Wuthering Heights, pt. 2: Domestic Violence, Confinement, and Power

This post has been brewing for nearly three weeks since I finished Wuthering Heights; the start of the semester brought three graduate classes in addition to my full-time job, and during that adjustment period blogging quite fell by the wayside. Read on for my final thoughts on the novel (until the next time I re-read it, of course).

Before I began re-reading Wuthering Heights, my primary recollection of the novel was of the tragic romance of Catherine and Heathcliff—the intensity of it consumed my attention. This time, however, I found myself frustrated and even, at times, repulsed by Catherine and Heathcliff, and found relief by shifting my focus to minor characters like Isabella Linton. I’m sure I overlooked her in the past, but I now see Isabella as a stronger female character than Cathy.

The novel portrays Isabella as a silly, naive girl from the beginning, and her fancy for Heathcliff is certainly her most grievous error in judgment. While a crush is generally harmless, her elopement is downright reckless. Cathy issues multiple, vehement warnings of Heathcliff’s nature, confirmed by Nelly, and furthermore, Isabella witnesses Heathcliff’s cruelty firsthand. Just before they run away together, he hangs her dog; the animal is soon discovered by Nelly, “suspended to a handkerchief, and nearly at its last gasp” (Brontë 94). Because it’s almost unimaginable that Isabella would have willingly eloped with him at this point, one may be inclined to trust Heathcliff’s statements to Nelly when she visits the newlyweds at Wuthering Heights. He claims: “But no brutality disgusted her: I suppose she has an innate admiration for it, if only her precious person were secure from injury!” (Brontë 110). In other words, Isabella is guilty of much worse than naiveté—she courts a perverse attraction to brutality. However, Brontë presents quite enough evidence by this point in the novel that Heathcliff cannot be taken at his word.

Judith E. Pike was the only critic I could find who really discussed Isabella’s role as narrator; she makes the important point that past critics have overlooked Isabella’s narration of chapter 13, writing: “while both nineteenth-century and contemporary critics largely represent Isabella as arrested in her infantile girlhood, W.C. Roscoe is the sole nineteenth-century reviewer who notes Isabella’s transformation” after marrying Heathcliff (349). Pike cites Melvin R. Watson’s 1949 critique of Isabella: “As weak as Catherine is strong, as conventional as Catherine is unconventional, as superficially attracted to Heathcliff as Catherine was to Edgar . . . she is significant only as the device which enables Heathcliff to gain control of Thrushcross Grange” (353). I think to marginalize Isabella as a plot device in the larger story of Catherine and Heathcliff grossly undermines the complexity of Wuthering Heights; several characters play important roles in the development of themes aside from romance, which include social class and abuse. Pike argues that Isabella “emerges as a very brazen woman when she actively deserts her husband at a time when laws would not protect her from the consequences” (354).

Brontë presents chapter 13 almost entirely in the form of a letter from Isabella’s point of view—she describes to Nelly what has transpired since she ran away with Heathcliff in an “intimate portrait of domestic abuse within a middle-class setting” that “powerfully blights the conventional depiction of nuptial bliss” (Pike 354). Isabella’s letter is essential to providing an alternative to Heathcliff’s version of events. Significantly, when Isabella is given a first person narrative voice (rather than being interpreted by Nelly, Heathcliff, or someone else) she comes off as much stronger and more articulate than the reader might have previously given her credit for. Her letter is not hysterical or melodramatic—she doesn’t dwell on the abuses suffered at Heathcliff’s hands, and leaves the details to the imagination. By the end of the letter she is reflective, admitting her realization: “I have been a fool!” (Brontë 106). I believe that Isabella eventually emerges as one of the most mature and self-aware characters in the novel. When she arrives at the Grange after her final stand, throwing a knife at Heathcliff and fleeing, pregnant, across the moors in a state of half-dress, she still comes across as decisive and clear-headed rather than hysterical, “command[ing] herself with force and conviction that is daunting to Nelly,” disposing of her wedding ring in the fire before she “collects herself, sips her tea, dons her bonnet, and departs from the Grange without a tear” (Pike 370, 379).

Most of Heathcliff’s abuse of Isabella is implied; we can only wonder what he did to make her write to Nelly: “Is Mr Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?” (Brontë 99). Heathcliff’s abusive tendencies are foreshadowed by his gruesome statement to Cathy earlier in the novel: “You’d hear of odd things if I lived alone with that mawkish, waxen face: the most ordinary would be painting on its white the colours of the rainbow, and turning the blue eyes black, every day or two” (Brontë 77). He confines her to Wuthering Heights, exercising his right to imprison and control his wife and consciously restraining his abuse just enough that she does not have grounds to end the marriage (Brontë 110). Pike’s essay provides extensive discussion of of “wife-torture” and 19th century coverture laws that allowed a husband to physically confine his wife and did not criminalize marital rape.

Jamie S. Crouse explores the motif of confinement in Wuthering Heights, observing that characters are often confined either psychologically or literally within Wuthering Heights or Thrushcross Grange (179). Crouse makes the argument that Catherine and Heathcliff are “the primary instigators of confinement . . . they exhibit patterns of confinement that exemplify the different methods which nineteenth-century men and women, operating within traditional gender roles, used to exert power and gain control over others” (Crouse 179). In other words, Heathcliff is outwardly destructive and aggressive, imprisoning Isabella, Hareton, Linton, etc. in various plots to exact revenge, establish dominance, and gain property. Even after Cathy’s death, he views her as a desired possession, using possessive pronouns: “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” (Crouse 187-8). By contrast, Cathy is primarily self-destructive, driving herself into fits of illness.

Crouse’s essential point, for me, is the idea that Catherine’s “Nelly, I am Heathcliff” speech signifies her subsuming her identity to his; the more Cathy is involved with Heathcliff, the more she loses herself to him (Crouse 185). Catherine dominates the household of Thrushcross Grange until Heathcliff returns and the power struggles recommence, with Cathy locking Isabella in a room with Heathcliff, locking herself in a room with Heathcliff and Edgar, and finally locking herself in her room and starving herself for days (Crouse 185). Her statement “I’ll try to break their hearts by breaking my own” exemplifies her use of illness to manipulate Edgar and Heathcliff (Brontë 85).

It struck me that Heathcliff, although supposedly in love with Cathy (it’s more complex than that, but bear with me) and feeling only hatred for Isabella, uses every patriarchal advantage to exert his iron will over both women, attempting to possess them in ways beneficial to his own desires and with disregard for the negative effects on their persons. The manner of each woman’s response to Heathcliff reveals a great deal about their respective characters. The vital distinction is that while Catherine’s relationship with Heathcliff compels a loss of her identity and drives her to madness, illness, and death (and the appearance of her ghost to Lockwood suggests that even in death she is not free), Isabella’s relationship with Heathcliff pushes her into adulthood, maturity, and the strength to escape from him (although, regrettably, she does not manage to save her son from Heathcliff’s possession) and reinvent a new life for herself.

Works Cited

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2000. Print.

Crouse, Jamie S. “‘This Shattered Prison’: Confinement, Control And Gender in Wuthering Heights.” Bronte Studies 33.3 (2008): 179-191. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 17 Aug. 2011.

Pike, Judith E. “My name was Isabella Linton”: Coverture, Domestic Violence, and Mrs. Heathcliff’s Narrative in Wuthering Heights.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 64.3 (2009): 347-383. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 17 Aug. 2011.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Cobbe, Frances Power. “Wife-Torture in England.” Contemporary Review (1878).

Doggett, Maeve E. Marriage, Wife-beating and the Law in Victorian England: ‘Sub Virga Viri’ London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1992.

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