What are the elements of realism in Wuthering Heights?
In an era of sentimentality about the patriarchal family and the domestic hearth (Dicken's A Christmas Carol, with its poor but idyllic Cratchit family, was written only a few years before Wuthering Heights), Brontë's brutal realism about family dysfunction and cruelty was a striking departure which did not endear Victorian readers to her novel.
Brontë does not shy away from the effects of abuse and alcoholism on a family. Nelly Dean records Hindley coming
home rabid drunk, ready to pull the whole place about our ears (his ordinary frame of mind in that condition)...
Nelly has to hide Hareton in a closet, where Hindley finds him, to the young boy's terror.
Hindley beats and degrades Heathcliff savagely, and it is clear that Catherine marries Linton in large part out of desperation to get herself out of a house overshadowed by hate, abuse, and violence. That the neglected and abused Catherine and Heathcliff, with no adequate adult role models to turn to, would become intensely involved and supportive of each other (rather than engaging in normal sibling rivalry) reflects the psychological realism of how children react to dysfunctional family situations. So too does the young Hareton's ability to remain very quiet in a closet at a young age to avoid a violent, drunken parent.
Brontë also shows the cycle of abuse repeating, which is also realistic: Heathcliff, especially, has learned his lesson well, and when power falls into his own hands, he uses it to abuse his own dysfunctional family unit. When the young Catherine Linton tries to get a key from his hand, he replicates the kind of violence he endured from Hareton, administering
a shower of terrific slaps on both sides of [Catherine's] head...
The scene was over in two minutes; Catherine, released, put her two hands to her temples, and looked just as if she were not sure whether her ears were off or on. She trembled like a reed, poor thing, and leant against the table perfectly bewildered.
This unflinching and realistic portrait of family violence displays a dark side of the patriarchal family that most Victorians wanted to look away from.
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