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Wuthering Heights: The Romanticism of the Beastly Bridegroom

Wuthering Heights (1847) is one of the most popular novels in the British literary tradition. The narration deals with the tumultuous relationship that two landowning families, the Lintons and the Earnshaws, have with the foster son of the latter, Heathcliff. Emily Brontë fully integrated several elements belonging to fairy tales or folklore into the novel since they were highly used by nineteenth-century authors. Nevertheless, these elements are not relegated by Brontë to a secondary place within the narrative since they are essential for the story and its central moments (Simpson, 1974). Brontë’s use of the fairy tale reaches such an extent that she makes use of them to perform an implicit critique of social values. In her critique, Beauty and the Beast becomes the template upon which to build her narrative whereas love and nature become the main elements to fight against hierarchical power.

The Brontë sisters had been deeply influenced by fairy-tale imagination and, in particular, Emily was drawn to romance and fantasy (Simpson, 1974). During the nineteenth century, fairy-tale elements were often included in narrations although it is not possible to know to what degree they participated in the formation of the Victorian novel. Nevertheless, they were commonplace for a wide range of authors such as Charles Dickens (Smith & Do Rozario, 2016). From this point of view, Wuthering Heights has been described as a “popular legend, a myth, a ballad, an epos, as well as a fairy tale” (Piciucco, 2006, p. 222). In addition, Wuthering Heights is strongly impacted by the Byronic and Gothic nuances of English Romanticism and overly stresses the feelings and passions of the characters (Williams, 1985). According to Phyllis (1978, p. 125), the use “of fairy-tale motifs in fiction could reveal aspects of a character’s psychological and emotional development” and, thus, they became commonplaces in romance novels. In this way, Williams (1985, p. 108) argues that Wuthering Heights echoes Beauty and the Beast in several aspects because the tale catalyzes one of the novel’s main topics: “human love, its possibilities, limitations, and consequences”.

Figure 1. Painting of Brontë sisters with Emily in the middle. Branwell Brontë. 1834.

According to Zipes (2011, p. 224), stories such as Beauty and the Beast or The Frog Prince have introduced “the rules of courtship and mating that have evolved in different countries over thousands of years”. These tales usually involve strange pairings of women and “bestial men” who dominate their female partners to escape from an evil spell. Typically, the beasts present themselves in form of an “enchanted animal or reptile” and the young woman is forced either to wed or sleep with him. In particular, Beauty and the Beast is the most popular story dealing with animal bridegrooms since the tradition of the tale and its popularization illustrate the interplay of folklore and literature (Bacchilega, 1997). This signifies that its literary tradition is one of the oldest among short fiction dating back to Ancient Rome’s Cupid and Psyche (Smith & Do Rozario, 2016). In the story, Psyche is sent to an invisible lover whom she wrongfully considers to be a fearsome serpent. Once she realizes that her bridegroom is a divinity, Psyche falls in love with him, but Venus punishes Psyche for breaking her promise of using the light to look at him. The two stories are particularly connected by portraying “the mysterious nature of the husband” because his invisibility or monstrous appearance is the magical effect of a spell or the performance of a divinity (Bacchilega, 1997, p. 73). However, the “beastly bridegroom” trope would not be a driving force in fairy tales until the rise of the seventeenth-century fairy tale in France (Smith & Do Rozario, 2016, p. 37). During this time, Madame Prince de Beaumont, one of the first French writers of fairy tales, would end up creating the most popular version of the story which was published in Le Magasin des Enfants in 1756 and became the template for many interpretations throughout history, such as Wuthering Heights (Bacchilega, 1997).

Emily Brontë explores the animal bridegroom following the pattern established by French authors although she draws some dark nuances and imagery from the German versions of the tale (Butterworth McDermott, 2002). Wuthering Heights opens with the arrival of a man called Lockwood to a rented manor house in an isolated British moor country. He meets his landlord, Heathcliff, and his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, who tells him the story of the main manor house, Wuthering Heights. The first connection between both literary works is the novel’s use of the “formulaic fairy-tale beginning” in which a character introduces “the magic object” (Porcar, Martí, 2017, p. 3). Accordingly, this introduction will be the focus of the plot as well as essential as the novel unfolds. In particular, this is one of the most important points of the story because it is the one that takes the novel “from the everyday into the realms of night”, that is, the narration goes beyond nineteenth-century realism and approaches romanticism and, therefore, the fantastic and fairy tales (Williams, 1985, p. 109). Nelly starts her narration with an analogue of the “Once upon a time” formula when she says “One fine summer morning” and, by doing this, she frames her storytelling as if it was a fairy tale (Brontë, 2009, p. 64).

Figure 2. Lockwood arrives at Wuthering Heights. Rovina Cai. 2014.

Similarly to Beauty and the Beast, where the father is a merchant and makes a trip at the beginning of the story, Nelly’s narration opens with Mr. Earnshaw, the owner of Wuthering Heights, going on a trip to Liverpool. Before leaving, he asks his two children, Catherine and Hindley: “What shall I bring you?” (Brontë, 2007, p. 64). Catherine asks for a whip which was uncommon for girls in the nineteenth century whereas Beauty asks for a rose since it was a curiosity in the immediate surroundings (Porcar, Martí, 2017, p. 4). Picciuco (2006) affirms that the need for a rose is linked to Beauty’s need for love and addresses the fact that the use of specific items usually symbolizes essential aspects of a character’s personality. The presence of these elements in Wuthering Heights, which remind of magic objects in fairy tales, echoes the romantic and gothic strains of the novel. In the end, the relevance of these items in both stories marks the meeting of the couples and is the ultimate source of problems. In Beauty and the Beast, Beauty must go to the Beast’s castle to save his father’s life after robbing the rose from the garden whereas, in Wuthering Heights, Mr. Earnshaw arrives with Heathcliff who is described as a child “from the devil” (Brontë, 2007, p. 65). Several characters throughout the novel highlight the otherness of Heathcliff and make a wide range of comparisons between him and other creatures, such as demons or goblins withdrawn from folk belief (Simpson, 1974).

Heathcliff is constantly relegated to second place because of his unknown background, his dark skin tone and his misery (Nussbaum, 1996). He is continuously referred to as ‘it’ until he has been christened and ultimately resorts to employing overly violent behavior. He also shows attitudes of mystery and sadism which turn him into a real beast metaphorically (Simpson, 1974). For instance, according to Picicucco (2006, p. 223), the werewolf “generally appears as cruel, aggressive, greedy and wicked character with dark eyes” which defines accurately Heathcliff’s physical appearance and behavior. When mentioning his name, the rest of the characters usually accompany it with epithets such as “the brute beast” (Brontë, 2007, p. 177), “a mad dog” (Brontë, 2007, p. 170) or “a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears”(Brontë, 2007, p. 175). Popkin (1987) considers the novel to be a nineteenth-century interpretation of Beauty and the Beast since the nature/culture polarities are perfectly illustrated. Beauty and Catherine represent civilizing forces responsible for their soulmate’s salvation and real entrance to the world as humans. Both must outgrow their disgust toward their love interests to reach their happy ending. In this way, not only are Heathcliff and Beast villains but also victims who must be rescued from a brutalized destiny (Porcar, Martí, 2017).

Figure 3. Heathcliff. Clare Leighton. 1931.

Regarding their origins, there is also another connection between Beast and Heathcliff since both come from an obscure background. On the one hand, Beast was a prince under an evil spell whereas Heathcliff could be from the nobility due to the lack of data on his past: “You’re fit for a prince in disguise. Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?” (Brontë, 2007, p. 82). Piciucco (2006) affirms that these nuclear origins, where characters have been abandoned or lost, are commonplace for fairy tales. Consequently, “Heathcliff has the potential of turning into a handsome prince once he has been accepted by the princess”, but this transformation ultimately fails because Catherine ends up marrying another man, Edgar Linton (Gose, 1966, p. 5). Both Beauty and Catherine are reluctant to wed their love interests, but, in the end, they are their real soulmates (Porcar, Martí, 2017). Despite deciding to marry Edgar Linton, when asking Catherine about Heathcliff, she recognizes that he is her true significant other: “My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being” (Brontë, 2007, p. 103).

In fairy tales, the spell that keeps a prince “under the appearance of a Beast” can only be dismantled by “real love and its real demonstration of the woman” (Porcar, Martí, 2017, p. 7). Beauty is capable of saving Beast from his monstrous physique because she can see far beyond his looks and overcome social conventions and critiques. Nevertheless, Catherine seems unable to escape the limits that Victorian society has defined for all of her kind and, thus, she cannot break the spell because she cannot make a heartfelt decision. Popkin (1987, p. 117) affirms that, in contrast to Catherine, “Beauty learns to disregard the Beast’s outward appearance and to love him for his inner qualities”. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine only dissembles Heathcliff’s charm in the afterworld as they transform into ghosts and end up appearing together “on every rainy night since his death” (Brontë, 2007, p. 311).

Figure 4. Heathcliff and Catherine. Clare Leighton. 1931.

As stated earlier, Emily Brontë’s narrative is strongly shaped by Romanticism and, therefore, her novel analyzes critically the Victorian principles that prevented individuals from reaching their longings and desires (Porcar, Martí, 2017, p. 21). Catherine is not able to achieve her happily-ever-after and, consequently, transforms Heathcliff because she cannot free herself from traditional courtship and marital conventions. Williams (1985) refers to the ‘love principle’ which is commonly used in fairy tales as a driving force to establish patriarchal and social normal rules which usually constrain the woman’s freedom. However, she argues that, in Wuthering Heights, love is a mechanism to oppose hierarchical power that aims to tame Catherine and Heathcliff. Hence, love “is the paradoxical power of human love both to elevate and to destroy, both to transcend human experience and to sanctify it” (Williams, 1985, p. 117). As a transcending element, love reunites Heathcliff and Catherine in the afterworld even when they “cannot find a heaven in the human world” and, thus, “they are left with nature” (Gose, 1966, p. 9). Brontë as a loyal reader of Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge manages to reconcile “two realms of experience”, that is, human and supernatural experience (Williams,1985, p. 109).

In conclusion, Beauty and the Beast serves as a template upon which Emily Brontë can criticize the dominant values in her time and society. Her criticism is carefully covered by the large number of gothic, romantic and fantastic elements which appear as the plot unfolds and perfectly reflect the influence of fairy tales and folk ballads on the author. In the end, one of the most important themes in both stories is love since it is defined as the ultimate purpose of the world and has transformative, sanctifying and destructive powers (Williams, 1985). In Beauty and the Beast, the Beast can acquire his human nature thanks to Beauty’s love and sacrifice whereas, in Wuthering Heights, love finally reunites Heathcliff and Catherine after death. Finally, Emily Brontë emphasizes the relevance of nature to “restore lost harmony” when the narrator describes the graves of all the characters (Williams, 1985, p. 127). In her complex narrative, Brontë provides the reader with a glimpse of her vision of life as a “tragic catharsis” and with an analysis of love, social values and nature (Williams, 1985, p. 127).

Bibliographical References

Bacchilega, C. (1997). Postmodern fairy tales gender and narrative strategies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Brontë, E. (2007). Wuthering Heights. Canada: Broadview Editions.

Butterworth McDermott, C. (2002). Transforming Beauty: Re-telling “Beauty and the Beast” in the Nineteenth-century Novel. PhD, Purdue University.

Gose, E. (1966). Wuthering Heights: The Heath and the Hearth. Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 21(1), 1–19.

Nussbaum, M.C. (1996). Wuthering Heights: The Romantic Ascent. Philosophy and Literature, 20(2), 362–382.

Piciucco, P. (2006). Wuthering Heights As a Childlike Fairy Tale. Brontë Studies: Journal of the Brontë Society, 31(3), 220–229.

Popkin, M. (1987). “Wuthering Heights” and its “Spirit.” Literature Film Quarterly, 15(2), 116–122.

Porcar Martí, A. (2017). Happy Ending or Punishment?: The Influence of Fairy Tales in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Bachelor thesis, Universidad de Zaragoza.

Smith, M. & Do Rozario, R.-A. C. (2016). Race, Species, and the Other: “Beauty and the Beast” in Victorian Pantomime and Children’s Literature. Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 38(1), 37–53.

Simpson, J. (1974). The Function of Folklore in “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” Folklore, 85(1), 47–61.

Williams, A. (1985). Natural Supernaturalism in “Wuthering Heights.” Studies in Philology, 82(1), 104–127.

Zipes J. (2011). The enchanted screen: the unknown history of fairy-tale films. New York: Routledge.

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1 Comment

gisela triszcz
gisela triszcz
Sep 18, 2022

Thanks for this piece of writing. English literature never stops surprising me.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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