How many major characters in the novel choose to inflict a reign of terror
Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ is an especially captivating novel for a plethora of reasons; it melds themes of love, revenge, death, and illness to conjure a breathtaking plot, despite the fact that the majority of it is a recount from Ellen Dean. To fit in with the more dreary nature of the novel, the following article will explore how the overarching theme of tyranny connects the novels key themes, as the men in the novel seek to serve their own interests, and ruthlessly subjugate those who oppose said desires. There is light at the end of this pessimistic tunnel, however, due to a fateful reality that eventually resolves this tyranny, either through finite vengeance or through reassuring development. The structure of this article will attempt to follow the chronology of the plot (from Ellen Dean’s perspective), although of course, there will be instances in which references to later/earlier instances in the plot are more significant than maintaining chronology.
The first form of tyranny that Ellen Dean exposes Mr. Lockwood to is the brutish conduct of Hindley Earnshaw enacted upon Heathcliff upon the child’s arrival at the Heights, which continues until he leaves. It’s notable that, at first, Catherine, Hindley’s sister and Heathcliff’s eventual romantic interest, also engages in this oppression, “spitting” at young Heathcliff. This changes after a short period of time, as Catherine begins to enjoy the company of Heathcliff. However, her small instance of hatred isn’t useless to this point, as it re-enforces the nature of both her short-lived disliking of Heathcliff and Hindley’s eternal disdain for him; it is founded upon a fear of the unknown. Catherine’s humanity helps her overcome this, but the hateful nature of Hindley causes this fear to manifest into bullying, which in turn, can be read as pure tyranny. The metaphor of Heathcliff being an “imp of Satan” to Hindley exposes that his ‘hatred’ for Heathcliff is at the lowest level it can possibly be- at which he assumes the boy to be associable with paganism. This verbal abuse is ultimately transcended by physical violence, with Heathcliff stating that his arm “is black to the shoulder” after facing lashings from Hindley. This represents a powerful yet vacuous tyranny, with an exclusive focus on the present torture, and no consideration for what could come of such tyranny. When Hindley becomes the master of the Heights, this tyranny becomes slightly more thorough; Ellen suggests “Hindley became tyrannical”, due to this decision to strip Heathcliff of tutoring and make him “labour out of doors”, thus stripping him of any potential fulfilment in life, however, it doesn’t account for Heathcliff’s eventual decision to escape the tyranny (although admittedly he is only pushed to leave after learning of Catherine’s engagement to Edgar Linton).
To this, the tyranny of Heathcliff is a foil. It is calculated and has a much higher level of impact, which ultimately makes it a more insufferable experience. Instead of letting Hindley’s child die through his errors, or “making amends” and killing the child after he is dropped, Heathcliff relents his inner cruelty for the time being, perhaps to minimise the guilt he would feel. Yet his later retribution is nothing short of cruel, moulding Hareton Earnshaw into an obtuse individual simply to repay the cruelties of his father. The metaphor “we’ll see if one tree won’t grow as crooked as another with the same wind to twist it” drearily alludes to the torture of Heathcliff, which he then inflicts upon Hareton, despite his admiration of the boy. Thus, the cycle of tyranny continues.
It’s fair to assume that this hatred is developed due to a naturally jealous trait inherent in Hindley, however another important piece to this hatred an aversion of those who are not like oneself. Hindley is born into a wealthy family, and is eventually educated at college, after which his tyranny continues to develop. The notion that he should be made to treat Heathcliff as an equal is especially absurd to him; we the readers, don’t know Heathcliff’s nationality, although the quote that he is a “little Lascar , or an American or Spanish castaway” indicates that he may be of non-white descent. This then allows a tyrannical mindset to flourish in Hindley’s mind, one of a belief in superiority over other races that was often shared during the 1800’s. However, readers can clearly see how ridiculous this animosity is, and the unsympathetic presentation of Hindley as ignoble and decaying allows the reader to criticise all aspects of Hindley’s horrendous conduct.
Whilst it would be unruly to suggest that the Linton family oppresses young Heathcliff directly, their class-fueled disdain for him acts as a symptom of a larger problem- the subjugation of the working-class, through policy, unfair labour practices, and, as seen in this instance, manipulative social views regarding the poorest in society. When the Lintons stumble across Heathcliff, they dehumanise him by labelling him a “Frightful thing”, and show racist and apathetic tendencies through calling him a “gipsy”. This degradation of Heathcliff is extended by the unflattering simile that his hair is “like a colt’s mane over his eyes” expressed by Edgar Linton upon visiting the Heights. Furthermore, the fact that Heathcliff holds “contempt” for Edgar, whereas the latter is outright ‘disgusted’ by Heathcliff indicates the social dynamic which keeps Heathcliff oppressed, and allows the upper-class as a whole to uphold its tyranny, in that the likes of Heathcliff are taught to respect higher society, despite their hatred for it, whereas the bourgeoise are afforded the privilege of viewing the working-class as sub-human. This oppression is even continued, perhaps subconsciously, by Catherine, as her litote of calling Heathcliff “dirty” adds to his shame, and is made even worse when she states “But that’s because I’m used to Edgar and Isabella”.
Whilst Bronte may not have been influenced by any specific political theory, Wuthering Heights can certainly be read from a Marxist perspective, and the reader will find abundant evidence to support this reading. Although it subsides in terms of the biggest tyrant (before Heathcliff leaves and returns), which is clearly the malicious Hindley, the tyranny expressed by higher society is one that causes Heathcliff to self-deprecate, which then manifests itself into a more hateful person upon his return to the Heights.
The tyranny of Heathcliff upon his return serves as the centre-point of the latter half of the novel, as he transitions slowly from misunderstood protagonist to a purely loathsome antagonist by the end of Ellen Deans’ narrative. Although Heathcliff’s conduct towards Edgar is full of disdain, the basis of their relationship as a rivalry prevents Heathcliff from exercising any form of subjugation of Edgar and Catherine Linton. With this, Heathcliff needs an outlet to exercise his vengeance on the Linton’s, which he finds in manipulating and alienating Edgar’s sister Isabella, gaining her hand in marriage, and therefore becoming heir to Thrushcross Grange. In her letter to Ellen, Isabella reveals that Heathcliff’s ambitions are oxymoronic to the purpose of marriage; “he is ingenious and unresting in seeking to gain my abhorrence”. Furthermore, the predatorial semantics in her suggestion that “a tiger or a venomous serpent could not rouse terror in me equal to that which he wakes” implies, without directly addressing, the abuse that she faces from her now-husband, which is also connotated by her suggesting that she ‘suffers’, and her direct labelling of Heathcliff as “the tyrant”. Even Heathcliff revels in his cruel treatment, believing that there is “gratification” to be had in “tormenting” Isabella.
In modern readings, the analysis of misogyny in Wuthering Heights has become increasingly prevalent, and here is no exception. Heathcliff’s brutal subjugation of Isabella represents a deep-rooted hate of women that aren’t Catherine Linton. Although the causes of this hatred aren’t exactly clear, it is left unchallenged by society, and therefore remains an integral part of Heathcliff’s character. Heathcliff uses the derogatory slur “mere slut” to reveal his contempt for his wife, and also labels her a “viper”, despite her saving his life through warning him of Hindley’s murderous intentions. Heathcliff’s conduct may serve as a warning against the tyranny of man that ultimately constructs a patriarchal model.
Heathcliff also represents a paternal tyranny; one in which his son, Linton Heathcliff, is damned for not being moulded into his father’s image. The dialogue of the measly and conflicted Edgar reveals the harrowing levels of the abuse he suffers, stating at first, perhaps euphemistically, that Heathcliff’s treatment is “very hard”, and then later telling young Catherine (Catherine Linton’s daughter) “leave me and I shall be killed!”. The exaggerative connotations of the latter imply heavily that Heathcliff is abusive both verbally and physically. This, in a sense, is tyranny in its most unhindered form; forcing those with lesser power to bend to one’s will. Even Heathcliff acknowledges this abuse, perhaps even revelling in it; “my presence is as potent on his nerves a ghost” is a clear remark of apathy, given that he feels no shame in what should be a deprecating notion. This tyranny manifests clearly into misanthropy when he kidnaps Cathy; “Had I been born where laws are less strict, and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two, as an evening’s amusement”. The grotesque imagery that is soon juxtaposed through a sentiment of entertainment maybe be a psychoanalytical perspective of the inherent characteristics of those who crave unchecked power; violent urges are a symptom of individualist power, it seems.
Despite the complete vastness of tyranny in Wuthering Heights, it seems somewhat unfair to characterise this tyranny as inescapable. Whilst the novel isn’t overtly optimistic, in fact it’s quite the contrary, there is hope left at the end of the novel; despite the onslaught of abuse and neglect delivered to Hareton by almost everyone he has known, he rises above tyranny to reach an eventual state of self-betterment. Ellen’s remark that “His honest, warm, and intelligent nature shook off rapidly the clouds of ignorance and degradation in which it had been bred” is symbolic of both the corruptive nature of tyranny and the ability to deflect tyranny through companionship, perhaps echoing the childhood of Heathcliff, in which his life at the Heights is made bearable due to Catherine Earnshaw (even further exasperated by the fact that, upon their marriage, young Catherine becomes Catherine Earnshaw). Furthermore, the characters who do engage in unrelenting tyranny; Hindley, Heathcliff, and to some extent Edgar and Heathcliff Linton, all face a sickly demise- when Hindley and Heathcliff are at their weakest, the fruitlessness of their oppression is revealed in its fullest form.