The Power of Women in Wuthering Heights

In the “Gothic motifs” video, John Bowen states that “at the heart of Gothic fiction is the question of power.” And it is clear that women in Wuthering Heights have little control or power over their life, no matter how strong headed or upper-class they are. Mrs. Earnshaw cannot do anything about her husband deciding to adopt Heathcliff. Catherine Earnshaw still decides to marry Edgar Linton despite her love for Heathcliff because it is the “right” thing for a young woman like her to do. Isabella Linton stays with Heathcliff for awhile after finding out how horrible he is, until she runs away after a violence confrontation between Heathcliff and Hindley and lives in London alone with her child until her death, playing straight with the theme of power and women mentioned by Bowen.

Yet, women in Wuthering Heights also seem to hold some sort of power over the men in their lives. Mrs. Earnshaw’s death starts Hindley’s spiral in hatred toward Heathcliff. Frances Earnshaw’s death marks the ruin of the Earnshaw’s household. Catherine’s death not only makes Edgar into a hermit, resulting in the younger Catherine’s innocence and unawareness around her family situation, but also drives Heathcliff to be more determined to enact his revenge on the living.

However, Catherine is shown to have more power over men than just through her death. In chapter XI of volume I, after the confrontation between Edgar and Heathcliff, Catherine tells Nelly that “if [she] cannot keep Heathcliff for [her] friend – if Edgar will be mean and jealous, [she]’ll try to break their hearts by breaking [her] own” (116) and how she is aware that Edgar “has been discreet in dreading to provoke” her (117). Her statements show that she is aware of the power she holds over Heathcliff and Edgar. She knows that if she is miserable, they will be too, thus, making them more incline to let her do what she wants. While it does not always work, it still makes them think twice when they know that are about to do something that will upset her. Moreover, Catherine also states that breaking her own heart is “a deed to be reserved for a forlorn hope” and she would not take Edgar by surprise by doing so (116-117). For her, breaking her own heart is a last-ditch effort to gain power and punish the men that push her into the corner with their behaviors. And by not wanting Edgar to be surprise when she does so, Catherine seems to want the men to know that it is them that push her to do this act.

In conclusion, I think that Catherine uses her rage and emotional outbursts as a way to gain control and power over the men in her life, especially Heathcliff and Edgar. And she ultimately triumphs over them in her death, as her grave is not in the chapel nor in any household graveyard but on a hill by the moor (170), where she is free from the institution and society that create many of her sufferings.

One thought on “The Power of Women in Wuthering Heights”

  1. I really like your analysis of women’s power, and you idea that although women in the novel seemingly don’t have much power or control over their lives, they still manage to have some influence. It reminds me of a discussion we had in class about how having Nelly as the intermediate narrator skews the reader’s perception of Catherine. We only learn about the events of the story from Nelly’s perspective, and Nelly is clearly biased against Catherine. She portrays Catherine as evil and having a desire to hurt others for no reason. However, a closer reading of the story shows how she grew up in a very unstable home environment with abusive family and how that likely contributed to her tendency to be on the attack. Furthermore, Nelly seems almost resentful of everything that Catherine has, repeatedly telling both her and her daughter that they have an extremely easy life. In this way, although Nelly does not have control over her life in the sense that she must remain a servant and does not have the opportunity to change her station, she still is the sole narrator and thus has a lot of power to influence Mr. Lockwood’s and the reader’s opinions of Catherine.

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