The Classist Problem of ‘Wuthering Heights’

Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ is widely regarded a classic of English literature but, sadly, the most English thing about it may be its entrenched class prejudices.

When I was in sixth form, my disdain for Wuthering Heights was well-noted by my English class. I couldn’t stand it and I made this fact known at the very start of our first lesson on it. Recently, while looking back on this, I tried to put my finger on exactly what it was that stopped me from getting on with the supposed classic. At the time, I had simply put it down to a combination of disappointment that we were not studying Dracula like the years before us and disinterest at the novel’s tendency to drawl on and on in pages upon pages of nothing but gossip and the characters’ self-indulgent whinging in its desperate attempt to produce a soulless brand of realism. And maybe the reliance on archetypes that goes hand-in-hand with literary realism was part of the problem. Reflecting on my reaction to the novel now, I realise that the glaring problem with Wuthering Heights, the reason I cannot abide it, is Brontë’s inherently classist outlook. At the centre of this vile prejudice is Brontë’s creation of Heathcliff.

In modern culture, Heathcliff is probably regularly regarded as some sort of rugged, wounded, Victorian pinup – the ‘bad boy’ of nineteenth century literature. He is to Mr Darcy what Gothic literature is to Romanticism. Kate Bush sang about him and everything! This perception of Heathcliff certainly has its part to play in the novel, but it is not as innocently romantic a portrayal as it may first seem. Ultimately, this idea of Heathcliff plays into the derogatory and offensive picture Brontë paints of the English working class through him.

Heathcliff is undeniably the novel’s antagonist. Of course, alternative readings can be explored, but the narrative as told by Brontë casts Heathcliff as a villain, compelled to torment those around him as a result of the savagely animalistic nature he is both unable and unwilling to overcome. To understand the source of that savagery, we must begin by looking at Heathcliff’s early appearances and the moment when the Earnshaw family – members of the wealthy landed gentry – first meet him.

Mr Earnshaw, owner of Wuthering Heights, comes across an abandoned child in his travels, whom he adopts and names Heathcliff (despite the novel’s flirtations with the supernatural, this act of selflessness from a member of Britain’s upper classes is perhaps the moment that requires the greatest suspension of disbelief). Heathcliff is first described in the novel as a “dark-skinned gypsy in aspect”, a sentiment similar to one Earnshaw voices directly when he claims “it’s as dark almost as if it came from the devil”. Immediately, Heathcliff is draped in racist imperialist imagery of the ‘other’. Traditionally, the other is a construct that is used to create a figure of hate or mockery by mapping that within ourselves that we find repulsive, due to its irreconcilability with our cultural ideals, onto characters from other countries and cultures, making them seem all the more revolting. Such a device is not so much an open and honest literary one as it is an underhanded political manoeuvre, deployed in art and literature as a form of propaganda on behalf of the elite. The use of the other in this way was rampant in literature at the time Brontë was writing, owing in no small part to the rise of Orientalism – in itself a racist movement within art, owing to British imperialism, which presented an overly amalgamated, grossly distorted and utterly Western-controlled view of almost all non-white nations. The use of the term “gypsy” and likening of dark skin to the devil reek of the repulsive trappings of the Orientalist literature of Brontë’s time, as does Heathcliff’s apparent lack of understanding of his surroundings, his speaking “gibberish” in place of English, and his presentation as animalistic or subhuman (he is repeatedly referred to as “it” rather than “he” in both dialogue and narration).

Heathcliff, then, seems the perfect example of the feral child. His supposed salvation comes at the hands of the kindly Mr Earnshaw, who takes him in so that the ever-civilising influence of the British upper classes may benefit poor raggedy Heathcliff, who seems to swing between being a joke and being a threat. It is a fairly typical narrative from the sheltered middle classes of England, but there is one twist to the imperialist tradition. Heathcliff, this feral, uncivilised, unsettling child has not, in fact, been brought to England from mysterious foreign shores. The savage land from which he hails is working-class Liverpool.

By compounding Orientalism with classism, coding the latter with the language of the former, Brontë uses one despicable prejudice of her time to reinforce another. It speaks, of course, of terrible racism bred by British imperialism, but also illuminates the broader elitist concept of a subhuman ‘underclass’, of which non-white people were just one component. Brontë’s worldview and writing had clearly been permeated by the idea that there existed the working-class, non-white, foreign and homeless mob on the one hand and civilised, white, upper- and middle-class Britons on the other. For the rest of the novel, while Heathcliff is not exclusively portrayed as evil, he is treated as an object – of fear, of intrigue, of fixation. He is never truly a fully-formed character, never driven by anything other than his obsession with Catherine Earnshaw, because – despite Brontë’s comparatively progressive inclinations in writing about such a figure at all at this time – Brontë could never see Heathcliff as a fully-formed human.

A question is raised by the aforementioned language surrounding Heathcliff in the novel’s early chapters as to whether Brontë had intended for the character to be black or whether this was merely an example of racist terminology being used to depict him as dirty as a result of life on Liverpool’s industrial streets. A great deal has been written on the matter by writers more academic than I and so it is not a topic I will discuss at length. Suffice to say, I am inclined to believe Brontë did not envision Heathcliff as white (though his actual race is, perhaps deliberately, somewhat indistinct). Either way, however, the very fact that there is uncertainty highlights the almost indistinguishable hateful terminologies that were used by Brontë and the upper classes of her time to depict, demonise and undermine both the working class and foreigners of different ethnicities to Britain’s white elite. In employing such language, Brontë ultimately defines Heathcliff as nothing other than different – different to the upper-class family by which he is surrounded and more revolting because of it. Whether he is the orphan of a white working-class family, a runaway slave, or a castaway washed up in the docks of Liverpool, he is inferior because of it, to an extent that is understood to extend beyond the societal and into his very nature.

Interestingly, however, I find that one of the most effective ways of revealing Brontë’s inherent classism is by imagining how a reading of the novel would be changed had it been made more plainly evident Heathcliff was not white. Had his incoherent “gibberish”, his later rejection of basic civilised social expectations when he proclaims “I like to be dirty, and I will be dirty”, his vengeful rage at those around him, and the animalistic savagery he often exhibits – “He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears” – all been attributed to Heathcliff’s race rather than his social standing, the novel would be decried as racist by modern critics. Had all his brooding malevolence and untamable wildness been implied to be the natural and exotic traits of a black man, rather than a British working-class one, Wuthering Heights would rightly be used as an indicator of the backwards and uninformed attitudes towards race that prevailed in Brontë’s time. Instead, though, our deeply ingrained class prejudices and burgeoning refusal to address class issues, or even acknowledge the existence of very real and longstanding class divisions, see Brontë’s work excused of all accusation.

Perhaps the issue lies in the novel’s predominant appeal to a middle-class readership, leading them gladly away from a world of class struggle and towards its picturesque moors and incessant self-indulgence dressed up as an escapist love story. Many of the novel’s modern readers have even gone so far as to claim it is about social mobility, critiquing the restraints and impositions of class. It is a misled view, conveniently overlooking the blatant objectification of Heathcliff, which constantly reduces him to a caricature of the ‘violent’ poor and reveals the novel as a propagator of such prejudices.

While the novel looks at the barriers of class, it does so superficially, through the eyes of the sheltered and privileged Catherine. She seems drawn to Heathcliff because of his unrefined nature, his very ‘otherness’. Their connection was strongest as children, when neither of them had to abide by social convention, and wanes as Catherine is given the My Fair Lady treatment by the Linton family. Is the novel not, then, a genuine attempt at depicting the divisions enforced by the constructs of social convention? Perhaps there is some intent to this end on Brontë’s part, but the effort is a token one at best. The entire foundation of Catherine’s obsession with Heathcliff appears to be the memory of a fleeting moment in their childhood, during which time she treated him more as a pet than an equal. It is revealed by Nelly that the “greatest punishment we could invent for [Catherine] was to keep her separate from him: yet she got chided more than any of us on his account”. This punishment echoes parents taking a child’s toy away, or keeping them apart from the family pet as a form of discipline, and Catherine’s reaction is no different to a child crying for their puppy. Again, Heathcliff is an object to be fawned over.

No human connection between Heathcliff and Catherine is ever explored; there is only idolisation. His obsession with her also falls into the owner-and-pet relationship, looking up to the girl who took him in and took time to play with him; an animal of subhuman intelligence falling in line with his owner’s commands. As such, Catherine’s infamous declaration of “Nelly, I am Heathcliff!” seems almost laughable. It is the cry of a pouting child, desperately trying to convince their parents that they really are in love with that pop star on the poster. Yet Brontë seems to want the reader to take Catherine’s naive and indulgent speech utterly seriously, without any hint of irony. The apparent reason Brontë has missed the underlying ridiculousness of her own dialogue is because she is Catherine! She has dreamt up the brooding Heathcliff as the object of a middle-class fantasy, lusting after – for want of a better term – a bit of rough. It is the objectification of a working-class figure as something strong, masculine, but mysterious to the middle-class observer and Brontë shamelessly indulges in this softly pornographic stereotyping. Were it published today, her ‘classic’ would find a more welcoming readership in the most angst-riddled corners of the Fanfiction website than in bookshops.

So what of Heathcliff’s later cruelty, his need to control and possess all around him in maturity when, after Catherine’s death, he goes on to become master of Wuthering Heights himself? What of his manipulation of Hindley Earnshaw in childhood, in response to Hindley’s bullying? Is this not all a sign of the corrupting influence of the upper class on (native or not) Liverpudlian orphan, Heathcliff? Is this not an indictment of the cruelty bred by the upper classes? There is very little basis for this conclusion. While it is true Earnshaw’s son, Hindley, beats and bullies Heathcliff in their childhood and Heathcliff responds by manipulating Hindley to his own ends (using the threat of telling his father of how cruelly Hindley has behaved), for the most part Heathcliff has experienced only apparent benevolence from the Earnshaws. Mr Earnshaw has selflessly taken Heathcliff in, giving him a home, while Catherine becomes his close friend and the focus of his affections. Most importantly, though, it is difficult to surmise that Heathcliff has been corrupted because we never see him as anything other than cruel, animalistic and greedy. There is no ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture, no narrative of Heathcliff’s gradual corruption through his time with the upper classes. He is a feral child of working-class Britain, utterly unable to adapt to the civilised attitudes of the upper classes. Brontë’s classist narrative prevails throughout.

Of course, the darker traits Heathcliff exhibits in adulthood are decidedly upper class. He seeks to force a marriage between his son and Cathy (daughter of Catherine), so that he may be master of both Wuthering Heights and its neighbouring Thrushcross Grange. This need for ownership – of both people and property – is a trait we can immediately identify with the bourgeois classes. Surely a sign that Heathcliff’s ultimate corruption has been at the hands of the wealthy landowners around him? But the sheer revulsion with which he is met by others at the Heights and Thrushcross suggest he is still viewed as the outsider, his cruelty still a trait of his otherly nature. I spoke before of Brontë’s likening of Heathcliff to the Orientalist ‘other’, the foreign figure onto which were mapped the suppressed and unacceptable traits of ‘civilised’ Westerners. It seems that in this character of Heathcliff, Brontë has produced a working-class ‘other’; a figure of lowly social standing onto whom can be mapped all the animalistic and unacceptably cruel behaviours the upper classes deny exist within themselves. The capitalist-bred shames of middle- and upper-class people are, through Heathcliff, attributed to the working class. Brontë has done what all members of the upper classes do in order to maintain their own existence – spread the lie that greed, cruelty and self-interest are all parts of our basic human nature, buried in the dark recesses of the id that is so much nearer the surface in the supposedly uncivilised lower classes.

The last defence of an apologist for Brontë’s creation of Heathcliff may often be that we are supposed to see through his demeaning representation, that it is all a byproduct of Nelly Dean’s unreliable narration. The argument, of course, falls apart with the realisation that Nelly is also a working class character in the novel, one who tends towards gossip, suspicion and a judgemental attitude. If Heathcliff’s cruel and animalistic representation is to be read as a creation of Nelly’s narration, it serves only to offer another cruel and vindictive depiction of working-class characters. The novel’s other working-class character of note is Joseph, a servant at Wuthering Heights who is constantly spouting fundamentalist religious warnings in an almost indecipherable heavy Yorkshire accent. The result of this is to make him more a recurring joke than a character, another hapless caricature of the working class.

If Wuthering Heights did not appeal to me as a teenager, it is because I could hold no sympathy for this privileged world of fancy, dreamt up by an author lost in her own middle-class bubble. At the time, I recall attributing my hatred for the novel to its pretentious angst and tendency for characters to die of sadness. In a way, I was right. All the sorrows and the ultimately fatal heartbreaks are spawned from the story of a girl, who has grown up in a country manor, struggling to choose between a rich man and a handsome bad boy for a husband. The novel is centred upon the pubescent fantasies of the rich and its working-class characters have been written with no concept of the class struggles that they are so carelessly dismissing in favour of harmful stereotypes. It is no wonder the novel has been readily accepted as a classic amongst the inherently classist British establishment. It is indicative of a culture that existed when Brontë was writing and continues to dominate our attitudes today – a culture that is willingly blind to the class struggle that defines Britain’s history and, rather than expose the injustices that have divided our society for centuries, would prefer to escape into narratives that exonerate the middle class, while keeping working-class voices at a safe distance from the cultural consciousness.

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