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Feminist criticism of "Wuthering Heights"

Source: Critical Survey, Vol. 4, No. 2, Feminist criticism (1992), pp. 147-153
Published by: Berghahn Books
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Critical Survey

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Feminist criticism of Wuthering Heights


Within three years of its publication in 1847, Jane Eyre was be

women novelists.1 By contrast, Wuthering Heights made little p
most of its early readers treated it with suspicion. It was only reall
Freudian theory that women readers began to allow themse
curious mixture of fascination and fear induced by Wutherin
biographical plays in the 1930s2 suggests an almost morbid inter
Brontë sisters, while brisk 'modern' women like Rachel Fergus
bons,4 found it necessary to 'contain' this dangerous emotion
Very many women novelists also wrote directly about the Bron
Gaskell,5 Mrs Oliphant, Mrs Humphrey Ward,6 E. Nesbit, Edit
clair,8 Virginia Woolf,9 E. M. Delafield,10 Rachel Ferguson,11 R
Bentley, Elizabeth Goudge,13 Elizabeth von Arnim, Margare
Reid Banks14- but only one or two of these gave individual at
Virginia Woolf, who wrote that 'we think back through our mothers if we are
women',15 can usually be relied upon to have written the first modern feminist essay
on an older woman writer. Indeed, she did write an essay on Wuthering Heights in
1916;16 but it is not noticeably feminist. It is admiring but imprecise; her efforts to
establish the stature of Emily Bronte's novel reach for vastness- ' "we, the whole
human race" and "you, the eternal powers . . ' but her famous sentences trail off
in a vagueness which is as much hers as Emily Bronte's.
Fifty years go by before we find the real groundwork for later feminist studies of
Wuthering Heights in Inga-Stina Ewbank's book Their Proper Sphere: The Brontë
Sisters as Early Victorian Female Novelists (1966). 17 As its subtitle insists, this is a
book which works by contextualisation, a book in the spirit of Virginia Woolf 's later
perception that 'intellectual freedom depends upon material things . . . and women
have always been poor'.18 Moving freely from text to biography and from novel to
poems, it lays the foundations for both author-based and text-based criticism. Q. D.
Leavis's influential 'Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights ' (1969)19 assumes some of
this context, but is mostly notable for its assertion of the heroine's centrality. For
Leavis, the 'truths' of the novel lie in Catherine Earnshaw's story, which is 'at once a
unique personal history, a method of discussing what being a woman means, and a
tragedy of being caught between socially incompatible cultures'.20
Q. D. Leavis's essay appeared too late to be included in either Lettis and Morris's

©C.Q. &S. 1992

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148 Critical Survey, volume 4, number 2

A Wuthering Heights Handbook (1961)21 or Miriam Allott's Casebook (1970). 22

Neither of these widely disseminated anthologies of criticism included, therefore, any
feminist perspective, and Carol Ohmann, in her 1971 essay, 'Emily Brontë in the
Hands of Male Critics',23 demonstrates a pervasive misogyny in criticism of Wuthering
Heights up to that date. One of her main targets is Thomas Moser's diagnostic essay,
'What Is the Matter With Emily Jane?',24 which reduces the novel to evidence in a
psychiatric case-study of its author.
Two feminist studies from the same period, however, use psychoanalysis in a much
more productive way. Juliet Mitchell, in her essay, ' Wuthering Heights : Romanticism
and Rationality' (1966), 25 provides an answer to the problem which clearly puzzled
Virginia Woolf; the apparent 'vastness' of the novel's range of reference. Mitchell
argues that it is, paradoxically, the limitation of Bronte's world which accounts for its
'cosmic' quality: 'The universe has become the family, and a microcosm has become
the cosmos.'26 Her analysis of the novel, however, stresses its 'intelligibility': 'The
nature and actions of every character in the drama are fully intelligible because they
are always related to the total biographical development of the person and, above all,
to what we now know to be the most critical phase of life: childhood.'27
Helen Moglen, writing in 1971, also uses psychoanalysis in a straightforward bio-
graphical way, reading 'the theme of Wuthering Heights [as] the development of the
female personality from childhood to maturity. Wuthering Heights is Catherine's
story'.28 From our present perspective it may be difficult to perceive that this state-
ment is itself a necessary feminist assertion, but previous criticism, from Charlotte
Bronte's 'Biographical Notice' (1850)29 to Miriam Allott's essay, 'The Rejection of
Heathcliff?' (1958), 30 had too often assumed that Heathcliff was the centre of the
novel. Carolyn Heilbrun's 1973 essay, 'The Woman as Hero'31 is recognisably part of
this new position, but its strongest and most accessible statement at this time is in
Ellen Moers's Literary Women (1977), which reads the novel 'as a statement of a very
serious kind about a girl's childhood and the adult woman's tragic yearning to return
to it. . . . The gratuitous cruelties of the novel thus are justified as realistic attributes
of the nursery world- and as frankly joyous memories of childhood eroticism'.32
This psychoanalytic tendency in criticism of the 1970s was balanced in 1976 when
Terry Eagle ton published his important Marxist study of the Brontes,33 which extends
the social history approach offered by Inga-Stina Ewbank by presenting a more
sophisticated ideological analysis of the 'relationship . . . between the imaginative
fiction of the Brontes and the society of their time'.34 Eagleton, despite his impeccably
materialist analysis of ideology, still tends to take Heathcliff as the novel's central
character, and he was famously taken to task for his lack of feminist perspective by
the Marxist-Feminist Literature Collective in 1977. It is, however, indicative of the
uncertain position of Wuthering Heights in the developing feminist consciousness that
the Collective chose Jane Eyre and Shirley, not Wuthering Heights, to represent
'Women's Writing' of 1848.35 Similarly, Jenni Calder's Women and Marriage in the
Victorian Novel (1976)36 gives Wuthering Heights only the merest mention, while
Elaine Showalter, in a book dedicated to 'establishing a more . . . accurate and
systematic literary history for women writers',37 also deals with Charlotte but not

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Review essay: feminist criticism of Wuthering Heights 149

Emily Brontë. It is as if feminist critics of this early phase are establishing their own
'great tradition', which is different from F. R. Leavis's, but which still tends to see
Wuthering Heights, as he did, as 'a kind of sport'.38
All this changes decisively in 1979 with Sandra Gilbert's and Susan Gubar's The
Madwoman in the Attic.3,9 Although its title derives, once more, from Charlotte rather
than Emily, The Madwoman is an inclusive text. Whereas Showalter's A Literature of
Their Own had attempted to define a female literary tradition, Gilbert and Gubar are
concerned with the position of women writers as they relate, inevitably, to the male
mainstream. In particular they take issue with the American critic Harold Bloom,
who, in The Anxiety of Influence, explains literary history as 'the crucial warfare of
fathers and sons', a process in which younger writers struggle to resist the influence of
their elders. Gilbert and Gubar point out that a woman writer in this context suffers
'an even more primary "anxiety of authorship"- a radical fear that she cannot create
. . . not fight a male precursor on "his" terms and win'.40 Identifying Milton's
Paradise Lost as a culturally definitive 'story of woman's secondness',41 The Mad-
woman in the Attic analyses Wuthering Heights as a series of strategies for negotiating
'Milton's bogey'.
Firstly, Gilbert and Gubar argue, 'the story of Wuthering Heights is built around a
central fall', so that the novel is in part 'a Bildungsroman about a girl's passage from
"innocence" to "experience" '. 42 'This fall', however, 'is not a fall into hell. It is a
fall from "hell" into "heaven" '.43 Gilbert and Gubar employ an eclectic mixture of
formal, structuralist, Marxist and psychoanalytic arguments to demonstrate that
'Emily Brontë thought in polarities',44 whether the Miltonic 'hell and heaven' or
Claude Levi-Strauss's anthropological 'raw and cooked'. Heaven, the 'cooked', is
associated with patriarchy, represented in Wuthering Heights by Edgar Linton. 'In
Freudian terms he would ... be described as her superego, the internalized guardian
of morality and culture, with Heathcliff, his opposite, functioning as her childish and
desirous id.'45
Including the second-generation story, Gilbert and Gubar propose 'the following
parodie, anti-Miltonic myth: There was an Original Mother (Catherine), a daughter
of nature. . . . But this girl fell into a decline, at least in part through eating the
poisonous cooked food of culture. She fragmented herself into mad or dead selves on
the one hand (Catherine, Heathcliff) and into lesser, gentler/genteeler selves on the
other (Catherine II, Hareton). The fierce primordial selves disappeared into nature,
the perversely hellish heaven which was their home. The more teachable and docile
selves learned to read and write, and moved into the fallen cultured world of parlors
and parsonages, the Miltonic heaven which, from the Original Mother's point of
view, is really hell.'46
Although obviously influenced by structuralist and psychoanalytic theories, The
Madwoman in the Attic does not advertise its theoretical underpinnings. By contrast,
Margaret Homans's chapter in Bearing the Word (1986) depends on a lengthy
theoretical introduction. Homans's version of Gilbert and Gubar's 'fall' into culture
is the child's 'fall' into what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls the Symbolic
order. In the Lacanian version of Freud's Oedipus complex, 'it is symbolic language

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150 Critical Survey, volume 4, number 2

alone that can approximate the bridging of the gap between child and mother opened
up by the simultaneous arousal and prohibition of incest'. Language 'becomes a
system for generating substitutes for the forbidden mother'.47 But because the mother
is forbidden to sons rather than daughters, a daughter 'does not perceive the mother
as lost or renounced, [and] does not need the compensation the father's law offers as
much as does the son'.48 For Lacan, this places women at a cultural disadvantage;
Homans, however, invokes the feminist object-relations psychologist Nancy
Chodorow, who sees the positive aspects of this process. Because the daughter never
quite gives up the presymbolic communication, she has the advantage of speaking
'two languages at once. Along with symbolic language, she retains the literal or
presymbolic language that the son represses at the time of his renunciation of his
Working from this position, Homans argues that 'in carrying language from the
relatively figurative to the relatively literal . . . women writers . . . dramatize the hope
that the father's law might cease to be the exclusive language of literary culture'.49 In
this context, she reads Wuthering Heights as structured round the contrast between
'the first Cathy's story . . . about a girl's refusal to enter something very like the
Lacanian symbolic order, while the second Cathy's story revises her mother's, by
having the girl accept her entry into the father's law'.50
Homans stresses that the narrative is organised by Lockwood and conforms to his
need endlessly to defer the realisation of desire; unlike Gilbert and Gubar, she also
sees Heathcliff, even as a child, adopting the compensatory strategies of symbolisa-
tion.51 The elder Catherine, in contrast, by seeking literally to replicate the joys of her
childhood, is threatened by madness and ends in death. Thus 'Brontë probes the
psychic and imaginative possibilities that the literal represents, yet in the end she
identifies these possibilities as dangers within the only terms in which she can write,
and she seals up her novel's defenses against them. Brontë thus identifies her project
with Lockwood's, with the son's . . . repressing literal nature in favor of figuration.
But through her heroine, we glimpse a different view, a different allegiance, through
which the oppressive writing of nature, and of the mother, would be forgone'.52
Homans's is a rather depressing view of the novel's outcome, and a number of
feminists have made a more positive reading of the second generation in Wuthering
Heights.53 It is, however, Stevie Davies who provides a really startling contrast to both
Gilbert and Gubar and Homans in her two books on Emily Brontë (1983 and 1988). 54
Whereas it has almost become feminist orthodoxy to see nineteenth-century women
writers as excluded and repressed by masculine culture, Davies argues that Emily
Brontë was a 'free woman'. Drawing on protestant theology and Emily Bronte's
poetry, Davies argues that 'uniquely among mythopoeic works of fiction Wuthering
Heights raises the mother-principle (projected as the earth, the traditional terra
mater) to the status of deity, presenting it as the focal object of human aspiration and
the final end of Emily Bronte's language of desire'.55
Like Juliet Mitchell, Davies sees the novel as preoccupied with childhood and the
family, and like Gilbert and Gubar she acknowledges its story as 'stages of the fall'.56
Unlike them, however, she reads the strength of the novel in its iconoclastic protest

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Review essay: feminist criticism of Wuthering Heights 151

against the (father) God who has 'orphaned' his children,57 as opposed to 'a spiritual
home identifiable with the mother'.58 She asserts, moreover, that the novel's 'oblique,
slantwise alignment with the traditional fictive language, narrative authority and the
community's ethical-social imperatives, presents an indirect but utterly recalcitrant
refusal of submission to patriarchal assumptions of how meaning is generated'.59 In an
implicit answer to Homans, Davies argues that 'the tonality of the novel's voices . . .
is joyous. . . . The act of writing appears as the unique means of immortalising and
authorising the energies of childhood, whereby words (a sign in themselves of loss
. . .) are liberated from their original conditions to be inscribed in the form of a
homeopathic . . . remedy for the very conditions they record.'60 Part of this 'remedy'
is 'Emily Bronte's joyous literary feud with Milton' which displaces heaven 'from the
supernatural to the natural, the Father's transcendence to the mother's imma-
nence',61 so that it is entirely appropriate that the last word of the novel is 'earth'.62
Most of these influential essays deal with the central relationships of the novel, but
there is also a strong area of feminist criticism concerned primarily with its form.
N. M. Jacobs, in 'Gender and Layered Narrative in Wuthering Heights and The
Tenant of Wildfell HalV (1986), provides interesting feminist/sociological substance
for John T. Matthews's purely formal analysis of the 'frame' narrative.63 Jacobs
argues that in Wuthering Heights 'we approach a horrific private reality only after
passing through and then discarding the perceptual structures of a narrator- signifi-
cantly a male narrator- who represents the public world that makes possible and
tacitly approves the excesses behind the closed doors of these pre- Victorian homes'.64
Patricia Yaeger, in 'Violence in the Sitting Room' (1988), 65 follows the Russian critic
Mikhail Bakhtin in focusing on the subversive power of laughter in Wuthering
Heights. Taking Bakhtin's view of the novel as 'a multi-voiced, multi-languaged
form',66 Yaeger opposes feminist critics such as Myra Jehlen67 and Rachel Brown-
stein,68 who see novel-reading as a 'danger' for women, seeing it instead as 'an
emancipatory form which permits the woman novelist to refuse and revise other
literary genres'.69
Nancy Armstrong, in her essay, 'Emily Brontë in and out of her Time' (1982), 70
gives a historical dimension to the formal characteristics of the novel, pointing out
that Wuthering Heights appears to change genre from Romantic passion to Victorian
Realism, and this is an argument which Lyn Pykett takes up in her book, Emily
Brontë (1989). In chapter 5, entitled 'Gender and Genre in Wuthering Heights : Gothic
Plot and Domestic Design', Pykett gives a remarkably suggestive summary of recent
feminist work on genre and history and its implications for Wuthering Heights. Refer-
ring to Nancy Armstrong's Desire in Domestic Fiction (1987) and Jane Spencer's The
Rise of the Woman Novelist (1986), she considers the argument that Wuthering
Heights repeats literary history by beginning with a gothic tale (Catherine and Heath-
cliff) and ending with a domestic one (Cathy and Hare ton). Quoting Tania Modleski,
Pykett argues 'for a continuity between Gothic and Domestic, since both are "con-
cerned with the (often displaced) relationships among family members and with
driving home to women the importance of coping with enforced confinement and the
paranoid fears it generates" '.71 She concludes that 'at the same time as Wuthering

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152 Critical Survey , volume 4, number 2

Heights traces the emergence of the modern family and its hegemonic fictional form of
Domestic realism, other elements of the novel . . . work together to keep other
versions of domestic life before the reader: the domestic space as prison, the family as
site of primitive passions, violence, struggle and control'.72
For more than a century after its publication it seems that women avoided Wuther-
ing Heights , fearing that to enter into Catherine Earnshaw's experiences might be to
share her fate. In the last few months I have been surveying criticism of Wuthering
Heights written during the last twenty years;73 1 am glad to say that feminist criticism is
now more, not less, exciting than any other, and that Emily Bronte has taken her
place at last as one of our literary 'mothers'.

1 See Mrs Oliphant, 'Modern Novelists- Great and Small', Blackwood's Magazine , LXXVII (May 1855), pp.
2 e.g. Clemence Dane, Wild Decembers: a Play About the Brontë Family (London, 1932).
3 Rachel Ferguson, The Brontës Went to Woolworths (London, 1933).
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm (1932; Harmondsworth, 1978).
Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (London, 1855).
The Novels of the Brontë Sisters , 7 vols, introd. Mrs Humphrey Ward (The Haworth edition, New York,
7 Edith Sitwell, 'Emily Brontë: 1818-1848', in English Women (London, 1902), pp. 35-6.
8 May Sinclair, The Three Brontës (London, 1912).
9 Virginia Woolf, ' Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights4 , 1916, reprinted in The Common Reader , 1925.
10 E. M. Delafield, The Brontës: Their Lives Recorded by their Contemporaries (London, 1935).
11 Rachel Ferguson, Charlotte Brontë : A Play in Three Acts (London, 1933).
12 Rebecca West, 'Charlotte Brontë'. in Great Victorians, ed. H. J. and Hueh Massineham (London. 1932).
13 Elizabeth Goudge, The Brontës of Haworth, in Three Plays (London, 1939).
Lynne Keid banks, Dark Quartet: the Story of the Brontës (1976; Harmondsworth, 1986).
15 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1928; Harmondsworth, 1945), p. 76.
16 Virginia Woolf, ' Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights' , 1916, reprinted in The Common Reader , 1925.
Inga-Stina Ewbank, Their Proper Sphere: the Brontë Sisters as Early Victorian Female Novelists (London, 1966).
10 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One s Own (1928; Harmondsworth, 1945), p. 106.
19 Q. D. Leavis, 'A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights' , in Lectures in America (Cambridge, 1969), vol. I, pp.
20 Leavis, p. 260.
21 Richard Lettis and William E. Morris (eds), A Wuthering Heights Handbook (New York, 1961).
22 Miriam Allott (ed.), Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights , A Casebook (Basingstoke, 1970).
23 Carol Ohmann, 'Emily Brontë in the Hands of Male Critics', College English , 32 (1971), pp. 907-13.
^ Thomas Moser, 'What Is The Matter With Emily Jane? Conflicting Impulses m Wuthering Heights , Nineteenth
Century Fiction , XVII (June 1962).
25 Juliet Mitchell, ' Wuthering Heights : Romanticism and Rationality', in Women: the Longest Revolution (1966;
London, 1984).
26 Mitchell, p. 128.
27 Mitchell, pp. 143-4.
28 Helen Moglen, 'The Double Vision of Wuthering Heights : A Clarifying View of Female Development', Centen-
nial Review , 15 (Autumn, 1971) pp. 391-^05.
29 Charlotte Brontë, 'Biographical Notice' to Wuthering Heights , Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847;
Harmondsworth, 1965).
30 Miriam Allott, 'The Rejection of Heathcliff?', Essays in Criticism (1958).
31 Carolvn Heilbrun, 'The Woman As Hero' in Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (New York, 1973), pp. 49-112.
32 Ellen Moers, Literary Women (1977; London, 1978), p. 106.
33 Terry Eagleton, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës (Basingstoke, 1976).
34 Eagleton, p. 3.
33 Marxist-Feminist Literature Collective, 'Women's Writing', in The Sociology of Literature: 1848 , ed. Francis
Barker et al . , (Essex, 1978).
36 Jenni Calder, Women and Marriage in the Victorian Novel Г London, 1976).
37 Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (London, 1978), p. 8.
38 F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (1948), p. 27.

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Review essay: feminist criticism of Wuthering Heights 153

39 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century
Literary Imagination (Yale, 1979).
40 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, ch. 8, 'Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell', in The Madwoman in
the Attic (Yale, 1979), pp. 248-308, pp. 47-9.
41 Gilbert and Gubar, p. 191.
42 Gilbert and Gubar, pp. 253-4.
43 Gilbert and Gubar, p. 255.
44 Gilbert and Gubar, p. 273.
45 Gilbert and Gubar, p. 281.
46 Gilbert and Gubar, p. 303.
47 Homans, Margaret, 'The Name of the Mother in Wuthering Heights' , in Bearing the Word: Language and Female
Experience in Nineteenth-century Women's Writing (London and Chicago, 1986), pp. 68-83, p. 7.
48 Homans, p. 13.
49 Homans, p. 33.
50 Homans, p. 68.
51 Homans, p. 79.
52 Homans, p. 83.
53 e.g. Carol Senf, 'Emily Brontë s Version of Feminist History: Wuthering Heights , Essays in Literature , 12 (1985),
pp. 204-14.
Stevie Davies, Emily Brontë: The Artist as a Free Woman (Carcanet, 1983); Emily Brontë (Harvester Key Women
Writers series, Hemel Hempstead, 1988).
55 Davies, 1988, p. 25.
56 Davies, 1988, p. 45.
57 Davies, 1988, p. 60.
58 Davies, 1988, p. 63.
59 Davies. 1988. d. 89.
60 Davies, 1988, pp. 89-90.
61 Davies, 1988, pp. 118-19.
62 Davies, 1988, p. 146.
63 John T. Matthews, 'Framing in Wuthering Heights4 , Texas Studies in Literature and Language , XXVII (Spring,
1985), pp. 25-61.
04 N. M . Jacobs, uender and Layered Narrative in Wutnering Heights and ine lenant of wilafell Hall , Journal of
Narrative Technique , 16 (1986), pp. 204-19, p. 204.
65 Patricia Yaeger, 'Violence in the Sitting Room: Wuthering Heights and the Woman's Novel', Genre, XXI, 2
(1988), pp. 203-29.
66 Yaeger, p. 203.
67 Myra Jehlen, 'Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism', in The Signs Reader , ed. Abel and Abel
68 Rachel Brownstein, Becoming a Heroine (Harmondsworth, 1984).
69 Yaeeer, p. 209.
70 Nancy Armstrong, 'Emily Brontë in and out of her Time', Genre, 15 (1982), pp. 243-64.
71 Pykett, p. 78.
72 Pvkett, p. 85.
73 In preparation for Wuthering Heights , A New Casebook (Basingstoke: Macmillan).

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