Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: The Last Great Romantic Novel

Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë may be described by critics as the ‘last great Romantic novel’ due to the fact although it was technically published within the Victorian era of literature, it contains many characteristics of Romantic literature. Chronologically, it sits within the Victorian period, but its content is Romantic. Romanticism is the name given to a powerful movement in literature and the other arts – including music and painting – during the period from the 1770s to the mid-nineteenth century. Since at least the 1820s, definitions of Romanticism have been sent aloft, shot down, repaired, relaunched, parodied, abandoned, rediscovered, finally laid to rest, and then revived from the dead through countless different cycles of scholarship and journalism.

The rise of Romanticism began when the Industrial Revolution took over mainland Europe and as the world turned more towards logic, reason, and observable fact, Romanticism rebelled with the world of the supernatural and fantasy. According to critics, the Romanticism period can be characterized chiefly by a reaction against neoclassicism and the emphasis on the imagination or emotions. In Wuthering Heights this could not be more apparent with the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw often popping up throughout the latter part of the text. On top of this, readers are introduced to the remarkably realistic hallucinations or visions experienced by many a character within the novel, a prime example being Mr. Lockwood.

The most evident, reoccurring characteristic within Wuthering Heights which critics may relate to those of texts from the Romanticism era, is the theme of the Gothic sublime. There is a lot of darkness within this novel which points critics to the conclusion that it belongs to the Gothic category. According to writer David Morris, in exploring the intertwining between love and terror, the typical Gothic novel is exclaimed to pursue a version of the sublime utterly without transcendence. It is a vertiginous and plunging sublime, which takes readers deep within rather than far beyond the human sphere. The eighteenth-century sublime continuously implied (but managed to restrain) the threat of losing control. Gothic sublimity - by releasing into fiction images and desires which were previously suppressed in literature, deeply hidden and coerced into silence - greatly intensifies the dangers of the uncontrollable release from restraints. Such dangers undoubtedly help to explain why censorship and swooning were among the most common social responses to Gothic texts during this period.

Dark Romanticism, just as the name would suggest, takes a darker approach that focuses more on tragedy and horror. Wuthering Heights does not exactly contain characters that one would tend to look up to, they are violent and can often be intentionally very cruel to one another; not the type that would essentially restore one’s faith in humankind. On top of this, the countryside is often a popular choice of setting for romantic novels, but the barren and desolate setting of Wuthering Heights with its deadly weather are again, not quite the idealistic visions of beauty and simplicity which one would expect. Wuthering Heights contains plenty of chilling Gothic features including imprisonment, dark stairways, stormy weather, nightmares, extreme landscapes and settings, melancholy figures, moonlight and candles, torture and evidence of excessive cruelty, necrophilia, a supernatural presence, maniacal behaviour, communication between the living and the dead, etc. which are very common physical elements within dark, Gothic Romantic literature.

Some critics are led to believe that melancholy is one of the inevitable products of the classic romantic temper. Apart from more personal factors such as poor-health, an unhealthy marriage or social ostracization, most romantic authors were led to ‘occasional fits of melancholia by the inherent quality of their creed’. Their romantic outlook to life shuttlecocks them between hope and despair. Most of them, fundamentally considered, were optimists; and like all optimists they fell into moments of deep despair. However, this is not always the case and Bronte certainly shows this to readers in Wuthering Heights. Romantic melancholy is yet another important aspect of this genre of novel that is said to be larger than the characters themselves. It focuses on the idea that change is imminent and that because the current state of affairs may be lost forever, they are apparently worth holding onto. It is possible to see this by the fact that nobody within the novel seems to grow or develop naturally. For example, Heathcliff disappears for over three years and although he returns with great wealth, he is still the same wild and cruel human being he always was with very little compassion for other people. Similarly, even though Catherine’s entire transformation happens over a mere five weeks, it always appears to be more of an act than any true change. Other characters in Wuthering Heights have no extra-ordinary circumstances that necessarily affect their personalities or outlook on life. Nelly Dean, a servant for the household, takes care of each generation with the same judgmental tone laced with only occasional kindness. As for the religious caretaker Joseph, he appears to be stuck in some sort of broken record player, relentlessly preaching lessons that never really evolve.

On top of the darker elements of Romanticism explored within this novel, it is important to recognize that nature is also a reappearing theme. The connection between Romanticism and ecology/nature has often been recognized in the critical literature on Romanticism and in the writings of naturalists.

This Bronte novel contains a combination of passion, mystery and doomed love. One of its most characteristic elements is nature which is as important in the book as any other character. Nature lives its own life and many of the foundations of this novel relate back to it. It’s almost as if it took control over the plot, but it did not. It is more like a background that gives special atmosphere or template to the events that unfold within the novel. Nature in this book is mirrored within Catherine and Heathcliff’s souls, blatantly wild. At first look, it may seem that it has a destructive power, but this is not the case. In fact, it is always present alongside strong emotions and passions. That is why we see so much of it within Wuthering Heights, where one may say, civilization does not reach. In the first chapter of the novel, readers are given a brief description which introduces them to the influence which nature withholds, “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 exercise 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”. By this description readers learn that the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights have much closer contact with nature than anybody else. The place is wild and scarce of any human interference. Those who live there accept the fact that they must ‘share’ the place with nature forces governing it. However, nature is not entirely unfriendly, although daunting at times.

One example stating that nature is not always an evil force is the descriptions of moors. They appear quite a lot, being most of the times violent and frightful. However, there are moments, in which readers can experience them being calm and welcoming. Critic B. H. Lehman states “The moor, we are reminded, is not all furze and whinstone: violence and terror and stark fortitude seem to have a special appropriateness in that landscape; but of old time the Lintons were merry in their crimson and white and gold drawing room and gay in their park, and Heathcliff and Cathy as children happy in the Heights, and now Hareton and Catherine are taking a goodnight look at one another by the moon’s light; these moods also are appropriate on the moor”.

In conclusion, when one states that Wuthering Heights can be viewed as the ‘last great Romantic novel’ due to its Romantic characteristics (although written in the Victorian era), their assumption is highly supported by many literary critics. It’s no doubt that this novel contains many elements of Romanticism, including those mentioned within this essay such as the Gothic sublime and the supernatural, the lack of Romantic melancholy and the components of nature which influence it, as well as many more which can be examined and explored. Bronte effectively wrote this novel in such a sense that readers and critics can debate its genre and deeper meaning, something which is still being explored over one hundred years past its publication date.

10 October 2020
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