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How Emily Bronte Portrays Social Class in the Novel Wuthering Heights

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Social class in the Victorian era is often envisioned as a strict structure made up of the working, middle and upper classes: difficult to climb up but easy to fall down. However, in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, that strict class structure is turned upside down, with characters gaining a higher social position just as easily as they lose it, showing the fragility of the class system. The structure of class in Wuthering Heights is therefore more complex and more, if only slightly, malleable than that of the Victorian era which makes the ‘social positions of characters seem[s] elusive.’ (Marsh, 1999). We see this ‘elusive’ social position most clearly in the characters Heathcliff and Hareton, both of whom have volatile statuses which swap and change throughout the novel. They are made to suffer this confusion over their belonging at the hands of others with power over them (for example, Hindley’s power over Heathcliff as head of the family and Heathcliff’s power over Hareton as the owner of Wuthering Heights, Hareton’s home, later on in the novel) and this abuse of power proves that the social structure of Wuthering Heights is perhaps not as relaxed as it seems. Power over other characters also plays an important part in the portrayal of social class in ‘Wuthering Heights’, as it shows how the story and its characters conform to, but also how they rebel against, the social norm. Examples of this is Joseph’s influence over Mr. Earnshaw through his religious beliefs, Nelly Dean’s interfering nature and the reversal of power between Hindley and Heathcliff. Do the ideas in society portrayed by Bronte mirror that of the time she was writing? What do the perceptions of characters lead us to believe? And how does Bronte show the fragile nature of an individual’s class?

To start, it is important to know that Emily Bronte’s own experiences with social class are very different to that seen in ‘Wuthering Heights’. Her father was a reverend, and due to their father’s work, the family likely mixed with different classes within the parish. They would have had a respectable and steady position in local Haworth society, where their Father’s parish was situated. Emily’s sister, Charlotte, eventually accepted curate Arthur Bell Nicholls’s hand in marriage, which illustrates that for the Bronte sisters it was only acceptable for them to marry a man in the Church but not to marry above or below their position. In ‘Wuthering Heights’, characters marry both above and below their social position, the complete opposite to the Bronte sisters, who either married within their class or did not marry at all. Their parish was in Haworth in Yorkshire, surrounded by miles of moors, which is where Emily Bronte’s love for the moors came from. Teodorescu describes Emily as ‘a lonely person, she liked to wander on the moors, to write, draw, or play the piano.’ (Teodorescu, 2007). Unlike Emily Bronte’s other sisters’ novels, ‘Wuthering Heights’ was not autobiographical. Teodorescu explains how ‘all the three sisters had some experience as governesses or teachers, positions they bitterly disliked. Their life was harsh, as in some houses the conditions were unpleasant and they were treated badly’ (Teodorescu, 2007). Both Anne and Charlotte Bronte use their experiences as governesses or teachers as influence on their novels. Emily Bronte did not, but instead, it seems, took more influence for her characters from the moors that surrounded her. In terms of Emily Bronte’s own life, social class is portrayed as fixed, with little movement from the class that you were born in to. Social class in ‘Wuthering Heights’ is very different, with social positions of characters swapping and changing throughout the novel, and individuals that are not in powerful social classes able to control those above them.

Heathcliff’s social status is an ambiguous one. He begins life as a low-class orphan, possibly the child of vagrants, who ends life as the richest man in the town in which ‘Wuthering Heights’ is set. Referring to his ambiguous social status, Rylance explains that Heathcliff was ‘degraded and abused as a child and adolescent, he becomes, by his own efforts, a man of property, interest, local influence, wealth, success, iron willpower, even cultivation’ (Rylance, 2002). Heathcliff is a perfect example of social mobility, going from a poor vagrant to the son of a gentleman, however between the start and end of Heathcliff’s life, he ascends and descends the social ladder multiple times. There are multiple reasons why Heathcliff climbs and falls through the social ladder so often, and all of these link to his treatment by others and how they perceive him. One key moment in the novel which shows how characters are prejudice against Heathcliff, is when he and Cathy are caught trespassing on Thrushcross Grange. Although both children are caught trespassing on the Linton’s land, the family view Cathy and Heathcliff in two differing ways. Cathy is seen as the social status that she is, the daughter of a gentlemen, while Heathcliff, who should be viewed with the very same status, is seen as a low class ‘gipsy’ (Bronte, 1848, pg. 50) who has corrupted Cathy. Emily Bronte shows the feelings of the Linton’s when Mrs. Linton says, ‘’a wicked boy, at all events,” remarked the old lady, “and quite unfit for a decent house…”’ (Bronte, 1848, pg. 50-51) This mistreatment of Heathcliff automatically lowers his status which has been suppressed by the Linton’s for failing to recognise him as the son of a gentleman. This proves that although it seems on the surface that Heathcliff has socially mobalised by joining the Earnshaw family, he is still not viewed as the gentlemen’s son that he rightfully should be viewed as, which is due to the fact that he is originally from a poor background.

This brings up the topic of Heathcliff’s race, as the descriptions that Heathcliff is given by other character in ‘Wuthering Heights’ suggests that he is not white or, at the least, has a different appearance to Mr. Earnshaw’s other children. He is called a ‘gipsy’ and ‘the son of a fortune teller’ by the Linton’s, suggesting that he could potentially be from Romani decent. Rylance says that ‘Commentators have speculated, he was black (Liverpool was a slave port); perhaps, like Patrick Bronte, he was Irish.’ (Rylance, 2002). Later on in the novel, Nelly says to him, ‘You’re fit for a prince in disguise. Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen…’ (Bronte, 1848, pg. 58). It is clear that as well as an ambiguous social status, Heathcliff’s race is ambiguous. However his race is prominent enough to affect how he is treated by others, arguably due to racism. This dismissal of status from the Linton’s is seen again when Cathy chose to marry Edgar Linton, arguably for social status and wealth, rather than marrying Heathcliff for love. This is due to the fact that ‘Catherine is left unable to express emotion towards Heathcliff or recognize him as a viable prospect for marriage because of her inculcation into the ideal of social betterment.’ (Poklad, 2017). Hindley is another character, who, once his father dies, treats Heathcliff as a servant. Again, this treatment could be seen as racist, as Heathcliff was raised as a brother to Hindley, who clearly doesn’t view Heathcliff in that way. This means that Heathcliff is essentially demoted to a worker for the Earnshaw household rather than a family member. The fact that the main character of a British nineteenth century novel could potentially be a person of colour, and the fact that Heathcliff can be seen as not just a villain but also the hero of the novel, makes ‘Wuthering Heights’ unique and perhaps gives reason to why the book got some negative reviews on the character of Heathcliff. ‘Most readers were baffled – and angry. Wuthering Heights was offensive and incomprehensible to most…’ (Rylance, 2002) and ‘In October of that year, the North American Review was repulsed by the ‘animal brutalities’ on display in this book, and considered the ‘hero’ of the novel, Heathcliff, a ‘brute-demon’ made up of a ‘compendium’ of fierce animals…’ (Cooper, 2015). This could be possibly why Bronte left Heathcliff’s race as ambiguous and up to the reader to decide, as it is likely that having a POC hero in the novel would not necessarily be as popular as if the hero was white. Bronte could have also left Heathcliff’s race as ambiguous as she wanted to show how Heathcliff is discriminated against by other characters, who ultimately keep him down in a lower class.

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Hareton, who’s life seems to mirror that of the character Heathcliff’s, is more example of the delicacy of social status within ‘Wuthering Heights’. His character is used by Bronte to give Heathcliff a form of revenge towards Hareton’s father, Hindley. Like Hindley to Heathcliff, Hareton is made to suffer a similar impermanent social status. Once his father is dead, Hareton goes from the social status of a gentlemen’s son to merely a servant, just as Heathcliff did. Poklad says that Heathcliff’s ‘intention to ensure Hareton grows in…the same neglectful domestic atmosphere to shape him, is founded on his ownership of Hareton’s domestic atmosphere, and his subsequent dictation of its terms’ (Poklad, 2017). This suggests how Heathcliff uses his power and influence, as owner of Wuthering Heights, as a way to control and lower Hareton’s social standing, just like how other characters such as Hindley and the Lintons did to Heathcliff. Heathcliff’s aim in the second part of the novel is clearly to have revenge on the people that wronged him, for both losing his love, Cathy, when she decides to marry Edgar Linton, and losing his status through Hindley, when he demoted his status to servant. The most intriguing part of Heathcliff’s revenge is his social mobility and how he returns to the town as a wealthy man, which he uses to take advantage of Hindley. Bronte uses this reversal of power to show the lengths Heathcliff was willing to go in order to have revenge on the characters in the novel that did him wrong. It also proves, in terms of social class, how Heathcliff feels that wealth and owning Wuthering Heights, a house owned by the middle class Earnshaws, is what will give him status and therefore power over the character he wants revenge on. Although Hareton’s life seems to mirror Heathcliff’s, there are some major differences. One being the fact that Hareton has a higher-class background than Heathcliff; Hareton is from the white, middle class Earnshaw family, while Heathcliff was adopted, was homeless at the start of his life and is potentially from a minority. This helps Hareton eventually attain a happy ending, where he is the owner of Wuthering Heights and marries young Catherine, who he loves (just like how Heathcliff loved Cathy but could not marry her due to his poor social status). Emily Bronte portrays social class as malleable, with her character in ‘Wuthering Heights’ constantly falling and climbing up the social ladder. However, she does also show how these movements cover up the fact that characters, ultimately, stay in the class that they were born in to. Although Heathcliff is raised by a gentleman, he is not viewed as a gentlemen’s son.

A prominent piece of evidence of Hareton’s decline into a lower status is his illiteracy. His illiteracy makes him an angry character, who is embarrassed of his lack of education. An example of this is when he throws his books on the fire, after young Catherine mocks him for attempting to learn how to read. Bronte adds, ‘his endeavors to raise himself had produced just the contrary result’ (Bronte, 1848, pg. 303) in order to remind the reader that Hareton is only trying to better himself, but is forced down again when he is embarrassed by another character. This is further evidence of how Bronte portrays social class as being forced upon someone. Once Hareton is mocked by young Catherine, a character of higher social class, he no longer attempts to better himself on his own, and its only until she begins to encourage and assist him that Hareton begins to study again. The characters in positions of power within ‘Wuthering Heights’ are always those that push social status on others, the only exception to this is when Heathcliff returns to town a wealthy self-made man. Hareton’s attempts to teach himself how to read are also an indication of a refusal to be oppressed. Bronte shows moments of tenderness from Hareton, indicating that the angry character which he comes across as is not his natural behavior, and that really, he is a tender gentleman. However, Heathcliff’s attempt to ravish the tender does not last long, as Abraham says, ‘Hareton, who bears an uncanny resemblance to, and association with, Heathcliff and all that Heathcliff represents, gradually charts a movement towards the genteel and refined patriarchal world of Thrushcross Grange and the Linton family’ (Abraham, 2004). By the end of the novel, a full circle is seen, with characters that were controlled by Heathcliff, for example young Catherine and Hareton, ‘able to reclaim their former positions’ (Meier, 2013). Hareton is back to his status of a gentlemen, while young Catherine is no longer under the control of Heathcliff as her guardian. Here, Bronte portrays social class in two ways; the first is that social class is malleable and can be changed and manipulated by the people in power. The second way is that as much as it can be changed, a person will always return to their original social status, Hareton and Heathcliff both return to the gentlemen status once they are no longer under the control of another character. Although Emily Bronte moves away from the traditional social class system seen in England when she was writing, the tradition of social class is still seen within the novel, with characters being returned to their ‘rightful’ social standing by the end. The example of Hareton’s illiteracy also shows the traditional idea that being able to read and write means the character must be from a higher status, and that through attempting to learn, Hareton is also attempting to socially mobalise. As Hareton is from a middle-class family, he is, unlike Heathcliff, able to ‘socially mobalise’. This is because really, he never left his middle-class status in the first place and was being pushed down by a character (Heathcliff) who was from a lower class.

There are two prominent working-class characters within ‘Wuthering Heights’, Nelly Dean and Joseph. Nelly, who is first the Earnshaw’s and then the Linton’s servant, as well as one of two narrators, has a steadier position in society than Heathcliff and Hareton, remaining as a working-class character throughout the novel. However, she does often go past her roles as a servant, acting as more of a friend to her employers and interfering with their lives. This is most likely due to the fact that she grew up with the Earnshaw children (Cathy, Heathcliff and Hindley), and therefore ‘her dislikes and hatreds have familial roots’ (Goldfarb, 1989). Her close relationship with the Earnshaw children is made clear to the audience when Nelly says, ‘I got used to playing with the children…’ (Bronte, 1848, pg. 35). Meier describes Nelly’s status as ‘unnatural’ as she was ‘reared as a member of the family by Earnshaw’ (Meier, 2013). Bronte uses this slightly different social status as a means of using Nelly’s character later on to go past her servant duties and instead interfere, as well as betraying the trust of, her masters. For example, when she allows Heathcliff to visit Cathy even though her employer Edgar Linton strictly tells her not to. However, even though Nelly is an educated servant and grew up with the Earnshaw children, even as a child, she was still given the duties of an employee. ‘I ran errands too, and helped to make hay, and hung about the farm ready for anything that anybody would set me to.’ (Bronte, 1848, pg. 35). This proves how social class is even forced onto the children in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and meant that even though Nelly grew up and played with the Earnshaw children, they all knew that she was from a different social standing. This close upraising to the Earnshaw’s still gives Nelly a slightly higher status than other servants, however never enough to be very significant. In ‘Wuthering Heights’, Heathcliff and Hareton’s roles within the story, in terms of social class, are to show the delicacy and ambiguity of social status as well as indicate how power lies with the highest class of society. Nelly Dean’s role in ‘Wuthering Heights’ is to perhaps give some insight into the working class and employees of the audience reading the book. At the time Emily Bronte was writing, the main audience of her novels would have been middle to upper class people, meaning that potentially Nelly’s character represented the servants working for them.

Nelly’s other role in the storyline of ‘Wuthering Heights’ is as narrator. She is a particularly biased narrator, as she often sweeps over her role in the story, for instance going against her master’s orders when she allowed Heathcliff to see Cathy. She also admits to Lockwood in chapter four that he should ‘follow my story in true gossips fashion’ (Bronte, 1848, pg. 63) and it is her gossip that tells the majority of the story. Nelly is also revealed to be a gossip through her relationship with Zillah, another minor working-class character in ‘Wuthering Heights’, who is a servant to Heathcliff. Often Nelly retrieves information about Heathcliff and his household, which she uses to continue her story to Lockwood. In this way, Bronte portrays the serving class as gossips, interested in their masters’ lives more than their own. Perhaps this is influenced by what Bronte saw herself, as she would have naturally come into contact with many working-class people through her father’s profession as a pastor. However, Nelly Dean had to made a gossiping character in order for the story to be told, as it could be said that if she was not, the story would never have existed.

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How Emily Bronte Portrays Social Class in the Novel Wuthering Heights. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-emily-bronte-portrays-social-class-in-the-novel-wuthering-heights/
“How Emily Bronte Portrays Social Class in the Novel Wuthering Heights.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/how-emily-bronte-portrays-social-class-in-the-novel-wuthering-heights/
How Emily Bronte Portrays Social Class in the Novel Wuthering Heights. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-emily-bronte-portrays-social-class-in-the-novel-wuthering-heights/> [Accessed 31 Jan. 2023].
How Emily Bronte Portrays Social Class in the Novel Wuthering Heights [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Jan 31]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-emily-bronte-portrays-social-class-in-the-novel-wuthering-heights/
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