Charlotte Bronte's Criticism on Wuthering Heights

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      The first critics of Wuthering Heights were Emily's sisters, Charlotte and Anne, who heard a part of the novel, "read in manuscript". Their response was one of awe and terror at the presentation of characters whose natures were so 'relentless and implacable... so lost and fallen'. At the same time they recognized its extraordinary power. When it was published in a three-volume edition with Anne's Agnes Grey in December 1847 it is not surprising that most of the reviews, whilst not ignoring Agnes Grey, gave considerably greater attention to Wuthering Heights.

Contemporary Criticism

      The general contemporary reaction to this novel was a mingled one: 1 From 1847 - 1848 there was more than one commentator expressing in the same breath his disapproval of the book's subject matter and his acknowledgment of its originality and genius".

      The principal criticisms arose on the seemingly confused construction of the plot. The reviewer in The Examiner of 8 January 1848, saw the story as confusing and found it difficult to 'set forth in chronological order'. A review in the Britannia said the novel was 'in-parts very unskillfully constructed'.

      Another problem that beset the early reviewers, was, that the novel seemed to have no 'moral' or contain no 'message'. Several of them sought the 'purpose' behind the book and concluded that there was none. The most common attack was on the tone and language of the novel — "the general roughness and savageness in the soliloquies and dialogues" and the "rhetoric of stupid blasphemy". Heathcliff's character was another problem. He was seen as a villain and yet he was united in everlasting love with Catherine in the end. But there was an unanimous recognition, in practically every review of the power of the novel: "evidences in every chapter of a sort of rugged power..."; "undoubtedly powerful writing .... "the immense power, of the book, ... a rough, shaggy, uncouth power"...; "a coarse, original, powerful, book."

      The impact of the novel was thus, considerable, even in those early months, though the critics were not often able to pinpoint what had impressed them.

Charlotte Bronte's Preface to the 1850 Edition

      Interest in the novel was revived with the publication of the 1850 edition. To this edition, Charlotte Bronte added a preface which is a valuable critical commentary on the book's subject and its moral import. An intelligent and informed contemporary Charlotte Bronte was particularly well-placed to understand the world of Wuthering Heights as she knew intimately the life and influences which shaped her sister's writing.

Charlotte's Apology

      Unacquainted with the locality — the wild moors of the north of England — to whom the inhabitants, the customs, the languages and manners, and natural characteristics of the outlying hills and hamlets in the West Riding of Yorkshire are things alien and unfamiliar. Charlotte Bronte feels that to those too delicately brought up " Wuthering Heights must appear a rude and strange production" and believes rightly that they were offended by such words as "damn", "devil" and "hell" which are frequently used in the novel. However, she does not apologize for the use of such words for she believes that hinting at these words by single letters does no good and will not in any way spare feelings or conceal the horror.

      Charlotte Bronte apologizes also for the rusticity of Wuthering Heights but finds it authentic and inevitable in an author like Emily Bronte who was a native of the moors.

Charlotte's View of the Characters

      Charlotte's comments on the characters in the novel in the light of her knowledge of her sister's imagination and of the atmosphere of the Yorkshire moors is of much value. Her views however, are very much at variance with modern critics.

      Charlotte Bronte sees Nelly Dean as "a specimen of true benevolence and homely fidelity." In short she is seen to be a source of moral standards against which we are to measure Heathcliff. She is shown to be fairly perceptive, kindly, loyal and tolerant She is not wholly critical of Heathcliff finding many good things to say about him. So on balance when she condemns Heathcliff it carries great weight with the reader. Nelly is the point of normal reference as against Lockwood's conventional urban judgments and Joseph's moralizing. This is quite opposite to modem criticism which tends to find fault with the conventional morality of Nelly in contrast to the superhuman passion of Heathcliff and Catherine which defies and is beyond all standards of conventional morality. Modern critics have commented that Nelly is quite untrustworthy and betrays her masters time and again, especially Edgar Linton. However, as a narrator, Nelly is impartial and Charlotte Bronte's view of her character is more balanced.

Charlotte's View of Linton and Catherine

      Charlotte marks out the character of Edgar Linton as an 'example of constancy and tenderness'. This again is a favourable comment as against modern critics who generally regard him as 'a poor creature'. Charlotte's favorable opinion is borne out by comments in the novel. Nelly says of Edgar's grief after Catherine's death: "He was too good to be thoroughly unhappy long.... he recalled her memory with tender love and hopeful aspiring to the better world. Where he doubted not she was gone." Nelly also contrasts him favorably with Hindley. "Linton.... displayed the true courage of a loyal and faithful soul. He trusted God, and God comforted him. One hoped and the other despaired. They chose their own lots and were righteously doomed to endure them". Clearly, Emily Bronte is not being ironical. Charlotte Bronte has rightly interpreted Edgar Linton's character as Emily has portrayed him.

      Charlotte Bronte says of Catherine the elder — "Nor is even the first heroine of the name destitute of a certain strange beauty in her fierceness, or of honesty in the midst of perverted passion and passionate perversity."

Charlotte Bronte's View of Heathcliff

      This can be summed up in her verdict, "Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed; never once swerving in his arrow-straight course to perdition". Her views on Heathcliff form an important point of criticism in her Preface. She assesses Heathcliff as a superhuman villain. This is in direct contrast to modern critics who justify Heathcliff's evil actions and elevate him to the status of a hero. Modem critics tend to judge Heathcliff by his own comments in the end to Nelly: "As to repenting of my injustices, I've done no injustice and I repent of nothing." If we see Heathcliff's conduct throughout the novel it is clear that the sympathy we give Heathcliff does not lead us to approve of Heathcliff's actions or even to condone them. According to a critic "Emily Bronte's achievement is to arouse our sympathy for a lost soul while making it quite clear that his actions are damnable". Charlotte Bronte's estimate of Heathcliff in the Preface concludes with the statement, 'we might say that he was a child neither of Lascar nor gypsy, but a man's shame animated by a demon life - a ghoul - an Afreet." His love for Catherine, which modem critics see as his greatest redeeming feature is seen by Charlotte as a fire "that might form the tormented center—the ever-suffering soul of a magnate of the: infernal world". She rightly identifies Heathcliff with diabolic and embittered passion.

Charlotte Bronte's Conclusion

      Charlotte Bronte's concluding paragraph presents a balanced - judgment of the novel. She gives her impressions as follows:

      "Wuthering Heights was born in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials. The statuary found a granite block on a solitary: moor; gazing thereon, he saw how from the crag might be elicited a head, savage, swart, sinister; a form molded with at least one element of grandeur—power. He wrought with a rude chisel, and from no model but the vision of his meditation."

      Charlotte, therefore, put her finger on all the principal traits: the novel's solitary nature, its lack of concern for current literary theories on the nature of fiction and the lofty spirit which infuses so many of its pages. Yet Charlotte went on to express grave doubts about the 'moral desirability' of the novel's theme and later critics have tended to echo these misgivings.


      Two concerns have preoccupied critics even in the twentieth century: "one of these is excited interest in all biographical facts concerning the entire Bronte family, the other is a critical concern with the relative merits of Charlotte and Emily as creative writers — a concern working as the nineteenth-century proceeds, more and more in Emily's favor." It is since the 1940s however that critical analysis has concentrated on theme, structure and texture and there have been many useful contributions in the study of structure and theme in Wuthering Heights. Nevertheless, Charlotte Bronte's Preface is an invaluable piece of criticism, coming as it does from one who knew Emily Bronte so intimately.

University Questions

Write a note on the validity of Charlotte Bronte's Preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights.
Comment on Charlotte Bronte's view on the major characters of Wuthering Heights.
How does Charlotte Bronte's Preface to Wuthering Heights compare with typical contemporary and modern criticism of this novel?

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