An essential element of Wuthering Heights is the exploration and extension of the meaning of romance. By contrasting the passionate, natural love of Catherine and Heathcliff with the socially constructed forms of courtship and marriage, Emily Brontë makes an argument in favor of individual choice. Catherine and Heathcliff both assert that they know the other as themselves, that they are an integral part of each other, and that one’s death will diminish the other immeasurably. This communion, however, is doomed to failure while they live because of social constraints. Heathcliff’s unknown parentage, his poverty, and his lack of education make him an unsuitable partner for a gentlewoman, no matter how liberated her expressions of independence. Brontë suggests the possibility of reunion after death when local residents believe they see the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine together, but this notion is explicitly denied by Lockwood’s last assertion in the novel, that the dead slumber quietly.
The profound influence of Romantic poetry on Brontë’s literary imagination is evident in her development of Heathcliff as a Byronic hero. This characterization contributes to the impossibility of any happy union of Catherine and Heathcliff while they live. Heathcliff looms larger than life, subject to violent extremes of emotion, amenable to neither education nor nurturing. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he craves love and considers revenge the only fit justice when he is rejected by others. Catherine, self-involved and prone to emotional storms, has just enough sense of self-preservation to recognize Heathcliff’s faults, including his amorality. Choosing to marry Edgar Linton is to choose psychic fragmentation and separation from her other self, but she sees no way to reconcile her psychological need for wholeness with the physical support and emotional stability that she requires. Unable to earn a living, dependent on a brother who is squandering the family fortune, she is impelled to accept the social privileges and luxuries that Edgar offers.
Yet conventional forms of romance provide no clear guide to successful marriage either; both Edgar and his sister, Isabella, suffer by acting on stereotypical notions of love. Edgar does not know Catherine in any true sense, and his attempts to control her force her subversive self-destruction. Isabella, fascinated by the Byronic qualities with which Heathcliff is so richly endowed, believes that she really loves him and becomes a willing victim in his scheme of revenge. What remains is a paradoxical statement about the nature and value of love and a question about whether any love can transcend social and natural barriers.
Another theme that Brontë examines is the effect of abuse and brutality on human...
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