Wuthering Heights Historical and Social Context
by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights book cover
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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

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

(Novels for Students)

Top Withens, the farm which served as a model for the one in Wuthering Heights. Published by Gale Cengage

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...

(The entire section is 1,979 words.)