Message Sent with Violence in Gothic Literature: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

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Violence is not used only to shock in either Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte or The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. Both novels use violence to explore themes such as love and feminism. They also make the reader ask important questions and show that there are no easy moral answers. Violence is also an integral part of the gothic literature and this means the violence is necessary to support the genre. Both novels also explore separate ideas using violence. In Wuthering Heights, violence is used to show the extreme emotions associated with the characters; and in The Bloody Chamber, the relationship between sex/sexuality and violence is explored.

Gothic literature has a few defining characteristics, including violence, nightmares, an element of fear or a fearful setting, supernatural activity, and romance. Both Wuthering Heights and The Bloody Chamber can be considered gothic literature. Violence lends itself to the gothic genre and can therefore not be put in only to shock. Furthermore, the violence in both books often revolve around another gothic characteristic.

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The classic gothic villain is usually a man who is amoral and has very little character. He often lives somewhere ominous and is associated with some sort of violence or violent behavior. In ‘The Bloody Chamber,’ the Marquis represents the classic gothic villain. His “waxen face” is “perfectly smooth” and described as a “mask.” He is also portrayed as a predator – “leonine” and with a “dark mane” rather than hair. Even at the conclusion of the story, his death is compared to shooting a “man-eating tiger.” Furthermore, his name suggests a comparison to the Marquis de Sade, a serial rapist and abuser of young men, women and children. His name is the origin of the word ‘sadism.’ As The Bloody Chamber is an example of gothic literature, the Marquis’ violence is used not just to shock, it is necessary for the story and its genre.

Wuthering Heights is also a gothic novel. It has eerie settings like the moors and a supernatural element – Cathy’s ghost. We first meet Cathy’s ghost in Lockwood’s nightmare, a common characteristic of gothic literature. He exclaims how “the intense horror of nightmare came over me.” The violence that surrounds this event is in response to seeing Cathy’s ghost, he “pulled its wrists to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down.” Like with The Bloody Chamber, this violence here and throughout the novel is necessary. Without the violence, the story would not make sense. One would not be able to connect with Heathcliff and his trauma and form a deeper understanding of him. It is a part of his journey that makes the themes of the story more poignant.

One of the most poignant themes in Wuthering Heights is the relationship between love and violence. The passion between Cathy and Heathcliff and their extreme love and obsession over each other sends a message that love can be self-annihilating. Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship is one of “lightning” and “fire.” Their love transcends the natural, but they ultimately destroy themselves over it. When Heathcliff compares his love of her to Edgar’s love of her, he says that if Edgar “loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn’t love as much in eighty years, as I could in a day.” This is a dangerous type of love and causes all the pain they experience up until the end of the novel. Heathcliff exclaims that without Cathy, “two words would comprehend my future, death and hell – existence after losing her would be hell,” and asks that she “haunt” him since he has “murdered” her and she is his. This ends up being true, when Cathy dies, he is haunted by her and is forever chasing her supernatural form while hurting others on the way. His “anguish” after her death is always described in violent terms. His passion for her is almost animal. When he discovers she has died, he screams like “a savage beast getting goaded to death with knives and spears.” Cathy’s intense feelings for Heathcliff are also the cause of her demise. One can argue that their complex relationship and the reason Cathy is apprehensive of being with him is because her “wild” nature and the things she doesn’t like about herself, she sees in him. This is shown when she says “I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” Her frustrations, especially about her relationships with both Heathcliff and Edgar lead her to have violent outbursts and cause her to fall “dangerously ill.” It is not helped that Heathcliff’s hatred for Edgar is so strong that he “would have torn his heart out and drunk his blood.” All the violent terminology used to describe their relationship amplifies the deepness of their love, but also the danger of their obsession. Therefore, the violence is necessary to understand their feelings and show how the sort of passion and obsession they feel for one another can only end in pain.

The danger of love is also briefly touched on in The Bloody Chamber in ‘The Snow Child’ when the Countess picks up a rose and its thorn “bites.” In ‘The Snow Child,’ the Countess “hated” the “child of [the Count’s] desire.” She is jealous and wants to “be rid of her,” but by trying to, she ends up only hurting herself. The rose is a traditional symbol of love and the fact that it “bites” suggests that jealousy and competition between women only hurt them. This use of violence conveys the same idea that the danger of love is that it can be self-annihilating.

On the other hand, The Bloody Chamber uses violence to explore a different aspect of love in ‘The Lady of The House of Love.’ The protagonist consumes the men she would rather love as “the beautiful somnambulist” who “helplessly perpetuates her ancestral crimes.” ‘The Lady of The House of Love’ is a version of Sleeping Beauty. In the original story, the handsome prince awakes Sleeping Beauty into life, whereas, in ‘The Lady of The House of Love,’ she is awakened into death. Her love is frustrating and sad, she is constantly disappointed when the tarot cards give her the same “inevitable” reading until she turns over the “Les Amoureux” and the card for death. This new love is for a British soldier who has not yet learnt to “shudder.” The love she feels and that ultimately releases her into death, away from the “nightmare” of her life, is a more positive metaphor about love that could not be achieved without describing the “nightmare” of her existence where she would consume the foolish men who happened upon her castle and the blood on her face would be “mixed with tears.”

Closely related to the idea of love is the idea of sex and sexuality. The Bloody Chamber uses violence to explore women’s sexuality and the male gaze. The male gaze is explored in many of the short stories, but the most in ‘The Bloody Chamber.’ The protagonist finds herself “stirring” by the way the Marquis sees her – as a piece of meat – “horseflesh” – and an object purely for his pleasure. It is interesting that although she is “reborn in his unreflective eyes,” the man she ends up happy with is blind. This may be a metaphor for the protagonist ridding herself of the male gaze.

The masochist desire in women needs to be explored through violence because the nature of it is violent. The idea that women enjoy being dominated was very controversial during the 1970’s and still is today. Like with the male gaze, the masochist desire in women is explored most in the ‘Bloody Chamber.’ The protagonist enjoys her domination and a kiss with “teeth in it and a rasp of beard.” She watches herself “impaled” in their “one-sided struggle.” Furthermore, the Marquis’ previous wives seemed to have possibly enjoyed their deaths and too took pleasure in their pain. The protagonist finds a postcard of a “a village graveyard” with the words “…the supreme and unique pleasure of love is the certainty that one is doing evil.” This is reinforced when the protagonist finds that this most recently deceased wife’s “dead lips smiled.” This “certain queasy craving” is a desire shared by many women and by focusing on it in The Bloody Chamber, Carter draws people’s attention to its masked presence in society. The message Carter may be trying to send, however, is ambiguous. At the start of the story one would think the message is that it should be accepted, but at the end, the mark on the protagonist’s forehead from the bloodied key represents her “shame.” The point seems to be that these things are ambiguous and rather than making people think one way or another, Carter makes it a point to discuss and debate over. This may be seen as most beneficial as it brings forward a taboo subject that affects many women and should be talked about. Rather than suggesting an answer, she suggests a way to an answer. Therefore, violence is not being used only to shock, but to spread awareness of an underlying issue in society.

Furthermore, this exploration of sex and sexuality relates to the feminist theme in The Bloody Chamber. All the stories in The Bloody Chamber have a message about feminism, even if the message is just to think about an idea, like with the masochist desire in women. Something that Carter also wants to point out is that women who give in to domination are often only doing it when their sexuality is being taken away from them. In ‘The Erl-King,’ the protagonist is put into a “reducing chamber” by the Erl-King’s “green eye.” She describes the eyes as able to “eat you,” and she then has sex with him and is dominated by him.

Another feminist critique is made about men’s view of femininity. Flowers are a motif used in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ and ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon.’ The protagonist in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ criticizes the idea that “a gift of flowers would reconcile a woman to any humiliation,” and when her father asks for a flower of forgiveness, she pricks her finger and he receives it “all smeared with blood.” This is an example of how violence is used to send a message about how men associate femininity with flowers and how this character does not endorse it. Every story in the collection has a violent undertone to it and every story has a message about feminism. This shows how violence can be and is used to convey and put focus on something important in today’s society and therefore is not just there to shock. To a lesser extent, Wuthering Heights uses violence to explore feminism as well. Both Cathy and Isabella indirectly make some points about feminism.

Cathy shows how self-destructive behavior can be a justifiable feminine response to being in a place of powerlessness as she expresses about Edgar and Heathcliff that she will “try to break their hearts by breaking my own.” Additionally, Cathy’s illness and suicidal thoughts that often overspill into violence, like when Nelly is advised to keep her from throwing herself down the stairs or “out of the window,” are caused by being in this state of powerlessness. In short, Bronte expresses how oppressed women could use illness as a strategy to exert power.

At the same time, Bronte does not use the stereotype that men are more violent than women and that violence does not exist in the civilized world. Isabella is an example of all these things. She explains her violent feelings as a result of Heathcliff’s treatment of her – “I gave him my heart and he took it and pinched it to death; and flung it back to me – people feel with their hearts, Ellen, and since he has destroyed mine, I have not the power to feel for him, and I would not, though he groaned from this to his dying day, and wept tears of blood for Catherine.” This tells us a great deal about sympathy and empathy. Although this passage without context can seem an overreaction and overly dramatized, when one takes into consideration how Heathcliff has treated Isabella and how he expressed he would turn her “blue eyes black, every day or two,” and “cut my throat” at the thought of Cathy wanting him to marry Isabella, one actually feels for Isabella and understands why she says later that “the single pleasure I can imagine is to die, or to see him dead!” The complexity of this violence also makes the reader ask important questions like whether “treachery and violence are a just return for treachery and violence.”

One of the questions that Wuthering Heights asks is how much suffering we should take and how far one can forgive, which is explored though violence. This question does not have a distinct answer as, like The Bloody Chamber, there is deliberate ambiguity. Cathy and Heathcliff both betray and hurt each other. Heathcliff hears Cathy talk about how their marriage would “degrade” her. However, in that time, a woman needed to marry someone of power in order to survive, but they both still loved each other. Mostly, however, the important questions are about violence in society. Bronte shows that not only are there different forms of violence, but that they are present in all different lifestyles – rich and poor. Cathy is attacked by Linton’s dogs in the beginning of the novel and Edgar and Isabella almost tear their dog apart in their tantrum. This shows that not only is violence a hidden or suppressed part of genteel life, it may actually be supported by a hidden brutality. The guard dog here is the representation of this. Isabella is meant to represent a lady of the genteel life, yet she experiences “covetousness” towards Hindley’s gun thinking, “how powerful I should be possessing such an instrument.” Furthermore, Bronte seems to suggest that violence is natural and an understandable response to extreme emotions. She suggests it is an important part of our animalistic natures. This may suggest that the violence shown at the Heights is more honest than that at the Grange and that Isabella’s behavior may be false. Although she says about Heathcliff that she “wouldn’t have aided or abetted an attempt on even his life, for anything,” when Hindley tries to kill Heathcliff, she wants it to happen and stays passive. Whereas, the violence from the Heights seems to come from genuine trauma and distress. Hindley was the forgotten son and the only thing he loved in his life, his wife, died. Heathcliff was abused by Hindley and discriminated against by the Lintons, calling him a “frightful thing.” Hindley would give him “thrashings” and beat him. Hence, Bronte wants the reader to ask what this says about Isabella’s character and civilized society. Conversely, at the Heights there are examples of the more natural violence. For example, Hareton hangs “a litter of puppies from a chair-back in the doorway.” This violence is purely practical, there is simply not enough space or resources to care for a litter of puppies. By including this form of violence, Bronte encourages us to think about these different interpretations of violence and how not to take them at face value.

In The Bloody Chamber, Carter also makes the reader ask questions. In every story in the collection, there is deliberate ambiguity like in Wuthering Heights. The ambiguity in every story is used to show how in life there are no simple answers and even when someone does something evil, it is never as easy as right and wrong. Violence in ‘The Erl-King’ is used in this way. The Erl-King captures women and keeps them in cages, but it is done in “innocence.” When the protagonist decides to “strangle him” with “two huge handfuls of his rustling hair” which she winds into “ropes,” it is “gentle” and without malice. She commits murder but, in this instance, it is not a crime. Additionally, the last line, “mother, mother, you have murdered me,” is completely open for interpretation. This open interpretation shows violence is not necessarily always that easy to count as right or wrong and like in Wuthering Heights, we must never take anything at face value.

In conclusion, the violence in Wuthering Heights and The Bloody Chamber is used to tell a story, send a message, and to make the readers ask questions. Violence is what makes these books as poignant as they are. Hence, violence is not used only to shock.

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Message Sent with Violence in Gothic Literature: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. (2023, February 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/message-sent-with-violence-in-gothic-literature-wuthering-heights-by-emily-bronte-and-the-bloody-chamber-by-angela-carter/
“Message Sent with Violence in Gothic Literature: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter.” Edubirdie, 01 Feb. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/message-sent-with-violence-in-gothic-literature-wuthering-heights-by-emily-bronte-and-the-bloody-chamber-by-angela-carter/
Message Sent with Violence in Gothic Literature: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/message-sent-with-violence-in-gothic-literature-wuthering-heights-by-emily-bronte-and-the-bloody-chamber-by-angela-carter/> [Accessed 23 Jun. 2024].
Message Sent with Violence in Gothic Literature: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Feb 01 [cited 2024 Jun 23]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/message-sent-with-violence-in-gothic-literature-wuthering-heights-by-emily-bronte-and-the-bloody-chamber-by-angela-carter/
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