Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights contains numerous similarities to events and people in her life, but the novel is not autobiography. Instead, Brontë uses familiar events and characteristics of her own personality and that of family members to tell a story about intense love, marriage and death. The childhood activities of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, playing on the moors, parallel Brontë’s own childhood. Her unflattering depiction of religious fanaticism, as displayed by the character Joseph, reflects her own adult alienation from organized religion. The ongoing elements of illness and death function not just as plot devices to advance the story, but as reminders of how common serious illnesses and death were in Brontë’s time, in addition to within her own family. A few specific characters, such as Catherine Earnshaw, Hindley Earnshaw and Heathcliff, share some personality traits with members of Brontë’s family. Although Emily Brontë never married and there is no evidence she was ever formally engaged to marry, she may have personally experienced having an intense love for a boy that her family considered beneath her, and experienced a consuming grief at his early death.
In the novel, the narrator Nelly Dean gives the new tenant Lockwood a chronological history of the Earnshaw and Linton families. She describes the hours the Earnshaw children spend playing on the moors. Both Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff have volatile tempers, arguing with each other occasionally but reconciling. They appear to have little adult supervision while they are outside the house. They enjoy getting dirty and playing with animals. At the same time, they do receive some education. Catherine can read and as long as Mr. Earnshaw is alive, Heathcliff is treated well.
The location of the novel resembles Brontë’s home. As documented by McCurdy, Brontë grew up in Haworth, in the Yorkshire moors, following the death of her mother when Brontë was three (137). McCurdy says of Brontë’s father and his interactions with his children, “The Reverend Patrick Brontë devoted himself to his church duties, and apparently saw little of the children, who were largely left to their own devices until the four eldest girls were enrolled m a charity school in 1824” (137). As noted by another scholar, “When Emily was a girl, she was lonely and proud. She didn't like to play with others and she would like to keep all the things in her own mind. She had an indifferent attitude to the outside world. She thought that her soul should have peace only after death” (Juan 26). McCurdy also mentions that while Emily Brontë’s sister Charlotte liked animals, Emily herself loved them passionately, and that both Emily and Charlotte played extensively on the moors as children (142).
As described in the novel, Catherine and Heathcliff had little respect for the character Joseph. His speech is presented as uneducated; his actions are frequently oppressive. Catherine and Heathcliff both must endure his religious proclamations, and they do not demonstrate any conventional religious beliefs. Similarly, Mr. Earnshaw seems to criticize Catherine frequently and appears to regard her as a bad child. While this repeated criticism initially hurts her feelings, she eventually disregards his comments and stops trying to please him. Joseph’s character has some obvious parallels with Brontë’s father, who was a minister. It is easy to infer from Brontë’s daily life living with a father so focused on religion, that she would have heard similar religious thoughts and opinions on an ongoing basis. It is interesting to note, however, that while Brontë’s father was well educated, the character of Joseph is very lower class and uneducated, and so his religious pronouncements come across as ramblings of a crotchety old servant who seeks to make the lives of Catherine and Heathcliff miserable. Presumably Brontë was herself religious when younger, as children generally are when brought up in a religious household, but at least one scholar has described how she “became disenchanted with the practice of organized religion” (Green 23).
A much more direct correlation between Brontë’s life and the events of the novel is evident in the numerous instances of illness and death that occur in the novel. The novel briefly mentions that Heathcliff was named after the Earnshaws’ biological son Heathcliff, who died while young. Hindley’s wife dies of what was then called consumption, a disease recognized in modern times as tuberculosis. Both Edgar Linton and Isabella Linton eventually succumb to a disease that also sounds like tuberculosis. The older Mr. and Mrs. Linton apparently catch an illness, possibly pneumonia, from Catherine and quickly die from it. Catherine’s illness during her pregnancy is not quite as clear; she seems psychologically affected as well as having physiological symptoms. Whatever the exact illness, she dies shortly after giving birth to her daughter. Finally, Heathcliff himself is somewhat delusional the last few days before his death; there is not enough detail given to determine exactly what caused his death. In keeping with the sensibilities of the time in which the novel was written, one may conclude that having gotten as much revenge as possible on the Earnshaw and Linton families, he simply willed himself to die so he could reunite with Catherine.
Even in an average setting at this time, early death would have been familiar to Brontë. Bloomfield describes the frequency of illness and death in British life in general, as well as Brontë’s own life:
Not unexpectedly, serious illness and early death were pervasive elements of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British experience. This was the world in which Emily Brontë lived and worked and almost all her contacts and certainly those she grew up with and those she loved were affected. Mortal disease must have been the defining occurrence in her life and it became the central instrument in the story of Wuthering Heights. Her school friends, her aunt and her siblings all had their lives changed by disease and most had theirs cut off by death before they were fully developed, their point and purpose unresolved. Illness and death, so central to the plot of Wuthering Heights, formed the experience that Emily Brontë knew. (293)
However, the deaths in the novel do not only reflect how frequently early or sudden death occurred in real life. Brontë uses death to express unconventional attitudes toward grief as well. Conventional wisdom, then as now, states that as time passes after the death of a loved one, grief over the loss diminishes. For the character of Heathcliff, however, his grief at the loss of Catherine does not seem to diminish. Similarly, Edgar never seems to recover fully from Catherine’s death and Hindley’s descent into uncontrolled drunkenness begins because of grief over his wife’s death. Inman describes the purpose of these characters:
Emily Brontë is expressing through the characters’ reactions to death the following ideas: that grief does not follow a pattern of amelioration, but rather can become more intense with the passage of time; that the survivors can feel as close to the dead as to the living; that grief is a personal experience that depends on the degree to which the survivor was dependent upon the deceased, not upon traditional family relationships; that death is a powerful force that banishes any thoughts about the deceased other than regret; that a belief in the supernatural arises from grief; and that death is peace and an end to suffering. (194)
The unconventional attitudes toward death reflect just how unconventional several of the characters are in other ways. Catherine Earnshaw is depicted as wild, with a volatile temper, and prone to physical altercations as well as temper tantrums. Even after her marriage, she occasionally refuses to eat when she does not get her way, confining herself to her room. On the other hand, she passionately defends those she loves, including Heathcliff, and seems to live a more passionate life than those around her. She defies her husband, and thus societal norms, by refusing to relinquish her attachment to Heathcliff after she marries Edgar Linton.
Brontë herself was described as the more aggressive of the Brontë children and could be tyrannical toward her siblings; her tutor recognized her as being the most intelligent of the surviving children (McCurdy 135). One of Charlotte Brontë’s friends characterized Emily Brontë as having “a spirit of mischief especially when she was out on the moors, where her childlike vivacity and glee appeared at their most conspicuous” (McCurdy 140). This same friend described how Emily would frighten Charlotte and then laugh at her for being frightened; Brontë was also prone to moments of rage (McCurdy 140). As for Catherine defying her husband’s orders and other rules of society, Ward has noted that the role of women was a serious issue during the time Brontë was writing Wuthering Heights, one that Brontë and her sisters would have discussed (350) In addition, Abraham commented that in the novel, males are always in titular control of the household; only they own the property (94). But by having Catherine exert such control over her husband, through sheer force of personality, histrionics, and so forth, Brontë demonstrates that a woman can control much of what occurs in the household. Abraham further notes that no male in the novel is portrayed positively; this lack of positive male characters suggests Brontë wanted her female characters to be more respected and more dominant (94). Crouse also points out the motif of confinement in the novel, noting that Catherine chooses to confine herself at times as a way to exert power, in contrast to the more traditionally masculine use of confinement that Heathcliff uses on Cathy Linton (182)
Another characteristic of Catherine, along with Heathcliff, is the shared world they create for themselves when playing on the moors. From their actions and behavior, they regard each other as their only trusted companion and the only person each of them can tolerate for any considerable length of time. They are at times inseparable; they quarrel at times; they reconcile with each other with renewed passion. This relationship has many similarities to Brontë’s childhood, albeit with a few differences. During their childhood, the four surviving Brontë siblings played together extensively on the moors, creating their own imaginary worlds and stories to go along with those worlds (McCurdy 139). Initially all four children shared their imaginative creations with each other, but eventually Emily Brontë chose to collaborate only with her younger sister Anne, leaving her older sister Charlotte and her brother Branwell to themselves. While Emily and Charlotte did not have a major quarrel that is recorded, Emily seems to have been less invested in the sisterly relationship than Charlotte was (McCurdy 135). This cooling off from Emily seems similar to the sibling relationships portrayed in Wuthering Heights, where Catherine Earnshaw and her brother barely tolerate each other, without much apparent love or affection. Edgar Linton insists on maintaining distance from his sister Isabella after she elopes with Heathcliff, even after she escapes from Heathcliff; he does not visit her until she is dying. Brontë’s own ambivalence toward her sister Charlotte may well have been the driving force behind these depictions of sibling relationships as less than ideal. Nevertheless, Brontë repeatedly emphasizes childhood as the happiest and most intense time of Catherine’s life. As Seichepine points out, when Catherine’s ghost appears to Lockwood, the ghost appears as a child (209).
Although Hindley is a minor character, he also possesses characteristics of someone in Brontë’s life. He leaves home for a while and returns under less than good circumstances. His increasing use of alcohol and his outbursts of temper are similar to Brontë’s brother Branwell. As McCurdy notes, “In 1845 Branwell precipitated a crisis in the family affairs by receiving a stern dismissal as tutor in the household of the Reverend Mr. Robinson because of alleged misconduct with Mrs. Robinson, returning to his home and refusing to be consoled or to seek other employment, he drowned his sorrows and confusion of mind in alcohol and opium” (137). Although Branwell’s death occurred after the publication of Wuthering Heights, it would have been clear to Brontë, along with her sisters, that his continued substance abuse would most likely result in early death, one way or another. For example, Brontë saved him from a fire he accidentally started in his room while intoxicated (McCurdy 144).
Heathcliff, on the other hand, plays a major role in the novel. While he and Catherine share a passionate nature, Heathcliff represents the dark side of that passion. When he learns Catherine is to marry Edgar Linton, he leaves and does not return until he is in position to gain revenge. He exhibits violent tendencies in the novel, having physical altercations with other men, in addition to confining Cathy Linton against her will to force her into marriage with his son. Heathcliff’s temper and violent outbursts seem drawn directly from Brontë’s father, as well as from her brother. Letters from Charlotte Brontë describe her father’s anger as being disproportionate to an occurrence and how he showed very physical signs (bulging veins and so forth) while angry, all the while making apparently scathing comments about the person who had displeased him (McCurdy 141). Yet his chosen profession as a minister required that he also show compassion and tenderness. This duality of personality is strikingly similar to Heathcliff, who shows Catherine great love and passion, but also torments her.
In reviewing the established facts of Brontë’s life (Joyce, para 1-7), it would appear that she never had a serious romantic relationship. This lack of direct experience with romantic love raises the question of how she was able to write so convincingly of the enduring passion between Catherine and Heathcliff, whose lives were so entwined and whose personalities were so close that Catherine at one point in the novel insists that she is Heathcliff? Brontë’s sister Charlotte, the only sibling who married, did not do so until after the deaths of her siblings, and so Brontë could not simply have observed her sister being in love with someone. Was Brontë capable of imagining such a great passion without having ever experienced it herself?
Fermi examines this issue and raises some other interesting questions, including why Brontë was sent away to school away from her family when she was older than usual and it would have been financially difficult to do so (71-72). Fermi also explores the mysteries behind why Brontë became ill enough at school that she had to return home; this occurrence has been remarked on by another scholar (Mayne, 72). Fermi also questions why the overall tone of Brontë s poetry and her personality changed so abruptly during 1837 and 1838. In her examination of these questions, Fermi provides circumstantial evidence to support an interesting theory. In this theory, she suggests that during the time Brontë and her sister Anne were playing on the moors, using stories and characters they had themselves invented, they recruited a local boy to play some roles for them. Because the boy is not from the same social class as they are, they do not reveal the friendship to any other members of the family, but Brontë and the boy develop a romantic passion for each other. When the relationship is discovered, Brontë’s father sends her away to school to end the relationship, but she becomes ill partly as a result of her grief at being separated from the boy and returns home a few months later. The following year, the boy dies and with his death, Brontë experiences a profound grief that never leaves her. From this point forward, her poetry reveals an obsession with death and despair (Fermi, 71-72).
Although Fermi’s evidence is circumstantial, her theory would explain how Brontë was able to portray passionate love and equally passionate grief so convincingly. If Brontë was in love with a boy during her late adolescence, a common enough occurrence, was subsequently separated from him by her family, and then experienced profound grief at his death, she could easily have vented those feelings when writing Wuthering Heights. Many elements and ideas flow through the novel, but there is an overwhelming sense of injustice that Catherine and Heathcliff are separated by their family. Readers can only wonder if their passion would have endured, had they married instead of Catherine feeling pressured to marry someone more suitable in terms of social standing and financial situation. When Catherine and Heathcliff reunite after Catherine’s marriage to Edgar Linton, that reconciliation suggests that their love is more legitimate than the more ordinary love between Catherine and Edgar. Finally, the ending of the novel strongly indicates that Catherine and Heathcliff are ultimately reunited permanently after Heathcliff’s death. For Brontë, this ending may signify her wish to once again be with someone she loves.
Overall, the novel Wuthering Heights contains many similarities to the author’s life and surroundings. There are undeniable consistencies in behavior between some of the characters in the novel and members of Brontë’s family. As noted previously, the author’s experience with death of loved ones also echoes throughout the novel in deaths of several characters. Ultimately, though, Brontë did not simply take her own life and slightly fictionalize it. She created enduring characters whose fate continues to haunt readers. Whatever elements of her own life Brontë used, she transformed those events and people into a compelling story of the nature of love.
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