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Although Emily Brontë (BRAHNT-ee) published only one novel, Wuthering Heights, it is this work for which she is best known. When the novel was published in 1847, it won some praise for its originality and power, but in general, reviewers found its violence disturbing and its dominant character, Heathcliff, excessively brutal. Wuthering Heights did not offer the charm and optimism that many readers wanted to find in a work of fiction. As is often the case with original work, it took time for the world to appreciate it fully; today, however, Wuthering Heights is given a prominent place among the significant novels of the nineteenth century and is often discussed for its elaborate narrative structure, its intricate patterns of imagery, and its powerful themes of the soul’s anguish and longing.

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By the time Brontë began Wuthering Heights, she had long been using her imagination to create stories full of passionate intrigue and romance. First, as a young child she participated in a series of family games called Young Men’s Plays, tales of military and political adventures primarily directed and recorded by the older children, her sister Charlotte and her brother Branwell. After Charlotte left for school in 1831, Emily and her younger sister Anne began their own creation, a long saga of an island they called Gondal, placed in the north Pacific yet very much resembling their own Yorkshire environment. They peopled this island-world with strong, passionate characters. Unfortunately, nothing remains of their prose chronicle of Gondal. Two journal fragments and two of the birthday notes that she and Anne were in the habit of exchanging make mention of this land. These notes also offer some insight into the everyday world of the Brontë household and are of great interest for this reason. The only other extant prose, besides a few unrevealing letters, is a group of five essays which she wrote in French as homework assignments while a student in Brussels. This material has since been translated by Lorine White Nagel and published under the title Five Essays Written in French (1948). Some similarities can be seen between the destructive and powerful descriptions of nature and human character discussed in these essays and the world of Brontë’s poetry and fiction.

Achievements

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Emily Brontë did not at first desire public recognition for her poetry. In fact, when her sister Charlotte accidentally discovered a notebook of her poems, it took time for Emily to accept this discovery, even though Charlotte found the poems impressive and uncommon. More time was required for Charlotte to persuade this very private poet to join with her and Anne in a small publishing venture. Once persuaded, Emily did contribute twenty-one of her poems to the slim, privately printed volume Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. To disguise her sex, each sister chose a pseudonym corresponding to the first letter of her name. This disguise also protected Emily’s privacy, which she very much desired to keep; she resented Charlotte’s later unintentional disclosure of Ellis Bell’s true identity. This disclosure occurred after the three sisters had all published novels under the name of Bell, arousing considerable curiosity in the literary world. Unfortunately, their collection of poems sold only two copies. Later, after Emily’s death, Charlotte, convinced of her sister’s talent, tried to keep her poetic reputation alive by including eighteen previously unpublished poems in a second edition of Wuthering Heights and Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey (1847); however, despite her efforts, it was not until the twentieth century that Emily Brontë’s poems received any serious critical attention.

Interest in the poetry began as biographers sought to piece together the life of the Brontë family. It increased when the fantasyland of Gondal was discovered. Attempts were made to reconstruct the story from the poems, for it became clear that Emily had written many of her poems as part of that world of passion and guilt. Further attention was given to the poetry as Wuthering Heights gained in recognition, although readers were inclined to interpret the poems merely as an apprenticeship to a more masterful novel. Only since the mid-twentieth century has criticism begun to focus on the poems for their own sake.

Because of the seeming quietness of Brontë’s life and because she was never part of a literary circle beyond that of her own home, there is a temptation to see her as an example of the isolated genius, sculpturing her forms in an instinctive style. On the contrary, Brontë was a skillful poet working within the traditions of her Romantic predecessors, handling standard poetic forms with subtle and effective variations. Although the dramatic extremes she found in the works of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron led her at times to employ conventional phrases and touches of melodrama, at her best she was able to embody in controlled verse an intensity of genuine feeling that sprang from a love of nature and a worship of the imagination. In her poems of the night winds and the whirling snowstorms of the moors, she distinguishes herself as a poet of nature’s starkly vital powers. In her poems of the imagination, she places herself in the visionary company of William Wordsworth and William Blake. Throughout her poetry she expresses the desire of the soul to transcend the mortal limitations of time and space to merge with a larger presence, the source of all energy and life. She was an artist faithful to her visions, whose poems attest the strength of the individual soul.

Other literary forms

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Poems by Emily Brontë and her sisters Charlotte and Anne are collected in the volume Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846). Juvenilia and early prose works by Brontë on the imaginary world of Gondal have all been lost.

Achievements

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Emily Brontë occupies a unique place in the annals of literature. Her reputation as a major novelist stands on the merits of one relatively short novel that was misunderstood and intensely disliked upon publication, yet no study of British fiction is complete without a discussion of Wuthering Heights. The names of the novel’s settings and characters, particularly Heathcliff, have become part of the heritage of Western culture, familiar even to those who have neither read the novel nor know anything about its author’s life and career. Several film and television versions, two of the most popular of which were released in 1939 and 1970, have helped perpetuate this familiarity.

The literary achievement of Wuthering Heights lies in its realistic portrayal of a specific place and time and in its examination of universal patterns of human behavior. Set in Yorkshire in the closing years of the eighteenth century, the novel delineates the quality of life in the remote moors of northern England and also reminds the reader of the growing pains of industrialization throughout the nation. In addition, more than any other novel of the period, Wuthering Heights presents in clear dialectic form the conflict between two opposing psychic forces, embodied in the settings of the Grange and the Heights and the people who inhabit them. Although modern readers often apply the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to give names to these forces, Brontë illustrated their conflict long before psychologists pigeonholed them. Wuthering Heights is so true in its portrayal of human nature that it fits easily into many theoretical and critical molds, from the historical to the psychological. The novel may be most fully appreciated, however, as a study of the nature of human perception and its ultimate failure in understanding human behavior. This underlying theme, presented through the dialectic structure of human perception, unites many of the elements that are sometimes singled out or overemphasized in particular critical approaches to the novel.

Brontë’s skill is not confined to representing the world and the human forces at work within her characters, great as that skill is. She has also created a complex narrative structure built on a series of interlocking memories and perceptions, spanning three generations and moving across several social classes. Told primarily from two often unreliable and sometimes ambiguous first-person points of view, the novel illustrates through its structure the limitations of human intelligence and imagination. Faced with choosing between Lockwood’s and Nelly Dean’s interpretations of Heathcliff’s life, the reader can only ponder that human perception never allows a full understanding of another soul.

Discussion Topics

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Would a child sharing the personal traits of Emily Brontë receive proper encouragement in the type of school she would be most likely to attend today?

Explain whether Gondal was primarily an exercise of Brontë’s imagination or something that she perceived as a reality.

Does the term “gothic novel” apply to Wuthering Heights?

Is Wuthering Heights a greater novel than Jane Eyre? Substantiate your claim.

Does Brontë’s fondness for music contribute substantially to Wuthering Heights?

As in other arts, repetition can be a flaw or an asset in poetry. How does Brontë make it work?

Bibliography

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Barnard, Robert. Emily Brontë. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. An overview of Brontë’s life and work. Bibliography, maps, illustrations (some in color), index.

Barnard, Robert, and Louise Barnard. A Brontë Encyclopedia. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007. An alphabetical treatment of the life and writings of the Brontë family.

Davies, Stevie. Emily Brontë: Heretic. London: Women’s Press, 1994. Examination of the complex personality that produced Wuthering Heights and a collection of haunting Romantic poetry.

Frank, Katherine. A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Brontë. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Biographical study demonstrating the complex relationships between Emily Brontë and her family members.

Gezari, Janet. Last Things: Emily Brontë’s Poems. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Although most works on Emily Brontë focus on her novel, this one provides critical analysis of her poetry.

Miller, Lucasta. The Brontë Myth. London: Jonathan Cape, 2001. Biography of the Brontë sisters, explaining how previous biographers have shaped readers’ understanding of the three novelists’ major works.

Pykett, Lyn. Emily Brontë. Savage, Md.: Barnes & Noble, 1989. Feminist assessment of Brontë’s work.

Rollyson, Carl, and Lisa Paddock. The Brontës A to Z: The Essential Reference to Their Lives and Work. New York: Facts On File, 2003. Takes an encyclopedic approach to the family, including ill-starred brother Branwell. Includes discussions of even many of the lesser known poems, as well as details of the lives of the authors.

Vine, Steve. Emily Brontë. New York: Twayne, 1998. Biography and critical analysis of Wuthering Heights and Brontë’s poetry, intended as an introduction for general readers.

Winnifrith, Tom, and Edward Chitham. Charlotte and Emily Brontë: Literary Lives. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Brief assessment of the impact the two sisters had on each other’s writing.

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