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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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