Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights book cover
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Discuss Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë as a critique of traditional English society?

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Wuthering Heights is a scathing critique of the legal patriarchy that dominated life in Victorian England. The novel is set in the past, the time span running from the 1770s to 1800, but as with most historical novels it is a commentary on its own time—and it reflects that the legal status of women was largely unchanged between the two periods in question.

Patriarchy is a form of social organization in which men have all or most of the power. In England, under a system called primogeniture, the eldest son would inherit the bulk of a property after the father passed away. Bronte shows how Hareton uses this power to degrade, oppress, and abuse Heathcliff. Later, Heathcliff, having learned the rough lessons of how patriarchy works, becomes the patriarch himself and employs his almost unlimited power to abuse and oppress almost everyone around him, from his wife Isabella to his daughter-in-law Cathy.

One of the starkest articulations of patriarchy comes, however, from the cruel, invalid Linton, Heathcliffe's son, as he sucks on a sugar candy. He speaks to the reality that his new wife's goods legally became her husband's through their marriage unless special provisions are made. Linton speaks of his wife, the second Catherine, who is miserable living at Wuthering Heights, and trying to bargain her way out of being locked in a room:

It’s mine: papa says everything she has is mine. All her nice books are mine; she offered to give me them, and her pretty birds, and her pony Minny, if I would get the key of our room, and let her out; but I told her she had nothing to give, they were all, all mine.

With its stark depiction of a dysfunctional family torn apart by alcoholism, cruelty, and patriarchy, Wuthering Heights ripped the veil from the myth of the happy and blessed Victorian family to show another version of what family life could be.

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