In the Gothic fiction of the Romantic era, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) was well-read. Her novel contains several conventions and elements associated with this genre. She innovatively reworked Gothic convention through her complex internalization of familiar Gothic themes. Critics generally acknowledge her book to be an important contribution of the psychological dimension to the fiction of the Victorian era.
Frame Narratives and Unreliable Narrators
Wuthering Heights presents an original use of narrative, which involves multiple perspectives and shifts in time. The frame narrative is used to embed stories within stories. For instance, one character recounts the story to another character, which is peripheral to the central narrative. This is evident when the character of Nelly Dean relates the emotional saga of the Lintons and Earnshaws to Mr. Lockwood. During this point in the novel, Lockwood was an outsider to the central events of the main narrative.
Throughout her text, Bronte uses multiple first person narrative voices to highlight the issue of authenticity. An omniscient third person narrator is absent, therefore, the reader is left to decide which account to believe. This decision can only be reached by an in-depth, comparative analysis of the characters and their stories in the novel.
Many motifs that characterize the Gothic fiction of the Romantic era are apparent in Wuthering Heights. Characters are often found wandering the desolate and rugged setting of the novel.
The word, ‘Wuthering,’ in the title, suggests the dramatic weather, which figuratively represents the characters’ turbulent moods. This is best illustrated in the scene where Heathcliff overhears Catherine’s plans to marry Edgar Linton and leaves Wuthering Heights: “It was a very dark evening for summer: the clouds appeared inclined to thunder” (Bronte, 75). In the arts, thunderstorms are particularly associated with the sublime, which is a branch of aesthetics concerning itself with the profound emotional power of extreme natural phenomena.
The house of Wuthering Heights is portrayed as the equivalent of a Gothic castle. This building is contrasted with neighboring, Thrushcross Grange. On first arrival, Lockwood observes the Gothic features of the structure, such as: large jutting stones, deep set narrow windows and a grotesque carving. The structure was built around 1500, which is about 300 years before the novel took place. The distant past is another Gothic trapping because the setting of many Gothic novels were often in medieval buildings with sinister histories.
In Gothic fiction, the figure of a dangerous, yet attractive man with a mysterious past is regularly featured. Heathcliff is a deeply vengeful character with an exotic appearance and passionate nature; this regards him as a Byronic hero.
Also featured in this genre is the principle figure of a beautiful, imperiled young woman. The character who most exemplifies this characteristic is arguably Isabella Linton. She is demonstrated as an impressionable, sheltered girl, as Heathcliff and Catherine observe her at the Grange. After her marriage to Heathcliff and her stay at Wuthering Heights, her existence becomes precarious and brutal.
A reoccurring Gothic theme in Wuthering Heights is the supernatural. Bronte’s use of the supernatural can be ambiguous at times, although, uncanny phenomena first make an entrance when Lockwood is overcome by Catherine’s spirt. After her death, Catherine comes back in the form of an apparition: “As it spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window” (Bronte, 20). This window is considered by some critics to represent a temporary portal into another realm.
After Lockwood reads the dead heroine’s diary entries, it is unclear whether this was a dream state, or the actual ghost of Catherine. Heathcliff hears of Lockwood’s chilling experience and goes to the window to beg Catherine to appear to him as well. This suggests the possibility that it is in fact the ghost of Catherine. This scene is recalled later in the narrative when Heathcliff starves himself to death under the conviction that he will be reunited with Catherine.
The reader is given another instance of Lockwood’s unreliable narration when he contemplates the graves of Catherine, Edgar and Heathcliff. Lockwood ponders, “how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth” (Bronte, 300). This observation contradicts the stories of sightings of loved ones that have passed and the principal unreality of the story as a whole.