“A compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors”: this was the way that critics defined at the time Wuthering Heights, now considered a classic of English literature. When Emily Brontë‘s novel first came out in 1847, under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell, it caused great criticism and many negative reviews. With their rigid Victorian morality, readers found the book too disruptive and corrosive. In particular, they compared Heathcliff’s character to a devil.
The harsh criticism towards Emily’s novel caused her so much grief that she never quite recovered. She soon died of tuberculosis. Her novel was published only a few months before Jane Eyre, written by her sister Charlotte Brontë; but unlike Wuthering Heights, Charlotte’s novel was widely praised, to the point that within three months of the first edition, a second one was released.
An innovative literary structure
Even without considering the plot, Wuthering Heights introduces innovative elements also from a formal point of view. The novel structure reminds a series of Chinese boxes. The story begins when Mr. Lockwood, the narrator, arrives at Wuthering Heights, an estate across the Moors. There he meets Nelly Dean, the governess, and asks her more information about the family members he has met during his visit and who aroused his curiosity.
So Nelly begins to tell the story of the Earnshaws family, focusing on the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff, an orphan adopted by Mr. Earnshaw. From this moment, Nelly Dean becomes the narrator.
Two peculiar protagonists
Heathcliff and Catherine are not the classic protagonists of nineteenth-century novels when writers represented the woman as the angel of the hearth and the man as a Prince Charming. Heathcliff differs from this model because he represents the antihero. He is charming and capable of great passions, but at the same time full of hatred, jealousy and revenge.
On the other hand, Catherine is selfish and calculating. She loves Heathcliff from childhood, but she decides to marry another man, Edgard Linton because he is richer. He will thus ensure her social and economic status.
Despite their separation in life, at the end of the novel, they are buried next to each other. Local superstition holds that their ghosts roam the moors, finally free to be together.
A Revenge that does not lead to happiness
Revenge is one of the main themes of Wuthering Heights, and there are two characters particularly corroded by this feeling: Hindley and Heathcliff.
Hindley is Catherine’s brother, and he has always been jealous of the relationship between her and Heathcliff. Moreover, Mr. Earnshaw preferred Heathcliff over him. So after his father’s death, Hindley takes revenge by humiliating Heathcliff, forcing him to work as a servant.
On the other side, Heathcliff marries Isabel, Linton’s sister, only to make Catherine jealous. But revenge does not bring him the hoped-for peace, it just leaves him empty and exhausted. He will love Catherine forever, and her ghost will haunt him until his death.
An accusation against Victorian society
Of course, Wuthering Heights is not merely based on love or betrayal. Unlike other Victorian novels, like Pride and Prejudice, it also stands as an accusation against the Victorian social order, against woman’s role in it. Catherine, who marries a rich man she does not love, is an unwitting victim of a patriarchal system.
Emily, along with her sister Charlotte, didn’t want to merely describe the society of her time, as she believed Jane Austen had done in her literary production. She aimed to give readers a feel of all the limitations, obstacles, and prohibitions a woman of that time had to face to achieve self-awareness and independence.