Lessons From a Bastard in Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”

The Victorian Era was a time of change across all aspects of society. As working conditions began to improve, so did room for literacy. According to Richard Altick, the forms of the novel which emerged in the Victorian Era catered to the increasingly literate working class with one, key caveat—The “reading matter had to be devoid of all but the most familiar literary and historical allusions” (Altick 61). These narratives communicated a simplicity and coalesced into a “many-voicedness” which allowed “the several classes [to come to] a certain understanding of one another’s positions in the fluid state of society” (Altick 72). Although I hold some reservations concerning his tone towards the working class, Altick’s broader point that the contemporary literature communicated ideas in simple and familiar terms provides a lens for reading Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”. If ideas were blunt and instructive about class standings, then where does that leave a bastard like Heathcliff?

That bastard is selfish, cruel, and unforgiving. The caretaker, Nelly, describes Heathcliff in the following words:

“He has nobody knows what money, and every year it increases. Yes, yes, he’s richer to live in a finer house than this; but he’s very near—close-handed; and, if he had meant to flit to Thrushcross Grange, he could not have borne to miss the chance of getting a few hundreds more. It is strange people should be so greedy, when they are alone in this world” (Bronte 34)

While Nelly reveals to Lockwood the vast wealth Heathcliff has acquired, she includes mention that this fortune is tainted by its excess. Since his expansion into Thrushcross Grange would only [emphasis added] produce “a few hundreds more,” he is greedy. In fact, Nelly puts the whole of Heathcliff’s standing under fire. Since Heathcliff does not renovate his house, he is “near.” Without family, he is “alone,” which only adds to making him more cheap and more greedy. All of these criticisms compound to reconcile the achievement in her first statement. Heathcliff does well in society, but Heathcliff doing well does not conform with the image of the Bastard.

Being alone from a family restricts Heathcliff and taints how others see both his success and failures. If we assume the blunt image of the Bastard, as a conniving, evil bastard, then Heathcliff makes a fine villain. However, if we assume the blunt messaging reveals “a certain understanding of one another’s positions” (Altick 61), then Heathcliff unravels into a rich commentary about Victorian prejudices and rigidity. Nelly accurately points out that Heathcliff is “alone” (Bronte 34), but his loneliness is not of his sole doing. Heathcliff endured abandonment to reach his position, but despite his acquisition of status, he goes unrecognized and remains disconnected. “Wuthering Heights” is a tragic depiction of neglect in society, the indifferent cruelty of others, and the continual suffering that prejudice produces. The Bastard, while a blunt literary image, works here as a lesson against such discrimination. At all levels of society, hate breeds hate, and resentment breeds sufferings.


Words Cited

Altick, Richard D. “The Power of the Press.” Victorians: Actors and Audience, Norton, 1973, pp 64-72.

Altick, Richard D. “The Reading Public.” Victorians: Actors and Audience, Norton, 1973, pp 59-64.

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Penguin Random House, 2003.

One thought on “Lessons From a Bastard in Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights””

  1. I like your analysis of how Bronte’s portrayal of Heathcliff shows a critique on Victorian social norms. I made a similar point in my post about how the portrayal of Nelly’s relationship with Catherine and he daughter also serves to critique and rebel against Victorian social norms. In both cases, Nelly and Heathcliff have more power than their stations should allow, but they are still subject to unfair Victorian norms. Nelly has the unusual power of being both an advisor to her employers while also being the one to shape the reader’s understanding of them. However, she remains beneath them socially. Heathcliff is a bastard but still manages to inherit enormous wealth and still demand more. Contrastingly, he cannot gain the favor of others, partly due to his station in life.

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