Table of Contents
||The Complexity of Genres and the Question of Generations
in Wuthering Heights
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|Somehow, critics get away with ignoring the second half of Wuthering Heights.
The majority of criticism about this strange novel addresses the story
of Heathcliff, Edgar and Cathy rather than that of Hareton, Linton and
Catherine. The second story does lack the other-worldly passion
and poignant tragedy of the first; nonetheless, the second story is
crucial to fully understand and appreciate the first. The second
half of Wuthering Heights is
more than an extended dénouement: through
carefully-staged, opposing doublings of characters and plotlines, young
Catherine’s story performs a diegetic dismantling of the
catastrophe in the first story, providing redemption to the most
unredeemable characters. This inversion and reconfiguration functions
diegetically and, even more importantly, metatextually. Just as the
plots comment upon one another, so too do their literary tropes and
generic conventions. Wuthering Heights
has almost always been considered a Gothic novel, but, through a
careful assessment of the tropes, it becomes obvious that the first
half—the more memorable, critically-acclaimed half—is not
really Gothic. The novel does not truly become Gothic until the
second story is introduced, at which point a proliferation of literary
conventions—realist, romantic, bildungsroman,
sentimental, and Gothic—appear, forcing a generic resolution
that, in the end, demonstrates how the Gothic genre is
best-suited for expressing the inexpressible.
In order to determine the ways in which the novel’s plots comment upon one another, it is helpful to first examine the complex relationships between the characters of the first and second generations. The ways characters fragment, oppose and mirror each other are analogous to the ways the dual plots dismantle and correct one another. Beginning with the second-generation foil to Heathcliff—the simultaneous protagonist and villain of the novel—Hareton is certainly a less-prominent version of this larger-than-life character, but he is no less important. Hareton’s relationship to Heathcliff is more complex than what might at first appear. It may be assumed that Hareton, because he emulates him in many ways, fosters hatred for Heathcliff, his tormenter. After all, Heathcliff did just that; he resented Hindley to such an extent that he planned and carried out revenge against him. But Hareton does not hate Heathcliff. Quite the contrary, he adores him. Heathcliff is “the one friend he has in the world” (Brontë 193). Likewise, Heathcliff says that he “covets” Hareton “twenty times a day,” “despite his degredation” (Brontë 192). He says that “[he’d] have loved the lad had he been someone else,” that is, not the son of his enemy (Brontë 192). This admiration reflects the deep, mutual respect between Hareton and Heathcliff. Heathcliff wishes he were his son, and Hareton is proud to be his protégé, or, on a literary level, his double. However, Hareton is not as aggressive as Heathcliff. Perhaps he merely has not yet reached his breaking point, as Heathcliff does when he loses Cathy. Perhaps Hareton is gentler and more forgiving than Heathcliff by nature. No matter the case, certainly while Hareton is like Heathcliff in many ways, such as in his childhood mistreatment and marginalization, he is unlike him in one crucial aspect: Hareton has not yet surpassed his limit for tolerance and forgiveness.
Linton Heathcliff, on the other hand, is quite dissimilar to Edgar Linton, the character whose position he replaces in the second generation. From the first physical description in the novel, Linton is aligned with Edgar. As he arrives at Thrushcross Grange, Nelly sees “a pale, delicate, effeminate boy, who might have been taken for [her] master’s younger brother, so strong was the resemblance, but there was a sickly peevishness in his aspect that Edgar Linton never had” (Brontë 177). Indeed, Edgar Linton is a gentleman. Not only is he gentile and refined, but he also displays a love for Cathy that is genuine, even if not best suited to her. He chooses, for example, to have her buried on the moors, the place she loved so much, rather than in his family’s plot. Linton, however, can never be called gentlemanly. With every action, every declaration, he proves himself a pathetic, sickly and spiteful creature. His own father rarely refers to him by any name other than “it.” Even Nelly, for all her conventional sensibilities, cannot find any redeemable qualities in him. The only person who is able to love him is Catherine. Their so-called love, however, is perverse and misdirected. Linton’s affection for Catherine often hinges upon his mood and her ability to soothe him properly. He demonstrates this fickle behavior when Nelly and Catherine visit him at Wuthering Heights while he is ill. Linton whines at her to sing him a song, to tell him a long ballad, to adjust his pillow, saying first that it is too low and then that it is too high. Nelly looses her patience with him and implores Catherine to stop wasting her time. She responds, “Yes, yes, we can [stay longer]! […] He’s good and patient, now” (Brontë 212). His neediness does not repel Catherine; rather, it attracts her to him, as a nurse might be attracted to a patient. Moments later, Linton reveals the perversity of his feelings toward Catherine. He begs her to “sit on the settle and let [him] lean on [her] knee,” because “that’s as mama used to do” (Brontë 213). Linton’s affections most likely stem from an oedipal complex, and Catherine’s physical similarities to Isabella probably endear her to him more than anything else. The perversity of their love is further demonstrated when Catherine makes such declarations as “I’d make such a pet of him, if he were mine” (Brontë 213), “Linton, I love papa better than you!” (Brontë 241), and “Pretty Linton! I wish you were my brother!” (Brontë 210). Their confused, childish love is a foil to the eternal, supernatural love between Cathy and Heathcliff.
Finally, Catherine, possibly the most interesting foil of the three children, forms a complex diegetic relationship with her mother.1 Catherine inherits certain physical attributes from Cathy but, in key ways, their appearances differ. Nelly describes Catherine’s beauty as containing “the Earnshaw’s handsome dark eyes, but the Lintons’ fair skin, and small features, and yellow curling hair” (Brontë 167). She looks like she belongs strictly to the Linton family, except for her mother’s eyes, which are dark and inscrutable. Her eyes become important later when Heathcliff, on the brink of death and madness, notices that both Hareton and Catherine have the same eyes, his beloved’s eyes, and he feels their presence as a constant reminder of his loss (Brontë 286-287). Regarding Cathy’s physical appearance as a young girl, however, there is little description. While Nelly goes into great detail regarding how naughty she was, as far as her looks are concerned, her words are vague: “she had the bonniest eye, and the sweetest smile, and lightest foot in the parish” (Brontë 36). Readers may interpret this lack of physical description as evidence that Cathy’s features are unfavorable and dark. She is often described with words like “wild,” and “savage,” as is Heathcliff, a gypsy of unknown parentage. Because Catherine and Heathcliff are so similar, the reader is invited to assume that her beauty is of a dark, unconventional kind. Consequently, Cathy does not resemble a typical literary heroine. Her daughter, though, with her pale skin and golden hair, is a socially-conventional beauty. She better looks the part of an angelic, gentile heroine.
Regarding her temperament, Catherine is in some ways similar to Cathy, but overall far gentler in demeanor. Described as having a “high, though not rough” spirit, which was “qualified by a heart sensitive and lively to excess in its affections” (Brontë 167), perhaps Cathy's most definitive (and damning) characteristic was her proclivity toward intensity, emotional instability and passionate relationships. Catherine, however, cannot be described in such extreme terms. Nelly says that her "capacity for intense attachments reminded [her] of her mother," but "still she did not resemble her; [. . . Catherine's] anger was never furious; her love never fierce; it was deep and tender" (Brontë 167). The language used to describe Catherine’s personality resonates with what may be used to describe her mother’s; however, it is littered with qualifiers to indicate the contrary. She “reminds” Nelly of Cathy, yet she “does not resemble her;” she has a “capacity for intens[ity],” but, unlike Cathy, “her love is never fierce.” These characteristics highlight Catherine as a foil to Cathy, but a complex one. She is, fundamentally, prone to excess and passion, but she is inculcated with the Linton’s sensibilities. Catherine is equipped with her mother’s intense nature, but these qualities are tempered by her father’s genetic contribution, his lavish affections, and the education he gives her.
The characters in the second generation compliment and subvert their predecessors to varying degrees. In the cases of both Catherine and Hareton, they refine the violently passionate (or passionately violent) characters of Cathy and Heathcliff. Their personalities are more subdued, for they have not yet been pushed to the extremes of death and vengeance. In the case of Linton, Edgar’s gentle, tempered love is perverted and made grotesque in the second generation. Thus, it may be concluded that Catherine and Hareton make Cathy and Heathcliff more realistic and relatable while Linton only reinforces Edgar’s most negative aspect, namely that his love of Cathy breaks up the more perfect love she has for Heathcliff. Thus, the characters of the second generation, through reflecting certain qualities and opposing others, reenact the story of the first generation in a whole new way.
In terms of the plotlines in which these complimentary characters are involved, their functions can also be seen as redeeming or balancing. The first half of the novel tells the story of a love that is eternal and supernatural. The story of Cathy and Heathcliff is obviously a love story from its very beginning. When her father brings home Heathcliff instead of a promised whip, Cathy throws a fit. Merely two paragraphs later, however, after Heathcliff is christened, Nelly declares that “Miss Cathy and [Heathcliff] were now very thick” (Bronte 32). They spend their days roaming the moors, having vaguely illicit romps as they get older. Of course, the beauty of Cathy and Heathcliff’s love story is that no description of their affections are given; the reader is left to imagine the caresses, the tender speeches, and therefore can bring a level of intimacy to the text that would seem forced if outlined explicitly.
Cathy and Heathcliff have a love that is profound and essential. Cathy describes her love for Heathcliff to Nelly, saying that she loves him “not because he’s handsome, […] but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” (Brontë 71). This is immediately followed by Catherine’s famous declaration, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff” (Brontë 73). Heathcliff reveals the depth of his feelings for Cathy, too, in a moving speech he makes just after her death. He beseeches her spirit, saying “Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” (Brontë148). It is clear that Cathy and Heathcliff are souls entwined, and their love is supernatural, extending beyond the boundaries of life and death. Indeed, it cannot even be fully captured in writing; their love scenes are private and the “unutterable” pain their separation causes cannot be described.
Heathcliff and Cathy’s love story is one of magnanimous proportions; a love that is fundamental to their beings, but thwarted by a misunderstanding and poor decisions. Heathcliff only overhears Cathy’s confession that “it would degrade [her] to marry him, now” (Brontë 71) and flees, missing the other confessions of the strength of her love for him. Of course, it was Cathy’s choice to accept Edgar in the first place, a decision which doomed her and Heathcliff’s relationship. Heathcliff leaves the Heights, makes his fortune and returns, finding Cathy and Edgar have indeed married, that she is with child, and that there is no hope of their being together. The pain of this realization drives Cathy to self-destruct; she starves herself and dies, dooming Heathcliff to continue without her.
After Cathy’s death, no real conflict remains. Only loose-ends—the fate of the children, the carrying out of Heathcliff’s revenge against Edgar, Heathcliff’s eventual death and reunion with Cathy—linger. A lesser novelist, one without a grand diegetic and generic trajectory in mind, might have simply ignored these subplots, or just ended the story here. In fact, the majority of Wuthering Height’s film adaptations do stop at Cathy’s death. For example, in Buñuel’s loose, 1954 adaptation Abismos de pasión, Alejandro (Heathcliff) is shot and killed over Catalina’s (Cathy’s) grave shortly after her death. This gives the story a completely different ending, one that recalls Romeo and Juliet more than Wuthering Heights. Because the novel continues in spite of the resolution of the original, compelling conflict, the reader must conclude that the second plot bears great significance with regard to authorial intent, plot and genre.
Where the new generation picks up, Cathy is dead and Heathcliff is damned. In the wake of the bad decisions they made to arrive at such grim fates, three children are born, each a Linton and/or Earnshaw hybrid, as outlined previously. The narrative in which they participate has nothing to do with the love story in the first half of the novel; in fact, a poignant, tragic love story is one thing that the second narrative most definitely is not. Catherine, the innocent, conventional heroine, falls in love with Linton through a correspondence of childish, sentimental letters. The two might seem like an ideal couple, both educated and beautiful, but because of Linton’s monstrous personality, it is clear that he is not meant to be Catherine’s true love.
Strangely, though, Catherine also demonstrates a similar unworthiness for Hareton. After first insulting Hareton by mistaking him for a servant, Catherine continues to hurt him throughout the novel. While Cathy irreversibly slights Heathcliff when she chooses to marry Edgar, Catherine discourages and laughs at Hareton many times, but the consequences are less grave than those of Cathy’s decision. The climatic moment where Cathy decides to marry Edgar is thus fragmented over many instances; however, in this second version forgiveness is possible. When Linton, Catherine and Hareton are walking around the grounds, they stop to examine the sign over the door. Hareton cannot read, so he shrugs off the inscription as “damnable writing” (Brontë 194). Linton, proving himself ever-spiteful, says, “he does not know his letters. […] Could you believe in the existence of such a colossal dunce?” (Brontë 194). Catherine does not defend her coarse but sensitive cousin; instead, she asks, “is he simple . . . not right?” (Brontë 194). Hareton becomes rueful, threatens to punch Linton, and storms away. Later, in that same place, Catherine again insults. This time, with great pride, Hareton proves to her that he can read the sign. Ironically, the text is his name, and his ability to read it shows that he is becoming better equipped to reclaim his rightful position as master of the estate. Unsatisfied, however, she asks if he can make out the letters below the name, and he admits that he “cannot tell them yet” (Brontë 220). Catherine “laugh[s] heartily,” “Oh, you dunce!” she exclaims (Brontë 220). Finally, Hareton is rebuked for his tenderness. As Catherine sits in the parlor reading, he studies her beautiful, golden hair. He extends a hand and “stroke[s] one curl, as gently as if it were a bird” (Brontë 263). She reacts with unwarranted cruelty, spinning around and shouting, as if he had “stuck a knife into her neck” (Brontë 263). Catherine ridicules Hareton repeatedly, leaving him feeling foolish and dejected.
All of these instances, though cruel, are forgivable. They fall within the realm of childish antagonism, and because Hareton is not yet jaded, he is able to forget Catherine’s unkindness. Their courtship, like Cathy and Heathcliff’s, is not shown directly. The only explicit portrayal of their love resides in the scene at the novel’s end in which Catherine helps Hareton learn to read. Poignantly, this scene shows how Hareton finally, through the help of Catherine, is redeemed to his rightful social placing within the family. As Catherine teaches Hareton to read, rather than scoffing at him, she rewards him with kisses. Also like Cathy and Heathcliff, Catherine and Hareton are prone to “late rambles” on the moors (Brontë 275). Thus, the love story of Catherine and Hareton revises that of Heathcliff and Cathy. While the first generation breaks their attachment beyond repair, the novel shows how two very similar, though overall gentler, characters can make such a relationship work. In this way, the two children undo the bad decisions made by their predecessors.
As Robin Grove notes, before either narrative begins, foreshadowing for this revision is provided by the engravings in the windowsill at Wuthering Heights. Lockwood, sleeping in Cathy’s old room for the night, notices a series of names etched into the woodwork: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff, and Catherine Linton. Cathy begins as Earnshaw, dreams of becoming Heathcliff, but ends up marrying into the Linton family. Catherine, her daughter, does the opposite: born Linton, she becomes Heathcliff through her brief marriage to Linton, and eventually becomes Earnshaw when she marries Hareton. In this way, the daughter resolves the terrible mistake of her mother; her story diegetically reverses the first story, correcting the catastrophe that damns both Cathy and Heathcliff (Grove 37-38).
The diegetic result of the two plot’s synthesis is a rather conservative one. In the end, the passionate, volatile couple proves less capable of sustaining love than their kinder, gentler offspring. This reading, however, is unsatisfactory, for many critics think that Brontë was actually doing something rather revolutionary with her novel. To see those revolutionary gestures, one must widen the scope of the analysis one final time and examine the ways genres and their tropes work with and against one another.
Wuthering Heights has always proven a slippery work to classify to any particular genre. Melvin Watson, in his article surveying the historical reception of the novel, notes that critic W. L. Cross was the first critic to label the novel as Gothic in 1899. Cross writes, “The long vista of the purely Gothic romance [. . .] is closed by a storm and passion beaten house on the Yorkshire moors [. . .] Beyond the madness and terror of ‘Wuthering Heights,’ romantic fiction has never gone” (qtd. in Watson 251). Robert Kiely’s seminal work The Romantic Novel in England, builds upon that sentiment. Kiely sees Wuthering Heights as the last and best novel belonging to the English romantic tradition: “It is so much better than any other attempt at romantic fiction” (233). He notes the work’s ability to unite romantic poetry and romantic novels, observing that Heathcliff can be understood as a Byronic figure (237). Q. D. Leavis, similarly, considers the book a masterpiece of orthodox, Victorian literature (Williams 104). Others draw upon the ways in which Wuthering Heights subverts the classical novel structure with its narrative structure. Further, many critics have noted that Wuthering Heights is a novel told to a listener, thereby placing it outside the realm of the novel. George Haggerty stresses the importance of Brontë’s writing “instead of a conventional novel an extended tale,” explaining that Lockwood’s inability to “novelize” Nelly’s tale speaks to his inadequacy as a narrator as well as the enigmatic nature of the stories told (“Gothic Form” 1). Northrop Frye says that “the conventions of Wuthering Heights are linked rather with the tale and the ballad” instead of the novel, “thus aligning it with mythical, heroic stories of antiquity” (Fiction/Form 11). Clearly, Wuthering Heights is a hybridized novel, anchored in the oral tradition but applied to the strict format of the nineteenth-century novelistic style.
It is remarkable how much Wuthering Heights has been scrutinized in order to determine its genre. Again, while it is often considered a Gothic novel, various critics have attempted to better define it as a romance, a ballad, or even a tale. Looking back, however, at what the Gothic novel attempts to address from its earliest roots, it is clear that Wuthering Heights is, in fact, a powerful work belonging to the Gothic genre. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otanto (1764) is widely considered the first Gothic novel. In the introduction to its second edition, Walpole explains that his novel originated from a desire to experiment with form. It represents an attempt “to blend two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern” (qtd. in Fiction/Form 1). By modern, he means romances based on the improbable, the unexplainable, the supernatural; he wishes to introduce the themes circulating in the works of the romantic poets to the novel. Concepts such as the uncanny, the sublime, and the supernatural were all new concepts that liberated writers from the constraints of neoclassism, the constraints of the "ancient" or realistic romance (Fiction/Form 2). Thus, The Castle of Otanto reconciles other-worldly, supernatural elements and mundane, realistic elements. It marks an important turn in the development of the novel, allowing for the first time the exploration of dreams, the afterlife and the power of nature, as well as the departure from strict realism. Furthermore, Gothic novels often utilize a stock set of tropes. As M. H. Abrams notes, “the typical [Gothic] story focused on the sufferings imposed on an innocent heroine by a cruel and lustful villain, and made bountiful use of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, and other sensational and supernatural occurrences” (111). The Gothic novel is a well-established, innovative form that attempts to reconcile oppositional narrative modes. Even at the time of Brontë’s writing Wuthering Heights, in 1847, it was a well-known, often-utilized genre.
Just like The Castle of Otanto, Wuthering Heights experiments with form, attempting to find ways to unify and/or correct it. A pair of very conventional lovers is pitted against a pair of highly unconventional ones, thus highlighting the differences between the two styles of characterization. In terms of the novel’s two plots, one story is markedly absent of traditional literary tropes while the other is fraught with devices from a wide variety of genres. The coupling of these two methods allows Brontë’s real formal genius to be seen. In the first story, two people fall in love but cannot be together; then, one of them dies. This is a tragic story, but that in and of itself does not make it Gothic. It does contain a few, select Gothic elements, including foreboding architecture, awe-inspiring landscapes, and characters who are doubles and/or dark doubles of one another. The reader may be surprised to realize these as the only true Gothic conventions in the first, more-memorable half. Others make weak appearances, including the damsel in distress, as demonstrated by Isabella, and the supernatural. These two tropes, however, are problematic due to their lack of emphasis. Isabella is not a central character. Cathy is the heroine of the first story; therefore, Isabella cannot be the Gothic heroine, for she merely occupies a subplot. Also, her woes are encouraged to be viewed as deserved. Thus, her status as a Gothic heroine is further jeopardized, because by traditional standards, she is supposed to be completely innocent.
Troublingly, the most definitive and consequently important Gothic theme, the supernatural, after introduced at the beginning of the novel, disappears from Nelly’s ensuing narration. In the introductory chapters in which Lockwood meets his neighbors at Wuthering Heights, he is visited by a spirit, the spirit of Cathy as a child, who tries to return to her home. This scene is markedly supernatural, and it is the presence of ghosts and other supernatural occurrences that particularly defines the Gothic genre. Thus, Lockwood’s outer narrative sets up the novel to be a traditionally Gothic one; however, the story quickly changes with Nelly’s narrative into something completely different. Heathcliff and Cathy’s love story, in its own right, is not Gothic at all; rather it is a tragic love story superimposed with a few, trifling Gothic elements.
The novel does not become Gothic until the second half, when Heathcliff becomes more akin to a Gothic villain. In the first half, he is vengeful and angry, but he becomes truly villainous when he holds Catherine, an innocent victim, against her will in his home. Additionally, a savior love-interest does not take shape until the end of the novel in the form of Hareton. Only when the story of Heathcliff and Cathy is supplemented by that of Catherine, Linton and Hareton does the novel truly become Gothic.
Strangely, however, the novel not only becomes Gothic in the second half, it also simply becomes more generally conventional. Tropes of various genres, not just the Gothic, show up in the second story. Catherine and Linton’s correspondence through love letters is decidedly sentimental. Catherine’s evolution from a naïve young girl to the angry, violent woman Lockwood meets at the beginning of the novel and, finally, to a content woman after having discovered her love for Hareton suggests the genre of the bildungsroman. The lack of emphasis in the sublime power of nature and in the power of the ominous architecture of the house becomes less centralized; thus, the second story also belongs to the tradition of realism.
Loaded with literary conventions, the novel’s second half represents an intricate layering of genres, a cacophony of tropes. Generically, the novel becomes so clouded that, towards the end, the battling motifs reach a catharsis, which is only resolved when the most definitive and decidedly absent Gothic convention, the supernatural, reappears. At the conclusion of the novel, Heathcliff becomes more and more desirous of death. He digs down to Cathy’s grave with the help of a sexton, pulls back the coffin lid and gazes into her visage, which, remarkably, has barely been altered by time. Heathcliff spends most of his remaining nights out on the moors, searching for Cathy. He returns with the most blissful expression on his face, ranting that he can feel her presence, his eyes focusing on some being just in the distance. Finally, when he dies, Heathcliff’s face is absolutely jubilant; he grins at Lockwood, who tries to in vain to close his elated eyes. The novel closes with a poignant meditation on the beauty and peace of the graves:
I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and the hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth. (300)Emphasis in the spiritual world and the afterlife recalls the heretofore remised supernatural elements of the introductory chapters of the novel. With such a poignant, supernatural conclusion, the novel comes full circle, ending on a Gothic note. This can be interpreted as the conclusion that, better than any other narrative form, only the Gothic ultimately captures this inexpressible, eternal love.
In Wuthering Heights, the ways in which the genres and generations compliment, distort, and dismantle one another are complex. No one is an exact double or foil to another character; each character enhances or perverts its predecessor in some way. The plots of the two love stories can be read as oppositional ones that bring a conservative resolution to diegetic tensions. In terms of generic motifs, Wuthering Heights exhibits both a great lack and a great proliferation of literary conventions. At the end, however, the Gothic is redeemed as the rightful class to which Wuthering Heights, with all its divisive, complex attributes, belongs.
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Newsletter 74 (1988): 1-6.Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge:
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1 I will refer to the elder Catherine as Cathy and to her daughter as Catherine.