Wuthering Heights: Depiction Of A Gloomy Landscape And A Passionate Love Between The Main Characters

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Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847 under the name Ellis Bell. The novel follows Gothic and Romantic traditions of the time, complete with images of natural grandeur, literal and metaphorical sublimity, and elements of the supernatural. Throughout the novel, Brontë uses descriptions of the dark landscape and stormy weather to reflect the tumultuous emotions her characters embody. The images generated throughout the text emphasize the possibility that the natural elements portrayed can be thought of as metaphors for the characters themselves. Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights after the sublime had been well established as an aesthetic principle; first by Longinus and then refined and reimagined by Edmund Burke during the 18th century. Due to this popular aesthetic, every aspect of Wuthering Heights can be connected to the idea of sublimity. These aspects include a wild, untamed depiction of a gloomy landscape and a passionate love between the main characters Catherine and Heathcliff; facets that are dangerous and destructive, yet mysterious and awe-inspiring.

The ancient Greek text, On Sublimity, has been one of the most influential classical works in the tradition of European criticism since the eighteenth century. Even though the author and date of composition remain unknown, critics typically refer to the author as Longinus (Leitch 144). The ancient text provides a good foundation for the idea of sublimity, which Edmund Burke would develop further, defining sublimity as “a kind of eminence or excellence of discourse” (Longinus 147). He goes on to say that “grandeur produces ecstasy” and that “the combination of wonder and astonishment always proves superior… because persuasion is on the whole something we can control, whereas amazement and wonder exert invincible power and force and get the better of every hearer” (147). He claims there are five sources of sublimity; the power to conceive great thoughts, strong and inspired emotion, figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified and elevated word arrangement (148-9).

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Edmund Burke fleshed out the idea of sublimity in the eighteenth century. He claimed that “[w]hatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger… in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime” (Burke 471). He continues this line of thought, indicating that the sublime is a product of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling, and then contrasts the sublime with the ideals of beauty. For Burke, sublime objects are “vast in their dimensions” while “beautiful ones comparatively small”; “beauty should be smooth, and polished; the great, rugged and negligent;” and “beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy” (473). Boiled down, beauty brings pleasure where the sublime brings a kind of desirable, pleasurable pain.

In Wuthering Heights, one area in which the sublime is highlighted is through the gloomy landscape. In the first volume, Lockwood’s description of the sheer physicality of Wuthering Heights and the heath and brackish mud he had to wade through to reach the house foregrounds elements of sublimity, most notably in the dangerous, yet awe-inspiring setting:

“Wuthering” being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there, at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few, stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones (Bronte 2).

Brontë’s imagery of Wuthering Heights serves as a visible symbol of Heathcliff’s cold and harsh character, and the physical barriers depicted may represent the restrictive forces of the social classes found throughout the novel. Her choice in diction, such as the words “tumult”, “stormy”, “pure”, “excessive”, “stunted”, and “strong”, illustrates the fervent, sublime love that overcomes Heathcliff and Catherine.

Later, the night that Heathcliff disappears angrily into the moors and vanishes for three years, the tempestuous weather reflects that of Catherine’s emotional turmoil:

“About midnight, while we still sat up, the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building; a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen fire.” (75)

The storm is personified as “furious, violent, and destructive,” thus a sublime emulation of Catherine’s own destructive reactions as “her obstinacy in refusing to take shelter, and standing bonnetless and shawl-less to catch as much water as she could with her hair and clothes” left her “ thoroughly drenched” and ill from her longing for Heathcliff to return (75). This is a fantastic metaphor as, according to Longinus, “[t]he right occasions [for metaphors] are when emotions come flooding in and bring the multiplication of metaphors with them as a necessary accompaniment” … and “metaphors conduce to sublimity, and that passages involving emotion and description are the most suitable field for them” (157-8).

Sublime wildness and tumultuous weather aren’t only found in the landscape of Wuthering Heights. It is also represented within the characters themselves and their identities. The passion that Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship portrays might be identified as one seeking transcendence, or perhaps one that seeks to combine two, isolated individuals into one larger, sublime entity.

Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship was never simplistic. In childhood, she found herself “adopt[ing] a double character” (59). While at Thrushcross Grange, where “she heard Heathcliff termed a ‘vulgar young ruffian,’ and ‘worse than a brute,’ she took care not to act like him; but at home she had small inclination to practice politeness that would only be laughed at, and restrain an unruly nature when it would bring her neither credit nor praise” (59).

While later in the novel, as Catherine lies ill, she tells Nelly:

Oh, I'm burning! I wish I were out of doors — I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free… and laughing at injuries, not maddening under them! Why am I so changed? why does my blood rush into a hell of tumult at a few words? I'm sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those Hills… (111).

These passages clearly indicate that the moors represent more than fond memories surrounding sunny, childhood endeavors. Instead, they signal the notion that Catherine’s wild nature developed out in the moors, alongside Heathcliff, and that they have become an escape for her; a manifestation of Heathcliff and a characteristic of her true nature. These fevered memories suggest that the moors are where she belongs, and despite the decisions she made, she was not meant to stay inside as the lady of a manor. Her desire to be outside and succumb to the natural elements reflects her desire to revert to her old being; one where she was carefree, untamed, and beside Heathcliff. In this way, Catherine falls victim to the sublime as she gives in to its omniscient powers, drawing her away from the comforts of her life and into a tumultuous uncertainty fueled by passion, energy, and a yearning to be free.

Catherine and Heathcliff both challenge ideas of identity, by breaking down traditional ideas of personality and individuality. Here, however, they do not violate boundaries but transcend them, thus achieving sublimity. They each identify so strongly with the other that they feel they have a single identity, a single soul shared between the two of them. “[H]e’s more myself than I am,” Catherine declares. “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” (63). This intimate connection she shares with Heathcliff does not seem at all strange to her. She says to Nelly, “[S]urely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here?” (64) To be a singular entity is an alien thought to Catherine. She says:

My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it . . . My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

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Wuthering Heights: Depiction Of A Gloomy Landscape And A Passionate Love Between The Main Characters. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/wuthering-heights-depiction-of-a-gloomy-landscape-and-a-passionate-love-between-the-main-characters/
“Wuthering Heights: Depiction Of A Gloomy Landscape And A Passionate Love Between The Main Characters.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/wuthering-heights-depiction-of-a-gloomy-landscape-and-a-passionate-love-between-the-main-characters/
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