English Literature : The conflict between nature and civilization in Wuthering Heights

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As Charlotte Bronte mentioned on sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights: ”…She did not know what she had done;” creative artists “work passively under dictates [they] neither delivered nor could question.”

I can say that Emily Bronte knew what she was doing when approaching the issues of the Wuthering Heights. The antagonic play between nature and culture in Bronte’s vision were of great impact at the time and I could say that this is a reason why Wuthering Heights is a literary masterpiece.

The Romantic elements come together and offer us beautiful and intense images. First, the “strange” story: non-normative, original, powerful, imaginative. Then the characters, intense, passionate, violent – we can easily notice the emotional excess. Then another romantic element, the super-natural brought to light by the anti-rational and by the primitive folk legends. We also must note the internal and external conflicts: nature vs. civilization, wild vs. tame, natural impulses vs. artificial restraint.

In order to understand the conflict between nature and civilization in Wuthering Heights, we must first analyze the main characters, representing in their own way the nature and the civilized world. The Earnshaw family comes together with nature when the Lintons are a symbol for the culture.
A representative member of the Earnshaw family is Catherine. She is beautiful and charming, but she is never as civilized as she pretends to be. In her heart she is always a wild girl playing on the moors with Heathcliff. She regards it as her right to be loved by all, and has an unruly temper. Heathcliff usually calls her Cathy and, very interesting, Edgar usually calls her Catherine.
Heathcliff is another distinct member of the Earnshaw family. He is of unknown descent, and he seems to represent the wild and natural forces which often seem amoral and dangerous for society. His devotion, almost inhuman, to Catherine is the moving force in his life. He is cruel but magnificent in his consistency, and we, as readers, can never forget the fact that at the heart of the grown man lies the abandoned, child of the streets in Liverpool.
On the other hand we have the Lintons. Edgar Linton, in contrast to Heathcliff, is a gently bred, a refined man, a patient husband and a loving father. Charlotte Brontë, in her preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, refers to Edgar as “an example of constancy and tenderness,” and goes on to suggest that her sister Emily was using Edgar to point out that such characteristics constitute true virtues in all human beings, and not just in women, as society tended to believe. However, Charlotte’s reading seems influenced by her own feminist agenda. Edgar’s inability to counter Heathcliff’s vengeance, and his naïve belief on his deathbed in his daughter’s safety and happiness, make him a weak, if sympathetic, character.
As members of the gentry, the Earnshaws and the Lintons occupy a precarious place within the hierarchy of late eighteenth – and early nineteenth-century British society. At the top of British society was the royalty, followed by the aristocracy, then by the gentry, and then by the lower classes, who made up the vast majority of the population. Although the gentry, or upper middle class, possessed servants and often large estates, they held a fragile social position. The social status of aristocrats was a formal and settled matter, because aristocrats had official titles. Members of the gentry, however, held no titles, and their status was thus subject to change. A man might see himself as a gentleman but find, to his embarrassment, that his neighbors did not share this view. A discussion of whether or not a man was really a gentleman would consider such questions as how much land he owned, how many tenants and servants he had, how he spoke, whether he kept horses and a carriage, and whether his money came from land or “trade”—gentlemen scorned banking and commercial activities.
Considerations of class status often crucially inform the characters’ motivations in Wuthering Heights. Catherine’s decision to marry Edgar so that she will be “the greatest woman of the neighborhood” is only the most obvious example. The Lintons are relatively firm in their gentry status but nonetheless take great pains to prove this status through their behaviors. The Earnshaws, on the other hand, rest on much shakier ground socially. They do not have a carriage, they have less land, and their house, as Lockwood remarks, resembles that of a “homely, northern farmer” and not that of a gentleman. The shifting nature of social status is demonstrated most strikingly in Heathcliff’s trajectory from homeless waif to young gentleman-by-adoption to common laborer to gentleman again (although the status-conscious Lockwood remarks that Heathcliff is only a gentleman in “dress and manners”).

The environment the characters live in is another way to understand the conflict between the nature and the civilization in the writing. First, we must note that Wuthering Heights is a place of wildness, passion and life while the Thrushcross Grange is a place of convention and culture and stands up for a refined way of life. The constant emphasis on landscape within the text of Wuthering Heights endows the setting with symbolic importance. This landscape is comprised primarily of moors: wide, wild expanses, high, and thus infertile. Moorland cannot be cultivated, and its uniformity makes navigation difficult. It features particularly waterlogged patches in which people could potentially drown. Thus, the moors serve very well as symbols of the wild threat posed by nature. As the setting for the beginnings of Catherine and Heathcliff’s bond (the two play on the moors during childhood), the moorland transfers its symbolic associations onto the love affair.

Brontë constantly plays nature and culture against each other. The characters are governed by their passions, not by reflection or ideals of civility. Correspondingly, the house where they live in.
When, in Chapter VI, Catherine is bitten by the Lintons’ dog and brought into Thrushcross Grange, the two sides are brought onto the collision course that structures the majority of the novel’s plot. At the time of that first meeting between the Linton and Earnshaw households, chaos has already begun to erupt at Wuthering Heights, where Hindley’s cruelty and injustice reign, whereas all seems to be fine and peaceful at Thrushcross Grange. In this chapter we first hear Heathcliff speak for a long time, and it is worth noting how his language differs from the narrators we have heard so far. He is more expressive and emotional than the other two, and his speech is more literary than Ellen’s and less artificial than Lockwood’s. He tends to speak in extreme and vibrant terms: expressing his scorn for Edgar Linton’s cowardice and whiny gentility, he says: “I’d not exchange, for a thousand lives, my condition here, for Edgar Linton’s at Thrushcross Grange not if I might have the privilege of flinging Joseph off the highest gable, and painting the housefront with Hindley’s blood!” He admires the comparative luxury of the Grange and recognizes its beauty, but he remains entirely devoted to the freedom of his life with Cathy, and cannot understand the selfishness of the spoiled children: “When would you catch me wishing to have what Catherine wanted?” His devotion to Cathy is clear, and appears to him to be completely natural and inescapable: “she is so immeasurably superior to them to everyone one earth; is she not, Nelly?” He admires her for her bravery, and he possesses that same kind of bravery.

The image of the two civilized children inside the beautiful room, and the two wild children outside both boy and girl of similar ages makes the glass of the window take on the role of a kind of mirror. However, the “mirror” shows the complete opposite rather than the true images of those who look into it.
However, the influence of Wuthering Heights soon proves overpowering, and the inhabitants of Thrushcross Grange are drawn into Catherine, Hindley, and Heathcliff’s drama. Thus the reader almost may interpret Wuthering Heights’s impact on the Linton family as an allegory for the corruption of culture by nature, creating a curious reversal of the more traditional story of the corruption of nature by culture.

Brontë tells her story in such a way as to prevent our interest and sympathy from straying too far from the wilder characters, and often portrays the more civilized characters as despicably weak and silly. This method of characterization prevents the novel from flattening out into a simple privileging of culture over nature, or vice versa. Thus in the end the reader must acknowledge that the novel is no mere allegory.

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Eagleton, Terry. “Wuthering Heights.” In Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës, 97–121. London: Macmillan, 1975.
Jones, Judy and William Wilson. “A Bedside Companion to the Nineteenth-Century English Novel.” In An Incomplete Education, 216–240. New York: Ballantine, 1987.
Kermode, Frank. “A Modern Way with the Classic.” New Literary History 5 (1974): 415–34.
Kiely, Robert. “Wuthering Heights: Emily Brontë.” In The Romantic Novel in England, 233–51. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972.
Miller, J. Hillis. “Emily Brontë.” In The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers, 157–211. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.
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