It has been said that a definition of insanity is the compulsion to repeat the same actions over and over again while expecting a different result. This is evident both on the institutional level and the individual level, whether one looks at attempts by the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys to spend heavily on a handful of players while leaving many of their other position needs unmet, or at the inexplicable tendency of victims of domestic violence to keep going back to their abusers, often refusing to press charges until the absolute worst happens. An unwillingness to change can bring turmoil and failure to almost any situation, but in matters of the human heart, the outcomes can be the most tragic. In the novel Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte uses motifs such as repetition, doppelgangers and generational cycles to exploit the theme of the ability to accept change, along with the favorable or destructive repercussions that ability can have to influence one’s personal sense of prosperity.
Repetition in Wuthering Heights serves to provide complete understanding of the characters and the ways in which they move through the past, repeating it in ways that are both conscious and unconscious. This is not only clear from the characters’ very names but also the things that they do throughout the novel. It would appear that things never end, but instead move into a neverending cycle, bringing the past back to merge with the present and cloud the future.
The first example of this appears when the elder Catherine gives her daughter her own name. The mother passes away before her daughter gets old enough to know her well at all, but she nevertheless has the ability to show some of her mother’s distinguishing qualities through her own actions. When the younger Catherine taunts the evangelical habits of Joseph, she shows the same tendency toward arrogance and headstrong conduct that her mother had once shown. However, while both are alike, the younger Catherine is not an exact repetition of her mother, as she also shows a compassionate side, as well as the ability to make changes for the better. Her love with Hareton shows an ability to grow and change over time. When Hareton first appears in the novel, he comes across as savage, brutal, unable even to read, but as time passes, he shows himself to be a faithful friend to the young Catherine and learns to read. At their first meeting, Hareton seems unable to understand young Catherine’s world, inspiring her to show contempt toward him. Time brings her the ability to show love for him, though, as she understands and appreciates him more.
The repetition of the Catherines is not just a matter of name, though. They also look much alike and share similar mannerisms, which is why Heathcliff frequently mistakes the younger Catherine for her mother. Repetition takes on a darker tint, though, in the pattern of abuse that continues to go on throughout the novel. Hindley had abused Heathcliff horribly, and he passes that behavior on with his own abusive behavior toward Hareton. Heathcliff was not content to stop with abusing just one person, though. Instead, he keeps abusing others, including forcing Isabella to watch the hanging of her dog. This pattern of abuse repeats again with Linton, who begins torturing cats. Some of this abusive behavior is apparent in Catherine’s actions as well, as she develops an addiction for controlling the free will of others and manipulating them toward her own ends. This passes down to young Catherine, although in a less harmful and corrosive form, as young Catherine manipulates other people through illness to gain their sympathy, as her mother had done.
The pattern of doubles in Wuthering Heights gives the idea of repetition a physical form. When Catherine avows that “[w]hatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” and “I am Heathcliffhe’s more myself than I am,” (Bronte), the stage is set for a ruinous love that will rend both of their lives, as well as the lives of many of those around him. These two quotes represent a fusion of three important elements of the gothic tale: obsession, excess and the doppelganger. The passion between Catherine and Heathcliff is certainly an odd one, particularly in its intensity after Catherine’s marriage to Edgar. There are none of the clandestine rolls in the hay, kisses stolen under gazebos in the dark or any other signs of a physical passion; theirs is a curiously asexual union. Their love extends even past the boundaries of death, as Heathcliff goes up to take a look at her corpse, making the observation that the face “is hers yet,” (Bronte) as though some sort of grotesque alteration would take place. The end of the novel reports that Heathcliff and Catherine are spied wandering through the moors together, unable to be apart from one another even as ghosts. This notion of love going past the grave bolsters the interpretation that the two are doubles, connected even in the afterlife. These two are both intrinsically violent. As was mentioned earlier, Heathcliff kills dogs, abuses several people and even has the sobriquet “bird of bad omen” (Bronte). Catherine has her own violent impulses; as a child, her father asks her what she and Hindley want as presents when he comes home from his trip, and she requests a whip. She even gives Edgar a punch, which is not quite the same as hanging dogs, but ladies in that era punching their fiancé and biting Nelly would have been considered quite violent. In the end, both Catherine and Heathcliff live up to the Gothic tradition of protagonists acting with extreme behavior. This shows that they are both melodramatic, at times, and they are each other’s doppelganger.
Heathcliff and Hareton also appear as a set of doubles in the story, as Heathcliff appears to be raising Hareton as his own. Even though Heathcliff does not show affection toward Hareton, it is possible to say that he sees a bit of himself in Hareton. The similarities are somewhat overt: both of them are violent, and both of them were bullied. Hindley bullied Heathcliff, referring to him at one point the “imp of Satan” (Bronte). Linton teases Hareton, referring to him as a “devil” (Bronte). The shared demonic imagery indicates the existence of more than a passing likeness between the two characters. At the beginning, both characters lack education. Heathcliff ends up being dragged out of Liverpool’s streets to Wuthering Heights, appearing all at once as a bit of a scoundrel. Hareton, as mentioned above, shows up illiterate; at first, young Catherine refers to him as a “dunce” because he cannot even read his name” (Bronte). Hareton and Heathcliff also have a role as gatekeepers in the book. This means that they provide security for Wuthering Heights, keeping the outside world at bay. In the first chapter, Lockwood observes Heathcliff out at the gate, and Heathcliff often decides whether or not people get to enter the property throughout the book. Hareton develops some control over who can enter and who cannot.
The elder and younger Catherines also serve as doubles. While some of this has been alluded to above, a question as yet unaddressed is whether or not some of Catherine’s spirit or soul passed down to young Catherine at the point of death. This notion of passing a spirit at the junction of birth and death is one of the typical gothic conceits, as two contrasts lie juxtaposed next to one another. Also, both Catherines respond to their own violence in a similar way. After Catherine punches Edgar, he stalks off, but she cries, “You shall not leave me in that temper!” Later in the book, young Catherine shoves Linton but then apologizes. She hollers, “Don’t let me go home thinking I’ve done you harm!” (Bronte). These moments echo one another, as both Catherines evince violence, but then they expect the people to whom they are violent not to be all that upset about it. The doubling here is both structural, in the sense that young Catherine may be about to start repeating the life of her mother, and also descriptive, as both characters here show a similar trait.
The cycle of one generation passing to the next is another important mechanism in expressing Bronte’s notion that change is crucial to prosperity. Catherine and Heathcliff cannot accept change, and even when Catherine marries Edgar, she keeps Heathcliff around. It is truly difficult to explain their connection, which reaches one of its most poignant moments when Heathcliff laments that he will not be able to go on without his “soul” at Catherine’s death. The fact that their angry, violent patterns of behavior never change during life leads to an awful existence. In contrast, the love that young Catherine shares with Hareton works because it suggests the possibility of change. It is worth asking, of course, whether Catherine’s misery comes from her own choice to accept the security and comfort that Thrushcross Grange provides. She could have married Heathcliff, but she wants the genteel life, and so she marries Edgar. The fact that she refuses to embrace this choice and leave Heathcliff behind is the central paralysis that ends up stifling everyone in the book. This takes on somewhat eschatological tones in the book, as Lockwood refers to Wuthering Heights as a “misanthrope’s heaven” (Bronte). Catherine has dreams of an expulsion from heaven and sees herself as having been exiled from her own “heaven” (Wuthering Heights). Heathcliff takes on a demonic edge in his pursuit of revenge, so it is worth asking whether Catherine’s choice was the one that set all of the turmoil in motion.
Ultimately, the themes of the doppelganger, repetition and the cycle of generations inform the notion in Wuthering Heights that an acceptance of change is a first step in finding personal prosperity and happiness. The habits that Catherine and Heathcliff fall into during their youth end up becoming cavernous ruts out of which neither can pull himself or herself out of. While Edgar has some of his own cruel moments in the story, such as confining young Catherine to Thrushcross Grange, in a sense he is a victim in this story, because his wife accepted his proposal knowing full well that she would quite likely never love him, because of her strong feelings for Heathcliff. Perhaps one explanation for the sexless bond between Heathcliff and Catherine comes from the fact that neither can deal with the changes that such a tryst would involve. The resolution that would come from intimacy would alter the dynamic of their relationship, as all of the spiritual tension that has built up over decades would transform into the reality of togetherness. Catherine’s behavior towards others indicates that such togetherness would almost be impossible to endure, and Heathcliff does not seem like the sort to enjoy closeness either. So it might be a part of that fear of change that keeps them apart. In his short story “The Verdict of the Right Honorable Ignatio Landstad Rasker, Lord Chief Justice,” Peter Hoeg has his narrator assert that those who can channel their passions of love and sex appropriately can perform quite well as civil servants and political leaders, while those who cannot end up being tragic figures, quite often artists. Catherine and Heathcliff never quite find the right way to channel their own love. As a result, tragedy ensues, not just for them, but for Catherine’s husband, and for all the children involved, who end up learning the power of anger and violence instead of contentment and love.
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