The Setting of Wuthering Heights is a vital but contradictory force in the novel, as important as any of the Characters. “Wuthering” is a Yorkshire dialect term for the roaring of the wind, a sound both inviting and frightening. Wuthering Heights, the mansion where much of the action takes place, is a harshly beautiful building that contrasts with the other major locale of the novel, Thrushcross Grange, a more conventionally attractive mansion several miles from the Heights. Between the two houses lie the moors-high, broad stretches of wetland covered with heather and filled with marshy bogs.
Emily Jane Bronte, born July 30, 1818, in Thornton, Yorkshire, England, moved with her family to the village of Haworth in Yorkshire when she was two years old. She spent most of her life in that small, isolated community, and died on December 19, 1848, at the age of 30. Emily’s father, Patrick, a brilliant, eccentric Irishman, was the pastor at the parish church in Haworth. The Reverend Bronte, an avid reader and aspiring writer, never achieved the literary success of which he dreamed. But all six of his children inherited his love of reading, and four of them became published writers, with Emily and her older sister Charlotte each producing a critically acclaimed novel.
Despite the book’s sometimes implausible plot and often melodramatic Characters, virtually all modern critics consider Wuthering Heights a masterpiece of world literature. Indeed, the novel convincingly argues that real-life situations actually seem implausible at times, and that real people often do behave melodramatically, especially when frustrated by the relentless imposition of restrictions made in the name of social progress. Wuthering Heights demands that readers fearlessly attempt to discover those qualities of human nature that, stripped of social pretense, are truly valuable. Furthermore, although the language of the novel is rich and the Themes complex, it is perhaps the most immediately readable of all Victorian novels. Young adults sympathize particularly with the early trials of Heathcliff; with Hindley’s jealousy of his unwelcome foster brother; and with Cathy’s dilemma in choosing between the wildly passionate Heathcliff and the somewhat meek Edgar Linton. Sophisticated readers are further intrigued by the unfolding of Heathcliff’s passions as an adult, and see him not only as a spellbinding character, but also as a symbol of momentous social reformation.
The most basic theme of Wuthering Heights is that one must be true to oneself or suffer dire consequences. In marrying Edgar Linton, Catherine (Cathy) Earnshaw denies her true desires and consequently violates her love of the untamed, disinherited, uneducated Heathcliff; she later dies of a broken spirit. Furthermore, she seems to damage the lives of all the other Characters in the novel. But although Cathy dies midway through the narrative, she remains a mighty presence throughout, not only reproaching those who would belie their true natures, but also driving Heathcliff’s ambitions. Viewed from a broader perspective, Cathy’s dilemma and its resolution (she chooses to wed the financially secure, well-bred Edgar, thereby motivating the bitter Heathcliff to seek higher social status) suggest a complex theme. Cathy’s martyrdom to the dual, contradictory cause of social stability and social progress epitomizes the plight of middle-class women in Western culture. In the nineteenth century, middle-class women were held responsible for both the achievements of the men close to them and the well-being of their children, yet were denied the power to make decisions in response to the rapidly changing social conditions that influenced their ability to fulfill these duties.
Wuthering Heights has confounded those critics who attempt to place it in any one literary genre. For its depiction of the intensely individualistic personalities of Cathy and Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights has been called the first truly romantic novel. Early in the novel, Heathcliff is an almost pure type of romantic hero; furthermore, Heathcliff’s mysterious origin, the larger-than-life dimensions of Cathy’s and Heathcliff’s Characters, and their unearthly love for each other give Wuthering Heights the status of myth. Bronte’s treatment of time-the narrative moves from present to past to present again-gives the novel an epic quality. But its subject matter, the survival of romantic love and the survival of the family, place it at the crossroads between romantic poetry and the Victorian novel.
The basic plot of Wuthering Heights may seem to be a timeless love story, but the Characters and situations reflect many of the real social problems of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Women of the time were denied equal economic opportunity, and when Hindley disinherits Cathy Earnshaw, she feels compelled to choose Edgar over Heathcliff in order to secure her material survival. Similarly, Isabella is at Heathcliff’s mercy partly because she has no economic security. Heathcliff’s character, too, is better understood when one realizes that a young man with no family and no money had few options but to outwit those who did have established social status. Even Lockwood’s condescending attitude toward his country hosts points up a social problem that became more acute as industrialization lured more people into the cities; during this social transition, communication and understanding between inhabitants of differing social milieus, economic classes, or educational levels became increasingly difficult. Hindley’s early treatment of Heathcliff and the initial relationship between young Catherine and Hareton are variations on this theme of class conflict.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Based on his reactions to his treatment by the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights, what kind of society is Lockwood used to?
Wuthering Heights was adapted to the screen in a 1939 production directed by William Wyler and starring Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, and David Niven. The film covers the story only through chapter 17, but it includes strong performances, an excellent script, and Oscar-winning photography. A 1970 production, directed by Robert Fuest, stars Anna Calder-Marshall, Timothy Dalton, and Harry Andrews, and authentically captures the atmosphere and Setting of the novel.