Wuthering Heights as a Gothic Novel
Nathaniel Hawthrone and Walter Scott have presented the gothic elements in their novels. Hawthrone uses the supernatural as a symbol not to be believed literally, and Scott regards it as an irregularity hardly in consonance with the laws of Nature. Emily Bronte’s inclusion of the gothic elements in Wuthering Heights is the expression of her faith in the immorality of the soul.
Emily Bronte believes that the soul is immortal and continues to exist even after physical death. But according to Lord David Cecil, she does not believe in the soul’s immortality in the orthodox Christian sense. Lord David Cecil says that Emily Bronte believes in the immortality of the soul in this world. The spiritual principle of which soul is the manifestation is active in this life; therefore the disembodied soul continues to be active in this life. Its ruling preoccupations remain the same after death as before. Emily Bronte does not see human conflict as ending with death. Catherine Earnshaw dreams that she goes to heaven but is miserable there because she is homesick for Wuthering Heights, the native country of her spirit. It is not a parable but a prophecy, for when she dies in fact, her spirit does take up its abode at Wuthering Heights. And she does not stay there as an idle ghost but actively influences Heathcliff by exerting pressure on him with her person.
Emily Bronte believes not only in the immortality of the soul but in the indestructibility of love as well. Just as death does not kill the soul it cannot destroy love. Heathcliff and Catherine both die, but love which actively dominated their lives and souls continues to exist even after their death. That is why they are united after their deaths as ghosts. Had love been destructible with death, the ghost of Heathcliff and Catherine would have been a vain and worthless existence. They are full of meaning in the novel because love is immortal and can be fulfilled even after the destruction of their physical bodies.
The supernatural is an element in the vision of life which Emily Bronte presents in the novel. It serves as symbol of her belief in the immortality of the soul and indestructibility of love. If she believes in the immortality of the soul in this world, she also believes in the fulfillment of love in this world even if the lovers die. For physical death is not the death of love. Body dies but the soul does not. It continues to live. And since love is a spiritual entity, it continues to exist after death. Since the soul is immortal, Heathcliff and Catherine exist as ghosts after their physical death, and since love is indestructible, they are united after death.
The characters in Wuthering Heights believe that life continues even after death. They not only believe in existence after death, but also think that in that state of existence their natures will be able to pour out love freely and be at peace; a peace not of annihilation but of fulfillment. Catherine, poised on the verge of death, says,
“The thing that irks me most is this shattered prison, after all. I am tired of being enclosed here. I am wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there, not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for through the walls of an aching heart; but really with it, and in it. Nelly you think you are better and more fortunate than I; in full heath and strength: you are sorry for me – very soon that will be altered, I shall be sorry for you. I shall be incomparably beyond and above you all.”
And Nelly, gazing on her dead body, has the same feeling and says,
“I see a repose that neither earth nor hell can break, and I feel an assurance of the endless and shadowless hereafter the Eternity they have entered-where life is boundless in its duration, and love in its sympathy, and joy in its fulness.”
Death in the world of Emily Bronte is a gateway to a better and fuller state of existence. Since love cannot be fulfilled in this life, a better existence after death is needed in which the lover and the beloved can be eternally united without any obstruction or fear of separation. It is this idea which Emily Bronte puts across through the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine and their eternal and unbreakable association after death.
The author’s uncanny skill is conspicuous in her ability to arouse a sense of the unseen. Nothing in the story can positively be labeled as supernatural, but the recurrent dreams and hallucinations take on an effect of actuality. The young Brontes were positive that on occasions in the Haworth rectory they had seen the ghost of their dead sister, and their genuine superstition lends conviction to the psychic phenomena in both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. When Heathcliff’s dead body lies drenched with the rain that blew in through the open window, the effect is more authentically eerie than all the palpable atrocities in the tales of terror.
The only other writer of fiction who achieved anything like this convincing use of Gothic material was also a poet, Edgar Allan Poe, who was writing in almost the same years; and even he confined himself to short stories instead of attempting the more difficult task of maintaining the imaginative pitch through a whole novel. Wuthering Heights, in short, is a belated masterpiece of romanticism. Just as Jane Austen had been an anachronistic eighteenth-century rationalist in the romantic heyday, as Emily Bronte was an anachronistic romantic visionary amid Victorian practicality.
Within the terms laid down by the novel, the hauntings in Wuthering Heights are not supernatural in the usual sense of manifestations against the laws of nature. On the contrary, given the circumstances of the novel, it could be said, paradoxically, that they are essentially natural. That is why the country people, and even Lockwood when he has become sufficiently imbued with the spirit of the place, accept them naturally. They are solidly based in the folklore of a particular district, and Emily Bronte is at pains to introduce a number of references to other traditional supernatural phenomena such as fairies, elves, goblins, and demons.
But there is a sense too, in which the supernatural elements can also be seen as firmly rooted in a specific historical and social context, to which Heathcliff and Cathy inevitably belong, and of which they are the tragic victims. Much of the special affinity that exists between them for example, is the product of a mutual rebellion against the harsh regime of Hindley and Joseph, and against the kind of adult tyranny exercised against children at that period largely by means of religion, which had also evoked Blake’s passionate indignation in his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. It is this rebellion, so patently justified, that arouses sympathy for Heathcliff in the earlier part of the book, a sympathy which is not entirely destroyed by his monstrosities later on.
Her achievement in the use of the supernatural is to exploit successfully the reader’s well-established liking for the marvelous and the uncanny, while never giving his modern mind an opportunity to say “This is impossible.” There are no impossibilities in Wuthering Heights. Yet at times the characters act as if living a magic world. Nelly insists that the strangeness of Cathy’s words is caused by her illness; nevertheless, the reader cannot avoid seeing that what Cathy foretells so wildly comes true. Heathcliff continues to ‘follow’ her; we recollect how Lockwood dreams of her at the window of the Heights; the book ends with him standing by Gimmerton kirk over the graves of Edgar, Cathy and Heathcliff. The novel is ‘plausible’ not because it makes physical and psychological probability, but because it satisfies the instinct for wholeness, a unified view and shape of the little world of the story.