Marxism and Bronte: Revenge as Ideology
by Meredith Birmingham
© 2006 Meredith Birmingham. All rights reserved.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights was published a mere four months before Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto. Even so, one is more likely to think of Byron and Scott in relation to Bronte than Marx. With Bronte’s rich educational heritage of the Romantics, it is tempting to picture Wuthering Heights in all the glory of a gothic romance, rather than in the context of social and economic forces. Even so, such a view of the novel actually helps to expand our understanding of it, and specifically, of characters’ motivations throughout the novel. Such an investigation also provides a perspective on why Bronte wrote the novel as she did. Heathcliff’s motivation throughout Wuthering Heights is obsession with taking revenge on his old enemies, Edgar Linton and Hindley Earnshaw, as well as their descendants. Marxist theory provides a perspective on the way in which he goes about seeking his retaliation: social and economic hegemony. Heathcliff’s method of taking revenge on his enemies is to degrade them socially and dominate them economically. The Marxist notion of ideology provides readers with a basis for perceiving Heathcliff’s behavior. Louis Althusser explains that “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”i He goes on to say that this imaginary reality is usually imposed on a population by a small group of people who use the false reality to oppress that population.ii
In the case of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is at once the deceiver and the deceived. His hegemony puts him in the seat of power, but in using his power, he 2
deceives himself, not others. He convinces himself that vengeance will bring him satisfaction; vengeance is the ideology by which Heathcliff fools himself into believing he can find contentment in life. Such is not the case, as he admits later—after causing much grief to his enemies, he avoids another opportunity (that of separating Hareton and young Catherine), saying: “I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction.”iii Heathcliff’s obsession with taking vengeance blinds him to the realities and possibilities of the world around him. This idea is best described by the way in which he views others:
‘I am afraid, Nelly, I shall lose my labor,’ he muttered to me. ‘Miss Catherine, as the ninny calls her, will discover his value, and send him to the devil. Now, if it had been Hareton—do you know that, twenty times a day, I covet Hareton, with all his degradation? I’d have loved the lad had he been some one else. But I think he’s safe from her love. I’ll pit him against the paltry creature, unless it bestir itself briskly. We calculate it will scarcely last till it is eighteen. Oh, confound the vapid thing!’ (194). Heathcliff regards his son in humiliating and dehumanizing terms: “the ninny”, “the paltry creature”, “the vapid thing.” Even Linton’s personal pronoun changes from a human “him” to an inhuman “it.” Such references demonstrate the social hegemony that Heathcliff wields over his enemies. Linton, because he is connected with Edgar, is a target of Heathcliff’s retaliation, which he exerts by reducing him in social importance from person to object.
Such a demotion of status is in keeping with Heathcliff’s purpose for his young son: to use him as a commodity to augment his economic power. Heathcliff thinks of Linton in terms of “his value”—his usefulness as a pawn in a marriage scheme by which 3
means Heathcliff can gain control of the Grange. He even talks about his anticipation of Linton’s future in materialistic terms, saying he “calculate[s]” his life expectancy. Heathcliff includes Catherine in his world of materialism. Assuming that Catherine will think as he does, Heathcliff worries that she will “discover [Linton’s] value” and decide not to marry him, at which point Heathcliff will “lose his labor.”...