Essay: Realism, Ghosts, and Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë integrates the Victorian realist tradition with the ghost story genre, creating a highly realistic portrayal of life, death, and hauntings in the English moor. The novel presents ghosts as an aspect of reality for both the region and the characters, providing further detail into the events of the story and the social context of the novel. As a realist work, the novel’s detailed approach to the setting and characters correlates with the values of Victorian realist authors. In addition to being a realist novel, Wuthering Heights includes elements of the traditional ghost story: ghosts, fear, and folklore. The ghost story provides additional detail to the class conflict, setting, characters, and realism in the novel. Ghosts, despite their incredulity in modern science, were an inexplicable, inextricable part of life, and as such, are a part of the realism depicted in Wuthering Heights.
The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines realism as “recording or ‘reflecting’ faithfully an actual way of life … of middle‐ or lower‐class … the problems of ordinary people in unremarkable circumstances … rendered with close attention to the details of physical setting and to the complexities of social life.” Wuthering Heights may deal with the supernatural, but both narrators, Lockwood and Nellie, are intent on telling the story of the middle-class Linton, Earnshaw, and Heathcliff families. Although Catherine’s ghost may seem extraordinary, the premise of the story is entirely realistic. Kettle argues that “Wuthering Heights is about England in 1847,” because the setting, language, interests, and values depicted in the novel are accurate to the time and setting of the novel (161). He claims that the setting is distinctly Yorkshire and that “the language of Nelly, Joseph and Hareton is the language of Yorkshire people” (161). As further evidence for the painstaking detail Emily Brontë put into her work, C. P. Sanger analysed the passage of time throughout the novel and found the ages of the characters and the years are accurate throughout the novel (134–136). As a realist text, Wuthering Heights records as faithfully as possible the actual life stories of Catherine, Heathcliff, and their families.
However, while Miller argues that the novel is “a masterwork of ‘realist’ fiction,” he retains that the novel is not purely a realistic novel: “…it obeys most of the conventions of Victorian realism, though no reader can miss the fact that it gives these conventions a twist” (362). This “twist” is the inclusion of a ghost story as part of the realism in the novel. As a genre, the ghost story typically includes at least one ghost who is seen, felt, or perceived by a character, the perception of which generally inspires “dread or unease” in the character (ODLT). Ghost stories frequently use common folklore as inspiration for supernatural events (ODLT). Wuthering Heights has a ghost, Catherine Earnshaw, who scares Lockwood when he is at Wuthering Heights (117). Lockwood tells Heathcliff that he saw “that minx, Catherine Linton, or Earnshaw, or however she was called — she must have been a changeling — wicked little soul,” which causes Heathcliff to burst into rage, then cry alone: “Come in! come in! … Cathy, do me. Oh, do — once more! Oh! my heart’s darling! hear me this time, Catherine, at last!” (119). Heathcliff desires to be haunted by Catherine, but she refuses to. Additionally, there seem to be local folk tales that demonize Heathcliff and warn of evil ghosts, evidenced by the little boy Nellie meets and “the old man by the kitchen fire” who swears he sees ghosts (430). Clearly, the ghost story plays a major role in the plotline of the novel and provides considerable insight into the setting and characters.
In an age of realism, believing in ghosts was frowned upon by the educatedupper classes; however, the supernatural was still widely believed in the lower class, especially by the lower class in Wuthering Heights. Nellie claims that “the country folks, if you ask them, would swear on the Bible that he walks: there are those who speak to having met him near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house,” proving that the supernatural does not just exist for the main characters — it is believed in by the lower class as well (430). Although Nellie refuses to believe in ghosts, she listens to the tales of her class, knows their fears, and tells their stories to Lockwood. As a character who is from the lower class but is exposed to middle class ideas, Nellie is torn between the superstitious beliefs of her class and the rational thoughts of her employers. When Nellie tells Lockwood that she met a boy on a “dark evening, threatening thunder” who was afraid of the ghost of Heathcliff, she dismisses his fears, saying that he “probably raised the phantoms from thinking, as he traversed the moors alone, on the nonsense he had heard his parents and companions repeat” (430). Yet, she tells him that she is uncomfortable in the house or the dark and is impatient to move back to the Grange (430). The lower class’ fear of ghosts is not just part of the ghost story; it demonstrates how the characters in the novel perceive reality, thus adding cultural detail to the story and enhancing the realism of the work.
In addition to being part of the lower class’ folklore, ghostly visions seem to belong to the moor and the Heights. The moor is a haunted, creepy, unknown land: in such a setting, ghostly appearances become a natural feature of the world, not a supernatural one (Cecil 150). When the ghost of Catherine first appears to Lockwood, she appears against the backdrop of the moors, just outside the window, like she had risen out of the wild land and was trying to find her way inside to safety (119). The followed exchange describes how Catherine is coming from the moor and wants to return home: “‘Let me in — let me in!’ [the ghost of Catherine cries]. ‘Who are you?’ I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself. ‘Catherine Linton,’ it replied, shiveringly … ‘I’m come home: I’d lost my way on the moor!’” (119). Catherine’s ghost is strongly associated with the moors, suggesting that the land itself was haunted or prone to visits from the supernatural. Later in the novel, an apparition of Hareton Earnshaw appears to Catherine, and she recalls that “my bodily eye was cheated into a momentary belief that the child lifted its face and stared straight into mine! It vanished in a twinkling; but immediately I felt an irresistible yearning to be at the Heights” (203). The vision of a ghost causes Catherine to want to leave the Grange, which is sheltered from the moor, and head towards Wuthering Heights, which is surrounded by the moor. Thus, Catherine associates the supernatural to the moor. Since the moor is such a supernatural setting, it is realistic to include supernatural events in any realist story set in the moor.
The story of Wuthering Heights could not take place without the ghost story, not only because ghosts belong to the setting and society, but because ghosts and the supernatural are a large part of Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship. Catherine and Heathcliff are part of each other, so much so that they haunt each other after death. Additionally, the introduction of the ghost of Catherine at the beginning of the novel makes it clear that the story is unfinished, the characterization is still progressing, and that even though some of the characters are dead, their memory is very much alive in the minds of the living characters. Catherine is especially hard to forget for Heathcliff, who finds himself believing that “on going out I should meet [Catherine]; when I walked on the moors I should meet her coming in” (293). Even though Catherine is dead, she is very much alive in Heathcliff’s mind, and he expects to find her in the ghostly moors at night. Heathcliff’s belief that she is still out walking the moors, and Lockwood’s experience with her outside his window, develop Catherine and Heathcliff’s highly spiritual relationship. Without the existence of the ghost story in Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship would be underdeveloped and lack the spiritual aspect that makes their story so unique.
Perhaps the most realistic reason for Lockwood to discuss ghosts in Wuthering Heights is that as a realist narrator, he has the duty to recount the entire story, without leaving any detail out. Ignoring the ghost story in the novel would be ignoring a part of the story, and, as a former city dweller who prizes rational thought and integrity, it would be unjust for Lockwood to exclude any aspect of the story, even if it seems unscientific. Despite the scientific nature of realist novels, realism is not limited to merely the factual truth: it must include all aspects of the truth, all points of view, and all versions. Even though Lockwood, and to some extent Nellie, are uncomfortable talking about supernatural events, they feel it is their duty to tell the entire story regardless of its plausibility. Smajic writes that holders of the “fixed, stable narrative point of view,” are in a double bind when presenting the supernatural to their audience, since they must deal with the “instinctive faith in the evidence of one’s sight and the troubling knowledge that vision is often deceptive and unreliable” (1109). Lockwood and Nellie struggle to tell a story that calls into question the reliability of their own vision, yet must correlate the two perspectives in order to adhere to the standards of realism. Smajic writes that ghost story authors attempt to answer the unsettling question of when “to draw the line between objective and subjective perception in general, between optical fact and optical illusion” (Smajic 1109). Lockwood and Nellie chose to portray both sides of the story, being objective observers with their own subjective experiences as well. By including the subjective ghost story, Lockwood and Nellie were able to add complexity to the story that would otherwise be absent.
However, it cannot be understated that Wuthering Heights is a “wild-card in the nineteenth-century British literary stack of realist novels” (Dickerson 68). Its depiction of the supernatural seems to call into question the validity of their supposed realism. Smajic writes, “[c]ompared to other genres of nineteenth-century literature, and especially the realist novel, the ghost story’s ethos appears not only anachronistic for its time but even fundamentally ahistorical” (1108). The ghost story is not concerned with the truth, and thus, it must be viewed through a primarily realist lens. On its own, ghosts and the supernatural do not necessarily develop a story, but combined with Victorian realism the way it is in Wuthering Heights, the ghost story not only adds to the detail of the text, but enhances the realism of the story.
Although at first ghost stories and realist fiction appear to be opposite styles of storytelling, their main elements can work in unison to create the realist, yet ghostly story retold in Wuthering Heights. Ghosts are part of the belief system of the common folk and seem inseparable from the moor. Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship is largely defined by their spiritual connection as living and dead characters, and Lockwood, as a ghost-seer, must relate to the reader his experience fully and truthfully. Thus, Catherine as a ghost is an entirely real aspect of Wuthering Heights that cannot be excluded from the story without jeopardizing the realism of the text. Wuthering Heights demonstrates how the introduction of an alternate, subjective viewpoint that is not tied to the realist style can lead to further development of the setting and characters, benefiting the realism despite being unrealistic and potentially unreliable.
Don't get this wrong, either. The relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff is, without question, at the novel's heart. But theirs is a much more complex, contradictory and unreconciled relationship than could be described as a love story. It goes far beyond romance, sexual attraction or even mutual dependence. In fact it would be hard to say how far the Catherine-Heathcliff relationship contains any of those qualities at all. Only death resolves it.
Wuthering Heights is also about many other things besides that relationship. It is about class conflict and Heathcliff's obsessive revenge. It is about the vindictive soul of a wronged man. It is about society on the Pennine moors. It is a horror story. It is about wealth, power, obsession and death. If Wuthering Heights is a love story then Hamlet is a family sitcom, Tristan und Isolde a musical and the Sistine Chapel a cool piece of interior design.
But this has always been the fate of Wuthering Heights. Right from the day the novel was first published in 1847, every generation has tried to confine and rearrange it into easier categories than Bronte herself ever permits. These attempts have taken many directions. The effect, though, has always been the same - to make Wuthering Heights something less than the book actually is.
Early on, Charlotte Bronte set the trend, softening the Yorkshire dialects of the old servant Joseph for the 1850 reprint. Romantic critics, religious critics, Marxist critics and feminist critics have all done their simplifying, sometimes illuminating, bits too. And then there is Kate Bush, and the Monty Python semaphore version. But the two most influential culprits of the modern era are Hollywood and the Bronte industry, which in their separate but related ways have conspired to belittle Wuthering Heights and to reduce Emily Bronte to someone barely connected to the real world.
Wuthering Heights is unfilmable. It exists only as carefully structured piece of literature, told in flashback and conversation. It is not a narrative story in the way that the highly filmable Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre are. It is no more filmable than Proust.
But that hasn't stopped attempts to do so, of which the 1939 William Wyler movie - with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Catherine, and doing away with more than half of the novel - casts a particularly long and deceiving shadow. Those who classify Wuthering Heights as a love story are really thinking of Olivier's Heathcliff, not Bronte's. Rumours that Johnny Depp is about to take on the role, with Angelina Jolie as Catherine, show how strongly this heresy persists. Gordon Brown would be a far better Heathcliff, any day.
But the Bronte industry image of the ethereal, spiritual Emily, too remote and too good for this world, has misled just as much. Charlotte has to take a lot of the original blame for this too, since she went to such trouble to construct this maid-of-the-moors version of her dead sister in the 1850s. Yet even now, 150 years later, the gift shop image of Emily, wandering the Pennines with the wind in her hair and her dog by her side, communing only with her own interior world, is incredibly hard to shift.
Yet shift it we should, if we are to get a more truthful, insightful and less romanticised version of this great writer. Read the biographies - Winifred Gérin, Juliet Barker and, in particular, Lucasta Miller - and you can begin to discern a more formidable woman who could cope with the world rather better than the image of the doomed Emily might suggest.
For instance, try to get your head around the fact that the real Emily Bronte was good at investing in the stock market. Not only that, but she invested her own and her sisters' money in railway shares - the dotcom stocks equivalent of the 1840s - and managed the investment attentively. A surviving letter from supposedly more worldly Charlotte is full of praise for Emily's careful reading of the newspapers for items of railway industry news.
Or consider the implications of the fact that the real Emily Bronte was a crackshot with a pistol. The Brontes lived in stirring times and in a turbulent region. Haworth in 1842 was not some remote moorland idyll, but a place of unemployment, riot and some real danger. Knowing how to handle a firearm was not an eccentric skill, and Emily was the best markswoman in the house. If the author of Wuthering Heights had met a real Heathcliff, the chances are she would have shot him dead.
Remember too that the real Emily Bronte could read and write French and German, that she attended art exhibitions in Leeds, and that music occupied a major place in her imaginative world. An accomplished pianist, she played Beethoven and Handel all her life, and she may even have heard no less a musician than Franz Liszt give a recital in Halifax in February 1841.
This picture of a woman who read newspapers, who was interested in the transport revolution and the markets, who could use a gun and make bread and who may even have been able to play the Appassionata Sonata, needs to be given its proper place. Too much of the time all we get is the fantasist of the Gondal stories, the chainless soul of the poems and the mystic visionary of that solitary novel.
Emily Bronte and her achievement need no help from me to endure. Wuthering Heights is one of the greatest imaginative achievements of English culture. It is a work of fibrous and poetic power worthy to rank with Milton, Blake and Conrad. But the book should not be banalised and its author should not be infantilised. In a world where Barcelona FC can claim to be "mas que un club", it is right to insist that Wuthering Heights is more, far more, than a love story.
· The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Wednesday August 15 2007. The Bronte sisters lived in Haworth, rather than Howarth. This has been corrected.