by Morgan Herbener
In nineteenth century England, social class determined the amount of power people had. The aristocrats in the upper class had all of the power and the poor working class served them. Society strictly abided by these rigid social classes and changing one’s social standing proved incredibly difficult to accomplish. Wuthering Heights shows readers that determination to better one’s station can sometimes cost one’s happiness or result in failure. The characters in the novel feel the need to raise their social status and in most cases they either fail at doing so or end up depressed and alone. In this essay, I discuss important characters within the novel and how their desire for power motivates or hinders them to change their social status.
Heathcliff changes his social status the most and seeks to dominate everything and everyone throughout the novel. He starts as a nameless orphan on the streets of Liverpool. Fortunately, a respected gentleman Mr. Earnshaw takes Heathcliff away from Liverpool to the countryside in northern England and raises him as his own. Thus, Mr. Earnshaw elevates Heathcliff from the lower class to the aristocratic class as a country gentleman. Garofalo claims that critics understand Heathcliff as, “radically opposed to the world he inhabits, yet compelled to participate in it” (Garofalo 823). He is opposed to the new world he lives in because he comes from a completely different background than the Earnshaws. Heathcliff is compelled to participate because of his desire to impress Mr. Earnshaw and to remain his favorite. The residents of Wuthering Heights immediately reject Heathcliff, but his child-like desire to be accepted makes him want to participate in their lives even though he receives a profusion of physical and emotional abuse. However, the abuses that he endures create a desire in him to upgrade his social position.
Heathcliff soon realizes that he needs to improve his station. When Catherine rejects Heathcliff because he cannot advance her socially, he leaves Wuthering Heights to change into a wealthy gentleman. He returns to prove to Catherine that he can be a powerful and respected member of society. His love for her consumes him and he obsesses over her to prove himself to her. His obsession with Catherine represents his desire for power and status. Garofalo argues that Heathcliff sees Catherine as a possession: “Although he imagines that Catherine is lost to him, he finds that she can, nonetheless, be partially obtained through collection” (Garofalo 824). Garfalo’s interpretation suggests that Heathcliff’s desire to own Catherine demonstrates his appetite for power and to heighten his social status because she embodies everything he wants: wealth, power, and recognition from society. Catherine’s death furthers his infatuation with power because the desire for power motivates him exceedingly when she dies. Her death causes him to spin out of control and become even more obsessed with power. Now that he has nothing left, he feels a need to be wealthier and more powerful. When Catherine was alive, he had two things to focus on: Catherine and power. After she dies one half of his reason for living is gone, which motivates him to be as powerful as he can. This need for money and power causes him to acquire a need to exercise control over everyone in his life.
Heathcliff wants to dominate everything and everyone around him. T.K. Meier calls him a “capitalist villain” and not a “Marxist hero” because he does not want to destroy the social classes, he wants to control them. Because of these desires, Heathcliff does anything to acquire more power, including using and abusing those closest to him. He has a large amount of animosity towards the Lintons and, “his aim is to secure the traditional prerequisites of economic power and social elevation for his posterity” (Meier 309). He uses the Lintons to accomplish this. Heathcliff’s union with Isabella further establishes him in the community as a gentleman, which elevates his social status. He exploits Isabella Linton to gain more money and land. He believes that by marrying her, he will collect the Linton inheritance when Edgar dies. He sees her as an asset to use at his disposal because of her youth and naivety when they marry. He manipulates his son Linton by forcing him to marry Catherine Linton when his inheritance plans with Isabella backfire. The union between the two children causes Heathcliff’s acquisition of Thrushcross Grange and Catherine Linton’s fortune. The inheritance and land increase Heathcliff’s power in the community. Obtaining all this land and money becomes the pinnacle of Heathcliff’s social status and power, something that he desires from a young age.
Catherine’s desire for power differs tremendously from Heathcliff’s because instead of gaining social status, she desires to maintain hers. Her high born status means that she does not have to work for her social class like Heathcliff. Catherine’s desire for power stems from her greed to maintain a high social status. She is an incredibly narcissistic character because she only thinks of herself and does everything to better her station regardless of the feelings of others. When she debates with Nelly on which man she should marry, she justifies marrying Edgar because, “he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood” (Brontë 76). She does not think of why she loves Edgar and only cares about being the lady in the neighborhood with the highest social status. She makes a selfish decision and leaves Heathcliff, who represents a non-society based relationship that would lower her social status, and marries Edgar because she knows he can elevate her on the social ladder because the Linton family has a higher level of respect in society than the Earnshaw family. According to Eagleton, Catherine’s decision between the two men is, “the decisive catalyst of tragedy; and if this is so, then the crux of Wuthering Heights must be…a social one” (Eagleton 101). In this turning point of the novel Catherine, “rejects Heathcliff as a suitor because he is socially inferior to Linton; and it is from this that the train of destruction follows” (Eagleton 101). At this juncture the reader first comprehends Catherine’s true nature. Her greed and desire to be more powerful expedites the tragedy in her life after her decision to marry Edgar because after their marriage she maintains her social power, but she marries someone she does not truly love. Catherine knows that she has made a disadvantageous decision marrying Edgar and loses her hope.
Catherine destroys her aspirations because of her selfish nature and mistakes and she eventually goes mad. Meier claims that this desire and selfishness also shows a moral decline in Catherine, “His [Earnshaw’s] daughter and foster son become amoral […]evidence of overt evil is too apparent to mistake” (Meier 311). As she descends into madness, Catherine raves and exclaims whatever comes to her mind: “I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me” (Brontë 119). She shows off her vanity and truly selfish personality in her final days and concludes her life as less of a person than when she starts. Catherine’s refinement plummets and she wholly contradicts her original desire to establish herself at the highest social status possible.
However, some characters in the novel experience a huge social downfall, like Hindley. Hindley is a respected gentleman’s son and when he comes home to Wuthering Heights after college, he has a new bride and importance in the community. Although he continues to relentlessly abuse Heathcliff, he still has a great deal of power and a high social standing in the neighborhood. When his wife dies, he starts to lose his sanity and “degenerates into an animal” (Meier 311). He abuses his only son and fears Heathcliff immeasurably. Hindley falls from grace because he has no desire for power and no drive to live his life how he should. He and Heathcliff oppose each other in this way because Heathcliff obsesses over power to the point of madness and Hindley has no ambition, which leads to his alcoholism and his eventual demise. Hindley is known at the end of his life as a disrespected gambling drunk that Heathcliff looks after and cares for. Hindley cannot even take care of his own son and Joseph raises him while Hindley drinks himself to death. Although Hindley still technically holds his social station during his life, he becomes completely powerless and lives in constant fear of Heathcliff and his rising social status. He is destitute and no longer respected in the community. Hindley contrasts with characters such as Catherine and Heathcliff because his total lack of desire ends up ruining him just as much and their obsession with power ruins them. The only saving grace he leaves behind is his son Hareton, the last Earnshaw by name.
The only normal and socially correct relationship occurs between Catherine Linton and Hareton Earnshaw. Catherine II and Hareton are the only children in the novel born of pure aristocratic blood. Meier informs the reader that “tradition is victorious over innovation” because of Catherine II and Hareton’s relationship (Meier 311). Catherine II and Hareton are a proper couple according to society. They restore the social classes back to the way society defines them in the resolution of the novel, “They are afraid of nothing…Together, they would brave Satan and all his legions” (Brontë 322). Catherine II and Hareton’s social classes never change throughout the novel because they do not desire power like other characters, such as Heathcliff and Catherine. Young Catherine and Hareton exude pure happiness because they do not have a maniacal obsession with power that would cause their relationship to implode. They finish their lives content and prosperous thus restoring the social order.
In conclusion, Wuthering Heights informs the reader about the principal theme of social structures and power struggles in a small community. Most characters break through the unyielding social structures of the nineteenth century. Their desire for power and respect in their community drive the characters to change their station and practically every character in the novel changes their social status in either a negative or positive way. Wuthering Heights shows the effects of power and how power affects social classes.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004.
Eagleton, Terry. “Wuthering Heights.” Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës. 2nd. Ed. London: The Macmillan Press, 1988: 98-123.
Garofalo, Daniela. “Impossible Love and Commodity Culture in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.” ELH 75.4 (2008): 819-840. ProQuest. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
Meier, T. K. “Wuthering Heights And A Violation Of Class.” Brontë Studies 38.4 (2013): 309-312. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.