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'Wuthering Heights' and Victorian values

Hausarbeit 2005 11 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur



1. Introduction
1.1 Coarseness of Language
1.2 The Expectations of the Victorian Reader

2. Heathcliff
2.1 “Thou shalt not kill”
2.2 “Thou shalt not commit adultery”
2.3 “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house”
2.4 Violence
2.5 Judgement of Heathcliff’s behaviour

3. Catherine Earnshaw

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Today Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë (1818-1848) is regarded as a classic of English literature and as one of the most important works of the Victorian Age. When it was first published, however, the opinions of the reviewers were quite different:[1] even though many of them could appreciate the work’s “rugged power”[2] and the writer’s “great ability”[3], most of the contemporary critics scolded the book for its “incidents […] too coarse and disagreeable to be attractive”[4], “shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity”[5], its “disgusting coarseness of much of the dialogue, and the improbabilities and incongruities of the plot”[6].

Emily Brontë died almost exactly one year after the publication of her novel, so she was not able to follow the course it was taking in criticism very long. Since reviewers attacked Wuthering Heights and its author, Emily’s older sister Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) felt urged to defend the value of the novel. She did that in her famous Editor’s Preface to the New Edition of Wuthering Heights[7] of 1850, but not without complaining about several aspects of the novel herself. Also, the preface could not “provoke any reviews which showed more complete understanding”[8].

It is not easy for a modern reader to imagine what exactly in Wuthering Heights made the feelings of the reviewers run so high at the time of the first publication of the novel. Moral standards and expectations towards a work of art were quite different then from how they are today. This essay, therefore, will discuss how the novel violated the moral values of the Victorian time and aroused disgust in contemporary readers by taking a closer look at the two main characters. But first it will look at the artistic complaints of the reviewers and the expectations of the Victorian readership in order to give an impression of the ideas of the time.

1.1 Coarseness of Language

At the beginning of the preface she wrote for the new edition of Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë expresses her understanding that a “large class of readers […] will suffer greatly from the introduction into the pages of this work of words printed with all their letters”[9], even though in her opinion it does not do any good to omit some letters of words – “presumably ‘damn,’ ‘devil,’ and ‘hell’”[10] – that will be deciphered easily. She also shows her sympathy with those “[m]en and women who […] have been trained from their cradle to observe the utmost evenness of manner and guardedness of language, [who] will hardly know what to make of the rough, strong utterance […] of unlettered moorland hinds and rugged moorland squires”[11].

A modern reader, of course, cannot understand why Charlotte tries to apologize for the language her sister used. But when we peruse reviews of the novel from the nineteenth century, we can clearly see that contemporary critics were not at all used to the language of Wuthering Heights:[12]

“If we did not know that this book has been read by thousands of young ladies in the country, we should esteem it our first duty to caution them against it simply on account of the coarseness of the style. […] Setting aside the profanity, which if a writer introduces into a book, he offends against both politeness and good morals, there is such a general roughness and savageness in the soliloquies and dialogues here given as never should be found in a work of art.”[13]

This is just one example of what kind of scolding the novel received for its language that was regarded as obscene in the Victorian time.


[1] Cf. Watson, Melvin R., “’Wuthering Heights’ and the Critics”. Trollopian, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Mar., 1949), p. 243.

[2] Unsigned Atlas review (January 1848) of Wuthering Heights in: Brontë, Emily, Wuthering Heights (1847). Ed. William M. Sale, jr. and Richard J. Dunn. New York: Norton, ³1990., p. 300.

[3] Unidentified review of Wuthering Heights in: Brontë, p. 308.

[4] Unsigned excerpt of a Spectator review (18 December 1847) of Wuthering Heights in: Allott, Miriam (ed.), Emily Brontë. Wuthering Heights. A Casebook. London: The Macmillan Press, 1992 (revised edition), p. 39.

[5] Atlas review (January 1848) in: Wuthering Heights, p. 300.

[6] Unsigned Literary World review (April 1848) of Wuthering Heights in: Allott, p. 48.

[7] In: Brontë, , p. 319-322.

[8] Watson, p. 246.

[9] Charlotte Brontë in: Brontë, p. 320.

[10] Drew, Philip, “Charlotte Brontë as a Critic of Wuthering Heights”, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Mar., 1964), p. 366.

[11] Charlotte Brontë in: Brontë, p. 320.

[12] Cf. Peterson, Linda H., “A Critical History of Wuthering Heights”, in: Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights. Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Ed. Linda H. Peterson. Boston: Bedford Books, 1992, p. 290.

[13] Excerpt from a review of Wuthering Heights by G. W. Peck in American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics (June 1848) in: Allott, p. 49.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
384 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg
Wuthering Heights Victorian



Titel: 'Wuthering Heights' and Victorian values