Monday, 27 January 2014

How Important is Setting in 'Wuthering Heights'?

The impassioned happenings of Emily Bronte’s classic novel fittingly take place in the desolate and miserable landscape of the Yorkshire Moors. Emily Bronte’s surroundings clearly had a gravitational effect on her literature; she grew up in the small and somewhat isolated village of Thornton, West Riding of Yorkshire, and later moved to Haworth, a village surrounded by moorlands far and wide. In fact, she is supposed to have based the locations of her renowned novel on landmarks in the local area; Ponden Hall is reputedly Thrushcross Grange, and Top Withens is alledgedly the setting for Wuthering Heights.

“Fiction depends for its life on place.” American author Eudora Welty said, “Place is the crossroads of circumstance;” Bronte would almost certainly have agreed. The setting for her book Wuthering Heights plays a vital role in the progression of the novel; typical of Gothic literature, the isolation and harshness of the landscape adds to the foreboding and ominous atmosphere prominent in the book. The wild and primitive backdrop to the tale can be not only pitiless  (“I had half a mind to spend it by my study fire, instead of wading through heath and mud to Wuthering Heights”), but it can also act as a sanctuary. Heathcliff and Catherine retreat to the rugged moors to escape Hindley’s cruelty, and in this way the two grow close.

The idea of isolation is vital in a Gothic novel; the second half of Austen’s Northanger Abbey takes place in an old and secluded abbey; Thornfield Hall (of Jane Eyre) is all the more ominous because of its solitude and emptiness – not only does this accentuate Jane’s sense of entrapment, but it also reflects Rochester’s mood upon her arrival; many readers claim that the scariest parts of Frankenstein are those set in the French Alps – the landscape only serves to emphasize Frankenstein’s helplessness. Another example is found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Count Dracula traps Jonathan Harker in his gloomy castle, and he is unable to leave, not only due to his fear of Dracula, but also because of his fear of the wilderness of Transylvania. This is a key theme in all Gothic literature: the sense of isolation and helplessness, and this mood is created not only by the story, but also by the setting. Nelly and Cathy fall victim to this sense of helplessness when Heathcliff, Bronte’s Byronic hero, keeps them captive at Wuthering Heights. Thus, Bronte is clearly making use of the desolate landscape.

Wuthering Heights is a gloomy old farmhouse open to the wrath of the wind, as suggested by its name. The name of the manor is actually “descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed to stormy weather.” It is particularly isolated in that it is on top of a hill and surrounded by moorland; the nearest house, Thrushcross Grange, is four miles away, and the route is so precarious that numerous characters get lost when walking between the two. In fact, it is so isolated that Mr Lockwood exclaims in the novel: “I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society,” and describes Wuthering Heights as the “perfect misanthropist’s home”. The house itself is devoid of anything homely: no “glittering pans”, no roasting on the fire. A number of harsh words are used to describe the house; for instance, the words “narrow”, “strong”, “jutted” and “defended” are all used when referring to the farmhouse, and the front of the house yields “a quantity of grotesque carving”. The house’s gloomy atmosphere makes Cathy’s imprisonment all the more scary. Emily Bronte makes use of Pathetic Fallacy in that we first see the house during a storm (upon Lockwood’s arrival), and so it seems all the more ominous and forbidding.

Thrushcross Grange, on the other hand, is luxury; Bronte describes is as “a splendid place carpeted with crimson”, and she puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that Thrushcross Grange, unlike Wuthering Heights, has “light”. This is not simply a reference amount of light in the house, but is a metaphor for the more inviting, more pleasant atmosphere found at the Grange, whereas it is always dark and gloomy at the Heights. The Grange is owned by the wealthier and socially higher Linton family, and indeed at one point Heathcliff and Catherine venture across the moors to spy on the illustrious Lintons.

The contrast between the two residences is obvious in their inhabitants; for example, the wild location of Wuthering Heights seems to promote passion and wildness in its inhabitants, whereas the Grange seems to promote more Orthodox attitudes of genteelness and respectability. For example, after Catherine and Heathcliff are caught spying at the Grange, and Catherine is nursed back to health by the Lintons after a dog bite, she returns a changed girl. She is polite and courteous, and laughs at Heathcliff for his uncleanliness. The fact that numerous people get lost while travelling between the two houses emphasizes their difference; although it is only a distance of a few miles, it is also the difference of two social classes. Heathcliff particularly is keen to break this social barrier, and indeed he marries Isabella Linton in order to inherit the estate.

Numerous authors use this technique, making their setting have an influence on their characters’ behaviours. For instance, in William Golding’s dystopian novel Lord of the Flies, the wild landscape into which the children are planted has a huge impact on their behaviour and their actions. They first arrive on the island as polite and respectable pupils, but grow to become murderous brutes. The island changes them, just as the moors change Catherine.

There is a huge difference between the relationship Catherine has with Heathcliff, and the relationship she has with Edgar Linton of the Grange. With Heathcliff she is passionate and wild, roaming the moors with her mysterious Byronic hero, whereas with the Lintons she is intent on conforming to social norms. She finds a sister and friend in Isabella, something she lacked in her childhood, and finds a sense of security that Heathcliff was unable to offer. Wuthering Heights is considered one of the greatest love stories ever written because it is still relevant today; at Thrushcross Grange Catherine is urged to conform, be a lady, marry for money and give up childhood delights, whereas at Wuthering Heights she can experience true joy and spontaneity. But where will she be truly happy? She tells Nelly that she will marry Edgar not because she loves him, but rather for security, and she insists that she could never marry Heathcliff, who is only a poorly bred gypsy from Liverpool. Wuthering Heights is, as well as being a love story, a tale of freedom versus constraint.

The setting of Wuthering Heights is vital; the Yorkshire Moors lend themselves to the supernatural aspects of a Gothic novel (Catherine’s appearance at Lockwood’s window), they create a sense of horror, act as a sanctuary, and the two houses (the Heights and the Grange) represent the choice that presents many lovers – whether love is more important than stability and money. Bronte herself was clearly very troubled by this question, and indeed marriage was a subject that constantly occupied young girl’s minds in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Her setting allows her to emphasize this contrast, and the wild moors act as a barrier, differentiating the two even more.

1 comment:

  1. Your essays are uniformly excellent, Tom. If only you wrote them in Welsh, so I could use them as models for my pupils!

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