Victorian era saw many social, political, economical and religious changes. French and industrial revolution changed the whole cycle of this era and this massive metamorphosis is visible in the novels and essays of this time. The Bronte sisters, Dickens, Jane Austen and Eliot portray the effect of these changes on the lives of the people quite aptly.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens is not only a story about passions, unfulfilled love and heart break but also about the major differences and clashes between the upper class and lower class. Similarly Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte shows the love of two aggressive and stubborn human beings. Not only have they themselves stood between their own love but also their class difference and the cruel society.
In both the novels the main similarity is the control of the patriarch over his families. In Wuthering Heights, Mr. Earnshaw keeps on criticizing Catherine’s childish behavior and constantly snubs her. Edgar tries to take a control over Catherine’s life by telling her to choose either him or Heathcliff. He makes it difficult for her to think rationally by pressurizing her. Later when Catherine and Edgar have a daughter, Cathy, and Catherine dies, Edgar tells Cathy not to leave the house ever. By doing this she not only devoid her of her childhood but also restricts her loving and playful nature. When Heathcliff acquires all the wealth, he marries Isabella but abuses her emotions and also spends all his anger on her by refusing her the love, security and nurturing she deserved. When Heathcliff is hurt by everyone who tells him that he can never match Catherine standards, he tries to hurt Catherine but in doing so he crosses every boundary of brutality at which Catherine says to Ellen:
“I gave him my heart, and he took and pinched it to death; and flung it back to me. People feel with their hearts, Ellen, and since he has destroyed mine, I have not power to feel for him.”
Similarly in Bleak House, the male members of the family are quite cruel. Mr. Jarndyce reacts like typical father when he hears that Ada and Richard want to get married but is cruel when he flings accusations At Richard that he trying to acquire all his and her wealth. Again, the theme of class difference and abusive patriarch comes in. Moreover Mr. Tulkinghorn, who is the legal advisor of Mr. Dedlock, is arrogant and bent on finding about Mrs. Dedlocks past. He is representative of the middle class which suddenly became rich after the industrialization in Victorian Era. He is snobbish and does not forget to talk about his money at regular intervals. His darkness of the soul is presented in the following lines:
“Mr. Tulkinghorn, sitting in the twilight by the open window, enjoys his wine. As if it whispered to him of its fifty years of silence and seclusion, it shuts him up the closer. More impenetrable than ever, he sits, and drinks, and mellows as it were in secrecy, pondering at that twilight hour on all the mysteries he knows.”
“Identity” is also a serious issue in these two novels. In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s identity raises many questions. His dark hair and eyes is an apple of discord between the society and Catherine’s father. Throughout the novel, he is labeled as an outsider. Even when he gains money and property, people see him as a “nobody” because he does not have a heritage a background, which was a serous asset in the Victorian era. Similarly, Esther in Bleak House is an orphan and she does not know who her parents were and even when she finds out that Mrs. Dedlock is her mother, she is not allowed to celebrate the discovery. When she is with Mr.Jarndyce and cousins, Ada and Richard, there is always this nagging at the back of her mind that she does not belong there. Esther says about herself:
“What the destitute subject of such an offer tried to say, I need not repeat. What she did say, I could more easily tell, if it were worth the telling. What she felt, and will feel to her dying hour, I could never relate.”
These lines show the bleakness of Esther’s life. She wants to say things but she knows that no one will be able to understand her and because no one really knows her and is therefore not capable of understanding her feelings. Moreover Esther’s identity is also lost when is she is called by different horrible nicknames. She knows that she will be lost if no one will call her by her real name:
“You are clever enough to be the good little woman of our lives here my dear,” he returned playfully.You will sweep them so neatly out of OUR sky in the course of your housekeeping, Esther, that one of these days we shall have to abandon the growlery and nail up the door.”.This was the beginning of my (Esther) being called Old Woman, Little Woman, Cobweb, Mother Hubbard and Dame Durden and so many other names of that sort that my own name soon became quite lost among them.”
Moreover the identity of a woman is also an important theme in the question. In Victorian era, women were known by their patriarchs. They didn’t have any individuality. The women were generalized. They were either mothers, draughts, wives or sisters. Catherine in Wuthering Heights is known by the men in her life, first her father, then Heathcliff and then by her husband Edgar. She is never really just Catherine. Her identity as an individual does not exist.
Moreover when she has a daughter, she is also given the same name; Cathy. Cathy is always remembered as Catherine’s daughter. Everyone keeps on saying that her face and habits are exactly like her mother. Therefore her identity is also dubious.
Similarly in Bleak House Mrs. Jellby is known by his husband Jellby. Mrs. Jellby is popular for her decency and versatility but she is known as the “wife of Jellby” at various instances. Mrs. Dedlock, who is bored to death, in the pretentious elite class is known by Mr. Dedlocks high standards and pompous social life.
The setting in both the novels is also somewhat similar. The bleakness and coldness of the human souls is represented in wide forlorn areas. Most of the scenes have nights or twilight time as their background. The moors in Wuthering Heights are not only representative of Heathcliff’s and Cathy’s wild natures but also of the sterility of their relationship. Most of the scenes along with their settings are sad and depressing which also symbolizes the routine of that era.
The aspect of Humanism also comes in both these novels. Humanism deals with the concerns of human beings first; all the religious and other matters come later (Cline, “What is Humanism”).
Austin Cline in his article, “What is Humanism?” goes on to say:
“Humanism is better described as an attitude or perspective on life and humanity which in turn serves to influence actual philosophies and systems of beliefs.”
Considering this definition, we can say that in both the novels or in Victorian Era work was being done for the betterment of human race. Due to industrialization; there were more schools, more roads, hospitals and in this way more people got jobs. After the Reform Bills were passes, women and working class for the first time were allowed to vote.
But at the same time when the middle class got richer, the conditions of the lower class were getting worse. That is why Charles Dickens wrote in The Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way”
James Brown wrote about Dickens:
"His social criticism is embodied in a vision of social experience in its generality-the essential quality of everyday social relations throughout the system, and the general possibilities for a fulfilling social life"
Another aspect of Victorian era as well as Humanism was that the spiritual and religious believes were being ignored by the people. This is also seen in Bleak House and Wuthering Heights. In Bleak House Mrs. Dedlock had an affair before her wedding and even had a child out of wedlock. In Wuthering Heights Cathy and Heathcliff, Hindley and his wife have and a passionate affair before weddings. But the part of Humanism philosophy which states “that work is done for the better of human beings first” is also noticeable in the novels. To prove this Jarndyce also says:
“Trust in nothing but in your efforts and providence.” (Chapter 13)
We see in Bleak House that there were many orphanages, schools where girls were also allowed to go. In Wuthering Heights we see that girls were allowed to play with boys, they were allowed to socialize alone but for smaller time spans.
These two novels where we see the patriarchal abuse can also be related to John Updike’s novel Gertrude and Claudius. Gertrude and Claudius is basically a prequel to Hamlet. In this novel we are told that Gertrude is the sensible and pretty daughter of the king of Denmark. Her father gets her married to Horwendil, who later becomes the king of Denmark after his father in law’s death. Gertrude tries to lead a happy marital life and even has a son (Hamlet or Amleth). But her husbands and son’s remoteness force her to commit adultery. Claudius has been secretly in love with her for many years and so they start up a relationship. When her husband hears about it he asks Claudius and later Claudius plots a murder and kills him. This novel in three parts ends here and the next part is Hamlet. In this play we also see the almost inexistent women who are bored, sorrowful and unhappy. They don’t have a say in anything, their suitors are chosen by the parents without their consent. Gertrude says in the novel, that “we womenfolk are trivial little things”. This line very well represented the status of women at that time and also in the Victorian era.
In The Prince by Machiavelli, he writes that fortune is like a woman, “It can be countered but defied with boldness and brashness.” This thinking about women is seen in both novels, Bleak House and Wuthering Heights. The Prince is also based upon humanism in which personal affairs are given preference over other matters.
As these works follow the concept of Humanism, they are totally different from the great chain of being. This idea was put forth by Aristotle and Plato. It suggests that all matters of life are decreed by God (Lovejoy) but it does overlap in certain instances in Bleak House and Wuthering Heights in the form off ate and destiny. Heathcliff and Catherine try to go against their destiny but fail in doing so and end up hurting one another. In Bleak House, it is fate that brings Esther in front of her mother Mrs. Dedlock who had initially thought that her daughter had died. Then, Mrs. Dedlock dies in the same cemetery where her lover had been buried. So it does show that the idea of great chain of being overlaps with humanism. What has been written in their fates has to happen in the lives of people.
These themes are not only found in these novels but also in other novels of those times like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Mayor of Caster bridge by Thomas Hardy and Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.
"Bleak House." Online Literature Network. N.p. Web. 22 Nov 2012.
Cline, Austin. "What is Humanism?." About.com-Agnosticism/Atheism. N.p. Web. 22 Nov 2012.
Cummings, Michael. "Wuthering Heights."Cummingstudyguide.com. N.P., n.d. Web. 22 Nov 2012.