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Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë

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What is the role of education in Wuthering Heights?

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Wuthering Heights shows that, in the days of its writing, education is tantamount to opportunity. Each of the characters receives different opportunities, all of them stemming from their level of education, and that directs their fate throughout the novel.

Edgar, Catherine's eventual husband, is educated and wealthy, and his learning brings him financial stability which brings him a spouse in Catherine. Heathcliff, who remains uneducated and destitute until he manages to earn a living through gambling, is unable to attain Catherine, after whom he longs and pines. Heathcliff and Hareton are both denied education for most of their lives and because of this they are denied opportunity.

The men are juxtaposed against one another as Heathcliff having potential, being strong and passionate as well as handsome and powerful, but because of his lack of education he is unable to make much of himself. Edgar, on the other hand, is rather diminutive, frail, and not very spirited, but his education has made him wealthy, and because of that he wins the hand of Catherine, much to Heathcliff's displeasure.

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Education serves as a means of social control in two ways in Wuthering Heights. First, the religious education inflicted by Joseph on Catherine and Heathcliff reinforces their low status in the Earnshaw houseshold. While Hindley and his wife sit in warmth on Sundays, Catherine and Heathcliff are relegated to a cold attic to be lectured by Joseph for hours on hell and damnation. Joseph also tries, without success, to control the two young people by schooling them in the prospect of hell to try to get them to reform their behavior.

Secular education also reinforces social control by enforcing class differences. A key way Hindley degrades Heathcliff is by denying him access to education, instead putting him to work as a farm hand. This bars Heathcliff from pursuing a profession or climbing the class ladder. Heathcliff, luckily for him, had nevertheless gotten enough education before Hindley's tyranny began to be able to make something of himself. On the other hand, Heathcliff keeps Hindley's son Hareton entirely illiterate until the very end of the novel, when he decides not to interfere in Cathy's attempts to teach him to read.

Education—or lack thereof—comes across primarily as a form of coercion or control in this novel.

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Education is tied to social class and the hierarchy of 18th and 19th century England, and Bronte weaves it into these themes as they apply to Catherine, Heathcliff, and Hareton in particular.  Social class in England during this time was nearly always determined by wealth, and property ownership, which determined what education a family could give their male children.  Movement between social classes was limited, if not impossible, for most people.  Catherine recognizes this distinction and does a fair amount of educating herself through personal reading, in effort to be deemed worthy of a Linton marriage, for although education is normally the result of the all-important wealth, it is also linked with perceptions about a person's manners and social behavior.  She also recognizes that marriage to Heathcliff would drop her social status irrevocably because of his family roots or lack thereof.  At the novel's end, there is a sort of full-circle, yet ironic twist, when Heathcliff's son is taught to read, and then falls in love with Catherine's daughter.  Heathcliff becomes angry with Catherine's daughter during one incident and nearly hits her--but stops when he apparently sees something in her that reminds him of her mother. 

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