Hareton: Nelly’s Definitive Proof that the English Colonialism Works

There are multiple Gothic elements at work in Chapter 19 of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which undermine the striking tranquility of  Hareton’s education. Describing Hareton’s transformation, Nelly states, “His honest, warm, intellectual nature shook off rapidly the clouds of ignorance and degradation in which it had been bred” (Brontë 323). In this passage, the key tension exists between the words “nature” and “bred.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines nature as “physical strength or constitution,” while bred means “to produce offspring” (Oxford English Dictionary Online 1b, 1a). In using these two words in such proximity, one must consider the implicit argument between birth order and eventual merit of personality. Considering that Hareton’s father, Heathcliff, was appropriated into a relatively wealthy lifestyle after his low-class birth, and the pair were kept in similar ignorance during their shared childhoods displays Heathcliff’s affinity for maintaining ignorance.  The implication of the lines is that his birth order does not impact the ability to become “civilized” by the Victorian standard. A valuable British citizen emerges as the dominant identity once Hareton is assimilated into Englishness through a British education.  

There is a clearly implicit anxiety that rises within the Victorian time period of the national “Other,” which the novel subtly expresses through extremely characteristic imagery.  Nelly emphasizes that Hareton’s ignorance was dispelled like clouds. The same imagery is used throughout the novel to describe the tumultuous and mysterious moors between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange: a threatening, liminal space full of uncertainty. Similarly, Hareton signifies a questionable entity because he has a foreign countenance and, particularly distressing, unknown origin.  This micro image of the British colonial system testifies to Roger Luckhurst’s theory that the gothic as a genre “pulses in sympathy with the rhythms of expansion and crisis in the British empire” with a distinct fear of “returning us to a savage state” (Luckhurst xiii-xiv). In this instance, Wuthering Heights is devoted to upholding the colonial doctrines of the British Empire, even if not explicitly because of the urgency and relief that accompanies Hareton’s conversion from intellectual “Other” to citizen. 

Another distinctive link that testifies to a palpable relief at the success of Catherine’s efforts toward civilization exist at the end of the passage when Nelly observes, “His brightening mind brightened his features, and added spirit and nobility to their aspects” (Brontë 323). In this moment, the distinct influence of physiognomic principles is obvious. Nelly believes she can tell that Hareton’s mind is progressing based on the increased attractiveness of his features. This implication is further complicated by the prominence of physiognomic ugliness as associated with criminality and violence across the rest of the novel. Furthermore, with his increasing intelligence, he gains nobility, a claim to a place in economic and social society, but also a spirit. This is fascinating because it reveals a distinct bias informed by religion, implying (through, and possibly misplaced in the British born Hareton) that perhaps global populations have no place in an afterlife beside good British citizens. In effect, to Nelly, a British education has quite literally saved Hareton’s soul.

One thought on “Hareton: Nelly’s Definitive Proof that the English Colonialism Works”

  1. I like how you reframe Nelly’s comments about Hareton in the context of colonialism. This makes me think about the differences between Hareton and Linton. Hareton has both English parents, yet his upbringing and the influence of Heathcliff make him act more like the Other or at least a member of a lower class. Meanwhile, Linton is Heathcliff’s biological son and has not interacted with him until his mother dies. Hence, it seems that the novel shows the nurture or English upbringing is more important than the bloodline or the nature. Interestingly, Linton is also described to not look like his father at all when Nelly first meets him. This also seems to add to your point about Nelly’s physiognomic biases.

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