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The Romantic Novel
Romanticism and the Brontës
Romantic Elements in Wuthering Height


Robert Kiely raises the question, in The Romantic Novel in England, Is there actually an English romantic novel? He skirts answering his own question by suggesting that some novels are influenced by Romanticism and incorporate the same style and themes that appear in Romantic poetry and drama. In his discussion, the term romantic novel is often equated with the romance, with the Gothic novel, and with the romantic elements in a novel. Kiely regards Wuthering Heights as a model of romantic fiction; it contains these romantic/Gothic elements which charterize the romantic novel:

  • The dynamic antagonism or antithesis in the novel tends to subvert, if not to reject literary conventions; often a novel verges on turning into something else, like poetry or drama. In Wuthering Heights, realism in presenting Yorkshire landscape and life and the historical precision of season, dates, and hours co-exist with the dreamlike and the unhistorical; Brontë refuses to be confined by conventional classifications.

  • The protagonists' wanderings are motivated by flight from previously-chosen goals, so that often there is a pattern of escape and pursuit. Consider Catherine's marriage for social position, stability, and wealth, her efforts to evade the consequences of her marriage, the demands of Heathcliff and Edgar, and her final mental wandering.

  • The protagonists are driven by irresistible passion–lust, curiosity, ambition, intellectual pride, envy. The emphasis is on their desire for transcendence, to overcome the limitations of the body, of society, of time rather than their moral transgressions. They yearn to escape the limitations inherent to life and may find that the only escape is death. The longings of a Heathcliff cannot be fulfilled in life.

  • Death is not only a literal happening or plot device, but also and primarily a psychological concern. For the protagonists, death originates in the imagination, becomes a "tendency of mind," and may develop into an obsession.

  • As in Gothic fiction, buildings are central to meaning; the supernatural, wild nature, dream and madness, physical violence, and perverse sexuality are set off against social conventions and institutions. Initially, this may create the impression that the novel is two books in one, but finally Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights fuse.

  • Endings are disquieting and unsatisfactory because the writer resists a definitive conclusion, one which accounts for all loose ends and explains away any ambiguities or uncertainties. The preference for open-endedness is, ultimately, an effort to resist the limits of time and of place That effort helps explain the importance of dreams and memories of other times and location, like Catherine's delirious memories of childhood at Wuthering Heights and rambles on the moors.

Romanticism, the literary movement traditionally dated 1798 to 1832 in England, affected all the arts through the nineteenth century. The Brontës were familiar with the writings of the major romantic poets and the novels of Sir Walter Scott. When Charlotte Brontë, for instance, wanted an evaluation of her writing, she sent a sample to the romantic poet Southey. The romantic elements in the Brontës' writings are obvious. Walter Pater saw in Wuthering Heights the characteristic spirit of romanticism, particularly in "the figures of Hareton Earnshaw, of Catherine Linton, and of Heathcliff–tearing open Catherine's grave, removing one side of her coffin, that he may really lie beside her in death–figures so passionate, yet woven on a background of delicately beautiful, moorland scenery, being typical examples of that spirit."

As the details of their lives became generally known and as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights received increasingly favorable critical attention, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were cast in the role of Romantic Rebels. Contributing to the Romantic Rebels Myth was the association of Romanticism and early death; Shelley having died at 29, Byron at 36, and Keats at 24. Branwell died at the age of 31, Emily at 30, and Anne at 29; to add to the emotional impact, Branwell, Emily, and Anne died in the space of nine months. The Romantic predilection for early death appears in Wuthering Heights; Linton is 17 when he dies; Catherine, 18; Hindley, 27; Isabella, 31; Edgar, 39; Heathcliff, perhaps 37 or 38.

The major characteristics of Romanticism could be extrapolated from a reading of Wuthering Heights:

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 24, 2005