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The novel opens in 1801, a date Q.D. Leavis believes Brontë chose in order "to fix its happenings at a time when the old rough farming culture, based on a naturally patriarchal family life, was to be challenged, tamed and routed by social and cultural changes; these changes produced Victorian class consciousness and ‘unnatural' ideal of gentility." In 1801 the Industrial Revolution was under way in England; when Emily Brontë was writing in 1847, it was a dominant force in English economy and society, and the traditional relationship of social classes was being disrupted by mushroom-new fortunes and an upwardly-aspiring middle class. A new standard for defining a gentleman, money, was challenging the traditional criteria of breeding and family and the more recent criterion of character. This social-economic reality provides the context for socio-economic readings of the novel.

Is Brontë supporting the status quo and upholding conventional values? Initially the answer would seem to be "no." The reader sympathizes with Heathcliff, the gypsy oppressed by a rigid class system and denigrated as "imp" or "fiend." But as Heathcliff pursues his revenge and tyrannical persecution of the innocent, the danger posed by the uncontrolled individual to the community becomes apparent. Like other novels of the 1830s and 40s which reveal the abuses of industrialism and overbearing individualism, Wuthering Heights may really suggest the necessity of preserving traditional ways.

This is not the way Marxist critics see the novel. For Arnold Kettle, the basic conflict and motive force of the novel are social in origin. He locates the source of Catherine and Heatcliff's affinity in the (class) rebellion forced on them by the injustice of Hindley and his wife Frances.

He, the outcast slummy, turns to the lively, spirited, fearless girl who alone offers him human understanding and comradeship. And she, born into the world of Wuthering Heights, senses that to achieve a full humanity, to be true to herself as a human being, she must associate herself totally with him in his rebellion against the tyranny of the Earnshaws and all that tyranny involves.
In Kettle's view, Catherine's death inverts the common standards of bourgeois morality and so has "revolutionary force." Heathcliff is morally ruthless with his brutal analysis of the significance of Catherine's choosing Edgar and her rejecting the finer humanity he represents. Despite Heathcliff's implacable revenge, we continue to sympathize with him because he is using the weapons and values (arranged marriages, accumulating money, and expropriating property) of Victorian society against those with power; his ruthlessness strips them of any romantic veneer. As a result, he, too, betrays his humanity. Through the aspirations expressed in the love of Cathy and Hareton, Heathcliff recognizes some of the quality of his love for Catherine and the unimportance of revenge and property; he thereby is enabled to regain his humanity and to achieve union with Catherine. "Wutherng Heights then," Kettle concludes, "is an expression in the imaginative terms of art of the stresses and tensions and conflicts, personal and spiritual, of nineteenth-century capitalist society."

Writing nearly twenty-five years later, Marxist Terry Eagleton posits a complex and contradictory relationship between the landed gentry and aristocracy, the traditional power-holders, and the capitalist, industrial middle classes, who were pushing for social acceptance and political power. Simultaneously with the struggle among these groups, an accommodation was developing based on economic interests. Though the landed gentry and aristocracy resisted marrying into first-generation capitalist wealth, they were willing to mix socially and to form economic alliances with the manufacturers and industrialists. The area that the Brontës lived in, the town of Haworth in West Riding, was particularly affected by these social and economic conditions because of the concentration of large estates and industrial centers in West Riding.

Proceeding from this view of mid-nineteenth century society, Eagleton sees both class struggle and class accommodation in Wutheirng Heights. Heathcliff, the outsider, has no social or biological place in the existing social structure; he offers Catherine a non-social or pre-social relationship, an escape from the conventional restrictions and material comforts of the upper classes, represented by the genteel Lintons. This relationship outside society is "the only authentic form of living in a world of exploitation and inequality." It is Heathcliff's expression of a natural non-social mode of being which gives the relationship its impersonal quality and makes the conflict one of nature versus society. Heathcliff's connection with nature is manifested in his running wild as a child and in Hindley's reducing him to a farm laborer. But Catherine's marriage and Hindley's abuse transform Heathcliff and his meaning in the social system, a transformation which reflects a reality about nature–nature is not really "outside" society because its conflicts are expressed in society.

However, Heathcliff the adult becomes a capitalist, an expropriator, and a predator, turning the ruling class's weapons of property accumulation and acquisitive marriage against them. Society's need to tame/civilize the unbridled capitalist is handled in the civilizing of Hareton. Hareton represents the yeoman class, which was being degraded. In adopting the behavior of the exploiting middle classes, Heathcliff works in common with the capitalist landowner Edgar Linton to suppress the yeoman class; having been raised in the yeoman class and having acquired his fortune outside it, he joins "spiritual forces" against the squirearchy. Thus, he represents both rapacious capitalism and the rejection of capitalist society. However, because the capitalist class is no longer revolutionary, it cannot provide expression for Heathcliff's rejection of society for a pre-social freedom from society's restraints. From this impossibility comes what Eagleton calls Heathcliff's personal tragedy: his conflictive unity consisting of spiritual rejection and social integration. Heathcliff relentlessly pursues his goal of possessing Catherine, an obsession that is unaffected by social realities. In other words, the novel does not fully succeed in reconciling or finding a way to express all Heathcliff's meanings.

Eagleton acknowledges that ultimately the values of Thrushcross Grange prevail, but that Brontë's sympathies lie with the more democratic, cozy Wuthering Heights. The capitalist victory over the yeomanry is symbolized by the displacement of Joseph's beloved currant bushes for Catherine's flowers, which are in Marxist terms "surplus value." With Heathcliff's death a richer life than that of Thrushcross Grange also dies; it may be a regrettable death–but it is a necessary death because the future requires a fusion of gentry and capitalist middle class, not continued conflict.

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


October 13, 2011