Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

Topic: Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights: Author’s Background, Background to the Work and Synopsis.

Author’s Background

Emily Brontë was an English novelist and poet born on 30th July 1818 and lived until 19th December 1848. She was 30 years old at the time of her death. Her mother was by name Maria Branwell. Her father, an Irish man, Patrick Bronte, was a teacher and curate (pastor) of the Anglican Church. It should be noted that Emily’s story is hardly inseparable from that of her siblings, especially her two other surviving sisters, Anne and Charlotte, who are normally known as the Bronte sisters. Branwell Bronte was her brother. He was said to be an alcoholic and an opium addict, whose death in 1848 must have broken Emily’s will to live.

The Bronte family lived in the village of Thornton, Bradford, Northern England, which explains the Yorkshire dialect used by characters like Joseph and Hareton in the novel Wuthering Heights. The family later moved to the village of Haworth in the city of Bradford, West Yorkshire, prompted by Mr Bronte’s employment as a curate. It is during their stay at Haworth that Emily develops her literary potentials, alongside the other sisters.

Her mother Maria suddenly died of cancer in 1821 leaving the young children in the care of her sister Elizabeth Branwell. The sisters attended Clergy Daughters’ School located at Cowan Bridge, where they were abused and denied of qualitative care. This brought about their ill health that eventually forced them to leave school after a disease outbreak. Elizabeth’s death is not unconnected with the poor conditions they encountered in that school. The ugly experiences the children faced in school would later form and inspire parts of the Lowood scenes in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The three remaining sisters, Anne, Charlotte and Emily were educated at home, including Branwell, the brother. The children had access to a large collection of quality books, which compensated for their lack of formal education.

Emily is described as shy and reserved. She was well known for her love for animals. She befriended stray dogs in the neighbourhood. The children soon started writing their stories which were inspired by the toy soldiers his father gifted them. The stories were set in an imaginary world known as Angria. The setting for the story would later be shifted to Gondal, an imaginary island. Emily once joined her sister at Roe Head Girls’ School, where Charlotte was a teacher, but soon had to leave due to homesickness. The sisters also aimed to establish their own school.

In 1838, at age 20, Emily became a teacher at the Law Hill School but she soon had to leave the post when her health suffered due to work stress. She returns home where she engages in domestic work and self-education. In 1842, Emily and Charlotte travelled to Brussels (Belgium) to study to perfect their French preparatory to opening their own school. They eventually attempted to open their own school but were unable to attract enough students to sustain it.

The sisters soon discovered that they had been writing poems secretly. They eventually decided to have these poems published in 1846 in a collection entitled Poems by Currier, Ellis and Acton Bell. They sisters adopted masculine first names to escape the social prejudices against women’s ability that were prevalent in their time. Thus Charlotte went by the pen name Currier, Anne went by Acton while Emily’s pen name was Ellis.

Wuthering Heights was published in 1847. It is Emily Bronte’s best known work which has been considered a classic; the best of its kind and timeless. Emily died the year following the publication of Wuthering Heights.

Background to the Novel

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was published at a time in English history known as the Victorian period. The Victorian period spanned 1837 and 1901. However, it should be noted that the setting of the novel is actually based on the sensibilities of an earlier age in English history known as the Romantic period. Of course, there are points of overlap between the two periods in a number of instances so that the novel can be said to be a fusion of the ideals of the two ages.

The Romantic period began in 1798, brought about by the ideals of the French Revolution which occurred in 1789, when the peasants or the common people took up arms against their rulers. Thus, for the first time in human history common people became very important as well as all that was ever thought to be lowly, bad or ugly, including animals and peoples of other races. Perhaps, this is the best way to explain the presence of Heathcliff in the novel, considering his strange origins. Romantic works also glorified nature and the natural environment which is depicted as beautiful, alive, active, powerful, and should not be trifled with. Romantic art is highly spiritualised and emotional. Indeed, William Wordsworth defines Romantic art as ‘a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility’.

Perhaps the Romantic qualities embodied in Wuthering Heights make it a Gothic novel. The term ‘Gothic’ is inspired by a type of medieval architecture in which buildings have high-pointed arches, columns, vaults and secret passages ways. A Gothic literature is usually set in such old medieval buildings. An example of such a building and setting is Wuthering Heights in Emily Bronte’s novel that goes by the same name. The building is usually haunted, meaning that in it one is likely to encounter ghosts and other strange supernatural forces. Other qualities of a Gothic novel include a graphic depiction of violence, mysterious occurrences and death, the theme of cruelty and oppression, injustice and poetic justice (an intervention by the supernatural, a kind of Deus ex machina). The first Gothic novel in English literature is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). 

The Victorian period was noted for its scientific aspirations and the way those aspirations questioned the foundation of existing beliefs like religious faith. It was also a time of serious political upheavals occasioned by the gaping disparities in the people’s living conditions in the midst of stupendous wealth. Victorian attitudes to matters of morality were conservative indeed as can be observed in the character of Joseph in Wuthering Heights. Society was still very much stratified but there was room for upward mobility through economic success and empowerment. Women’s rights were still a long way off though gender activism was part of the political agitations earlier noted. These ideas are necessary for the understanding of most of the events in the novel. In all, it takes one’s understanding of the Romantic and Victorian zeitgeists as outlined above to comprehend Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Synopsis/Plot Summary of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights relates the story of how Heathcliff, an unknown black boy, comes into the Upper middle class family of Mr and Mrs Earnshaw, the mixed and ambivalent reception with which he is accorded by the members of the family, how he plots and executes his revenge on those whom he perceived to have wronged him, as well as his eventual death and release of those he oppresses. The novel has a non-linear plot structure; its beginning is actually close to its end. When Mr Lockwood rents Thrushcross Grange at the beginning of the novel and goes to meet Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights, the events told in the story are nearing their end. By the beginning of the story, Heathcliff had already executed his revenge against the Earnshaws and the Lintons, and had become the Master of both their estates.

The story is told in the first person narrative technique in what can be referred to as a frame narrative (a story told within a story). There are also two narrators who alternate or take turns in narrating the story. These narrators are Mr Lockwood and Mrs Nelly Dean (Ellen). Mr Lockwood is Mr Heathcliff’s first tenant after Mr Edgar Linton has passed on and Heathcliff takes over Thrushcross Grange. Mrs Dean happens to be Mr Lockwood’s house keeper at the time. When Mr Lockwood’s curiosity is piqued by the strange events and characters he observed during his visits to Heathcliff’s Wuthering Heights, he asks Nelly, who had been a house keeper for the Earnshaws for many years, to tell him all about the history of the place and the people in it in order to justify and enable him comprehend the current state of affairs at Wuthering Heights. Nelly is only too happy to oblige.

Heathcliff was brought into the Earnshaw’s family by the old master of Wuthering Heights himself. He tells the family – his wife and two children, Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw – that he found Heathcliff on the streets of Liverpool in precarious conditions and decided to take him home and adopt him as one of his children. He names him Heathcliff after his son who died childhood. But Heathcliff is not warmly welcomed by the other family members. Mrs Earnshaw calls Heathcliff a ‘gispsy’, a racist term that refers to the blacks or the native Indians. Catherine and Hindley have cause to start off hating Heathcliff because it is because of him that their father is unable to bring back their gifts in good conditions (Catherine’s horse whip is lost and Hindley’s fiddle is crushed).

Upon old Earnshaw’s death (Mrs Earnshaw had passed on earlier) two years later, Hindley becomes the master of Wuthering Heights having gone to college for three years and returned home with a wife, Frances, on the passing of Earnshaw. Hindley treats Heathcliff as a servant rather than as a son as Earnshaw intended. He even had him flogged at times. But by now Catherine and Heathcliff had developed a deep friendship which helps Heathcliff endure his travails. Frances soon gives birth to a male child named Hareton and passes on soon afterwards. One day, Catherine and Heathcliff wander away from the Heights and found themselves at Thrushcross Grange, where Catherine is bitten by the dog of the Lintons (Skulker). She is soon recognised by Edgar, son of Mr Linton. Catherine is taken in and cared for by the Lintons while Heathcliff is sent way. Their prejudice towards Heathcliff is revealed on this occasion as Mr Linton refers to Heathcliff as ‘that strange acquisition my late neighbour made in his journey to Liverpool – a little lascar, or an American or Spanish castaway’.

A relationship develops between Catherine and Edgar Linton. This relationship threatens Heathcliff who is obviously in love with Catherine. Though Catherine truly loves Heathcliff, she confesses to Nelly that she cannot marry him because of his poverty and social condition.  Heathcliff overhears this confession and is hurt deeply. In the end, Catherine marries Edgar and moves to Thrushcross Grange, and Nelly with her. This marriage takes place three years after the death of Mr and Mrs Linton who died after being infected by Catherine’s illness when she went to the Grange to be cared for by the Lintons. Heathcliff, perhaps out of protest or anger, disappears from the Heights and would not be seen again until after three years.

When Heathcliff returns to the Heights three years after, he had become rich and more or less a gentleman, though he still had his rough nature. Of course no one knows where he had been all those years. Meanwhile, Mr and Mrs Linton had passed on. But he willed most of his property to his daughter, Isabella, rather than his son, Edgar. Unknown to everyone, Heathcliff had returned to exact his revenge on the two houses. He deliberately courts Isabella even though he does not love her. He also turns Hareton against his father Hindley, raising the boy to be as crude as he was when he newly arrived at the Heights. Hareton trusts Heathcliff more than Hindley who was always cruel and harsh to him. Heathcliff’s rent payment offer is too mouthwatering for Hindley to refuse; thus, Heathcliff stays on in at the Heights to plan his revenge. He lures Hindley into excessive gambling and drinking which leads to his mortgaging his property to Heathcliff.

Despite Catherine’s warning, Isabella elopes with Heathcliff and marries him, which turns out to be a huge mistake as she realises Heathcliff’s true character too late. With time, Isabella leaves Heathcliff and goes to stay in London where she bears Heathcliff’s son, Linton, and nurses him until she dies. She places the child in Edgar’s care but Heathcliff comes for him as he has more rights over the child. The sickly Linton is also part of Heathcliff’s revenge. Heathcliff’s return and his impudence at courting Isabella had caused a quarrel between Edgar and the now pregnant Catherine. This makes Catherine withdrawn and suicidal; a condition she never recovers. She dies shortly after giving birth to a daughter which is named after her. It is about this time that Isabella runs away with Heathcliff.

Hindley dies through overdosing on alcohol, having become utterly frustrated when he realised that he had not only mortgaged his life but also the future of his son Hareton to Heathcliff. Upon Hindley’s death, Heathcliff becomes the master at Wuthering Heights. When little Linton returns to the Heights, Heathcliff plots and succeeds in getting him married to Cathy. Linton dies shortly after the forced and coercive marriage, having been sickly right from childhood. Edgar also passes on and the ownership of the two estates falls to Heathcliff. Heathcliff manipulates everyone, including the lawyer, Mr Green, so that Edgar cannot even change his will to favour his family. After Edgar’s death, Heathcliff moves everyone at the Grange to the Heights and puts up the place for rent. This is when Mr Lockwood comes into the picture.

Mr Lockwood soon leaves the Grange though his rent is yet to expire. It is during his absence that the twist in the plot of the story occurs, as Cathy recounts them to him when he finally returns and finds his way to the Heights, hoping to meet Heathcliff to settle his rent matters. Cathy and Hareton’s relationship evolves from deep and mutual contempt and dislike to one of love and mutual cooperation, with Catherine taking it upon herself to educate Hareton. Within this time, Heathcliff has an accident that makes him to lose a lot of blood. At first it looks as if he is going to recover but then he suddenly loses interest in living. He stops eating and keeps staring at vacant spaces. He confides in Nelly that he had changed the position of Catherine’s coffin the night that she was buried and that that may explain why he thinks that Catherine’s ghost has been haunting him all through life and at the moment is calling him to join her. He directs Nelly on how he is to be buried and then shuts himself away until his body is discovered. Joseph believes that the devil with whom he had a pact with has carried off Heathcliff’s soul.  

The original ownership of the two estates is thus restored with Heathcliff’s death even as Hareton and Catherine are planning to get married in the New Year and then to move to the Grange.  


Attempt the following questions

  1. What is a Gothic novel?
  2. In what year was Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights published?
  3. Emily Bronte was born in 1818. What year did she die?
  4. What was Emily’s pen name?
  5. Wuthering Heights is a frame narrative. Why?

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