters, and they were expected to know their place and stay there. Nor was earning one's money a guarantee of attaining higher social status. Land and property were generally inherited from one generation to the next. The upper classes preferred to marry within their ranks to ensure the "purity" of their social class. Marrying up or down the social ladder, as Isabella Linton does with the lower-class Heathcliff, could lead to scandal and even exile. When Heathcliff pursues his vendetta against the Lintons and the Earnshaws by acquiring their estates, he deprives the families of properties they held for generations.

Gypsies

Heathcliff is looked upon as an inferior outsider by many characters in the novel due to his dark hair and eyes, a sign of his supposed Gypsy origins. This is typical of romanticized notions about Gypsies during the Victorian period. The Gypsies, or Roma, had arrived in England from India around the early 16th century. They were nomadic traders, entertainers, or seasonal workers who traveled in caravans and, with the development of England's roads, were often seen in cities and towns throughout England. They were viewed with fascination both because they were seen as foreigners and because their nomadic lifestyle was so far outside of typical Victorian social norms. However, Brontë leaves Heathcliff's true ethnic origin unknown. Heathcliff is not necessarily a gypsy; he is only labeled as such by the other characters, which is more a testament to the general dislike and stereotyping of Gypsies, and how anyone not British might be called a Gypsy.

Consumption

Life expectancy in Victorian England was around 40 years, based on location, profession, and social class. Consumption, another name for tuberculosis, was prevalent throughout the 1800s, killing one in five people. The symptoms included fevers, a hoarse throat, coughing blood, and chest pains. The disease often lingered for years as the patient wasted away, which explains Heathcliff's horrified reaction to Cathy's appearance before her death. Pregnancy was believed to worsen consumption, but women with the disease were still expected to maintain domestic life and produce heirs. In the early 1800s, before the disease was known to be infectious, there was a romantic perception that consumption elevated the soul and cultivated artistic sensibilities.

The Role of Women

The laws of ownership and inheritance of land for women at the time depicted in the novel and during Brontë's life are accurately portrayed in Wuthering Heights. Upon marriage, the control of any property or other financial assets belonged by law to a woman's husband. Divorce was virtually unheard of, and women were often placed in a position of dependency on their husbands for life.

In addition, women were expected to downplay their sexuality, being chaste before marriage, then wholesome and maternal once they married. However Cathy acts with authority and control over Heathcliff, and although there are no sex scenes between Cathy and Heathcliff in the novel, their fiery, passionate exchanges, especially when Cathy is married to another man, would have been enough to scandalize Victorian readers.

Literary Context

Wuthering Heights was a unique novel for its time and still resists attempts to fit it neatly into a specific literary genre. Instead the novel is its own creature, a hybrid that combines various genres, including romanticism, gothic literature, and realism.

Gothic literature aims to fascinate and terrify readers. It generally includes grotesque or monstrous characters, violent or otherwise disturbing events, eerie, elaborate settings (such as crumbling castles or dark, twisted forests), supernatural beings such as ghosts and demons, and disturbing imagery such as dripping daggers or broken mirrors. Characters in gothic literature frequently transgress traditional social boundaries or categories, such as the living and the dead (Frankenstein), animal and human, or traditional male and female roles. Wuthering Heights with its violent characters and events, and stormy moors, displays many of the qualities of the genre.

Romanticism, which was predominant in a wide variety of artistic forms, emphasized the power of imagination and emotion over the rational and scientific and the freedom of individual self-expression, which might come in conflict with society. Antihero protagonists, like Heathcliff, were common, functioning as a means for rebellion against the calm, harmony, and balance associated with classicism. The literary movement lasted into the mid-19th century and led to the construction of Gothic architecture in cities and a Gothic revival in general. The genius, sublime qualities of nature, and supernatural were lauded in Romanticism. Wordsworth's "The spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" was the motto. The spirit of Wuthering Heights with its powerful and evocative natural imagery and fanciful and sometimes irrational leanings embodies the genre.

Characters and events in Wuthering Heights are typical of gothic and romantic literature, but the novel also falls in the genre of realism. Its focus on the manipulation of property and marriage, the death of numerous characters from consumption, the prejudice against Heathcliff, and the struggle of Cathy and Heathcliff against the strictures of class and society are rooted in painful realities of the Victorian era.

In Wuthering Heights Brontë manipulates conventional story elements and explores established ideas about heroes and villains. By shifting characters' roles throughout the novel and employing two narrators, she, at times, misleads readers and thwarts their expectations. It is helpful to be familiar with a few basic hero conventions when reading Wuthering Heights.

  • Conventional hero: Displays characteristics of goodness and virtue, such as bravery, courage, honesty, and integrity
  • Antihero: A protagonist lacking in heroic qualities; typically possesses both qualities of good and evil, and is often the second most important character
  • Gothic villain-hero/villain-hero/Satanic-hero: All evil-type villainous main characters whose ill-devised schemes and justifications make them more interesting than a conventional hero
  • Villain: Acts as the antagonist of the main character; typically embodies evil or negative forces
  • Romantic hero: Possesses boundless energy and desire to force the world to bend to their individualism
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