Gothic Character Paradoxes in Wuthering Heights

“[Mr. Earnshaw] died quietly in his chair one October evening, seated by the fire-side. A high wind blustered round the house, and roared in the chimney: it sounded wild and stormy, yet it was not cold, and we were all together—I, a little removed from the hearth, busy at my knitting, and Joseph reading his Bible near the table (for the servants generally sat in the house then, after their work was done). Miss Cathy had been sick, and that made her still; she leant against her father’s knee, and Heathcliff was lying on the floor with his head in her lap. I remember the master, before he fell into a doze, stroking her bonny hair—it pleased him rarely to see her gentle—and saying, “Why canst thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?” And she turned her face up to his, and laughed, and answered, “Why cannot you always be a good man, father?” But as soon as she saw him vexed again, she kissed his hand, and said she would sing him to sleep. She began singing very low, till his fingers dropped from hers, and his head sank on his breast. Then I told her to hush, and not stir, for fear she should wake him.”

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Page 30

 

In Wuthering Heights, cruelty embeds every development. Though Mary Barton dealt heavily with the exploitation and dehumanization of the working class, Wuthering Heights arguably displays much more of the darkness of the heart. Thus, when reading these incredibly complicated characters, curiosity arises on as to why, and whether they are deserving of sympathy anyway. This is most certainly true of Catherine Earnshaw. Catherine dominates much of the novel, through her literal ghost in the beginning, or even her daughter’s name. Yet, Heathcliff’s emotional damage from familial abuse and societal dehumanization provides psychological background for him, Catherine does not have equal exploration for her volatility. Partly, Ellen’s narration consistently lacks sympathy to Catherine. Ellen repeatedly cites Catherine’s selfishness, while often participating in the same judgements herself. For example, after the Linton’s visit in chapter 7, Ellen automatically thinks ill of Catherine for disregarding Heathcliff, though Ellen does little to help, either (Bronte 41).

Yet, the book does offer subtle insights into Catherine’s anger, such as in her father’s death scene. Interestingly, this scene both breaks with and conforms to Gothic conventions present in the novel’s other parts. As discussed in class and Roger Luckhurst’s introduction to Late Victorian Gothic Tales, the Gothic can be defined as exploration of “The Other” (Luckhurst 10). In Wuthering Heights, this theme can most obviously be seen in the characters. Catherine’s undying passion and Heathcliff’s mysterious origin both push them outside what is considered “normal.” Yet, the scene where they are both sitting quietly reflects a gentler attitude from Heathcliff and Cathy. However, this “normal” behavior for the expectations of a typical child comes off as strange behavior from what Cathy and Heathcliff are usually portrayed as. Still, a powerful storm rages outside, a reflection of the Gothic element of the sublime, as discussed by Bowen’s video (Bowen 6:18).  Perhaps this signals that although things may be briefly calm, the Earnshaws’ dysfunction always rages underneath.

Unsurprisingly, this silence cannot be maintained forever. When Mr. Earnshaw implicitly scolds Catherine by asking why she cannot always be good, Mr. Earnshaw displays a disregard for Catherine that could explain her behavior. This “goodness” only comes from her silence and lessened energy from illness. Only when she pushes back by questioning him as to why he cannot always be a good man that he becomes “vexed.” To Mr. Earnshaw, Cathy being a “good girl” comes in the form of her being reserved and obedient, whereas being a good man would likely have different connotations to him. After all, Mr. Earnshaw does say earlier that he “cannot love [her]” simply because of her mischief, which “made her cry….then, being repulsed continually hardened her, and she laughed….” (29 Bronte). Even on his deathbed, his last words are to chide Catherine. Still, the rest of the passage follows Catherine’s coping mechanism, while still displaying her love for her father when she tries to make up by singing to him in a “low” manner. Despite the casual cruelty Catherine displays later and earlier, this action indicates she is genuinely trying to think of others. And then, Ellen tells her to be quiet and still once more, to not bother her father further, emblematic of her entire childhood up to this point. Catherine cannot stop herself from being her mischievous self, and instead of working to understand her, the adults in her life tell her to be quiet. The world does not want to understand Catherine. Thus, it comes as little surprise she becomes an emotional storm unto herself as an adult, and as wild as the winds over the Heights.

Citation (Other edition):

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1992.

One thought on “Gothic Character Paradoxes in Wuthering Heights”

  1. This post reminds me of our discussion in class today, about the reliability of Ellen’s narration and her more-than-bystander role in the story. It’s valuable to examine the difference between Ellen’s treatment of Heathcliff as a damaged character in comparison to Catherine, as they both suffered during their childhoods. Although Heathcliff is a more stereotypical Other, the people in Catherine’s life push her to also become Other, just more subtly. This is a great example of the limits of Ellen’s narration.

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