The societal conflict is, perhaps, one of the most poignant aspects of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Shedding light on the human nature, as well as on the specifics of interactions between the members of the Victorian society, the book offers an exhaustive description of the problems that the lack of clarity in the social and class relationships creates.
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Although Wuthering Heights was not the first novel that brought the impact of social and class ambiguity on the specifics of interpersonal relationships to the public’s attention, Emily Bronte clearly offered a new outlook on the problem. Wuthering Heights addresses the issues of social and class ambiguity by not merely incorporating the problems into its plot but making them a part of the very fabric of the narration. Specifically, the relationships between Cathy and Heathcliff should be considered a prime example of the great divide between the representatives of different social strata.
The dilemmas of the communication between the members of different classes and social strata become the most evident in the conflicts that are related directly to the relationships between the characters in the Wuthering Heights. Making the most obvious example, one must mention the relationships between Cathy and Heathcliff starting from the point at which she decides to decline Heathcliff’ proposal and marry Edgar:” I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it” (Bronte “Chapter 9”). The lead character states directly that these are not the personal issues but the social and the class-related ones that set her and Edgar apart.
The scene mentioned above, though being rather short, sheds a lot of light on the tragedy of the social and class ambiguity. The fact that Cathy dismissed the idea of marrying Heathcliff for the sake of a more promising marriage with Linton coupled with her bitter realization of her loss shows that there are no clear characteristics for either of the social strata represented in the novel. In fact, the scene in which the understanding of Cathy’s mistake hits her becomes the point at which the social and class ambiguity peaks in the novel (Sahin 587).
The development that Heathcliff undergoes, however, cannot be deemed as one-dimensional, either. More to the pit, the very character can be described as a graphic representation of the vagueness in the differences between the social and the class-related levels in the society. Indeed, a closer look at the transformation that the character undergoes will show that, from a sweet, innocent, and noble yet poor man, he turns into a social idol whose manners and demeanour leave much to be desired.
Heathcliff commits terrible things to exert his revenge upon Cathy; furthermore, he makes his wife, an innocent person, who had nothing to do with their conflict, to begin with, suffer. Differently put, the shift from a noble, if somewhat simple, attitude that made him so attractive at the beginning of the novel into a merciless and egotistic brute aligns with his transformation from belonging to the lower class population to reaching the divine pinnacle of the upper class.
The identified switch in the character’s development points quite clearly to the lack of balance between the members of different social strata and classes in society. In fact, the drastic lack of balance makes one’s personality dissolve completely, making a tremendous step backwards in personal and ethical development, as Heathcliff’s character arc shows quite graphically.
It would be wrong to claim that Bronte strips her characters off of their dignity; instead, she allows the readers to track their slow descent into insanity and misery, making it clear that they are the only source of misery that they are experiencing is rooted in their own imperfect concept of the societal structure and the clichés about the classes that the society is divided into.
Furthermore, the characters subvert these clichés quite successfully as the representatives of the lower-class stratum act in a much nobler and ethically appropriate way than those that are identified as the crème of the society. The fact that neither of the characters undergoing the transformation is capable of returning back to the previous stage of their ethical and moral evolution, therefore, becoming better and correcting their mistakes, creates the impression of impending doom and adds a tint of fatality to the novel (Brown 82).
In other words, assuming that the characters’ social position is responsible for the actions that they take and the choices that they consider appropriate would be quite a stretch. While the significance of the social pressure is not to be underestimated the people described in the novel make conscious choices that they deemed as appropriate in the identified scenarios. It is not the change in the social position that makes Heathcliff torture his wife, and the suffering that he has been under throughout his entire life does not justify the cold-hearted attitude that he assumed when communicating with her (Chapman 84).
In fact, the subject matter can be viewed from the most basic perspective, i.e., the concept of a struggle between the need for financial wellbeing and the need for emotional comfort. According to Jankova, the entire novel is shot through with the theme of a conflict between an emotional attachment and the financial, or the societal, power: “The theme of conflict between power and passion in both novels is introduced by two pairs who seek their balance in order to achieve happiness” (Jankova 3).
Therefore, Bronte makes it quite clear that the characters’ happiness hinges on the basic yet very complicated choice that they have to make. Though on the surface, it is about choosing between the actual feelings and wealth, on a deeper level, it implies the choice between two areas of comfort, i.e., the solid and predictable yet passionless wealth-based one and the thrilling yet possibly physically devastating emotional connection.
Furthermore, the conflict between the social and the class ambiguity can be rendered through the juxtaposition of the materialism and the basic human values in the novel. As stressed above, Cathy chooses materialism over the humble charm of Heathcliff, the person that she actually loves. At this point, the character manifests her materialistic nature. It is quite remarkable that Heathcliff, though also succumbing to a drastic change after his emotional journey, is not affected by the materialistic aspect of his existence. While he admittedly becomes richer and gains a better social status, the money that he receives does not seem to corrupt him.
What makes hi truly wicked is the emotional turmoil that he has been through and not the wealth that he acquired on his journey to prosperity. In fact, as Bouziane stresses, the tension between the materialistic elements of his life and the love that he experienced in his life has been an integral part of his existence since his very childhood: “Hindley becomes tyrannical […] He drove him [Heathcliff] from their company to the servants, deprived him of the instructions of the curate, and insisted that he should labour out of doors instead” (Bouziane 170).
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It could be argued that the changes described in the novel, in general, and the transformation of the lead characters, in particular, can be attributed to the changes in their personality and not to the financial wellbeing that Heathcliff finally gains. On the one hand, the latter’s shift from a rather likable and generally benevolent character to a vengeful beast can be interpreted as the result of the pain that he has been exposing himself to since Cathy turned his proposal down and chose Edgar. Indeed, Heathcliff did not gain the despicable propensity to violence that he displays the third act of the novel overnight; instead, it stems from the grudge that he has been bearing for quite a few years (Bullen 113).
Similarly, the revelation that Cathy finally experiences as she realizes that the lack of the social status and the unavailability of the class privileges that she is capable of enjoying would not have impeded her happiness with the person that she loved cannot be viewed as a sudden strike. The dissatisfaction and the disappointment that has been brewing for years finally found their release in her regret.
Furthermore, it could be argued that the decisions made by the two characters are driven by entirely different types of power. Whereas Cathy engages in cool-blooded calculations of what social opportunities the marriage will open in front of her, Heathcliff acts under the spur of the moment, taking advantage of every minute of his interactions with others.
Nevertheless, as stressed above, the fact that the characters shape and change under the pressure of the factors that can be defined as a change in their societal status makes a clear case for the portrayal of a rapid shift in the values system of each character involved. It is quite remarkable that both characters are pitiful and miserable in their lack of moral fabric and their craving for acceptance in society. Therefore, the lack of balance between the social and class statuses, as well as the absence of correlation between them, displayed in the novel, manifests itself with every choice that the characters make (Ingham 24).
Furthermore, by following the behavioural patterns that the society foists on them, both characters become even more miserable in the process, therefore, aggravating the situation and proving that the identified lack of balance not only disrupts their relations but also affects each of them very deeply. In fact, the inconsistency between the wealth, social recognition, and the basic moral values that they used to possess torments the lead characters to the point where Cathy dies, leaving Heathcliff heartbroken.
The act of repent that Heathcliff finds himself in as he realizes that Cathy is dead, in fact, can be considered as a step toward redemption and the final reconciliation with his self. In fact, in a similar way, the contempt that young Cathy, the daughter of the diseased lead character, displays for Hareton Earnshaw can be viewed as the extension of the relationships between her mother and Heathcliff, which takes the idea of the social imbalance to the next level.
The way that Cathy treats Hareton makes it quite clear that the problem of social inequality is unlikely to ever be vanquished. Instead, it is bound to remain the foundation for relationships between the representatives of different classes for quite a while: “‘My name is Hareton Earnshaw,’ growled the other; ‘and I’d counsel you to respect it!’ ‘I’ve shown no disrespect,’ was my reply, laughing internally at the dignity with which he announced himself” (Bronte “Chapter 2”).
By showing how the gap between different social strata and classes shapes people’s relationships and determines essential life choices made by them, Bronte makes it quite evident that there is a strong social and class ambiguity. Though the standards foisted onto the people from all walks of life might seem ridiculous, they are also binding, making one lean toward specific choices that would have seemed inappropriate in another scenario.
Furthermore, Bronte paints a frighteningly realistic picture where the characters are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again, aggravating their situation and only making themselves and the people around them more miserable as they conform to the concept of the social classes. In addition, the author proves that the presence of ambiguity in the concept of the social and class-related position is intrinsic and can be attributed to human nature. Leaving the readers on a powerful and ambiguous note, the novel calls for the reconsideration of the current societal values and concepts.
Bouziane, Katherine. “Materialism versus Human Values in the Victorian Novels: The Case of Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights.” Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Special Issue on Literature 3.1 (2014): 167-173. Print.
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. Web.
Brown, Erica. Comedy and the Feminine Middlebrow Novel: Elizabeth Von Arnim and Elizabeth Taylor. New York, NY: Routledge, 2012. Print.
Bullen, James B. Writing and Victorianism. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Chapman, Raymond. Forms of Speech in Victorian Fiction. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014. Print.
Ingham, Patricia. The Brontes. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014. Print.
Jankova, Natka. “The Struggle of Power and Passion in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.” Journal of Social and Human Sciences 4.1 (2014): 117-125. Print.
Sahin, Anjumon. “Wuthering Heights: A Challenge to the Victorian Universe.” International Journal of Research (IJR) 1.4 (2014): 86-592. Print.