Wuthering Heights’ Rebellion Against Social Norms

“I want to know what I should do. Today, Edgar Linton has asked me to marry him, and I have given him an answer. Now, before I tell you whether it was a consent or denial, you tell me what it ought to have been.” (49) 

I will be analyzing this quote from Wuthering Heights through the lense of Victorian social norms, and how the novel comments on and transgresses those norms. To begin with, this quote has a number of literary elements that work to create a sense of urgency and desperation on the part of Catherine in her appeal for Nelly’s advice. For example, Emily Bronte uses the repetition of the idea that there is a “correct” choice for Catherine to make when responding to Edgar’s proposal. The words “should” and “ought” show Catherine’s desire to adhere to what is considered socially correct, and her anxiety around how to judge her actions so that they fit these norms. Additionally, the phrase “consent or denial” presents a binary choice that does not allow for deliberation on Catherine’s part. She does not think that she has the option to think about a marriage proposal after receiving it, and this is due to societal expectations. In Victorian times, women were often only valued as wives and mothers, so there would have been a lot of pressure on Catherine to get married soon, especially now that she is at what was then considered an appropriate age. Therefore, so far, the passage has shown an adherence to these Victorian social norms, by illustrating Catherine’s desire to meet them as well as her perceived lack of choice in the matter. 

However, paradoxically, this passage then goes on to show a departure from these same norms, and this contributes to the ways in which the novel and its characters stray from what was generally expected. To show this, it is important to note the context in which Catherine says these words. She is talking to Nelly Dean, her family servant, and asking for her advice. Catherine is from a moderately wealthy family, as shown by the fact that they can afford to have servants. Additionally, during this time, social classes were much more rigid than they are today. This meant that there was often not a lot of interaction between servants and their employers on a personal level, including in the context of asking a servant for their advice on a crucial life decision. It can be argued that this situation does not represent a drastic defiance of social norms, because Catherine does not have many other female influences in her life, and Nelly was probably the most convenient person for her to consult. However, there is another layer to the transgression of social norms. Catherine is being quoted here by Nelly in her story to Mr. Lockwood. Given that social classes were so rigid, it would probably have been unusual for a servant to tell stories about their employers to this extent. Therefore, this passage is used as a way to show the novel’s lack of regard for these social norms.  

Given this evidence, I conclude that this passage was meant to argue that Victorian social norms are unnecessary and did not need to be observed. Between Catherine’s flagrant disregard for Nelly’s position as her servant and Nelly’s disregard for her employers’ privacy and dignity, the novel presents a clear rebellion against the norms of the time. Additionally, the story would not have happened without this disregard, so I think it is reasonable to conclude that this was Bronte’s purpose in writing. 

One thought on “Wuthering Heights’ Rebellion Against Social Norms”

  1. I think this close read is very well done! As you stated, a lot of the novel implicitly shows how many of these social distinctions are arbitrary. It could also be interpreted, therefore, that an extension of this relies on just how messed up the characters are. For example, Lockwood, Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff, and Ellen all are shown to have serious flaws within the narrative (some more serve than others), despite their differing social and gender class. Through making everyone so horrible, a strange sort of statement of equality from the novel might be interpreted.

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