Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 398

When it was first published, Wuthering Heights received almost no attention from critics, and what little there was proved to be negative. Critical opinion deemed the book immoral, and Charlotte Brontë felt moved to apologize for it after Emily’s death by saying that her sister wrote during the feverish stages of tuberculosis. To publish at all, the Brontë sisters chose to submit their works using male pseudonyms because they believed that it would be impossible to market their poems and novels otherwise. They experienced many rejections and were never recompensed fairly for the value of their work. When their identity was revealed, many critics expressed surprise (that the novels could be written by inexperienced women who lived in isolated circumstances) and shock (that the violence and passion of Wuthering Heights could be conceived by a woman at all). There has even been a serious attempt made to prove that Emily’s brother, Branwell, was the true author of Wuthering Heights.

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This reaction suggests the reluctance of the Victorian public to accept challenges to the dominant belief that women were beneficent moral influences whose primary function was to provide a pure environment for men who, of necessity, sullied themselves in the world of work. Wuthering Heights provides no overt rebellion against this view, but the depiction of female characters who display anger, passion, and a desire for independence demonstrates Emily Brontë’s judgment that women were suited to a wider sphere of action.

Contemporary feminist critics have seen Catherine Earnshaw as a character for whom no meaningful choices are possible. Her self-starvation and periods of madness can be read as signs of female powerlessness and rage. Even her death can be seen as the last resort of the oppressed, a kind of willed suicide which she announces is her only form of revenge against both Edgar Linton and Heathcliff for thwarting her true nature. The second half of the novel, focusing on Catherine Linton, is then an assertion of Victorian society’s values countering Catherine Earnshaw’s desire to be self-determining. Catherine Linton is beautiful in a conventional way, and she dutifully serves as daughter, wife, nurse, and teacher. Yet, compared to her mother’s, her story has much less drama and fails to persuade the reader of its truth. In fact, it best serves to highlight the unique and deeply felt nature of her mother’s subjugation.

Historical Context

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Last Updated on April 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985

The Victorian Age (1837-1901)

England under the reign of Queen Victoria was in a prolonged phase of expansion. The Industrial Revolution saw the transformation of a predominately agricultural economy to a factory economy. Millions would eventually flock to London in search of the new jobs, but Emily Brontë grew up in the last days of rural England. The tenor of the times was conservative, and sensitive to society's unwillingness to accept women as authors, Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë all published under male pseudonyms.

The tempestuous climate of northern England in Haworth, Yorkshire, left its mark on the Brontë children, whose fascination with the expanse and storms of the moors is emphasized in the novel. For Emily, who was never happy far from home, the local moorland and valleys, and the grit stone architecture typical of the age were the basis for the setting of Wuthering Heights.

Another influence on Brontë's writing was the folklore of the Yorkshire community. Tabitha Ackroyd, a maid in the Brontë household, was a rich source of stories about fairies and ghosts. References to folk beliefs and rituals are scattered throughout Wuthering Heights, particularly with reference to the deathwatch traditional in Yorkshire, as when Edgar sits the entire night with Catherine's body after her death, or to rituals surrounding funerals such as "bidding," an invitation to accompany a body to the grave. Extending or withholding such an invitation gave some indication of the state of family relationships.

Illness, Death, and Funeral Customs

Owing to the unforgiving climate and poor heating, illness and death were common occurrences in Yorkshire at the time the novel was created. Ill partly as a result of his stay at Wuthering Heights, Lockwood laments, "Oh, these bleak winds, and bitter, northern skies, and impassable roads, and dilatory country surgeons!" Emily Brontë's older sisters Maria and Elizabeth died of tuberculosis before they were fifteen, and in Wuthering Heights, Edgar and Linton also die of wasting diseases. Maria Branwell's death when Emily was only three may be the inspiration for the many motherless children in Wuthering Heights.

A period of mourning was formally observed after the death of a family member. The appropriate period of mourning depended on whether the deceased was a close or distant relative. For example, a year's mourning was usually observed for a husband or wife, and a week for the death of a second cousin. In Wuthering Heights Nelly is "bid to get mourning"—that is, to lay out dark clothes— for Catherine, whose aunt Isabella has died.

As the children of a minister, the Brontës felt the influence of religion both at home and at school. A fire-and-brimstone instructor may have been Emily Brontë's inspiration for Joseph, who can barely speak a word that does not invoke hellfire. Critics also suspect that this influence is at the root of Lockwood's dream at the beginning of Wuthering Heights, in which he is forced to listen to the Reverend Jabes Branderham preach a sermon divided into 490 parts.

Literary Traditions and Romanticism

Whereas Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre won immediate acclaim, the wild passion and coarseness of Wuthering Heights baffled its readers. In an essay in Reference Guide to English Literature, Winifred Gerin attributes the failure of the novel to its theme of indestructibility of the spirit, which was a "subject … far removed from the general run of Victorian fiction—il belonged, if anywhere, to the gothic tradition, still being followed by Mary Shelley with her Valperga (1823) in Emily Brontë's childhood."

The time in which the action of Wuthering Heights takes place, and its themes of nature and the individual, coincides with the Romantic Movement in Europe, a turning away from reason and intellect in favor of free and more mystical ideas, inspired in part by the French Revolutionary War of 1789.

Inheritance and Social Position

Social position and respectability in this period were directly tied to possession of property. A country house owned by landed gentry like the Earnshaws and the Lintons was known as a "seal," a broad term that included both the tangible assets (for instance, the house and land) and intangible assets (for instance, the family name and any hereditary titles) of the family that owned it. In Wuthering Heights, the first Catherine tells Nelly that she is marrying Edgar Linton because to marry Heathcliff would degrade her (they would be beggars) and because she plans to use Linton's money to help Heathcliff to rise.

Seats passed from father to first-born male or to the next closest male relative if there were no sons in a family. The only way around this process was to invoke a device called "strict settlement," in force between 1650 and 1880, which allowed a father to dispose of his holdings as he liked through a trustee. Because Edgar Linton dies before ensuring that his daughter Catherine will inherit Thrushcross Grange, the land passes first to her husband, Linton, and alter Linton's death to his father, Heathcliff.

In contrast to earlier times when incest was forbidden by law, in eighteenth-century England marriage between first cousins was looked upon favorably as a way of preserving position and property. A typical union was one of a woman who married her father's brother's son, which kept the seat of the bride's family under their control. In Wuthering Heights, in a perverse twist, the second Catherine Linton marries her father's sister's son, and in the absence of a strict settlement ends up losing her family's seat.

Landholding families typically maintained a large staff of servants who fulfilled the functions (for a man) of steward, valet, butler, and gardener, or (for a woman) of lady's maid, housekeeper, cook, and nurse. In a household the size of Wuthering Heights, whose inhabitants did not entertain, combining functions made economic sense. In the novel Joseph serves as both valet and steward, and Ellen as housekeeper, though her duties are fairly broadly defined.

Social Concerns

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Even though Emily Bronte had limited experience with people outside her home, she was interested in the human psyche. In Wuthering Heights she explores the minds of individual persons. Each of her characters is a real human being with hopes, fears, aspirations and desires. She also explores the relations of males and females from different classes. It is almost an ethnographic study of the various relationships. Bronte does not really make any comment on the morality of Heathcliff, Catherine or Edgar or the other characters. She simply allows them to act out their lives. She shows them with all their faults.

In some respects, Bronte is also showing her readers the effects of too much passion. Heathcliff's passion for Cathy is almost too much. He is like Hamlet in his desire for revenge against the woman and man who he feels have wronged him. It is his inability to accept the fact that Cathy married Edgar that sets the rest of the events into play. He causes the ultimate destruction of both "houses" and leaves his offspring to "redeem" or "save" the two families.

Throughout the novel, Bronte portrays Heathcliff as a rustic who in some ways is unfettered by social conventions and whose vitality and nonconformity is attractive and initially appealing. Eventually his overly emotional response to Cathy causes the fall of everyone, even Cathy.

Literary Precedents

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Although Wuthering Heights is Bronte's one published novel, it is entirely possible that it is not her only novel. Evidence shows that she and her sister Anne spent years writing a Gondal epic/novel. Unfortunately none of this work survives or has as yet been found. Only the poetry survives.

Wuthering Heights may be read as part of a whole body of Gothic novels. It has the supernatural elements, the dark setting, the star-crossed lovers that one can find in Hugh Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1765) and later in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Anne Radcliffe. As critic Lyn Pykett says, it also combines the romantic elements of Waldworth's Lyrical Ballads with the realism of Sir Walter Scott's novels. There are also many other novels which deal with different aspects which were explored by Emily Bronte. The nonconventional views of religion coupled with the passion love and psychological study of the characters can be found in D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913).

Compare and Contrast

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  • Late 1700s: World economies are predominately agrarian.

    1847: England is in the midst of an Industrial Revolution whose effects will be felt worldwide. Workers flock to cities from the countryside.

    Today: World economies are increasingly linked in a “global community.” Intercultural communication and cultural diversity in the so-called service economy are a direct result of advances in transportation and communications.

  • Late 1700s: Life expectancy is short, owing to harsh living and working conditions. Death in childbirth is common.

    1847: Medical advances and improved public health and sanitation decrease maternal and infant mortality.

    Today: Though high-technology medicine offers solutions to many medical problems, heart disease and cancer remain major killers, there is no cure for AIDS, and many countries grapple with increasing costs of health care for aging populations.

  • Late 1700s: Inheritance in England passes from the father to the first-born male. A procedure called “strict settlement” must be invoked to bypass inheritance laws.

    1847: Full legal and economic equality for women is first championed in the United States by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

    Today: Women worldwide have the right to vote, except in a few Muslim countries. In the United States, while the Equal Rights Amendment failed to obtain ratification, women increasingly bring successful sexual discrimination and sexual harassment suits against employers

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