During the early 1800’s, the period in which Emily Bronti?? wrote ‘Wuthering Heights’, English women were treated as inferior to men and as a result had sparse rights and were in possession of almost no power. Women were expected to conform to strict social protocols such as complete obedience and devotion to their husbands, were only able to pursue careers in restrictive badly paid roles such as governess, and were poorly protected by a legal system which universally favoured men- making it virtually impossible to escape from an unhappy, possibly violent marriage. Throughout Wuthering Heights, Bronti??
challenges the position of the female in English society by developing the characters of Catherine Earnshaw and Isabella Linton as strong, intelligent women who were ultimately broken by the social conventions which bound their spirit and ambition- forcing them into decisions which would destroy their lives. Catherine Earnshaw is the female protagonist of the novel and is described as a beautiful, passionate woman who is torn between her socially degrading eternal love for Heathcliff and the prospect of conventional marriage with the upper class Edgar Linton, Bronti??
skilfully uses metaphor and incorporates themes of nature from the romantic period to convey the contrasting love Cathy feels for the two men with the analogy that “[Her] love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods; time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. [Her] love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath–a source of little visible delight, but necessary.
” Throughout the novel both Heathcliff and Cathy echo these sentiments and it is made clear that Heathcliff and Cathy share passionate true love; whereas Cathy’s ‘love’ for Edgar is a superficial one which is forced on her by the demands of the society she lives in. This assessment of the situation is corroborated by Cathy’s assertion that “if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it.
It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now”, here Bronti?? is challenging the role of women in society by suggesting that the social conventions of the time forced Cathy into the decision which ultimately shapes the rest of the novel. Furthermore, this statement supports the Marxist interpretation that the conflicts in ‘Wuthering Heights’ are a result of the bourgeois class oppressing the proletariats (in this case Hindley Earnshaw’s abuse of Heathcliff) and demonstrates Bronti??
‘s interest in questioning the society and legal system of her time, which was harsh on both the lower classes and women- it was not until 1918 that all English women and men over 21 were allowed to vote; it is also clear that Bronti?? was knowledgeable about the English legal system as her utilisation of inheritance law and the way Heathcliff is able to exploit the law to abuse Isabella without punishment is completely accurate and further highlights the way women’s position in society is severely compromised by gaping holes in the English legislation.
It could be argued that these legal and social impediments are represented by the physical barriers in ‘Wuthering Heights’ such as the windows of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange; it is significant that both Isabella and Catherine are imprisoned by these barriers as it demonstrates that women of all class are confined by the restraints of the patriarchal society which they live in.
This point is further corroborated by Edgar Linton closing the window of Thrushcross Grange to stop Cathy’s metaphorical attempt to escape her loveless marriage and fulfil her longing to be “among the heather on those hills” so she can be herself again; the theme of loss of identity is prevalent throughout chapter XII and on a psycho-analytical level it seems that Bronti??
feels disconnected from her own identity as a result of her attempt to live out her subconscious desires vicariously- through Cathy. Pyscho-analysis of Isabella can be used to explain her longing for power in Freudian terms; the concept of ‘penis envy’ elucidates the Isabella’s envy of Hindley’s pistol and her suggestion that the gun would grant her greater authority than society offers her (“How powerful [she] should be possessing such an instrument”).
Furthermore, it is both poignant and depressing that violence is the way Isabella is able to break free from Heathcliff’s torment and it is only the encouragement of Hindley, another man, which allows her to even contemplate the prospect of murdering Heathcliff- an attempt which eventually gives her the courage to attack him in a mental way and consequently escape to London. However, it could be argued that her torture at the hands of Heathcliff mentally scarred her for life and forced her to flee from her home which she loved so much; her decision to marry Heathcliff ends badly, just as Cathy’s marriage to Linton is ultimately doomed.
It is also significant that Lockwood’s first encounter with Catherine’s name is in her notebooks which are scrawled with three different names, ‘Catherine Earnshaw’, ‘Catherine Heathcliff’ and ‘Catherine Linton’- this is Bronti?? demonstrating the way women are owned by men even in their name, one’s most powerful asset, an idea further corroborated by Nelly calling Isabella ‘Mrs. Heathcliff’. Ideas such as this issue of ownership are prevalent throughout ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Bronti??
constantly challenges the social patriarchy in which she lived by articulating her message that women are equal to men through the suggestion that women are being unfairly treated at the hands of their husbands, the legal system and the social protocol which they are forced to abide by. There is a consistent theme of physical and mental barriers in the novel and it is clear that Emily Bronti?? was trying to break down the metaphorical barriers facing women in the 19th Century by questioning their treatment and developing the characters of Isabella and Cathy to inspire other women to break free from their shackles.