Blog 6, Occasional Criticism: The Culture of Britain After the Emancipation of Colonial Slaves & its Relation to Wuthering Heights

When crafting a list of primary resources for my thesis, I hesitated to include Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights due to the fact that Heathcliff, the character whom I considered to be the primary “monster” figure in this novel, is not the conventional type of monster like those depicted in the works of Frankenstein or Dracula; He is undoubtedly a human, develops and maintains a lifelong (albeit twisted) relationship with Catherine, earns the affection of women, and even manages to somewhat assimilate into Victorian society by becoming a gentleman. On the other hand, however, I felt that Heathcliff’s constant status as a “savage” outsider with unknown origins and “a bloodline [that] is unambiguously tainted by color” might enable me to better achieve my goal of viewing the concept and construction of monstrosity through a postcolonial, imperialistic lens (Sneiden 172). For this reason, in order to solidify the value of this novel for my thesis, I determined that it would be in my best interest to gain an understanding of the significance that race had in the development of societal relations and perceptions during the time period in which Heathcliff inhabited England. It is through engaging in an analysis of the culture of England surrounding foreigners, as well as a brief history of slavery in England, that I will be able to truly assess whether or not Healthcliff can be considered a “monster” figure due to his racial otherness, as well as gain a better sense of how I will define a “monster” within my thesis.

As described by Sneidern in her “Wuthering Heights and the Slave Trade,” the people of England in the late 18th and early 19th century had grown accustomed to placing a large societal emphasis on the success of the country’s slave trade and colonial endeavors. Despite the fact that the legal subjection of those of other races ended in Britain upon the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the emancipation of colonial slaves in 1834, the country’s historical focus on the conquering of peoples of other nations led to the development of a sentiment of racial superiority amongst Englishmen in which “blacks, browns, yellows, reds and non-English speaking Celts were excluded” (Sneidern 173-174). This sense of hierarchy among the English not only placed their own countrymen and race at the pinnacle of society, however, but also undermined the humanity and societal value that Englishmen associated with those of a different race. Often times, the inhabitants of nations that were colonized by England were referred to as “animals” and “savages” that required the civilizing of English intervention in order to be enlightened about the correct way of living (Brantlinger 65). Because these conquered people were almost always of a different race than that of the people of England, the predominately white population of England learned to associate a darker skin tone with a poor, bestial character and an inherent mediocrity. In this way, England’s imperial expansion and colonization of foreign nations served as the catalysts for the people of England to have “a more racist consciousness” and a sense of racial superiority over those of a darker skin color even when the “imperial mission of educating and civilizing colonial subjects in the literature and thought of England” had been achieved (Thompson 186; Viswanathan 2). Ultimately, the civilizing mission of English colonialism not only influenced Englishmen’s relationships and interactions with those of different races, but also caused those persons of different races that inhabited England to be deemed as inferiors regardless of their efforts to assimilate into British culture.

By possessing this more in-depth, historical, cultural understanding, I then used this information to further analyze Healthcliff’s position within the text of Wuthering Heights. While I struggled to find an instance in which Healthcliff was ever termed a “monster,” this cultural context encouraged me to view Heathcliff’s status as that of a hybrid: he is inwardly British due to his upbringing within the country, but is racially and physically foreign. Furthermore, even though Healthcliff recognizes himself as a citizen of England and transforms into a “well-formed,” intellectual man, his actions do not allow him to escape the post-slavery culture in Britain, causing people to always suspect that Heathcliff is an “evil beast…waiting for his time to spring and destroy” (Brontë 107). Like the monster in Frankenstein, it is this societal rejection that causes Healthcliff to eventually carry out the cruel acts that society expects of him, such as inflicting physical and emotional abuse onto his wife. In this way, I believe that I can consider Healthcliff to be a monstrous figure within Wuthering Heights by defining a monster as a figure whose carries out evil acts and who possesses an appearance, often on account of being an “other,” that instills fear in the people of England. Moving forward, I hope to utilize Wuthering Heights in tandem with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre due to the fact that both of these novels depict foreign persons in England as “monsters” that are never fully equals.

Works Cited

Brantlinger, Patrick. Taming Cannibals: Race and the Victorians. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2011. Print.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Ed. Pauline Nestor. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Sneidern, Maja-Lisa Von. “Wuthering Heights and the Liverpool Slave Trade.” ELH 62.1 (1995): 171-96. JSTOR. Web. 07 Sept. 2016.

Thompson, Andrew S. The Empire Strikes Back? The Impact of Imperialism on Britain from the Mid-nineteenth Century. Harlow, England: Pearson Longman, 2005. Print.

Viswanathan, Gauri. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. New York: Columbia UP, 1987. Print.

4 thoughts on “Blog 6, Occasional Criticism: The Culture of Britain After the Emancipation of Colonial Slaves & its Relation to Wuthering Heights”

  1. I think that, at the time of the book’s release, Healthcliff would likely have been considered a sort of monster. However, this obviously strikes the modern reader as being incredibly problematic and you could use that dynamic to great effect in your thesis, elaborating on how Healthcliff’s portrayal complicates the other monsterous portrayals you address.

  2. As you begun your analysis of Heatchliff as other, I thought it might be really helpful to point you to some of the early modern colonial narratives I studied last year. In your post, you mentioned wanting to familiarize yourself with “an analysis of the culture of England surrounding foreigners” and that’s a lot what the main text I used in my class covered. It’s called “Amazons, Savages, and Machiavels / Travel and Colonial Writing in English, 1550-1630: An Anthology” and contains loads of different excerpts from famous colonial/travel writings that seem like they could really be beneficial. You can find the anthology here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/amazons-savages-and-machiavels-9780198711865?cc=us&lang=en& (and I’m also happy to lend you my copy if you think it would be useful!) Specifically in thinking about the word “savage” to refer to Heathcliff, I might point you specifically to Michel de Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” which in my opinion does a fascinating job of complicating the construction of “savagery” and raising the question of who is truly implicated in that terminology.

  3. I think this is the beginning of a very interesting line of research and thought. I am curious to see whether you pursue an argument that traces Heathcliff’s monstrosity entirely to race, or if there turns out to be a more varied combination of traits, not all of which are defined by race. I think also that a bit of research into the etymology of some of the words you use here such as “Savagery” might enrich your understanding, or at least be interesting!

  4. Overall, very interesting blog post. I was especially intrigued when you discussed how Heathcliff was viewed by others in his society. Can you provide some specific examples of how others treated him in society? How was he talked to or was he just stared at whenever he was in public? Also what does he do to become a gentleman by the end of the story? Does he change the way he dresses or does he change the way he acts? I think as the reader I was specifically curious to hear examples of the different ways that Heathcliff was treated by others in his community.

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