Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights can be seen as one of the most influential works of fiction produced during the Victorian age. In Brontë’s novel, the reader will encounter many oppositions across several elements of the story. These oppositions play a vital role in the development of both the characters and the plot and have been discussed by many critics.
According to Melvin R. Watson, as he describes in his article “Tempest in the Soul: The Theme and Structure of “Wuthering Heights,”” a most influential theory is that of the opposing forces of calm and storm developed by Lord David Cecil (Watson, 88). This theory, however, does not completely encompass the multitude of opposites found in the novel. The oppositions found in Wuthering Heights all serve specific roles in the development of the characters and the plot of the novel.
The universe of the opposing forces of the calm and the storm that can be found within Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is one that encompasses many elements of the story. At the very start of the novel, the narrator, in the form of Mr. Lockwood, gives the reader a detailed description of the house he is about to enter:
Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. (Brontë, 2)
On that bleak hilltop, the earth was hard with a black frost, and the air made me shiver through every limb. (Brontë, 5)
Entirely in the tradition of the Gothic Romance, Wuthering Heights is described as a bleak, though very sturdy house, built on top of a hill and surrounded by marshes and farmland. It is constantly exposed to the raw forces of nature, with the north wind battering the house without end. It was built to withstand the impact of the winds with its thick walls and deep set windows, allowing little light to penetrate into the interior.
The opposing force to this land of storm can be found in Thrushcross Grange, which is surrounded by parks and located in the valley below the Heights and thus sheltered from the elements. The house itself is portrayed as an oasis of peace and quiet and, although not nearly as elaborately described as Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s account of the property gives the reader this exact impression:
Both of us were able to look in by standing on the basement, and clinging to the ledge, and we saw – ah! it was beautiful – a splendid place carpeted with crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables, and a pure white ceiling bordered by gold, a shower of glass-drops hanging in silver chains from the centre, and shimmering with little soft tapers. (Brontë, 33)
These two estates, the characteristics of which are reflected on their inhabitants, make up the setting and contribute greatly to the development of both the characters and the plot.
The characters of Heathcliff and Edgar Linton can be seen as opposites in the very same way Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange can. As pointed out by Catherine herself: “The two resembled what you see in exchanging a bleak, hilly coal country for a beautiful, fertile valley.” (Brontë,) Her description gives Heathcliff a rugged and stalwart quality, both in appearance and personality, while Edgar is made out to be gentle and fragile. In his article Tempest in the Soul: The Theme and Structure of Wuthering Heights, Melvin R. Watson describes the contrast between Heathcliff and Edgar as such:
Edgar Linton, on the other hand, contrasts with Heathcliff in another way. In another novel, he might have been a conventional Victorian hero: he is presentable and well-mannered, sincere but somewhat smug, good-looking but pallid, devoted to Catherine but incapable of understanding or possessing her. His moral sense the Victorian reader could comprehend and sympathise with. In Wuthering Heights however, he is an anomaly, owning Catherine without possessing her, resenting Heathcliff, but lacking the power to thwart him. (Watson, 93.)
Watson continues by explaining that Catherine is the only character in the novel that stands on equal ground with Heathcliff, being able to control him, but having forfeited this ability by her marriage with Edgar. In the novel, Catherine passionately exclaims in the presence of Miss Ellen Dean:
My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff. He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. (Brontë, 59)
It is therefore that Catherine can also be seen, not merely as the soul equal to Heathcliff, but also as an opposite to Edgar Linton’s gentle nature. It is this union of two seemingly incompatible characters: that of the storm with that of the calm, or that of passion with that of the impassionate that, in the theory of Lord David Cecil, creates imbalance in the world of the Heights and the Grange and thereby a conflict that needs to be resolved.
An alternative reading of the triangular love relationship between Catherine, Edgar, and Heathcliff is provided by John Allen Stevenson in his article ‘’Heathcliff is me!”: Wuthering Heights and the Question of Likeness. Instead of seeing Edgar as being the opposite in nature and character of Catherine and Heathcliff, Stevenson paints a picture of Edgar as a standard for Catherine and Heathcliff to measure their likeness by:
Catherine and Heathcliff (...) can assert that their likeness has a meaning only within a system of differences. In a sense, the gap between them and Edgar establishes what they are; there is literally no language for their love until they visit the Grange and view the ‘’has not’’ that the Lintons represent for them. (Stevenson, 63)
Although not focussed on opposition, this approach does clearly place the two more compatible characters in line with each other and emphasizes who should be seen as the outsider. The question that arises then, as Edgar is clearly not the best suitable partner for Catherine, is why does she marry Edgar instead of Heathcliff?
An opposition that contributes greatly to Catherine’s decision to marry Edgar is that of master and servant and wealth and poverty. Heatcliff is an orphan, brought to Wuthering Heights by Mr. Earnshaw and treasured by him as his favourite son. It must be kept in mind that both the Linton and the Earnshaw family own estates and that Edgar is the heir to his family’s wealth, whereas Heathcliff is without possession. Heathcliff’s social position is closer to that of a servant than that of a family member, and after the death of Mr. Earnshaw the new master of the house, Hindley, also treats him as such.
Although Catherine and Heathcliff treasure each other greatly, the differences in social standing are apparent to both of them and these prevent them from feeling completely equal to each other. Catherine is the first to let the reader know she realises what the consequences of this situation are:
It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he is more myself than I am. (Brontë, 57)
Nelly, I see now, you think me a selfish wretch; but did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married, we’d be beggars? Whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother’s power. (Brontë, 58)
Catherine shows that she is aware of the social impossibility of a lawful union between herself and Heathcliff, but is unwilling to let him go, even if she would marry Edgar. Having heard only the first part of her speech, Heathcliff is also brought to the realisation that they can never be together within this context, and sets out to better his position and, as we find out later, plot his revenge against the Earnshaws and the Lintons. The opposition of master and servant serves as an important motivation for Catherine to marry Edgar, and thereby contributes to the development of the story.
The natural and the supernatural form a clear contrast throughout the novel as well. The natural represents the real, tangible world, and the supernatural represents the spiritual world and the afterlife. A first taste of the contrast is given to the reader in chapter three, where the narrator, Mr. Lockwood, describes his encounter with the ghost of Catherine Linton during his overnight stay at Wuthering Heights:
(...) knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in, Let me in’ ‘Who are you?’ I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself. ‘Catherine Linton,’ it replied shiveringly. ‘I’m come home.’ (Brontë, 17)
Shortly after, Heathcliff is seen trying to hail the ghost of Catherine, welcoming her and urging her to enter the house, pleas that remain unanswered. There is an inherit opposition in the natural and the supernatural, but according to Anne Williams, Brontë has aspired to bring these two worlds closer together by offering the readers two ways of grasping their relationship: by humanizing the supernatural, or by using characters’ imagination-charged perceptions to lend a spiritual aura to the natural. (Williams, 109) The latter of these can be seen in Mr. Lockwood’s account of his night spent at the Heights, which gives the reality of his dream a ghastly supernatural aspect. The humanisation of the supernatural is found in chapter twenty-nine, where Heathcliff is on the verge of digging up Catherine’s coffin:
I felt that Cathy was there: not under me, but on the earth. A sudden sense of relief flowed, from my heart, through every limb. I relinquished my labour of agony, and turned consoled at once: unspeakably consoled. Her presence was with me: it remained while I refilled the grave, and led me home. (Brontë, 210)
This quote clearly demonstrates one of many instances in the novel where the spiritual world and the tangible world are brought together close enough to almost melt into each other. The love of Heathcliff and Catherine is stronger than the boundaries that separate the real and the spiritual. Another instance where the connection is very clear is in chapter sixteen:
And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living! You said that I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe – I know ghosts have wandered on the earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul! (Brontë, 122)
An unusually strong connection between the natural and the spiritual world is within Heathcliff’s exclamations. The two most passionate and “storm-like” characters in the novel find themselves unable to be together in real life, and throughout the rest of the novel, Heathcliff expresses his desires to join his beloved Catherine in the spiritual world, which is clearly a strong attempt at humanising the supernatural. The imbalance created by the marriage of Catherine and Edgar and by that of Heathcliff and Isabella can only be resolved by the union of Heathcliff and Catherine in the afterlife.
My conclusion then, is that the oppositions found within the novel all serve specific roles and contribute to the development of the story in different ways. The setting is strongly determined by the two houses: the Heights and the Grange, and the opposition here is reflected on the inhabitants of estates. The interrelationships between characters are defined by their differences and these can indeed be separated into the passionate and the impassionate.
The differences in social status and wealth between Catherine and Heathcliff prevent them from being together and serve as an important motivation for Catherine to marry Edgar, but it also drives away Heathcliff, who finds his reason for vengeance. The natural and the supernatural represent two almost irreconcilable opposing forces, but Brontë manages to bring these together by forging a bond between Catherine and Heathcliff that is almost stronger than this mystical boundary.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1992.
Stevenson, John Allen. ‘’’’Heathcliff is Me!”: Wuthering Heights and the Question of Likeness.” Nineteenth Century Fiction Vol. 43, No.1 (Jun., 1988): 60-81 pp. 15 Mar. 2010 <http://www.jstor.org.proxy.ubn.ru.nl:8080/stable/3044981?seq=4&Search=yes&term=heathcliff&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dheathcliff%26wc%3Don&item=3&ttl=780&returnArticleService=showArticle&resultsServiceName=doBasicResultsFromArticle>
Watson, Melvin R. “Tempest in the Soul: the Theme and Structure of “Wuthering Heights.”” Nineteenth Century Fiction Vol. 4, No.2 (Sep., 1949): 87-100 pp. 16 Mar. 2010 <http://www.jstor.org.proxy.ubn.ru.nl:8080/stable/3044140?seq=14&Search=yes&term=melvin&term=watson&term=r&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dmelvin%2Br%2Bwatson%26gw%3Djtx%26prq%3Dtempest%2Bin%2Bthe%2Bsoul%26hp%3D25%26wc%3Don&item=9&ttl=5384&returnArticleService=showArticle&resultsServiceName=doBasicResultsFromArticle>
Williams, Anne. “Natural Supernaturalism in “Wuthering Heights.”” Studies in Philology Vol. 82, No 1. (1985): 104-127 pp. 15 Mar. 2010 <http://www.jstor.org.proxy.ubn.ru.nl:8080/stable/4174198?seq=6&Search=yes&term=wuthering&term=heights&term=ghost&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dwuthering%2Bheights%2Bghost%26wc%3Don%26dc%3DAll%2BDisciplines&item=9&ttl=441&returnArticleService=showArticle&resultsServiceName=doBasicResultsFromArticle>