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Feminism in Wuthering Heights

By fkhan786 Nov 11, 2013 2057 Words
The double critical standards in literature with relation to gender, was prominent in the nineteenth century and it was for this reason that the Bronte sisters and hence Emily Bronte wrote under male pseudonyms. Having had to change their names in order to get their work published and to become successful (Peterson, 2003), is testimony to the way in which women were disregarded in many aspects and were powerless to do as they pleased. The novel Wuthering Heights, to some degree reflects the position of women in the nineteenth century, with Isabel and Catherine respectively portraying the experiences and in some cases consequences of their actions as females living in a period of inequality. Catherine Earnshaw, as she is first introduced, is portrayed as a “wild hatless savage” (Bronte, 2003, p.64) by Ellen Dean who’s thoughts during the narration represent the opinions held by many of the upper and middle class society. The tone whilst describing Catherine’s antics are mostly disapproving as society required women to behave in a genteel and respectable manner which greatly contrasts to Ellen’s description of her as “wicked” and a “savage” (Bronte, 2003, p.59). However despite promising to remain as “rude as savages” (Bronte, 2003, pg.59) to Heathcliff, Catherine is inevitably transformed due to her prolonged stay at the Linton’s who represent the most powerful, wealthy and hence ideal paradigm of society and as such falls victim to the ideological epitome of femininity. As a result, the freedom to do as she wishes is eliminated after the transition, which eventually causes her to choose a partner deemed worthy of social approval and stability in terms of wealth as she points out to Ellen Dean “And he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood.” Essentially Catherine is portrayed as many heroines of novels in the nineteenth century as having to choose the right husband (Pykett, 1989) which she does “correctly” given the social context but it is a choice which eventually leads to her death as Heathcliff states “You loved me- then what right had you to leave me?...for the poor fancy you felt for Linton?” (Bronte, 2003, p.150). Additionally, once Catherine is married to Linton her freedom to wander the moors are restricted which she is clearly unhappy with, “the thing that irks me most is this shattered prison…I’m tired, tired of being enclosed here” (Bronte, 2002, p.150). Her desire to return to wuthering heights where the gender roles are not clearly defined, is prominent during her illness as she feels despair at the domesticated and restricted lifestyle of Thrushcross Grange “been wrenched from the heights, and every early association…and been converted, at a stroke, into Mrs.Linton, the lady of Thrushcross Grange…I wish I were a girl again…hardy, and free” (Bronte, 2003, p.122) Linton as a representative of the elite epitomizes the “legal and intellectual dominion of patriarchy” (Gilbert, 2000, p.145) and it may be this patriarchal oppression that Catherine is rebelling against. Additionally, “the novel both appeals to and subverts stereotypical constructions of sex roles by suggesting that strategies for survival are gender-related.” (Barr, 2011) This is evident in by the way in which Heathcliff responds to hierarchal oppression by plotting revenge and using his newfound patriarchal power to wreak havoc, whilst Catherine who is unable to physically do anything due to a sense of lost identity and being unable to identify herself “Is that Catherine Linton?” (Bronte, 2003, p.119) turns to self-destruction. However Catherine does not wholly conform to the patriarchal rule as is evident with her hitting Edgar “she laid hold of her hands…the astonished young man felt it applied over his own ear” which makes him feel both “afraid” and “ashamed” of Catherine (Bronte, 2003, p.79). She also has masculine traits which subvert the stereotypical view of women in the eighteenth century as she is portrayed as being “headstrong and domineering…queen of the countryside; she had no peer” (Bronte, 2003, p.74). Her refusal to eat “she fasted pertinaciously” (Bronte, 2003, p.118), can be seen as an act of rebellion against the patriarchal hierarchy she is subjected to in Thrushcross Grange, as it may be the one factor that she does have control over and it is a power which she uses defiantly. Additionally, it cannot be denied that Catherine has a great deal of power over the male characters in her life and despite dying halfway through the novel her strong presence continues to dominate the thoughts and actions of both Edgar and Heathcliff, which indicates that “her power is essentially transcendent rather than material” (Pykett, 1989, p.91). Likewise her decision to marry Edgar is not entirely made in an attempt to conform to societal pressure as she reveals the political agenda of her decision to Ellen “if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars? Whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother’s power” (Bronte, 2003, p.87). Furthermore, her refusal to remove Heathcliff from her life, despite Edgar’s continuous objections, is another aspect which indicates her refusal to conform. Isabella Linton, unlike Catherine is initially portrayed as a “charming young lady of eighteen; infantile in manners” (Bronte, 2003, p.103), which is what women at the time were expected to be like. Isabella’s tragic romantic infatuation with Heathcliff resembles elements of a gothic plot, with her character presenting a direct counterpart to that of Heathcliff’s tyrannical patriarchal rule. The novel suggests that since Isabella, rather than being offered in marriage by her father or brother, “as part of an economic transition, attempts to manipulate the parameters of the exchange,” (Barr, 2011) she is doomed to failure for disobeying and not submitting to the patriarchal will and is stripped of her social status and wealth as Edgar forewarns her of the consequences of marrying Heathcliff “that if she was so insane as to encourage that worthless suitor, it would dissolve all bonds of relationship between herself and him” (Bronte, 2003, p.118). Isabella falls victim to the Heathcliff’s betrayal and is thus “punished” by being subjected to abuse from Heathcliff who often subjects Isabella to “murderous violence” (Bronte, 2003, p.159). However due to the laws that were prevalent at the time Isabella would be required to prove herself in a court which was most probably partial to men and so was powerless to do anything but suffer. However despite Melvin R. Watson’s (1949) interpretation of Isabella being a “giddy girl” and acting merely as a foil to Catherine and a tool of revenge for Heathcliff, Isabella portrays a significant amount of transformation in character and resilience against Heathcliff’s patriarchal tyranny whilst living at Wuthering Heights. Notably she becomes “immediately assimilated in coarseness and malice to those of Heathcliff’s household” (Barker, 2010, p. 349). This can be seen by her inclination to violence and possessing masculine traits that greatly contrast to her genteel nature as she speaks to Nelly Dean regarding the encounter “I surveyed the weapon inquisitively; a hideous notion struck me. How powerful I should be, possessing such an instrument! I took it from his hand, and touched the blade. He looked astonished at the expression my face assumed during a brief second” (Bronte, 2003, p.132). Isabella’s desire for masculine power is provocative and uncharacteristic of a woman from her social class and background. Likewise the fact that she escapes from Heathcliff and flees from Wuthering Heights emphasizes the strength of her character, as if a woman was caught having escaped she would risk capture and would be subjected to punishment by the law (Pike, 2009). The issue of domestic abuse is very much veiled throughout the narrative which may be due to Nelly’s narration who being absent from Wuthering Heights, is unable to witness the exchange between Heathcliff and Isabella , which as a result provides a much more calmer version of events. However Bronte brings it to the forefront in the letter by Isabella which is addressed to Nelly Dean. (Bronte, 2003, pp.130- 138). The fact that Heathcliff was within his right to abuse her reflects laws at the time which permitted men to restrain women using the “power of chastisement” (Blackwood, cited in “My name was Isabella Linton). Isabella however, retaliates by revealing her desire to murder Heathcliff and by throwing a knife back at him. However by portraying Isabella as coarse and seemingly emotionally unaffected by the ordeal, “Bronte potentially risks losing her readers’ sympathy toward Isabella’s demise” (Pike, 2009, p.371) who mostly would not be able to identify with domesticated abuse as they thought that it was mostly confined to the lower labouring classes and was not much discussed amongst the more “refined” members of the society. Bronte however seems to be suggesting that domestic abuse also takes place within those of the genteel class and highlights how they also may be susceptible to romantic misplaced notions of an ideal life. Nelly Dean’s observation of Isabella appearing “sadly for worse” (Bronte, 2003, p.61) is received by Heathcliff in a negative manner with him commenting that she “degenerates into a mere slut” (Bronte, 2003, p.161), which may possibly reflect the widespread notion of the majority that a woman’s degeneration was due to her own moral failings and judgement rather than any external factors (Pike, 2009). Cathy Linton reflects the life of her mother to some degree as she is kept in the confines of Thrushcross Grange for the most part of her early life and thus eventually rebels by going against her father’s request to stay away from the highland moors. Whilst being from the gentry class Cathy is displayed as a headstrong character and refuses to quietly accept Heathcliff’s patriarchal rule by using her intelligence and wit to aid her “Mr Heathcliff, you have nobody to love you, and however miserable you make us, we shall still have the revenge of thinking that your cruelty rises from your greater misery" (Bronte, 2003, p.248). Her ability to “tame” Hareton is admirable however it may have only been possible due him being illiterate, allowing Cathy power over him based on intellect alone as her social position and entitlement to wealth has been brought down by Heathcliff. Bronte seems to be suggesting that despite the social and economical standing of women, the ability to overcome inequality is possible through use of intellect which has the power to raise women to be considered as equal, rather than inferior, to men. The issue of property is interesting as despite Heathcliff being illegitimate and socially inferior to the more privileged classes, he is able to lay claim to both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange which was possible due to property laws that were enforced at the time. These laws dictated that whatever the woman earned or possessed both before and during marriage belonged to her husband (Taylor, 1988). The fact that Isabella was unable to reclaim what she was entitled to is something which may have led her to her eventual death. Likewise Catherine’s sacrifice of her love and hence her life in order to achieve for Heathcliff, what she could have gained by remaining in Wuthering Heights, is particularly significant. Had property laws been equal between both genders, Catherine would have been able to own Wuthering Heights along with a considerable amount of fortune, which would be sufficient enough to maintain everything without feeling the need to marry in order to achieve the things she most desired. This bears witness to the great injustice that women were subjected to in regards to property, wealth and marriage in a world that was ruled by an unjust patriarchal authority. Emily Bronte therefore, is successful in effectively portraying the position of women in the nineteenth century by depicting women both submitting and subverting to the stereotypical image of femininity.

Bibliography
Barr, K (2011), Representation of Women in Gothic Literature: Wuthering Heights 3 February [Online] Available at: http://suite101.com/article/representation-of-women-in-gothic-literature-wuthering-heights-a343037. [Accessed 05 January 2013] Barker, J (2010) “The Bronte’s” London, Hachette Digital Gilbert, S.M and Gubar, S. (1979), The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale, pp. 248-308. Peterson, Linda. H, ed. (2003)

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