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Niall Cronin

‘Gothic Texts are often accused of disempowering

female characters. How far is this true of Wuthering

In Wuthering Heights, female characters are disempowered in femininity yet are

strengthened by their adoption of masculine behaviour. Each female character
experiences rites of passage in the novel resulting in their becoming more
feminine or more masculine, strengthening or weakening the character
respectively. In Emily Brontë’s novel, the extent of disempowerment is severe,
resulting in total degradation of a character or even, as with the case of
Catherine, death.

Emily Brontë herself grew up in the Yorkshire Dales in the isolated village of
Haworth surrounded by the sublimity of the countryside. As evidenced by her
novels, she developed a strong appreciation of the beauty nature yet also the
ferocity of the wilderness. Sanitary and living conditions were so poor in her little
village that the life expectancy was only 25 years old with a 41% mortality rate
for new-born children. Therefore, death was not something that Emily Brontë was
unaware of; she understood the necessity of strength to survive in such climates
and, in the 19th century, strength was represented by males.

Women in the 18th and 19th century lived in a patriarchal society dominated
entirely by the word of men. It is important to understand the extent of the
oppression of women to truly appreciate various readings of the
disempowerment of female characters in Wuthering Heights. Women’s rights
barely existed and although men claimed to treat them with ‘lenity and
indulgence’, they were excluded absolutely from any domestic authority. Simply,
women were condemned from birth to conform to a male chauvinistic mould.
Women, in the 18th and 19th century were ‘there’ to manage the household, bear
children, be nurses, mothers, wives, lovers (virginal pre-marriage), neighbours,
friends and teachers. According to Rousseau, the author of the ‘History of
Sexuality’ series, ‘it was the order of nature for women to obey’.

Legally, a woman’s position was of no worth. A court case in 1782 saw judge
Buller Claim that it was ‘perfectly legal for a man to beat his wife, as long as he
used a stick no thicker than his thumb’. Marriage was a lifetime binding for the
female who exceedingly rarely gained divorce. The terms of marriage were so
legally firm that, until 1891, if captured in the process of running from their
husband, the law took responsibility in tracking down the woman and issuing

William Blackstone, an 18th century jurist, stated in a legal document that "By
marriage, the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended, or at least
incorporated or consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing,
protection, or cover she performs everything."
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Inheritance law represents a specific example of the maltreatment of women.

Upon marriage women basically offered the husband all that she had (property,
wages, dowries, inheritance, possessions and various assets) for him to keep,
permanently. Financial conduct was always managed by the husband, except
with the allowance of a ‘deputy husband’. With this system women became
disempowered by being dispossessed; thus severing any social influence and
status that a woman could possibly gain.

Education was a further aspect of social life denied to the women of Britain.
Education for girls was seen as considerably less important as it was for boys
and, with girls being denied entrance to universities, females only ever managed
to gain low-paid employment. Men feared education would ‘corrupt their minds’;
they were taking precautions contra the development de feminism.

Nevertheless, by the end of the 18th century, proto-feminism was beginning to

form in the literary circles, primarily with the work of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A
Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft, whose thoughts took
inspiration from the French Revolution, argues that the deficiency of education
for women resulted in their ‘lower’ image. She attacked Rousseau’s evaluation of
women as inferior to men and battled for the ‘equality of the sexes’ and ‘justice’.

Legally, the mid 19th century eventually saw the passing of numerous acts
supporting women’s rights. Property and wage possession was dramatically
altered with the 1857 and 1870 acts before the 1882 Marriage Property Act
changed the woman’s position in marriage significantly.

With relevance to Wuthering Heights, the woman’s position in society is

represented by Brontë in her female, and even male, characters. The rites-of-
passage experienced by every character can be read as symbolic of the views
Brontë held of a woman’s ‘place’ during her life and earlier. Whether it is
masculine to feminine or the contrary, the sexual paths of life take by the
characters either lead to weakness or to strength.

Catherine Earnshaw is a prime example of transformation from strength to

weakness. During her childhood, Catherine was notoriously boyish, spurred on by
her play-mate Heathcliff. She was called ‘mischievous and wayward’ by Nelly,
and possessed all the traits of masculinity of the 18th century as a ‘wild, wicked
slip. Nevertheless, although Catherine is not here conforming to society’s norms
and subverting the tradition of the ‘proper’ girl, she is at her strongest. She is
never ill, unlike some weaker characters (like Frances), and passion pumps from
her charismatic and wild character.

Catherine’s fall, it could be argued, occurred when she became stranded at

Thrushcross Grange. During her period of recovery in the civilised surrounding of
the Linton household, Catherine was initiated into her period of ‘sexual’
transformation which became solidified with her marriage to the ‘sweet, blue
eye[d]’ Edgar. After a six month period of which Nelly claims that ‘I may assert
that they were really in possession of deep and growing happiness’, Heathcliff
returned to disrupt Catherine’s smooth transition to femininity and, such an
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effect this had on her, she took gravely ill. In this time of ill health, flaws
previously shadowed by her strong masculinity are now exaggerated allowing
Brontë to deal with her character contemptuously. Her illness, consequently,
resulted in her death; thus displaying the futility of the feminine being in society.

The scene where Nelly and Catherine are held by force by Heathcliff at
Wuthering Heights in order for Catherine Linton to marry Linton could be
representative of the female position in marital and inheritance laws. The plan,
masterminded by Heathcliff, was for the two to marry resulting in his inheritance
of Edgar’s lands and money and, arguably, to obtain control over Catherine. This
forced marriage can be read as a metaphor reflecting how 18th century marriage
was a legal and physical

entrapment which exploits females and treats them as mere tools of business or

Psychoanalytical interpretation of Wuthering Heights is commonly based upon

Freud’s work, especially concerning childhood and relationships. One example of
such criticism is Linda Gold’s reading of Wuthering Heights concerning the
characters correlation with the separate parts of Freud’s Tripartite Theory. In her
analysis, Catherine represents the Ego, Heathcliff the id and Edgar the Superego.
She argues that Catherine ‘relates to other people and society, tests the
impulses of the id against reality, and controls the energetic id (Heathcliff) until
there is a reasonable chance of its urges being fulfilled’.

Freud argued that the Ego must be male in order to ‘survive’ so to achieve this
Catherine incorporates both the id (Heathcliff) and the Superego (Edgar) into her
character in an attempt to assimilate the three parts to create a unified
personality – this is represented in the shared grave of her, Edgar and Heathcliff.
According to this Freudian interpretation, Catherine’s death derives not just from
her mental illness but from the agony of her fragmented personality; the
incompatibility of the id with the Superego.

Furthermore, Gold suggests a ‘second generation’ tripartite characterisation in

Catherine Linton. Brontë creates Catherine as an effective Ego, marrying both
Linton and Hareton thus consolidating the id and Superego. In the finish of the
novel, her character is emotionally content, reaching psychological integration in
her becoming Catherine Linton Heathcliff Earnshaw.

Another Freudian idea is that could be applied to Wuthering Heights is that of

‘Das Ding’. Freud proposed that ‘Das Ding’, or ‘the thing’, represents the ‘lost
object that is searched and which is ruled by the pleasure principle’. Modern
critic, David Cecil, suggests that ‘Brontë’s world…is where an entire existence
could concentrate itself with fanatical frenzy upon a single object’. In Wuthering
Heights, this ‘single object’ becomes either a woman, Cathy, or her love,
Heathcliff with Cathy being the catalyst of the pleasure principle.

As a result of the turbulent relationships focused around her, the characters seek
pleasure rather than rationale in their behaviour and actions. For Heathcliff and
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Cathy alike the loss of their ‘thing’, each other, causes hysteria, crying and
obsessive neurosism in an effort to return to that ‘lost’ object which is
‘unforgettable, but never attainable. Cathy displays these ‘symptoms’ whilst ill in
apparent grievance for her loss of Heathcliff through death. ‘It is the last
time!...Heathcliff, I shall die! I shall die!’

The Formation of Girls is another key Freudian concept that can be applied to
women in Wuthering Heights, Catherine in particular. In his work on
psychosexual development, Freud proposed that, for women, the absence of a
“real” castration complex, along with an unresolved Oedipus complex, interfere
with the development of the Superego in Women. Freud’s Tripartite Personality
Theory states that the Superego’s function is to control the id’s impulses,
especially those which society forbids, such as sex and aggression. Freud further
argued that men’s and women’s natural psycho-sexual development justifies the
social roles they should play in life.

It is possible to apply this concept to the character of Catherine Earnshaw. As a

young child, as Freud states, the ‘little girl is a little man’, Catherine was ‘bold’
and ‘saucy’ and acted in a manner not befitting her position in society or her
sexuality. Catherine’s rather masculine childhood, one not suited to a young girl
at that point in society, of which much was spent with Heathcliff, could have
been the source of the development of her ‘penis envy’, another Freudian

The introduction of this envy could have been the ‘gift’ of Heathcliff from her
father; the arrival of a penis and a strong character sparking her jealousy. This is
the first stage of the female Castration complex, and probably the source of the
female’s sexual repression which is displayed by Catherine’s lack of physical lust
throughout the novel. Catherine’s ‘self-love is mortified’ at the stage of her
introduction to the Linton household when her masculine demeanour is violated
with feminine niceties. At this point she is 15 years old and experiencing a
crucial part of female puberty where her sexual direction is in limbo – the sudden
influence of the Linton household results in her feminisation. Catherine’s later
development in life, her aggression and her death on the birth of a daughter
rather than a son (thus not the ‘baby is a little boy [bringing] the longed-for
penis with him’) displays her failure to accomplish a castration complex.

Philosophical ideas, such as Plato’s Symposium, can also be applied to events

within Brontë’s novel. A Symposium was a Greek dinner party, with its aim being
to conduct intellectual conversations and debates amongst the greatest
contemporary thinkers about moral, religious and scientific issues. Plato’s
symposium, described by Plato but actually attended by his teacher, Socrates,
discussed the issue of Love. Present at the Symposium were Apollodorus,
Aristophanes, Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Agathon, and Socrates,
presenting their speech of praise to the God of Love.

Of all of the ideas suggested at Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes’ concept is

most relevant to the events within Wuthering Heights. Aristophanes, a poet,
recalled a myth proposing that the Greek God Zeus felt threatened by the
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growing power of Human Beings so cut them all in two. Ever since, people have
wandered the Earth searching for their other half, just so they could rejoin with
that other person and become “whole” again.

From Wuthering Heights, it is obvious that the two characters that the two
characters who fit neatly into this concept of Love are Heathcliff and Catherine
Earnshaw. Numerous aspects of their relationship correspond with Aristophanes
theory from Heathcliff’s random appearance from an unknown origin picked from
the streets of Liverpool to Catherine’s exclamation ‘I am Heathcliff!’ The idea
that these two protagonists’ lives are destined to be intertwined seems fitting
with the absolute fascination they share of each other’s lives and the undying
love that rests between them until the end of the novel; even after both their
deaths in the form of ghosts.

Marxism suggests that human actions and institutions are economically

determined, class struggle is needed to create historical change and that
capitalism will ultimately be superseded by communism. Viewing the literature of
Brontë in a Marxist light, it is necessary to understand and incorporate the social
setting of the novel. According to Arnold Kettle, in the case of Wuthering Heights
it would be a novel about people in England in 1847 in the Yorkshire Dales.
Living people, property ownership, social comforts, marriage, education, religion
and the relations of the rich and poor are all relevant to what the novel is
supposedly trying to represent. Kettle argues that the novel is directly
representative of 18th century society with relationships exaggerated in order to
clearly depict civilization, such as Heathcliff’s patriarchal success in manipulating
inheritance law.

Terry Eagleton also argues that Wuthering Heights is focused upon class conflict
highlighting the immense differences between the aristocrats (Edgar) and the
lower classes (Heathcliff). The representation of this idea is presented through
the seduction of Cathy by the bourgeois glamour of Thrushcross Grange; this
shows the defeat of the lower orders, of Heathcliff, by the upper classes, being
Edgar. Heathcliff rejects such a society in his abandonment of Cathy and
Wuthering Heights upon defeat. Heathcliff reflects the revolution of the people of
the 18th and 19th century, the birth of feminism and women’s equality, by
returning wealthy and cultured. The means by which Heathcliff earns his money
is not stated and pondered upon by Lockwood (‘Did he…earn honours by
drawing blood from his foster country or make a fortune more promptly, on the
English highways?’) This association with violence mirrors another of Eagleton’s
proposals that Heathcliff develops knowledge of culture to use as a weapon of
oppression; his use of the inheritance laws of the 18th century showing the
readers this. Heathcliff is an opposite of capitalism, or a Marxist personalisation
of ‘communism superseding capitalism’ through Heathcliff’s success with his

If these ideas are read in conjunction with a feminist reading by Gilbert and
Gubar, Heathcliff’s characterisation and representation of changing society
suggests an ambivalence of his gender. Reading Heathcliff as female has many
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obvious contradictions; his address as male, his baring Isabella a son, his place in
the household and his stereotypical male behaviour yet there are many possible
suggestive inclinations of femininity by Brontë. Heathcliff, as representative of
communism means the equality of all, women and men alike, which would be
born from his rebellious nature and rejection of conventions thus disrupting
patriarchal interests. Heathcliff has no status, no social standing, no property
and no family name or male title; ‘Heath’ from Heathcliff being a female and
male name also.

To conclude, female characters in Wuthering Heights are frequently

disempowered, fitting with the Gothic genre, but only when they adopt a
feminine demeanour. It can be argued that Brontë does this for numerous
different reasons; as a reflection of a woman’s in the 18th century, as an
exploration of psychoanalytical, Marxist or philosophical ideas or perhaps, like
Mary Wollstonecraft as a demonstration of proto-feminism.