Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792

Initial reception to the publication of Wuthering Heights in 1847 was overwhelmingly negative. Published in a volume that also included her sister Anne Brontë's first novel, Agnes Grey, Emily's brooding tale managed to find favor only with Sydney Dobell and Algernon Charles Swinburne. "I have just read over Wuthering Heights," wrote Charlotte Brontë in her preface to the 1850 edition of her sister's book, "and, for the first time, have obtained a clear glimpse of what are termed (and, perhaps, really are) its faults.… Wuthering Heights must appear a rude and strange production … in a great measure unintelligible, and—where intelligible—repulsive." The preface was intended as a defense of the writer and the work and must have achieved its aim, for the second edition of the novel was received more favorably. Algernon Charles Swinburne, writing in The Athenaeum in 1883, admitted to the awkward construction and clumsy method of narration "which no reader … can undertake to deny," although these were minor faults. He was more troubled by "the savage note or the sickly symptom of a morbid ferocity," but was overall so impressed by the "special and distinctive character of its passion" that "it is certain that those who do like it will like nothing very much better in the whole world of poetry or prose."

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A monograph by Charles Percy Sanger published in 1926 marked a major turning point in critical appreciation of the sophistication and complexity of the writing in Wuthering Heights, and today the novel is indisputably considered a work of genius. That critics cannot agree whether the book falls more neatly into the Gothic or Romantic literary tradition is accepted as further evidence of the work's uniqueness. In his introduction to the novel, David Daiches argues that the central question of Wuthering Heights is "Who and what is Heathcliff?", a question Daiches argues can be answered only by looking at the effect Heathcliff has on those around him. While Daiches agrees with the conventional view that the relationship between Heathcliff and the first Catherine is "curiously" sexless, he does find persuasive Thomas Moser's (1962) case for recurring sexual symbolism in the novel. Daiches echoes other critics in praising the book's narrative structure and other elements of its organization. He places special emphasis on the details of everyday living, and descriptions of food and hearth, that help to anchor the story and to make it believable. "One of Emily Brontë's most extraordinary achievements in this novel is the domiciling of the monstrous in the ordinary rhythms of life and work, thereby making it at the same time less monstrous and more disturbing." Tom Winnifrith, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, picks up on the idea of Heathcliff as a force of nature and attributes his attraction in part to his association with the landscape and to his honesty, however brutal. This last idea highlights one of many ambiguities of the novel, a strength often commented on by scholars and critics. "Brontë's defiance of rigid categories and her refusal to divide people into saints and sinners," says Winnifrith, "is very un-Victorian … Heathcliff's cruelty and Cathy's selfishness do not prevent them from being attractive. The Lintons are spoiled and weak, but Isabella's and her son's sufferings and Edgar's devotion to his wife win them sympathy." Winnifrith dismisses the oft-cited effort to fit the novel into an overall framework of storm and calm—that is, storm and calm opposed in the persons of Catherine and Heathcliff, but fused in the union of Catherine and Hareton—proposed by Lord David Cecil in Early Victorian Novelists (1934) as too schematic. He argues that some modern sociological interpretations ignore the book's enigmatic ending. Other modern critical articles on the novel, he says, "tend to be eccentric or to deal with only a very small section of the book." In an essay in Reference Guide to English Literature, Winifred Gerin describes the message of "the indissoluble nature of earthly love" as "profoundly metaphysical," its original failure easily explained by its gothic atmosphere, no longer in fashion at the time of publication, Gerin attributes the novel's "curious and lasting appeal" to the "unflagging excitement of the plot; the wild moorland setting; [and] … the originality of the characters." She calls Heathcliff's self-induced death by starvation "one of the most powerful and daring climaxes in English fiction."

"Whether it is right or advisable to create things like Heathcliff, I do not know," wrote Charlotte Brontë at the end of the preface to the 1850 edition. "I scarcely think it is. But this I know; the writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master—something that at times strangely wills and works for itself." It is English literature's gain that Emily lost herself in her creation.

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