Typical to the Female Gothic there is a castle, and in Wuthering Heights it is no less symbolic than earlier predecessors such as the fortress in Elizabeth Bonhote’s earlier novel, Bungay Castle. In Female Gothic, images of a castle and its related structures are said to symbolize both the patriarchy and the feminine body. As such, on a symbolic level the female protagonist’s experiences navigating these challenges allows her to move from innocence to experience. While on the surface she is merely exploring the castle and a few mandates by the ruling male, these actions are paralleled on another level as the heroine’s exploration of herself and society. This exploration allows her to assert independence as a sexually adult woman.
But Bronte’s heroine in Wuthering Heights does not spend her time exploring the dark caverns below the castle. Instead she navigates the relationships encountered within its confines, and such dark tunnels are no less hazardous than their subterranean counterparts in other novels. Her peril is found more in the dark temperament of Heathcliff than in exploring some dark hallway. Heathcliff is a shadow that falls upon the Wuthering Heights domicile, giving it a sinister element which threatens the destruction of its inhabitants; however, that destruction will not come from the castle itself, but from its occupant and master, Heathcliff.
In fact, Bronte expands both the role of the castle and the role of the heroine to an extent which makes them almost symbolic of their original purposes within the genre. Different than its earlier cousins, in Wuthering Heights the role of castle could be seen as split between two separate domiciles, the Heights and the nearby Thrushcross Grange. Another split could also be seen in the role of the novel’s heroine; in this case the coming of age may be said to take two generations and two women to accomplish it, Catherine Earnshaw and her daughter Catherine Linton.
While Wuthering Heights may not appear an example of Female Gothic literature at first glance, the most crucial elements of the genre are in place. There is a castle, an oppressed heroine, and the requisite sinister elements. But it is the artistry and talent of Emily Bronte which takes a germ of an idea and develops it into something greater. Bronte produced a novel which not only survives but thrives, unlike many of its elder cousins in the Female Gothic genre.
Although he was not born of the place, it could be argued Heathcliff sometimes appears to be at one with the Heights. In Mrs. Dean’s first description of Heathcliff, she deems him “rough as a saw-edge and hard as whinstone”. Like the walls of such a fortress as the Heights, Heathcliff is described as stone. Ultimately, the place bends to his will; Wuthering Heights is transformed from the warm domicile of the Earnshaw family to a gloomy, neglected, and possibly haunted fortress. Therefore, as the Heights’ symbolic Doppleganger, Heathcliff shares in the castle’s role within a Female Gothic novel; he becomes the thing which is explored on the heroine’s way to maturity, the place with mysterious rooms and hallways.
The heroine in Wuthering Heights, at least in the first section, is Catherine Earnshaw, and early in the story Cathy is expected to navigate the character of Heathcliff.
“Cathy, when she learned the master had lost her whip in attending on the stranger, showed her humour by grinning and spitting at the stupid little thing, earning for her pains a sound blow from her father to teach her cleaner manners.”But she did adjust quickly, and before long Cathy “was much too fond of Heathcliff”. The ensuing relationship, however, did more to stunt the heroine’s growth than to facilitate it.
"They both promised fair to grow up rude as savages, the young master being entirely negligent how they behaved, and what they did, so they kept clear of him."In The Waif at the Window: Emily Bronte’s Feminine ‘Bildungsroman’, Annette Frederico adds:
Catherine and her male soul-mate remain stubbornly adolescent from beginning to end; granted, they are triumphant, rebellious, passionate characters, and Emily Bronte is obviously celebrating the untamed and undisciplined spirit of adolescent love. But in view of this first generation, Wuthering Heights is less a novel of development than a novel of arrested childhood.It is only by physical separation from the twin forces of Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff that Cathy begins to show an interest about her place in the world as an adult. When she is removed to Thrushcross Grange for five weeks, Cathy first begins to explore what she might become later in life, however self-centered that view may still have been. Upon her return she wears the garments of a lady and seems for the first time to consider Heathcliff as something below the station she wishes for herself in life.
“She gazed concernedly at the dusky fingers she held in her own, and also at her dress, which she feared had gained no embellishment from its contact with his.”If the Heights is associated with Heathcliff, then it might be easy to say Thrushcross Grange is equally associated with Edgar Linton. As such, Edgar Linton and the Grange naturally become the means through which Cathy could leave Heathcliff and the Heights, along with at least a portion of her adolescence, and begin to find her place in the world as an adult.
This new fortress is where Cathy might begin to establish some means of control over the patriarchal confines of her childhood. While at the Heights, Cathy tried to establish authority and choose her own destiny by throwing childish fits and tantrums. At the grange Cathy may have intended to exchange the more mature of her feminine charms for power, exercising her control over Edgar to accomplish her wishes. Ultimately, Cathy was unable to leave the emotionally-stunted relationship she shared with Heathcliff, and one of her childish tantrums soon led her to illness and death.
Because of her death, Catherine Earnshaw’s tenure at Wuthering Heights and her relationship with Heathcliff would forever remain associated with her childhood and adolescence. The eternal nature of this point is made more certain when Cathy’s ghost later appears to Mr. Lockwood through the window at Wuthering Heights in the form of a child. Bronte’s narrative doesn’t tell us if this is the form which visited Heathcliff in his final days, but if so we might assume his death was a necessary step allowing him to return to the spiritual shape of his childhood. By crossing into the spirit world he too could take the childlike form closer to his own emotional development, becoming forever a playmate and companion to his beloved Cathy.
Aside from the castle’s role as a patriarchal symbol in the Female Gothic, it is often seen as a symbol of the heroine’s feminine body as well. If indeed Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights are to be seen as one, or at least deeply associated with each other, this symbolic convention takes on interesting implications in Wuthering Heights. If the physical qualities of the Heights are to parallel the heroine’s own body, then by implication Heathcliff would be equally a representation of Catherine Earnshaw. This might account for Cathy’s explanation:
It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.This same conversation later builds to Cathy’s emphatic claim, “I am Heathcliff". In this statement, the possibility Bronte intended her readers to view a symbolic physical connection between the two characters becomes even more probable.
But if this is true, the question remains how Cathy’s exploration of Heathcliff might symbolize the exploration of her physical self. A physical relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy is never mentioned in this novel, but neither is it mentioned between Cathy and Edgar even though they have a child together. Is it possible Cathy’s emotional development is stunted while at Wuthering Heights because her relationship with Heathcliff never advances to a physical level?
We could speculate if Cathy had married Heathcliff she might have learned more of herself, and with that knowledge she might have become a mature adult. Unfortunately, that is not the road Cathy immediately chose, and her death came too early for such lessons to be explored later.
But while Catherine Earnshaw-Linton’s death occurs in Chapter 16, it could be argued Bronte did not kill off her heroine so early in the novel. Cathy’s daughter not only shares her name, but bears a striking resemblance to her; Heathcliff later notes a resemblance which causes him to turn his face from her. It is possible Bronte intended the connection to be so strong the Female Gothic’s requisite journey from adolescence to womanhood is continued, and completed, in her heroine’s daughter. Perhaps Cathy’s separation from Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff could only be achieved through a baptism consisting of death and rebirth.
In Wuthering Heights as a Victorian Novel, Arnold Shapiro writes:
Symbolically, [the second half of the novel] begins with a birth, Catherine Linton's, which is described in much the same terms as was the entrance of Heathcliff. . . . Though the language is an echo of the past, however, Cathy turns out to be the representative of a new generation, and without the author's being foolishly optimistic, of a new set of values, an answer to the old ways.Annette Frederico’s The Waif at the Window: Emily Bronte’s Feminine ‘Bildungsroman’ adds:
It is actually with Catherine's death in childbirth that Bronte's Bildungsroman begins. In fact, the second half of Wuthering Heights and the concern with young Cathy is a fascinating variation of the prototypic novel of female education in the nineteenth century, a dramatization of the struggle to relinquish childhood for the duties of womanhood in the most traditional, romantic capacity: marriage with the man of one's choice.Young Catherine is not a child of Wuthering Heights, but of Thrushcross Grange. She is not susceptible to Heathcliff and has been sheltered from his influences. Because of this, she is able to carry the torch passed to her by her mother, emerging from a happy childhood as an assertive, contented adult. As such, Catherine becomes a contented adult, prepared to accept the responsibilities and limitations of marriage in a way her mother never achieved.
Catherine’s road is not always smooth. In Heroines of Nineteenth-Century Fiction: The Two Catherines of Emily Bronte, William Howells writes:
Charlotte Bronte created the impassioned heroine, as I have called Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte created the lawless heroine, like the two Catherines, but all their heroines measurably shared in the fascination which brutality, the false image of strength, seems to have for weakness. In these characters they changed the ideal of fiction for many a long day, and established the bullied heroine in a supremacy which she held till the sinuous heroine began softly but effectually to displace her.Wuthering Heights holds true to the Female Gothic genre’s aim to socialize and educate its female readers, as well as its tendency to express criticism of male-dominated, patriarchal structures. It capitalizes upon the unique abilities of the Female Gothic to explore the role of women in society. Typical to the genre, Wuthering Heights ends with its heroine wrapped in what we may suppose to be a state of marital bliss. But be that as it may, Bronte’s two Catherines are far from the fainting Gothic heroine; her Catherines are the mythical Phoenix who ends in a fire of passion, and is reborn. Through this baptism of death and reincarnation, Bronte shuns the voyeuristic victimization of women which characterizes much of the Male Gothic. Bronte does not spend much time directly criticizing the patriarchal system, but in Wuthering Heights she finds a means for rising above it, much like she and her sisters found a way to rise above their own contemporary male-dominated world in general, and the limitations it sought to place on female writers in particular.
Bronte’s gothic castle also transcends its archetype, in essence taking on human character through the form and nature of Heathcliff, a shadow which descends upon it and becomes its master; in doing so, the place becomes an active participant in the story. Just as the surrounding moors shape the nature of its inhabitants with their harsh realities, the Heights shapes the nature of its residents, conforming them to the will of its master.
Comparisons have naturally been made between Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and her sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. Both tell the story of an orphan who is taken in by the well-meaning patriarch of a wealthy family, but is rejected by most or all of the others in that household. From there both stories describe how such a childhood can shape this character into adulthood, and it may be argued neither of these characters ever achieved full maturity. The works of both sisters are generally considered excellent examples of the Gothic novel, delivering the expected goods and advancing the genre through thoughtful and innovative treatment of these elements.
But even though Charlotte’s novel was the more successful of the two initially, in the end it is Wuthering Heights which has found a place in our culture’s collective consciousness. These are the characters we relate to and the love story we remember. This is the romance which translated into one of Hollywood’s all-time classic movies. Of the two, it is the book more students study in high school English, or college literature classes. In the end, it is Emily Bronte’s skill in narration, characterization, and innovation that delivered this story into our hearts; Bronte took the basic elements of the Female Gothic genre, and transformed them into one of the great classics of English literature.