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Romanticism, the Gothic novel, and Wuthering Heights

Romanticism refers to an artistic and intellectual movement that began in the late
eighteenth century in Europe. Generally, Romanticism was a reaction against the
dry rationality of the Enlightenment period, it focused on the sublimity of nature, it
and stressed strong emotion as the source of beauty, art, and knowledge.
The Romantic literary movement was heavily influenced by the German writer,
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and a group of German Romantic writers who
emerged during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Emily Bront
was likely exposed to and influenced by the German Romantics when she and
Charlotte studied literature and the German language in Brussels at a private
A group of British Romantic poets emerged in England during 1798 to 1832, which
included William Wordsworth, Lord Byron and John Keats. These writers influenced
literature throughout the nineteenth century. The Bronts were also familiar with
the writings of these British Romantic poets.
Romance is a term with many meanings. In the Middle Ages, a romance was a tale in
prose or poetry dealing with the adventures of a knight and filled with chivalric deeds and
courtly love. In the nineteenth century, a romance was a prose narrative telling a
fictional story that dealt with its subjects and characters in a symbolic, imaginative,
and non-realistic way. Typically, a romance would deal with plots and people that were
exotic, remote in time or place from the reader, and obviously imaginary. Hawthorne's
The House of Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter, with their exaggerated characters,
its overtones of the supernatural, and their symbolic intertwining of the past and
present, are examples of the romance.
****Romanticism generally is defined as an approach that differs from classicism in
many important ways.
Romantic thought places higher emphasis on emotion than on rationality;
it exalts the individual over society;
it questions or attacks rules and conventions;
it prefers Nature over the city;
it sees humankind in nature as being morally superior to civilized humanity (the
concept of the noble savage);
it sees children as essentially innocent, until corrupted by their surroundings.
Its quest for emotional fulfillment may take it in the direction of dark
Romanticism, toward the Gothic. (Hawthorne = Dark Romanticism)

Gothic literature is marked by a preoccupation with gloom, mystery, and terror.

Often, but not always, it may involve the supernatural. A development during the
Romantic era, the Gothic novel traces its origins to The Castle of Otranto by Horace
Walpole, published in England in 1764. Many other writers followed him, and in the
United States, the first well-known Gothic novelist was Charles Brockden Brown. Later,
both Hawthorne and Poe wrote in the Gothic mode.

Ambiguity - Doubtfulness or uncertainness of interpretation. Much gothic

literature is considered ambiguous insofar as it rarely presents a
clear moral or message; it seems intended to be open to multiple
Early Nineteenth Century: Romanticism - A Brief

Romantic Subject Matter

1. The quest for beauty: non-didactic, "pure beauty."
2. The use of the far-away and non-normal - antique and fanciful:
a. In historical perspective: antiquarianism; antiquing or artificially aging; interest in
the past.
b. Characterization and mood: grotesque, gothicism, sense of terror, fear; use of the
odd and queer.
3. Escapism - from American problems.
4. Interest in external nature - for itself, for beauty:
a. Nature as source for the knowledge of the primitive.
b. Nature as refuge.
c. Nature as revelation of God to the individual.
| Romantic Attitudes
1. Appeals to imagination; use of the "willing suspension of disbelief."
2. Stress on emotion rather than reason; optimism, geniality.
3. Subjectivity: in form and meaning.

Romantic Techniques
1. Remoteness of settings in time and space.
2. Improbable plots.
3. Inadequate or unlikely characterization.
4. Authorial subjectivity.

5. Socially "harmful morality;" a world of "lies."

6. Organic principle in writing: form rises out of content, non-formal.
7. Experimentation in new forms: picking up and using obsolete patterns.

8. Cultivation of the individualized, subjective form of writing.

Wuthering Heights is often considered a Romantic

novel because of the many traditional elements of
Romanticism that it contains:
the idea of nature as a powerful spiritual force
the descriptions of the English countryside
a constant, elevated emotional level and passion
a desire to rise above the limitations of ordinary human
a strong interest in death
a portrayal of opposites, including escape and pursuit,
calmness and turbulence, upper and lower classes, and suffering
and peace
isolation, both emotional and geographical
elements of the supernatural
Critics have also regarded Heathcliff as a classic Byronic
hero. The Byronic hero was defined by Lord Byrons epic
narrative poem, Childe Harolds Pilgrimage, published in 1812.
The Byronic
hero is generally a flawed character with the following attributes:
conflicting emotions or moodiness
mysterious origins and a troubled past
a distaste for social institutions and social norms

self-destructive tendencies
a loner, rejected from society
Heathcliff clearly possesses most of these attributes.
The Gothic novel:
The Gothic novel evolved in the United Kingdom, beginning with
Horace Walpoles The Castle of Otranto in 1765. The genre
became very popular and usually created feelings of gloom,
mystery, suspense, and fear in the reader. Most Gothic novels
contain some of the following elements:
a castle, sometimes ruined or haunted
other sinister, ruined buildings
extreme landscapes and weather
death and madness
ancestral curses
terrifying events
taboo or sensational topics
the suggestion of the supernatural
a villain or villain-hero driven by passion
a hero whose true identity is unknown until the end of the novel
a curious or persecuted heroine
a heroine wooed by both a good and a dangerous suitor


The English Gothic novel began with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1765),
which was enormously popular and quickly imitated by other novelists and soon became
a recognizable genre. To most modern readers, however, The Castle of Otranto is dull
reading; except for the villain Manfred, the characters are insipid and flat; the action
moves at a fast clip with no emphasis or suspense, despite the supernatural manifestations
and a young maiden's flight through dark vaults. But contemporary readers found the
novel electrifyingly original and thrillingly suspenseful, with its remote setting, its use of
the supernatural, and its medieval trappings, all of which have been so frequently
imitated and so poorly imitated that they have become stereotypes. The genre takes its
name from Otranto's medievalor Gothicsetting; early Gothic novelists tended to set
their novels in remote times like the Middle Ages and in remote places like Italy
(Matthew Lewis's The Monk, 1796) or the Middle East (William Beckford's Vathek,

What makes a work Gothic is a combination of at least some of these elements:

a castle, ruined or intact, haunted or not (the castle plays such a key role that it
has been called the main character of the Gothic novel),
ruined buildings which are sinister or which arouse a pleasing melancholy,
dungeons, underground passages, crypts, and catacombs which, in modern
houses, become spooky basements or attics,
labyrinths, dark corridors, and winding stairs,
shadows, a beam of moonlight in the blackness, a flickering candle, or the only
source of light failing (a candle blown out or, today, an electric failure),
extreme landscapes, like rugged mountains, thick forests, or icy wastes, and
extreme weather,
omens and ancestral curses,
magic, supernatural manifestations, or the suggestion of the supernatural,
a passion-driven, willful villain-hero or villain,
a curious heroine with a tendency to faint and a need to be rescuedfrequently,
a hero whose true identity is revealed by the end of the novel,
horrifying (or terrifying) events or the threat of such happenings.

The Gothic creates feelings of gloom, mystery, and suspense and tends to the dramatic
and the sensational, like incest, diabolism, necrophilia, and nameless terrors. It crosses
boundaries, daylight and the dark, life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness.
Sometimes covertly, sometimes explicitly, it presents transgression, taboos, and fears
fears of violation, of imprisonment, of social chaos, and of emotional collapse. Most of us
immediately recognize the Gothic (even if we don't know the name) when we encounter
it in novels, poetry, plays, movies, and TV series. For some of usand I include myself
safely experiencing dread or horror is thrilling and enjoyable.
Elements of the Gothic have made their way into mainstream writing. They are found in
Sir Walter Scott's novels, Charlotte Bront's Jane Eyre , and Emily Bront's Wuthering
Heights and in Romantic poetry like Samuel Coleridge's "Christabel," Lord Byron's "The
Giaour," and John Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes." A tendency to the macabre and bizarre
which appears in writers like William Faulkner, Truman Capote, and Flannery O'Connor
has been called Southern Gothic.


Whether or not Wuthering Heights should be classified as a Gothic novel (certainly it is
not merley a Gothic novel), it undeniably contains Gothic elements.
In true Gothic fashion, boundaries are trespassed, specifically love crossing the boundary
between life and death and Heathcliff's transgressing social class and family ties. Bront
follows Walpole and Radcliffe in portraying the tyrannies of the father and the cruelties
of the patriarchal family and in reconstituting the family on non-patriarchal lines, even

though no counterbalancing matriarch or matriarchal family is presented. Bront has

incorporated the Gothic trappings of imprisonment and escape, flight, the persecuted
heroine, the heroine wooed by a dangerous and a good suitor, ghosts, necrophilia, a
mysterious foundling, and revenge. The weather-buffeted Wuthering Heights is the
traditional castle, and Catherine resembles Ann Radcliffe's heroines in her appreciation of
nature. Like the conventional Gothic hero-villain, Heathcliff is a mysterious figure who
destroys the beautiful woman he pursues and who usurps inheritances, and with typical
Gothic excess he batters his head against a tree. There is the hint of necrophilia in
Heathcliff's viewings of Catherine's corpse and his plans to be buried next to her and a
hint of incest in their being raised as brother and sister or, as a few critics have suggested,
in Heathcliff's being Catherine's illegitimate half-brother.

Wuthering Heights, as many critics have pointed out,

does contain some elements of the Gothic novel listed
above. There is a suggestion of the supernatural, the
extreme landscape of the moors, and wild storms. Death
figures prominently in the story, as well as a villain-hero
driven by passion, found in Heathcliff. Catherine is wooed
by both a good and a dangerous suitor, and revenge is a
driving force in the plot.

More about Gothic novels

The gothic novel was invented almost single-handedly by Horace Walpole, whose The
Castle of Otranto (1764) contains essentially all the elements that constitute the genre.
Walpole's novel was imitated not only in the eighteenth century and not only in the novel
form, but it has influenced the novel, the short story, poetry, and even film making up to
the present day.

Gothic elements include the following:

1. Setting in a castle. The action takes place in and around an old castle, sometimes
seemingly abandoned, sometimes occupied. The castle often contains secret passages,
trap doors, secret rooms, dark or hidden staircases, and possibly ruined sections. The
castle may be near or connected to caves, which lend their own haunting flavor with their
branchings, claustrophobia, and mystery. (Translated into modern filmmaking, the setting
might be in an old house or mansion--or even a new house--where unusual camera

angles, sustained close ups during movement, and darkness or shadows create the same
sense of claustrophobia and entrapment.)
2. An atmosphere of mystery and suspense. The work is pervaded by a threatening
feeling, a fear enhanced by the unknown. Often the plot itself is built around a mystery,
such as unknown parentage, a disappearance, or some other inexplicable event. Elements
3, 4, and 5 below contribute to this atmosphere. (Again, in modern filmmaking, the
inexplicable events are often murders.)
3. An ancient prophecy is connected with the castle or its inhabitants (either former or
present). The prophecy is usually obscure, partial, or confusing. "What could it mean?" In
more watered down modern examples, this may amount to merely a legend: "It's said that
the ghost of old man Krebs still wanders these halls."
4. Omens, portents, visions. A character may have a disturbing dream vision, or some
phenomenon may be seen as a portent of coming events. For example, if the statue of the
lord of the manor falls over, it may portend his death. In modern fiction, a character
might see something (a shadowy figure stabbing another shadowy figure) and think that it
was a dream. This might be thought of as an "imitation vision."
5. Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events. Dramatic, amazing events occur,
such as ghosts or giants walking, or inanimate objects (such as a suit of armor or
painting) coming to life. In some works, the events are ultimately given a natural
explanation, while in others the events are truly supernatural.
6. High, even overwrought emotion. The narration may be highly sentimental, and the
characters are often overcome by anger, sorrow, surprise, and especially, terror.
Characters suffer from raw nerves and a feeling of impending doom. Crying and
emotional speeches are frequent. Breathlessness and panic are common. In the filmed
gothic, screaming is common.
7. Women in distress. As an appeal to the pathos and sympathy of the reader, the female
characters often face events that leave them fainting, terrified, screaming, and/or sobbing.
A lonely, pensive, and oppressed heroine is often the central figure of the novel, so her
sufferings are even more pronounced and the focus of attention. The women suffer all the
more because they are often abandoned, left alone (either on purpose or by accident), and
have no protector at times.
8. Women threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male. One or more male
characters has the power, as king, lord of the manor, father, or guardian, to demand that
one or more of the female characters do something intolerable. The woman may be
commanded to marry someone she does not love (it may even be the powerful male
himself), or commit a crime.

9. The metonymy of gloom and horror. Metonymy is a subtype of metaphor, in which

something (like rain) is used to stand for something else (like sorrow). For example, the
film industry likes to use metonymy as a quick shorthand, so we often notice that it is
raining in funeral scenes. Note that the following metonymies for "doom and gloom" all
suggest some element of mystery, danger, or the supernatural.
wind, especially howling

rain, especially blowing

doors grating on rusty hinges

sighs, moans, howls, eerie sounds

footsteps approaching

clanking chains

lights in abandoned rooms

gusts of wind blowing out lights

characters trapped in a room

doors suddenly slamming shut

ruins of buildings

baying of distant dogs (or wolves?)

thunder and lightning

crazed laughter

10. The vocabulary of the gothic. The constant use of the appropriate vocabulary set
creates the atmosphere of the gothic. Here as an example are some of the words (in
several categories) that help make up the vocabulary of the gothic in The Castle of

Mystery diabolical, enchantment, ghost, goblins, haunted, infernal, magic,

magician, miracle, necromancer, omens, ominous, portent,
preternatural, prodigy, prophecy, secret, sorcerer, spectre, spirits,
strangeness, talisman, vision
Fear, Terror, or afflicted, affliction, agony, anguish, apprehensions, apprehensive,
Sorrow commiseration, concern, despair, dismal, dismay, dread, dreaded,
dreading, fearing, frantic, fright, frightened, grief, hopeless, horrid,
horror, lamentable, melancholy, miserable, mournfully, panic, sadly,
scared, shrieks, sorrow, sympathy, tears, terrible, terrified, terror,
unhappy, wretched
Surprise alarm, amazement, astonished, astonishment, shocking, staring,
surprise, surprised, thunderstruck, wonder
Haste anxious, breathless, flight, frantic, hastened, hastily, impatience,
impatient, impatiently, impetuosity, precipitately, running, sudden,

Anger anger, angrily, choler, enraged, furious, fury, incense, incensed,

provoked, rage, raving, resentment, temper, wrath, wrathful,
Largeness enormous, gigantic, giant, large, tremendous, vast

Narrative Form and Structure

Wuthering Heights is highly praised for the unique narrative
technique Emily Bront used to execute the novel, often referred
to as a frame narrative. The narrative structure has been
compared to a series of Matryoshka dolls, as the levels of the
story similarly nest inside of each other. The two primary
narrators are Mr. Lockwood and Nelly Dean, but other narrators
arise throughout the novel when Nelly quotes what other
characters have told her. In this manner, the action of Wuthering
Heights is told via eyewitness narration by people directly
involved in the events they describe. The narrative form allows
Bront bring the reader closer to the events of the novel, due to
the involvement of the narrators in the action.
The frame narrative form of the novel adds complexity for
the reader. Lockwood is the outer layer of the narrative, pulling
the story together in his diary. The reader must recognize how
the story has been passed through various layers and question
the reliability of Lockwood and the other narrators in reporting
the accounts. For instance, Nellys involvement in the action
seems to result in her glossing over certain events in order to
minimize her guilt. The reader must recognize that her account to
Lockwood may not be completely reliable, and, in turn, Lockwood
may at times misinterpret or alter Nellys statements. The

uniqueness and complexity of Wuthering Heights frame

narrative is part of why the novel has become a literary classic.


Ellen Moers has propounded a feminist theory that relates women writers in general and
Emily Bront in particular to the Gothic. Middle-class women who wanted to write were
hampered by the conventional image of ladies as submissive, pious, gentle, loving,
serene, domestic angels; they had to overcome the conventional patronizing, smug,
unempowering, contemptuous sentimentalizing of women by reviewers like George
Henry Lewes, who looked down on women writers:
Women's proper sphere of activity is elsewhere [than writing]. Are there no husbands,
lovers, brothers, friends to coddle and console? Are there no stockings to darn, no purses
to make, no braces to embroider? My idea of a perfect woman is one who can write but
won't. (1850)
Those women who overcame the limitations of their social roles and did write found it
more difficult to challenge or reject society's assumptions and expectations than their
male counterparts. Ellen Moers identifies heroinism, a form of literary feminism, as one
way women circumvented this difficulty. (Literary feminism and feminism may overlap
but they are not the same, and a woman writer who adopts heroinism is not necessarily a
feminist.) Heroinism takes many forms, such as the intellectual or thinking heroine, the
passionate or woman-in-love heroine, and the traveling heroine. Clearly all the Bront
sisters utilize the passionate heroine, whether knowingly or not, to express subversive
values and taboo experiences covertly.
What subversive values and taboo experiences does Emily Bront express with her
passionate heroine Catherine? Moers sees subversion in Bront's acceptance of the cruel
as a normal, almost an energizing part of life and in her portrayal of the erotic in
childhood. The cruelty connects this novel to the Gothic tradition, which has been
associated with women writers since Anne Radcliffe . The connection was, in fact,
recognized by Bront's contemporaries; the Athenaeum reviewer labeled the Gothic
elements in Wuthering Heights "the eccentricities of woman's fantasy'" (1847). Moers
thinks a more accurate word than eccentricities would be perversities. These perversities
may have originated in "fantasies derived from the night side of the Victorian nurserya
world where childish cruelty and childish sexuality come to the fore." Of particular
importance for intellectual middle-class women who never matured sexually was the
brother-sister relationship. In childhood, sisters were the equal of their brothers, played
just as hard, and felt the same pleasures and pains; girls clung to this early freedom and
equality, which their brothers outgrew, and displaced them into their writing:
Women writers of Gothic fantasies appear to testify that the physical teasing they
received from their brothersthe pinching, mauling, and scratching we dismiss as the

unimportant of children's gamestook on outsize proportions and powerful erotic

overtones in their adult imaginations. (Again, the poverty of their physical experience
may have caused these disproportions, for it was not only sexual play but any kind of
physical play for middle-class women that fell under the Victorian ban.)
Moers applies this principle to the Bronts' chronicles of Angria and Gondal, which the
sisters collaborated on with their brother. Their turbulent sagas are filled with unbridled
passions, imprisonment, adultery, incest, murder, revenge, and warfare. Thus the
uncensored fantasies of Angria and Gondal, whose imaginative hold Emily never
outgrew, may have provided an outlet for the sisters' imaginations, passions, and
aspirations; fostered their intellectual and artistic equality with their brother; and
provided the model for Emily's impassioned Heathcliff and Catherine as well as for
Charlotte's Rochester.