syllabus hotspot syllabus hotspot syllabus hotspot austen hotspot austen hotspot austen hotspot dickens hotspot dickens hotspot dickens hotspot dickens hotspot dickens hotspot eliot hotspot eliot hotspot eliot hotspot hardy hotspot thackeray hotspot thackeray hotspot thackeray hotspot thackeray hotspot thackeray hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot



Initially Jane Eyre was regarded as the best of the Brontë sisters' novels, a judgment which continued nearly to the end of the century. By the 1880s critics began to place Emily's achievement above Charlotte's; a major factor in this shift was Mary Robinson's book-length biography of Emily (1883). In 1926, Charles Percy Sanger worked out the chronology of Wuthering Heights by closely examining the text; though other critics have since worked out alternate chronologies, his work affirmed Emily's literary craft and meticulous planning of the novel and disproved Charlotte's presentation of her sister as an  unconscious artist who "did not know what she had done." Critics are still arguing about the structure of Wuthering Heights:  for Mark Schorer it is one of the most carefully constructed novels in English, but for Albert J. Guerard it is a splendid, imperfect novel which Brontë loses control over occasionally.

Despite the increasing critical admiration for Wuthering Heights, Lord David Cecil could write, in 1935, that Emily Brontë was not properly appreciated; even her admirers saw her as an "unequal genius." He countered this view by identifying the operation of cosmic forces as the central impetus and controlling force in the novel. He was not the first critic to perceive cosmic forces in the novel; Virginia Woolf, for one, had earlier written of Emily Brontë and her novel that 

She looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel–a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely "I love" or "I hate," but "we, the whole human race" and "you, the eternal powers..." the sentence remains unfinished.
Nevertheless, Cecil's theory that a principle of calm and storm informed the novel was a critical milestone because it provided a comprehensive interpretation which presented the novel as a unified whole. He introduced a reading which later critics have generally responded to, whether to build on or to reject. Cecil premised that, because Emily was concerned with what life means, she focused on her characters' place in the cosmos, in which everything–alive or not, intellectual or physical–was animated by one of two spiritual principles: the principle of the storm, which was harsh, ruthless, dynamic and wild, and the principle of calm, which was gentle, merciful, passive, and tame. The usual distinction between human being and nature did not exist for her; rather, for her, they were alive in the same way, an angry man and an angry sky both literally manifesting the same spiritual principle of storm. Cecil cautioned that
in spite of their apparent opposition these principles are not conflicting. Either–Emily Brontë does not make clear which she thinks–each is the expression of a different aspect of a single pervading spirit; or they are the component parts of a harmony. They may not seem so to us. The world of our experience is, on the face of it, full of discord. But that is only because in the cramped condition of their earthly incarnation these principles are diverted from following the course that their nature dictates, and get in each other's way. They are changed from positive into negative forces; the calm becomes a source of weakness, not of harmony, in the natural scheme, the storm a source not of fruitful vigour, but of disturbance. But when they are free from fleshly bonds they flow unimpeded and unconflicting; and even in this world their discords are transitory. The single principle that ultimately directs them sooner or later imposes an equilibrium....
Because these principles were neither good nor evil but just were, the novel was not concerned with moral issues and judgments; rather, it presented, in Cecil's view, a pre-moral world.

Just as Brontë resolved the usual conflict between the principles of storm and calm into equilibrium, so she resolved the traditional opposition between life and death by allowing for the immorality of the soul in life as well as in the afterlife. Cecil extrapolated, "The spiritual principle of which the soul is a manifestation is active in this life: therefore, the disembodied soul continues to be active in this life. Its ruling preoccupations remain the same after death as before." In other words, the individual's nature and passions did not end with death; rather, death allowed their free expression and fulfillment and so held the promise of peace. This was why Catherine's spirit haunted Wutheirng Heights after her death.

Cecil's theory is one of the twentieth century outpourings of interpretations trying to prove the novel had a unified structure. Surveying these myriad efforts, J. Hillis Miller challenged the assumption that the novel presents a unified, coherent, single meaning: "The secret truth about Wuthering Heights, rather, is that there is no secret truth which criticism might formulate in this way... It leaves something important still unaccounted for... The text is over-rich." He suggests that readers and critics should push their reading of or theory about the novel as far as they can, until they can face the fact that their interpretation fails to account for all the elements in the novel, that the novel is not amenable to logical interpretation or to one interpretation which accounts for the entire novel.

Perhaps F.R. Leavis penned the most quoted (most infamous?) modern interpretation of Wuthering Heights when he excluded it from the great tradition of the English novel because it was a "sport," i.e., had no meaningful connection to fiction which preceded it or influence on fiction which followed it.

Brontë: Table of Contents

Day 1

Overview of Emily Brontë
Publication of Wuthering Heights & Contemporary Critics
Later Critical response to Wuthering Heights
Film Versions of Wuthering Heights

Day 2 Themes in Wuthering Heights
The Narrator
Day 3 Wuthering Heights as Socio-Economic Novel
Psychological Interpretations of Wuthering Heights
Religion, Metaphysics, Mysticism and Wuthering Heights
The Gothic and Wuthering Heights
Romanticism and Wuthering Heights
Day 4

"I am Heathcliff"
Emily Bronte's Poetry


March 9, 2011