How can I connect Wuthering Heights to the Victorian era?

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Wuthering Heightsis both of its time and sui generis— one of a kind. It is quite different in tone from the novels of Dickens, for instance, and of most Victorians, including other women authors such as Emily Brontë's sister Charlotte and George Eliot. Yet as unusual as it is,...

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Wuthering Heights is both of its time and sui generis—one of a kind. It is quite different in tone from the novels of Dickens, for instance, and of most Victorians, including other women authors such as Emily Brontë's sister Charlotte and George Eliot. Yet as unusual as it is, there is something about it that corresponds to the Victorian zeitgeist and that perhaps expresses the deepest imaginings of the period more forcefully than the more "conventional" novels of the time are able to.

The story is one of obsession, largely sexual obsession. Conventional wisdom about the nineteenth century is that it was an age when people were sexually repressed, disallowed from talking or writing openly about sensitive matters. This is, of course, mostly true, but it's also the reason that taboo subjects became a kind of interior obsession that found their outlet in the disturbing subtexts of various works. It is almost as if the inability to deal with any real openness about certain things caused authors to produce a veiled kind of expression, more disturbing than an explicit spelling out of ideas would have been. The self-destructive and obsessive love of Catherine and Heathcliff is at the center of the novel. So is the Earnshaw family's adoption of Heathcliff and the abuse to which Heathcliff is subjected. The systematic revenge Heathcliff takes against Catherine's brother and against the Lintons is connected with this hopeless romantic and sexual obsession. Heathcliff marries Isabella because he hates her family and wishes to carry out his revenge through her. And his deliberately raising Hareton Earnshaw in a state of ignorance represents his vengeance against the Earnshaws, including Catherine, whom Heathcliff supposedly loved.

It's not difficult to see not only a sexually-oriented subtext, but a sadomasochistic one to the story. For those of us who expect a prim and proper story as characteristic of the 1840s, it is a rude awakening. But it is just this sort of naked and disturbing emotion, almost to the point of psychosis, that occurs at unexpected times in the literature of the period. Flaubert's Salammbo is a kind of orgy of depravity in ancient times, though this is less surprising, because the French writers always were more explicit than their British and American counterparts. In Hardy there is, as well, a subtext of sexual cruelty beneath the dominant, resigned melancholy of his novels. Other examples can be found, but Wuthering Heights is perhaps the most striking and paradoxical expression in the Victorian canon of this undercurrent of sensuality and cruelty.

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Bronte's treatment of education and social class structure in Wuthering Heights all clearly reflect the influence of the Victorian era in which Bronte wrote the novel.

Hindley's abuse of Heathcliff reflects a problem in Hindley's character, and one way Hindley mistreats Heathcliff is to stand in the way of Heathcliff's education. Additionally, Hindley interferes with Heathcliff so violently that Mr. Earnshaw is advised by the curate to send Hindley away to boarding school. In both of these situations, Victorian education is seen as a valuable asset, so valuable that Hindley does not want Heathcliff to enjoy it, and so valuable that Mr. Earnshaw believes it can have a redeeming impact on his cruel son.

The importance of education in Victorian society is linked to the social class structure, as Hindley's desire to deprive Heathcliff of an education is a way for Hindley to keep Heathcliff in his place as an outsider. As well, Hindley's treatment of Heathcliff is damaging the Earnshaw name and reputation, so Mr. Earnshaw's intention to send Hindley to boarding school is complex; not only is he creating necessary and perhaps life-saving distance between the two boys, he is also hoping that education will teach Hindley how to act better so to protect the Earnshaw name.

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The novel Wuthering Heights comes as a link between the Romantic and the Victorian social and literary eras.

I like to think that young Heathcliff is a Romantic, a Byronic Hero hurt by love, mysterious, and a lover of nature.  The old Heathcliff is a Victorian: reclusive, stuffy, prudish, and possessive.

The two houses also show this duality.  The Earnshaws are the Romantics, and the Lintons are the Victorians.  Whereas the former is defined by nature and openness (at least in the beginning of the novel, when Catherine and Heathcliff were young), the latter is closed and dark (the Linton kids are small, pasty white, never go outside).

As for the historical background, you can't beat Enotes:

The Victorian Age was a time of great economic, social, and political change. The British Empire had reached its height and extended throughout one quarter of the world. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution it was a time of great prosperity for some, but abject poverty for factory and farm workers. Many Victorian writers dealt with the contrast between the prosperity of the middle and upper classes and the wretched condition of the poor. Indeed, class distinctions will appear as an important subtext in Wuthering Heights.

Like her fellow Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy, Brontë’s setting is limited to the Yorkshire moors of northern England, a rural, isolated region. Rural life was governed by a strict societal hierarchy which Brontë accurately depicted in Wuthering Heights. At the top were the Lords, the aristocracy, with its hereditary or monarch granted titles, large estates, political dominance and patronage system. Next came the gentry class, non-titled nobility landowners, who constituted local leadership. The Linton family in Wuthering Heights is typical of this class. Next were the gentlemen farmers, many of whom were prosperous enough to maintain a lifestyle like that of the gentry. Mr. Earnshaw, father of Hindley and Cathy, is a representative gentleman farmer. Indeed, the distinction between the two classes appears in the novel, when Catherine refers to herself and Heathcliff as being of “the lower orders” (Pool 160-166).

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