Wuthering Heights and its Many Genres

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is one of the most recognisable titles in English literature. The cult classic, staged against the backdrop of the wild Yorkshire moors, explores the love, hate, passion, and revenge of two neighbouring families.

Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights was Emily Bronte’s only published novel.

First published in 1847, the novel continues to be devoured by avid bookworms, closely scrutinised by English majors, and remains a staple of high school English curricula. However, there remains a question that has been continually argued, considered, and debated, offering no definitive answer. That is, what is the novel’s genre? An analysis of the famous novel presents several possibilities.


Romanticism

Wuthering Heights is considered to have been a product of the Romantic movement (note, the capital R).

The period between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe has retrospectively been labelled the ‘Romantic Era.’ This movement of Romanticism refers not to love, but rather, a celebration of art, the natural world, and finding beauty in the everyday aspects of life. These elements were common throughout the literature published at the time.

The literature of this period was dominated by male poets. The movement gave rise to names such as William Wordsworth or John Keats, poets which are popular even today. However, it was during this period that, for the first time in history, there were more female writers than male. Emily Bronte being among them.

Having published Romantic poetry herself, it is no surprise that aspects of Romanticism found a place in Bronte’s novel, Wuthering Heights. While Romanticism is not a genre, the movement had an influence on the way Bronte’s story was told.

This is evident in the novel’s tendency to stop and admire nature. Bronte uses Romantic imagery to set many scenes. The descriptions of nature are celebratory, and inanimate objects are often personified. When describing the natural world, it also tends to be sensory, describing sound or smell, not merely relying upon sight.

“I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass.”

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, Volume II, Chapter XX.

Bronte depicts lovely scenes of “garden trees, and the wild green park.” She suggests that the windows have “displayed” this natural world, likening it to an art display.

Several characters, including Catherine Earnshaw or Mr. Lockwood, express delight at being removed from society and surrounded by nature. For Catherine, she longs to be in the wild and untamed environment. In Wuthering Heights, being outside is frequently symbolic of freedom. These ideas are Romantic, allowing Bronte’s novel to fit within this movement.

Wuthering Heights Artwork
Wuthering Heights, by LeonNack.

Bildungsroman

Emily Bronte’s famous novel demonstrates characteristics of the Bildungsroman genre. This is also known as a coming-of-age story. For a story to be categorised as a Bildungsroman, it usually follows a familiar plot-line. The young protagonist in this kind of story will often spend time away from home. In this time, they will grow, learn, or mature. Perhaps they will have to grapple with an important aspect of their identity. Ultimately, however, their past will shape the person they become. This can be observed in two of the novel’s central characters, Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff.

An injury forces the young Catherine Earnshaw to be away from home for five weeks. During this exile, she undergoes a personal transformation. No longer recognisable as the “hatless little savage” she once was, Catherine matures to become a perfect example of the quintessential, respectable English woman.

Before her estrangement from Heathcliff, the pair were inseparable. However, her time away, and the influence of those she is living with, allows her to see her former friend the way those around her do.

“If the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now.”

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, Volume I, Chapter IX.

Heathcliff’s overhearing of this statement provides the catalyst for his ensuing anger and revenge.

Heathcliff also spends a period of time away from his home. The destination of this absence, a stint in the army, is only alluded to. However, he returns to Wuthering Heights looking “intelligent, and retained no marks of former degradation.” So changed is Heathcliff, that to those who formerly dismissed him, he appears suddenly worthy of his place in the honourable home. Though he is now worthy of Catherine, she does not receive him as he had hoped. He is left heartbroken and furious.

The lives of both protagonists are shaped by these events. Without both crucial plot points, Wuthering Heights would, perhaps, have concluded very differently.

Gothic Fiction

The gloom of Gothic

The Gothic genre first appeared in the mid-eighteenth century. It is defined by its gloomy scenes, supernatural beings, and shrieking heroines. Since its inception, the Gothic genre has dominated the literary scene and popular culture, more broadly.

Wuthering Heights displays several characteristics of the Gothic genre. The location of Heathcliff’s home, Wuthering Heights, is given a Gothic description. The area is subject to “atmospheric tumult” and frequent “stormy weather.” Rather than the Romanticised scenes otherwise depicted, Wuthering Heights is described less beautifully. It is surrounded by “stunted firs” and “a range of gaunt thorns.” These scenes are abrasive, rather than inviting. The darkness and the dangerous weather aim to unsettle characters and readers alike. This is common throughout the genre.

The novel also depicts elements of the supernatural, a popular Gothic trope. Early in the novel, Mr. Lockwood, a visitor to Wuthering Heights, is horrified by the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw at his window.

“I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window–Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes.”

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, Volume I, Chapter III.

Both the gore and the ghost of this scene work together to paint a terrifying and unsettling picture, worthy of any Gothic novel.

Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights, by kelleybean86.

In Gothic literature, especially in the earliest iterations of the genre, women are commonly the victims. Isabella Linton falls prey to the tyrannical power of Heathcliff. She is tricked into marrying him. This leaves her imprisoned, by law, to abide by the man who now treats her poorly. She pleads with her confidant to “explain…what I have married.” She likens him to the Devil. This marriage, true to Gothic form, leaves her longing for death.

Heathcliff is unashamed in his efforts to use the women, and occasionally men, in his life for his own malicious gain. To Nelly, the narrator, he states, “I must either persuade or compel you to aid me in fulfilling my determination to see Catherine.” Nelly occupies the position of innocent bystander within the novel. Preying upon her makes Heathcliff appear deeply villainous.

Fit for the Gothic genre, characters are continually on edge, anticipating the tyrant’s next moves. This anxiety is only fuelled by the menacing appearance described in their location.

Romance

Often heralded as the greatest love story in history, Wuthering Heights is commonly categorised as a romance novel. Arguably, more so than any other genre. This is justified in that the love shared between Catherine and Heathcliff is central to the story-line. In fact, many of the novel’s darker aspects arise from the thwarted love of this couple.

Bronte’s novel has provided hopeless romantics with some of the most iconic pronouncements of deep love.

“He shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, Volume I, Chapter IX.
Wuthering Heights Book Cover
Judge a book by its cover?
Wuthering Heights has been given a large array of covers over the years. The differences in what is emphasised by the covers suggest the conflicting ideas about its genre. This one appears Romantic with an element of romance.

The lovers are separated in life, but in true romance (and Gothic) fashion, they remain together forever, in death. Heathcliff has the adjoining wall of both his and Catherine’s graves removed, so that the lovers can be together eternally. Heathcliff expresses his wish of “dissolving with her, and being more happy still!” This is their happy ending.

The relationship between Edgar Linton and Catherine Earnshaw demonstrates a popular aspect of the genre, unrequited love. Edgar loves Catherine, evident in his sadness for her, both on her deathbed, and after her passing. However, Catherine does not feel the same. After describing a dream where she is thrown out of heaven, she admits to having “no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven.” She marries him, as it is socially desirable for their families to be combined. However, she is tormented by her lack of love for her husband.

Wuthering Heights does offer readers a more traditional happily-ever-after, though. At the novel’s conclusion, Catherine Linton marries Hareton Earnshaw, her true love. She empowers him, teaching him to read after he was deliberately kept illiterate by Heathcliff. It is said that “together, they would brave Satan and all his legions.”

This neat and tidy conclusion occurs after the tribulations of relationships that are not happy. This is characteristic of novels in the romance genre.

Tragedy

Wuthering Heights is also considered a tragedy. More specifically, a revenge tragedy. The story contains many scenes of death and suffering. Eleven of the thirteen main characters are deceased by the novel’s conclusion. Many of these deaths are sudden or premature.

The passing away of key characters is often untimely and saddening. Catherine Earnshaw passed away two hours after giving birth to her only daughter. This daughter, also named Catherine, was pushed aside amidst the mourning of her family. Edgar Linton’s grief for the passing of his wife is deeply saddening.

“His bereavement is a subject too painful to be dwelt on; its after effects showed how deep the sorrow sunk.”

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, Volume II, Chapter II.
Wuthering Heights Heathcliff
Heathcliff in the 1992 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights, directed by Peter Kosminsky.

The novel is premised on the scorned Heathcliff’s revenge upon those who have mistreated him. For several characters, he destroys both their will to live, and their quality of life. While married to Heathcliff, Isabella expresses in a letter to her confidant that, “the single pleasure I can imagine is to die.” Catherine Linton, Hareton Earnshaw, Edgar Linton, and most of the novel’s other central characters, are all forced to suffer continually.

Heathcliff’s own son, Linton, is not spared. He is forced to marry his cousin, Catherine Linton, and both are powerless to resist. This is a key strategy for Heathcliff. Rather than think of his son’s happiness, he leaves him miserable in order to secure his wealth. The pair live unhappy lives together, true to the tragedy genre. This is only ended by Linton’s death, at the tender age of seventeen. These characters, among many others, are forced to deeply suffer, as the characters of tragedies often do.

Finally, the tragedy genre also usually offers a sense of catharsis, or a release from strong emotions, for its characters. By the novel’s conclusion, the last remaining characters are provided with this catharsis in the eventual death of their tyrant, Heathcliff. The novel concludes, then, with the acknowledgement of Heathcliff’s grave, “still bare” from being so recent. The happily-ever-after is only possible in his absence.


The Correct Answer?

There may be good reason that the genre question is yet to be definitively answered. The correct answer, simply, is all of them. How a reader chooses to define this text, which aspects they wish to emphasise, will decide its genre. Earlier literature, the works of Shakespeare, for example, were often strict in adhering to the conventions of a specific genre. However, it was not uncommon during Bronte’s time to experiment with these conventions. Perhaps the popularity of Wuthering Heights over the last two centuries can be attributed to its broad categorisation. The famous novel offers a genre for everyone.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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57 Comments

  1. Dr. Vishnu Unnithan

    The Bronte sisters were truly a tour de force in the field of literature setting standards that proved difficult to match.
    Wuthering Heights is indeed a masterpiece. The novel always leaves me mesmerised. Wonderful article examining a delightful literary potpourri.

  2. Very interesting. I’ve never read Wuthering Heights – and probably never will, not being a huge fan of tragic or romantic novels (though the latter I will be more willing to read – but it’s nice to learn more about it. Especially because my sister read it and liked it.

  3. K4TE
    1

    Reading this book reminded me of something Charlotte wrote in Jane Eyre: “… as I stooped to pick up the two fragments of slate, I rallied my forces for the worst. It came.” Every time I turned a page of Wuthering Heights, I similarly braced myself for the worst, and it usually came.

    • Samantha Leersen

      Ooh I love that! That’s something I always enjoyed about it, the first time I read it, I truly had no idea what was going to happen next.

  4. Lewis
    1

    Such an odd book. I have only read it once and yet every detail lingers. I loved her poems.

  5. Vance
    0

    Perfect analysis. I love this novel, it truly woke me to literature. The first thing to say is that it is not a romance, but explorative of two different England’s and their vices disturbed by a dark foreigner, an outsider man who is completely amoral.

    • Samantha Leersen

      I tend to agree with it not being romance. While I understand why many believe it so, I don’t think I’d personally call it a romance novel.

      • Cortez
        1

        I agree, it’s not a romance. It’s about possession and manipulation and the suffocating world of two families through two generations.

        This book wasn’t on my school reading list, and I only read it for the first time in my very adult fifties, along with other classics I’d always meant to read when retirement gave me the time. I’ve read it again recently, and probably will again in the future. The writing is powerful, and I often wonder what else Emily could have written had she not died at such a young age. My thoughts on why the character names are repeated is that history tragically seems to be repeated, with people learning nothing from the past.

    • Beatriz
      1

      Yes, strange that it is classified as a romance, in the same way that Romeo and Juliet still is. Neither are about love at all, although both clearly revolve around main characters in their early to mid-teens.

      In fact, Romeo and Juliet begins with Romeo’s parents worrying about how much time he was spending sulking in his bedroom, refusing to come down and be part of the family – plus ça change…
      I’ve always read it as more concerned with binaries – primal v propriety, childhood v adulthood, emotion v science and reason, pastoral v industrial.

      I feel this article makes the novel justice.

  6. Tripp
    1

    I do enjoy Wuthering Heights and don’t find its tone as pessimistic as some people would have it (probably because a lot of the adaptations only do the first half of the novel). I love a gothic melodrama.

    • Almeta
      0

      How on earth can you enjoy sadism? It is a horrible childish book.

      • AsherPEAK
        0

        You are so right. So many classics are disgusting. I mean look at half of Shakespeare or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or that blood soak Aeschylus. The Odyssey, how could anyone tolerate that end? Don’t get me started on that gore fest The Iliad.

        Sickening! Completely sickening!

  7. Nada
    0

    From the first moment I read this book when I was 12, I hated it. It is sadistic, cruel and repellant. Why it appeals must say something abhorrent about human nature. Dreadful, childish bodice ripper.

    There is nothing attractive about Heathcliff. He is a monster and today would go straight to jail. To me then and now the heroine is Isabella who is an abused woman if ever there was one and had the courage to get out. To leave an abusive husband in Victorian times was a brave thing to do.

    • LORDD
      1

      Can I ask a simple question. Are you acquainted with recent history? The Holocaust? The Cultural Revolution? Stalin’s purges? Of the French terror in the name of ideological change? Of the recent horrors in the deep south? Of Abu Graib? Guantanamo? Rendition?

      Are you at all acquainted with the human potential for evil and how even ordinary, normally fairly innocent people can get drawn into it? About what great works of art say as a warning?

      Are you even slightly aware of the pale but real similarities with say a Cultural Revolution about aggressively attacking the name of a young woman of the 19th C for “not being one of us in the 21st C” and like a Red Guard insulting her as “childish” and “immature” for characterising what otherwise remains hidden about the potential for inner rage?

      If you air brush the past how can you learn from it as you hint at inching into a puritan utopia which as we know from history usually ends up as dystopia?

      You seem to be getting art mixed with sociology. Sociology analyses society, for example describing recent history as patriarchal, then it can urge social improvement and reform towards an ideal. Art serves a different function. To uncover, to reveal, to examine and fullest extent of human potential for good or bad or nuanced subtlety. Art is a mirror of not only our surface manifestation, but inner potencies for good or ill yet unrealised, in a sense it is Manichean, how can there be light without dark? How warm without cold?

      If that is no longer an acceptable thing to say, then truly I belong in a museum filed under unknown mass and I failed to cross the new fault line.

    • Braden
      0

      Heathcliff is supposed to be horrible.

  8. Sherrill
    0

    ‘Wuthering Heights’ is an earlier ’50 Shades of Grey’, a young girl’s sexual fantasy. I studied it at university, and re-read it a couple of years back to find that my opinion unchanged: it is upmarket Chick Lit. Now Charlotte Brontë, there is a great writer. I have read ‘Jane Eyre’ six or seven times and I still think it is one of the world’s best novels.

    • Samantha Leersen

      Jane Eyre has always been a favourite of mine too! (And, yes, I do prefer it to Wuthering Heights).

    • Xavier
      1

      It’s actually an antidote to romantic fantasy. People who come to the book expecting a great romance are in for a shock. I still cherish the comment of one of my students: “I never thought Heathcliff would be such a dick.”

    • zake
      0

      ‘Chick lit’? ‘A young girl’s sexual fantasy’? Condescending, much?

  9. rose
    1

    Great post. I found Wuthering Heights lyrical and interesting.

  10. Sean Gadus

    I have had a desire to reread Wuthering Heights over the last year and this article was a great incentive to finally do it. I have enjoyed books written by all three Brontë sisters. All three have contributed excellent and intriguing books to the world.

  11. Zepeda
    1

    Wuthering Heights is a masterpiece, despite its numerous offences and flaws. In fact, in part because of those flaws.

    • Noemi
      1

      Quite right, it’s a wonderful book full of suspense and tension. The lives of the sisters are interesting but I read the novels for escapism not current feminist political theory.

  12. Levineer
    0

    It’s one of the most extraordinary novels in the english language – utterly original, dark, disturbing, shocking, haunting. Violent Obsessions, destructive passions and unbridled sensuality crash into victorian morality and manners – its genius.

  13. Beverly Watson
    1

    My preference is for Villette over Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

    • Larry
      0

      That was always my opinion – but the anti-catholic stuff is so off-putting towards the end. Its certainly the most interesting.

  14. Jonathan
    1

    Having ploughed through Wuthering Heights after two attempts I found it utterly tiresome. I love classic novels and have no problem reading Dickens or Trollope, but I hated everything about it.

    • gert
      0

      Probably not a coincidence, most people I know, like me, who despise Dickens, adore Wuthering Heights. It depends on if you like stories about simpering middle class heroes been rewarded for a virtue or completely unvirtuous characters lustily attempting to possess each other on the moors…

  15. Stephanie M.

    Nice work! I never thought of Wuthering Heights as a bildungsroman novel before, so thanks for the info. Also, I’m a big Jane Eyre fan and would love to see you or someone else give that novel a similar treatment. According to your article, there are definitely some bildungsroman elements there, as well as romance. It might also fit into other genres or subtypes.

    • Samantha Leersen

      Oh definitely! Jane Eyre fits more within the Bildungsroman than Wuthering Heights does I would say. Jane Eyre also has it’s elements of Gothic (the red room is a perfect example). I think that would be an interesting way to approach that novel also!

  16. Stephanie M.

    I think Bertha Mason might push Jane Eyre into a borderline psychological thriller category? I’d even argue for horror, or maybe even religious novel.

    • Samantha Leersen

      I totally agree, I think you could make the case for any of the above with Jane Eyre!
      Perhaps a stretch, but when looking at aspects of Charlotte Bronte’s personal life, it could also be argued as a partly semi-autobiographical novel too.

  17. Stephanie M.

    I don’t think that’s a huge stretch. Check out Syrie James’ autobiographical novel of Charlotte and you’ll see what I mean.

  18. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay, enjoyable.

  19. Haroldie
    1

    Very interesting article. It has given me some background information before I tackle Wuthering Heights. It’s on my list of 100 Novels to read.

    I am currently wading through the dense prose of Henry James The Wings of the Dove….slow going.

    • Samantha Leersen

      I can’t say I’m familiar with Henry James, but I do recommend reading Wuthering Heights, even if only once. If it helps, its a fairly accessible read (at least in my experience). It’s relatively short and the plot moves quickly!

    • Longish
      1

      Try “Portrait of a Lady”. It’s by Henry James and also thrillingly readable, an uncommon combination.

  20. zemaaa
    1

    I think it’s a novel of genius but I’ve never read it as a love story. There’s precious little love in it as far as I can see, at least not between Cathy & Heathcliff, (maybe later on between Catherine & Hareton ) obsession yes, but not love. There seems to be a wilful misreading of Heathcliff as a hero when he’s clearly shown as a monster, a psychopath, pitiless & cruel to the core & of Cathy as a headstrong & tragic heroine when she’s actually self-absorbed, selfish & narcissistic . There are very few characters in the novel who are likeable but that doesn’t make it a bad novel.

  21. Amyus

    Not a book for the weak-minded snowflake, by the sound of it, but thank you for the fascinating article.

  22. You do a good job of analyzing the different genre conventions of Wuthering Heights. I’m particularly interested in the fact that, although Catherine and Heathcliff are supposed to love each other, their love is never physically consummated and they can only be together in death. I feel like that in and of itself is a genre convention of romanticism: the idea that the most pure and perfect love is that which is not acted upon and exists entirely in the spiritual realm.

  23. kira
    1

    I have never liked or enjoyed ‘Wuthering Heights’. But that is mere subjective response, and I don’t have the literary education to deconstruct the work beyond saying I just disliked every character and had a miserable time in their company. That’s my problem, not the novel’s.

    • Samantha Leersen

      I understand that response completely, it seems a common one!! It’s definitely not for everyone. I agree with you in part though, the novel has no likeable characters whatsoever, but that’s part of why I like it, I think.

  24. mort
    1

    I first read it as a student and didn’t like it one little bit; then read it again (and again) in later life and it was an absolute revelation, so perhaps it’s a novel better appreciated in maturity. For me, her genius lies in the superb engineering of a long and completely batty plot to make it just one step away from believable.

  25. Sharon
    2

    As a teenager I liked the idea of Wuthering Heights but didn’t finish reading the whole novel. Second attempt was forced by a book group in middle age. We were all surprised to be repulsed by Heathcliff, who had seemed an attractive prospect when we were younger. I still have grudging respect for Emily Brontë.

  26. I’ve found the fusing of the genres to be a perfect one.

  27. whiter
    1

    I’ve never read Wuthering Heights or any Bronte for that matter. Heading to the library now! 😉

  28. tims
    1

    Anne is the best writer of the sisters. Brilliant, concise, elegant prose…

    • Louise
      0

      You forget that these three writers also wrote poetry, and that EJB’s poetry is recognised as the more acclaimed of the three. Or doesn’t poetry count as “writing”?

  29. Annie
    1

    I found both Catherine & Heathcliff very ulikeable with the latter being particularly cruel. However a book cannot stand the test of time or inspire so many without having value even if I didn’t ”get it”.

    • Samantha Leersen

      That’s certainly how I see it, the same with other classics that I personally don’t ‘get’. There must be something about it worth preserving for over a hundred years!

  30. h0mer
    1

    Reading Wuthering Heights at school for O level, I remember how this novel was so striking for its passionate intensity, a forewarning that love could be both deliriously exciting and agonising.

  31. Joyce
    1

    This is a great article on a great novel. Thanks.

  32. You summed this book up pretty well.

  33. Bailey
    1

    I had the same experience with King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello.

  34. ohnny Hill
    1

    I liked the Merle Oberon portrayal of Cathy.

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