The majority of Victorian literature is the product of the petty-bourgeois class, and Wuthering Heights is no different. The tumultuous ideological storms contained within demonstrate a crisis in the ideology of the 19th century Victorian petty-bourgeois class to which Emily Bronte was born. Frequently, novelists and intellectuals have a reflective role to play at a point of history where a crisis has impacted the prevailing base and has thereby begun the upward quake to the very spires of the ideological superstructure. The crises in the areas of estate, racial tensions and the family unit are all explored, but more than anything else, Wuthering Heights marks the crisis of individuality versus custom, since the contradiction between the social expectations of class privilege and the selfhood advocated by the rising neo-liberal capitalist system is the very essence of Victorian bourgeois consciousness.
From the start, Bronte seems more interested in showing the reader a world that is beset by the same conflicts as her own rather than an escapist daydream. Terry Eagleton says that “Wuthering Heights is […] an apparently timeless, highly integrated, mysteriously autonomous symbolic universe” (1), which utterly defies the prevailing methodology of fiction literature to remove the reader from the discord of his existence. Most fiction novels come close to portraying what we would call “myths,” that is, the illusory resolutions of real contradictions within society for the purpose of the story in such a way as to validate ideology and the societal status quo. Although it is inherent to fairy tales and children’s stories that the hermetically-sealed bubble of this world never be burst, oftentimes with adult novels this purpose is stricken by strains in achieving its “proper” ideological closure. Indeed, the novel itself loyally reproduces the various disasters assaulting Europe, manifested in individual characters.
Marx’s pamphlet Wage Labour and Capital, written the same year that Wuthering Heights was published, addresses some of the social contradictions of the epoch, such as “the June Struggle in Paris, the fall of Vienna, the tragicomedy of Berlin’s November 1848, the desperate exertions of Poland, Italy and Hungary, the starving of Ireland into submission-these were the chief factors which characterized the European class struggle between bourgeoisie and working class” (2). In addition, it is important to know that the reverberating waves of the Industrial Revolution were being felt in Europe, starting the process of the unstoppable freight train ride from mercantile capitalist to industrial capitalist relations. This is the producing agent of the novel’s chief narrative subtext: “that […] passion and [the] society it presents are not fundamentally reconcilable-that there remains at the deepest level an ineradicable contradiction between them which refuses to be unlocked, which obtrudes itself as the very stuff and secret of experience” (1). Bronte herself would most likely have a few ideas about that, being a petty-bourgeois “lady” who subtlety criticized British imperialism.
Whereas many novels would choose to show a young lady ending up wealthy and happy without compromising her dreams, morals or her fidelity to the petty-bourgeois ideals carved out for her, Wuthering Heights chooses to depict characters who are forced to choose between desire and social standing, love and money, passion and economic well-being. As is a common theme in Victorian novels about women, the pivotal catalyst for the story comes when Catherine Earnshaw must choose between two men-Heathcliff the wild, fiery-eyed gypsy and Edgar the safe, certain path of education, class position and property. Catherine’s reasons for choosing Edgar are as rational as they are brutally calculating: “‘because he is handsome and pleasant to be with [….] and he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighborhood, and I shall be proud of having such a husband'” (3). Emily Bronte may have tried, like her characters, to erect magical, glittering towers of a kingdom of romantic dreams around her in order to escape the Darwinian existence of capitalism, but in the end they crumbled to dust as surely as Catherine and Heathcliff’s did. No doubt this was a common personal crisis in England at the time.
Wuthering Heights takes another turn away from typical bourgeois novels at this point in the story by showing the realistic consequences of Catherine’s actions. Though her marriage has assured her and her child’s well-being, it does not resolve the fundamental crises of the text, but rather compounds them exponentially and eventually leads to her and Heathcliff’s deaths. There is no romantic, happy ending for Bronte’s world. Catherine is the product of a sexist and classist society-a “woman” as defined by her own age. Her transformation from a rebellious young girl to a “lady” through her stay at the Grange only reinforces the notion of her choice as a social product instead of a reactionary result of “women’s nature.” It is shown as a real-life structural fact of the role of women in 19th century capitalist society.
Catherine, in her complicity with the bourgeois agent Edgar’s wishes, thus seeks to establish herself as the great martyr of self-destructive and self-sacrificing reformism. She shall win influence and power by working within the system instead of outside of it and will take care of her beloved Heathcliff in the process. She sees her capitulation to society as a means to an end within itself, a strategy for ending the heartless relations of the Heights. In the end however, it is all for naught. She soon finds that a woman, like a member of the working class, can have no true power within the restraints of the bourgeois system. She will always be under the influence of a father, a husband or a brother no matter what social position she holds, and the society has been molded to prevent emancipation from such relations. She will never be “out of her brother’s power.”
Heathcliff fares no better in his attempts to fit himself into his allotted role in class society. He disappears for a number of years and hardens himself, losing his ability to “succumb” to love in order to acquire enough cultural capital to “win” Catherine back from Edgar. In the process he essentially sells his cultural capital in exchange for property rights and financial capital. From his childhood onwards, “Heathcliff revolts, rather like Ireland against Britain, because of the barbarous way he is treated; only Catherine will grant him the recognition he demands, and even she, perfidious little Albion that she is, sells him out for Edgar Linton. In the end, even the liberals will rally to the landowners” (4). Heathcliff runs into the waiting arms of the bourgeoisie, seeking to become a willing member of the ruling class.
Heathcliff succeeds in his quest to become one of the petty-bourgeoisie that have oppressed him, going by brutal methods from a landless peasant laborer to a member of the rural bourgeoisie. He cheats Hindley out of the Heights, and once installed sets about becoming a ruthless landlord himself. Like the petty-bourgeois class to which he and Bronte both belonged, Heathcliff finds himself a great walking contradiction of class interests. As a “dark-skinned” former peasant he wishes to fight oppression, and as a landlord he seeks to forcefully acquire capital. He still nurses the ideal of a relationship with Catherine, but the characters have been so changed by their crises that the dream is rendered simply impossible. Catherine and Heathcliff, as an oppressed woman and an exploited peasant worker respectively, seem at first to have a chance at happiness, but it is absolutely impossible in the world of Wuthering Heights to acquire cultural or financial capital and still maintain self-integrity in a world defined by class positions.
Furthermore, except for Heathcliff’s childhood rebellion against the Lintons, neither character seeks outward revolution as a true solution to social injustice-both Heathcliff and Catherine run into the jaws of the society they despise in order to destroy it from within, an adventurist excursion which ends up costing them their lives. Wuthering Height‘s undeniable liberal anxiety about social revolution thus comes to build itself upon the very doctrines that bourgeois capitalist ideology and tyrannical patriarchy rest upon. Wuthering Heights does not rebel directly against oppressive forces, but remains trapped within its own bubble, forever extending its bitter, trembling hands to the uncaring, stormy sky and cursing the heavens. Characters are victims of their own self-imposed personal hell, shackled by the chains of class slavery and its willing agent, reformism.
As well as gender and class oppression, the ideas of racial and cultural tensions are powerful preoccupations in Wuthering Heights, as they were in Bronte’s England. While the white, liberal abolitionist movement wrote poems and stories relating to slave revolts in the British colonies, Bronte wove symbols of cultural conflict into her own tale. The racial discrimination and subjugation deriving from the dominant ideology of British imperialism is set loose upon the young Heathcliff when the vagabond trespasses on the Lintons’ farm. The bourgeois Lintons then absorb him into their household, though only as an unwanted outsider. “As an alien, Heathcliff is brought into the family structure” (1). In capitalist society, the family is both a biological and convenient economic order for work and socialization. Imperialism, as we know, is the product of the capitalist crisis, generated by the desperation of the capitalist class to acquire more territory, resources, markets, subjects and workers. As Victorian capitalism rapidly moved toward the imperialist phase, it became necessary to dominate foreign peoples. The result of this was institutionalized racism and colonialism. As it is in reality, so it is in the Heights, where Heathcliff is subjugated to work the land for the prosperity of his white “slave-owners.”
Heathcliff’s race is kept intentionally ambiguous so as to make his character’s metaphor universal for colonized peoples. He is described by Mrs. Linton as “‘exactly like the son of the fortune-teller, that stole my tame pheasant'” (3), indicating he is probably a gypsy. In Heathcliff’s racial features and dark complexion, the Lintons “read his nature and his destiny, and they find in it a license to punish him for crimes of property putatively committed by others of similar appearance” (5), thus making him into a convenient servant for them. A crisis in the economic base of the Linton farm caused by Heathcliff’s appearance thus gives rise, in a reductive sense, to an essentially imperialist superstructure.
Unfortunately, as has been said before, the novel fails to carry through the portrayal the threatening collective energy of the slave workers of the West Indies, India, Africa and other British colonies of the time. “Read as a discontented worker, Heathcliff does not behave in a particularly dangerous manner. He does not form alliances with other workers (Nelly, Joseph, or Michael, for example), as the middle class most feared discontented laborers would. Instead, Heathcliff simply makes an […] individualistic rags-to-riches plot, a plot that in fact reinforces the values of capitalism” (5). Just as both Catherine and Heathcliff failed to achieve any sort of revolutionary solution to their situations, so does Bronte fail to envision a truly revolutionary way for oppressed nationalities to rise against their masters in a direct way without simply integrating.
Instead of an easily-resolvable myth, Wuthering Heights is a novel that portrays a myth of a much darker, sweeter color-it is realist in the sense that it offers a realistic copy of the social conflicts within the culture and the European dialectic paradox between proletarian and bourgeois ideologies.
1) Eagleton, Terry. Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontes. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
2) Marx, Karl. Wage Labour and Capital. Peking, PRC: Foreign Languages Press, 1978.
3) Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 4th Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1991.
4) Eagleton, Terry. Heathcliff and the Great Hunger. New York: Verso, 1995.
5) Meyer, Susan. Imperialism At Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction. Cornell University Press, 1996.