Gender and Genre in Wuthering Heights: Gothic Plot and Domestic Fiction
from Pykett, Lyn, "Emily Bronte", from Women Writers (1989)
‘In spite of much power and cleverness, in spite of its truth to life in the remote corners of England - Wuthering Heights is a disagreeable story. The Bells seem to affect painful and exceptional subjects - the misdeeds or oppression of tyranny, the eccentricities of “woman’s fantasy”.’ (Athenaeum 25
Dec., 1847, CH, 218)
Most commentators on Wuthering Heights, whether critics or devotees, have been struck by the novel’s extraordinary power and idiosyncratic nature, its ‘eccentricities of “woman’s fantasy”’. Many have followed Charlotte Brontë’s lead, attributing its strange power to the mysterious vision of an isolated Romantic genius. The novel, wrote Charlotte Brontë in her Preface to the second edition, was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials. The statuary found a granite block on the moor; gazing thereon, he saw how from the crag might be elicited a head, savage, swart, sinister; a form modelled with at least one element of grandeur - power. He wrought with a rude chisel, and from no model but the vision of his meditations. (WH, 41)
This mythologising of the novel’s origins, which seems to have been designed to explain it to a genteel, Southern audience, presents Wuthering Heights as the fortuitous conjunction of nature and intense visionary experience in which the shaping process of art plays little part.
There are, however, more mundane sources for this novel than those suggested by Charlotte Brontë. Emily Brontë’s bizarre narrative, with its intense passions, inter-familial rivalries, and revenge plot, may have originated in actual family histories of which she knew. Brontë’s plot has a number of similarities to the stories which she would have heard, during her brief stay at Law Hill school, about Jack Sharp, its sometime owner, and the Walkers of Walterclough Hall. The rivalry between the usurping adopted son, Jack Sharp, and a natural son; Sharp’s systematic degradation of a Walker nephew, and his subsequent decline and bankruptcy are all echoed in the plot of Wuthering Heights (See WG, 76ff. and 220ff.).
Others have suggested that the novel owes a great deal to the strange Irish stories with which Patrick Brontë diverted his children at breakfast. In particular, Edward Chitham in The Brontës’ Irish Background (1986) has argued that the story of the orphan’s vengeance is derived from the story of Hugh Brunty, Patrick Brontë’s father, who was adopted and subsequently ill-treated by an uncle called Welsh. Welsh himself is a sort of Heathcliff figure: an orphan, discovered on a boat travelling from Liverpool, and adopted by Hugh’s grandfather, he later ousted the legitimate heirs from their home and married the daughter of the house.
The tale of ‘The Bridegroom of Barna’, published in Blackwood’s in 1840, may also have been a source for Emily Brontë’s novel. Certainly it has a very similar plot to Wuthering Heights, and concerns the star-crossed love of the children of rival families. Ellen Nugent and Hugh Lawlor, the heroine and hero of this violent tale are, like Catherine and Heathcliff, united only in death when they are finally buried in a single grave. If Emily Brontë’s plot did not spring fully formed from the isolated depths of her imagination, neither did her broader themes and techniques. The fictional transformation of the late eighteenth-century histories which supply some of the elements of the novel’s plot, has much in common with other recent and contemporary literature. This is partly a matter of direct influence from Emily Brontë’s own reading, but it is also indicative of the ways in which individual artists (no matter how geographically isolated, nor how idiosyncratic) participate in a shared cultural language, and work with shared forms and patterns.
One of my concerns in this chapter will be to suggest that Wuthering Heights is not, as F.R. Leavis argues in The Great Tradition, ‘a kind of sport’ - an interesting but minor divergence from the high road of the mainstream English Novel. Instead I want to look at Wuthering Heights in the context of the developing traditions of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century fiction, and to suggest that the peculiar generic mix of this novel offers a number of interesting perspectives on the whole question of the relationship of the woman writer to the history and tradition of fiction.
Wuthering Heights straddles literary traditions and genres. It combines elements of the Romantic tale of evil-possession, and Romantic developments of the eighteenth-century Gothic novel, with the developing Victorian tradition of Domestic fiction in a realist mode. Its use of the ballad and folk material, romance forms and the fantastic, its emphasis on the passions, its view of childhood, and the representation of the romantic quest for selfhood and of aspiring individualism, all link the novel with Romanticism. On the other hand, the novel’s movement towards a renewed emphasis on community and duty, and towards an idealisation of the family seem to be more closely related to the emerging concerns of Victorian fiction. Emily Brontë’s novel mixes these various traditions and genres in a number of interesting ways, sometimes fusing and sometimes juxtaposing them. I want to direct attention to the ways in which the novel’s mixing of genres may be related to issues of gender by examining some of the ways in which specific historic genres may be related to particular
historic definitions of gender.
If Emily Brontë’s poems are, as her sister suggested, ‘not at all like the poetry women generally write’, her novel is at once both very similar to and very different from, the kinds of fiction generally written by women in the early nineteenth century. Indeed, much of the distinctiveness of Emily Brontë’s novel may be attributed to the particular ways in which it negotiates different literary traditions, and both combines and explores two major fictional genres - the Gothic and Domestic fiction - which are usually associated with the female writers of the period, although by no means confined to them.
Wuthering Heights has proved impossible to categorise, and continues to confront its readers with a sometimes alarming sense pf disorientation, a feeling of finding themselves in ‘really different novels’. The novel begins in fictional territory which is reasonably familiar to readers of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Domestic novel: a date (1801), the genteel narrator’s ironic description of a social visit, the careful description of the domestic interior at the Heights, and the beginnings of an investigation of a code of manners and a particular way of life. However, even in the opening chapter the codes and conventions of polite fiction do not seem adequate either to comprehend or represent life at the Heights. For example, Lockwood’s description focuses on the absence of the expected ‘glitter of saucepans and tin cullenders on the walls’ (WH, 47), and the presence of ‘villainous old guns, and a couple of horse pistols’. Certainly, by the second and third chapters, the genteel narrator and the reader find their generic and social expectations increasingly at odds with the literary genre and social world into which the narrative has moved. The appearance of Catherine’s ghost, and Heathcliff s passionate response, take the novel into the literary genre of Gothic and the forms of the fantastic which provide much of its extraordinary power.
The Earnshaw-Heathcliff-Linton plot is a legend-like tale of an old family disrupted by the arrival of Heathcliff, a dark child of mysterious origins who is brought from Liverpool to the Heights by Mr Earnshaw. Nelly Dean’s version of this history is almost literally a ‘family romance’: a story of changing familial and inter-familial relationships; of sibling rivalry between Heathcliff and Hindley; of the intensely close brother-sister relationship of Catherine and Heathcliff, the children of nature and comrades-in-arms against the adult tyranny of Joseph and later of Hindley, the new owner of the Heights.
The theme of active male competition begun in Heathcliff and Hindley is continued beyond the Earnshaw family in Edgar Linton and Heathcliff’s rivalry for the attentions of Catherine. Catherine’s preference for the more cultivated Edgar precipitates Heathcliff’s disappearance, and when he subsequently returns in the guise of a fine and prosperous gentleman he once more disrupts family stability, threatening Catherine and Edgar’s fragile marriage, setting in train an elaborate plan of revenge against both the Earnshaw and the Linton families, and eloping with Edgar’s sister Isabella. Nelly’s account of Heathcliff’s destruction of Hindley and his brutalisation of Hindley’s son Hareton, the almost parodic violence of his hanging of Isabella’s dog, and his callous treatment of his wife and son represents him as a Gothic villain, a demonic, almost otherworldly figure. This fantastic, demonic version of Heathcliff is reinforced by the melodramatic scenes surrounding Catherine’s death, and in the final stages of the narrative when he appears to be communing with the spirit of the dead Catherine in preparation for a removal to her sphere.
Embedded within this Gothic framework, however, is a second narrative, which seems to move progressively in the direction of Victorian Domestic Realism. The second half of the novel’s double plot - the second generation story of Linton Heathcliff, Hareton Earnshaw and Catherine Linton -appears to move from Gothic beginnings, in which a monstrous Hareton implicitly collaborates in the abduction of Catherine, her forced marriage to Linton and her effective imprisonment at the Heights, to the conventional closure of a dominant form of the Victorian Domestic novel, in which the hero (Hareton) and heroine (Catherine) overcome the obstacles of an obstructive society and withdraw into a private realm of domesticity, where social, co-operative values are renewed within the bosom of the family. In this case the pattern of closure is completed by the planned removal of Hareton and Catherine from the Heights to Thrushcross Grange.
Gothic is usually taken to be the dominant genre of the first generation plot of Wuthering Heights, and is associated with its Romanticism, its mystical, fantastic and supernatural elements, and its portrayal of wild nature. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Gothic was a genre particularly identified with women writers, and many recent feminist critics have argued that Female Gothic may be seen as a complex genre which simultaneously represents women’s fears and offers fantasies of escape from them. Female Gothic enacts fantasies of female power in the heroine’s courage and enterprise, while simultaneously, or by turns, representing the female condition as both confinement and refuge. Many of the Gothic elements of Wuthering Heights may be seen as examples of Female Gothic’s representation and investigation of women’s fears about the private domestic space which is at once refuge and prison. Indeed, Catherine Earnshaw’s story might almost be read as an archetypal example of the genre. After a childhood which alternates between domestic confinement and freely roaming the unconfined spaces of the moors, Catherine’s puberty is marked by her confinement to the couch of Thrushcross Grange. Womanhood and marriage to Edgar further confine her within the genteel household, and the denouement of her particular Gothic plot involves her imprisonment in increasingly confined spaces: the house, her room, and finally ‘this shattered prison’ (WH, 196), her body, from which she longs to escape as she does from womanhood itself.
Similarly the story of Isabella Linton focuses on the female lot as a choice between degrees and varieties of imprisonment, as Isabella flees the stifling confinement of the genteel household for a more brutal domestic incarceration at the Heights, now a stronghold of male violence (ch. 17). The first two stages of the history of Catherine Linton follow a similar pattern to Isabella’s. Although as a spirited young woman she chafes against the bonds of gentility and the over-protected environment of the Grange, Catherine comes to reassess her former prison as a shelter after her enforced marriage to Linton Heathcliff. The Cathy whom Lockwood observes in the early stages of his narrative is, effectively, a household prisoner, constrained not simply by her own terror andHeathcliff s brute force, but also by contemporary matrimonial laws and her father-in-law’s financial power. In changing her role from that of dependent daughter to wife she has ceased to be the legal property of her father and has become instead the property of her husband. When she is both widowed and orphaned she comes under the legal control of her father-in-law, Heathcliff. This legal control of women plays an important part in the novel’s plot, and is vividly illustrated in a scene from the marriage of Heathcliff and Isabella.
‘If you are called upon in a court of law you’ll remember her language Nelly! And take a good look at that countenance - she’s near the point which would suit me. No, you’re not fit to be your own guardian, Isabella, now; and I, being your legal protector, must retain you in my custody, however distasteful the obligation may be.’ (WH, 188-9)
Female Gothic explores women’s power and powerless-ness, their confinement within the domestic space, their role in the family, and their regulation by marriage and property laws not of their own making and, at this point in history, beyond their power to alter. Many of these concerns are represented, from a different perspective, in the increasingly dominant female genre of Domestic fiction. In a fascinating study of twentieth-century popular Gothics Tania Modleski has suggested that these similarities make for a continuity between Gothic and Domestic, since both are ‘concerned with the (often displaced) relationships among family members and with driving home to women the importance of coping with enforced confinement and the paranoid fears it generates’ (Modleski, 20).
Certainly, in Wuthering Heights Gothic and Domestic are continuous, not simply because of this shared project, but also because the genres are mixed so as to produce a structural continuity. For example, although the Gothic is usually associated with the first generation plot and the Domestic with the second (or even with the last phase of the second generation plot), the novel’s narrative structure, and particularly its dislocated chronology, tends to blur the boundaries between generations and genres. Emily Brontë’s adaptation of the conventions of the Gothic frame tale is a particularly important element in this process. In earlier Gothic novels the central narrative is approached by way of diaries, letters and other documents which are transcribed or edited by the narrator(s) of the story. Similarly, the reader approaches the central narrative of Wuthering Heightsvia an outsider, Lockwood, who transmits or mediates Nelly’s inner (and insider) narrative. To gain access to the extraordinary stories of the families of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange the reader must thus pass through, and ultimately pass beyond, the perceptual structures of a bemused genteel male narrator who mediates between the public world he shares with his readers and the inner, private, domestic world conveyed to him by Nelly’s stories.
Lockwood’s mediation of Nelly’s narrative reproduces, as N.M. Jacobs points out, that separation between the male and female spheres which lies at the heart of the novel’s action, and also actively involves the reader in the process by which ‘domestic reality is obscured by layers of conventional ideology’. This narrative layering also serves to close the gap between inner and outer, private and public, domestic and Gothic. Lockwood’s framing narrative is particularly important here, since many of the Gothic horrors displayed to and by Lockwood are in fact supported by the ideology of the culture he represents. His own views of marriage and of women, shown in his romantic fantasies about Cathy, and his cold withdrawal from his flirtation with the young lady at the Spa town, reveal this genteel commentator to be just as manipulative and selfish as the apparently demonic Heathcliff. Lockwood’s own genteel ideology in fact sanctions the domestic tyranny whose everyday details he appears to find so foreign and extraordinary as he reports them.
The reader’s perceptions of what Lockwood reports is persistently at odds with what the narrator himself sees or expects to see. For example, when he visits the Heights and attempts to engage politely with its owner, Lockwood converses in platitudes derived from the Victorian ideology of the home as refuge from the harsh competitive outside world. The scene he reports is quite at odds with the language in which he congratulates Heathcliff on being ‘surrounded by your family and with your amiable lady as the presiding genius over your home and heart’ (WH, 55). When he is disabused of this particular conventionalised domestic framework Lockwood’s second attempt at comprehending the domestic scene is equally wide of the mark: he assumes that Hareton is the ‘favoured possessor of the beneficent fairy’. Heathcliff’s bitterly amused riposte, ‘We neither of us have the privilege of owning your good fairy’, of course goes right to the ideological heart of the matter, since legally Heathcliff does own his daughter-in-law.
Although there is a lack of perceptual fit between Lockwood’s language and the domestic reality at the Heights, there is no essential lack of fit between the domestic scene he describes and the ideology of domesticity. Lockwood’s expectations emphasise one side of the domestic ideal - the harmonious family presided over by the beneficent fairy who submits to her husband’s (father’s, brother’s or father-in-law’s) legal and financial control, in exchange for domestic power as the presiding genius of the tea table. However, the domestic reality of the Heights (as witnessed by Lockwood, or experienced by the two Catherines and Isabella) emphasises the other side of this ideal - the inequalities of the exchange and the implicit tyranny of the structure. One major effect of Brontë’s adaptation of the Gothic frame tale in this novel is to locate the domestic as the source of the Gothic.
The structural continuity of Gothic and Domestic is also seen in the way in which the second generation plot supposedly replays the first generation story. Wuthering Heights tells the same story twice. Leo Bersani is not alone in feeling that the story is diminished in the retelling, and that the novel declines into a ‘rather boring second half . . . the cosy and conventionalized romance between the young Catherine and Hareton Earnshaw’. Others, most notably recent feminist critics, have argued that the novel does not simply repeat the same story, but that it revises it, rewriting the Gothic first generation plot as a Domestic novel.
What is involved in the retelling, and what is the significance of the rewriting? Some feminist critics offer an analysis of the revision which in essence seems to reach the same conclusions as Bersani but via a different route. Rosemary Jackson, for example, sees the revision as a loss of power which signifies inauthenticity and a retreat into compromise as Wuthering Heights harnesses Gothic ‘to serve and not subvert a dominant ideology’ and ultimately silences its fantastic or Gothic elements ‘in the name of establishing a normative bourgeois realism’. Similarly, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that by the end of the novel, ‘The Heights - hell - has been converted into the Grange - heaven -; and with patriarchal history redefined, renovated, restored, the nineteenth century can truly begin’ (Gilbert and Gubar (a), 302). Carol Senf, on the other hand, interprets the revision, more affirmatively, as offering an evolutionary ‘version of history that is both more feminine and more egalitarian, a history in which women are no longer the victims of patriarchal authority’. Read in these ways Wuthering Heights is either a novel of conformity to dominant ideologies of class and gender, or a novel of protest against, or reformation of, those ideologies.
However, more complex and inclusive possibilities are offered if we read Wuthering Heights’ movement from Gothic to Domestic Romance in relation to the rise of ‘feminine authority’ in the novel and the feminisation of nineteenth-century literary culture in general. Nancy Armstrong, in Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987), and Jane Spencer in The Rise of the Woman Novelist (1986), have both attempted to trace the development of ‘a view of writing that links it to the feminine role rather than opposing [it]’, and which ‘encouraged the expansion of women’s professional writing’ (Spencer, ix). Both Spencer and Armstrong argue that women novelists gained acceptance and ‘authority’ only’ at the price of agreeing to keep within the feminine sphere’ (Spencer, 107), asdefined by their culture. This process of feminisation, which began with the eighteenth-century novel, increasingly defined literature ‘as a special category supposedly outside the political arena, with an influence on the world as indirect as women’s was supposed to be’ (Spencer, xi). In particular the emergence of the novel of courtship and domestic life gave a new value and meaning to the female experience and sensibility. In almost a single move women’s experience becomes both absolutely central (to literature) and utterly marginal (to politics).
Clearly this view of literature positioned women writers in a particular way. Any woman who attempted to enter this discourse of literature was faced with a choice of responses: she could accept the dominant definitions of the feminine and write within them; or she could refuse those definitions and attempt either to escape or transcend them, or to engage with and rebel against them. In its mixing and juxtaposing of genres Wuthering Heights, perhaps, employs or acknowledges all of these strategies. The revisionary double plotting of this novel does not simply involve a straightforward change of genre from Gothic (the genre of escape or protest) to Domestic (the genre of conformity), but rather its generic and generational shifts are also the structural embodiment of that tendency of Female Gothic - noted by Tania Modleski - which serves to ‘convince women that they will not be victims the way their mothers were’ (Modleski, 83).
The closing stages of the narrative seem to move towards the conventional closure of the Victorian Domestic novel: the restitution of family fortunes, the restoration of disrupted stability, and intimations of protracted domestic bliss in the protected space of the ideal nuclear family. However, as with so many aspects of this novel, appearances are deceptive. Although the second generation story revises the Gothic plot of the first generation in the direction of Domestic fiction, the Gothic is not simply written out or obliterated in the process. The Gothic persists in the person of Heathcliff who spans both generations. Indeed, his necrophilia and otherworldliness become more pronounced as the Domestic plot reaches its resolution. The Gothic persists too in the power of Catherine and Heathcliff which remains in the outer narrative, beyond the closure of the Catherine-Hareton plot.
Moreover the ‘conventional’ Domestic romance with which the novel ends not only revises the initial Gothic plot but is also a revisionary form of the genre in which it purports to be written. In the closing stages of the narrative Catherine Linton, who has previously suffered from the powerlessness imposed on her by a patriarchal legal system, family structures, and dominant views of the feminine, learns to use some of the power that lies in her own abilities. Her book-knowledge (gained from her relatively and unusually free access to her father’s library) empowers her against Heathcliff. She can both conduct a witty war of words with him, and can signify her imaginative freedom by taking refuge in a book. In turn she empowers Hareton by helping him to read, and thus both civilises him and imparts practical skills which enable him to reclaim his birthright. Catherine’s civilising of Hareton is an interesting variant of a common scene in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction in which a male character offers improving reading to an ‘ignorant’ (but improvable) female. It is also interesting to note that Catherine’s cultivation or ‘feminisation’ of her cousin coincides with Heathcliff’s final decline into an otherworldliness which diverts him from completing his plans to gain total control of the Heights and the Grange. As the novel ends Catherine is about to regain control of her inheritance, and although at this period she would have been legally required to hand all her property back to Hareton when he became her husband, it is nevertheless at least of symbolic importance that Hareton’s patrimony is returned to him via the female line. Like Jane Eyre’s legacy, the restoration of Catherine’s property equalises the balance of power between marriage partners. A degree of financial independence for the female partner seems to be a prerequisite for the companionate marriages with which both these novels end.
In its transition from patriarchal tyranny, masculine competition, domestic imprisonment and the Gothic to the revised Domestic romance of the courtship and companionate marriage of Catherine and Hareton, Wuthering Heights both participates in, and engages with, the feminisation of literature and the wider culture noted by Armstrong and Spencer. However, I would suggest that Emily Brontë’s novel does not simply reflect or represent this process, but that it also investigates and explores it. The narrative disruptions, the dislocations of chronology, the mixing of genres and Brontë’s historical displacement of her story, published in 1847 but set in a carefully dated period leading up to and just beyond 1801, combine to produce a novel which goes back and traces both changing patterns of fiction and the emergence of new forms of the family.
Wuthering Heights traces the emergence of the characteristic form of Victorian fiction - the Domestic novel in realist mode. Its own mixing of genres emphasises the links of this newly dominant form with Gothic and also foregrounds the romance elements of the realistic Domestic novel. The ‘cosy conventionalised romance’ of Catherine and Hareton is an extremely simplified version of the Domestic romance, which exposes and explores the mechanisms of the form. In other words, the self-conscious idealisation of the Catherine-Hareton story exposes the ideological component of both Emily Brontë’s story and of the genre in which it is written.
In its movement between generations and genres Wuthering Heights also traces the emergence of the modern family in idealised form. It traces the process, minutely documented by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall in Family Fortunes (1987), by which the modern nuclear family (represented by Catherine and Hareton) replaced the larger and more loosely related household (as exemplified by various stages of domestic life at the Heights), withdrawing to a private domestic space removed from the workplace. Catherine and Hareton are shown as inhabiting this newly privatised domestic realm even before their marriage and removal to the Grange. Their cultivation of the flower garden and Hareton’s primrose-strewn porridge (WH, 348) are emblematic of their transformation of the Heights into a domain of feminine values, a haven of tranquillity to which men retire from a workaday world of business and competition, in order to cultivate their gardens, their hobbies and the domestic ideal.
However, at the same time as Wuthering Heights traces the emergence of the modern family and its hegemonic fictional form of Domestic realism, other elements of the novel - its disrupted chronology, its dislocated narrative structure, and the persistence of the disturbing power of Catherine and Heathcliff - work together to keep other versions of domestic life before the reader: the domestic space as prison, the family as site of primitive passions, violence, struggle and control. In its mixing of genres and in the particular genres it chooses to mix Wuthering Heights may, perhaps, be placed with those female fictions which, as Judith Lowder Newton argues ‘both support and resist ideologies which have tied middle-class women to the relative powerlessness of their lot and which have prevented them from having a true knowledge of their situation’.