Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre have captured the imagination of successive generations of critics, from the time they were published till today. Widely acclaimed, these two novels continue to literally mesmerize scholars as the harbingers of a unique literary genre of romance in a gothic drama setting, which is related with harsh vitalism and lack of moral zeal.
More than their technical aspects, however, a review of the critical literature on these two works reveals an almost unanimous view that the enduring appeal of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre lies in the works' ability to virtually unplug human emotion and expose it in its raw form.
Charlotte Bronte, the author of Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte, the author of Wuthering Heights were sisters. It was, therefore, but natural that a shared upbringing, a sibling relationship, and common influences found its way into the literary works that they penned. As such, it is hardly surprising that the two novels share a great deal of similarity in their Byronic influence and thematic content. Indeed, it is this similarity of themes that successive generations of critics have often analyzed and commented on, along with the ability of both novels to astound and disturb the readers' emotions. In fact, while most critics offer differing interpretations and varying insights into the novels' shared themes of high romance, socially sanctioned relationships, and daemonic male dominance, they are virtually unanimous in agreeing that both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre disturb the readers' emotions because they touch on primordial chords.
The ability of the two novels to touch on primordial emotions is both directly and indirectly revealed in the reactions of critics. For instance, soon after the publication of Jane Eyre, a reviewer in Sharpe's London Magazine, commented, "Such a strange book! Imagine a novel with a little swarthy governess for heroine, and a middle-aged ruffian for hero."
Besides the "strange" choice of characters for the role of hero and heroine in Jane Eyre, successive generations of Brontean commentators have also recorded surprise and incredulity at passages in both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, which suggest that the well-to-do are sometimes uncivil to their employees. The reactions of such critics in describing the novels as strange, however, finds explanation in West's observation that the story told in Jane Eyre seems absurd not because such incidents never happen, but because we dislike admitting that they happen.
If Jane Eyre succeeds in shocking its audiences, Wuthering Heights excels in achieving the same effect. For, Jane Eyre, at least, shows some modicum of respect for social values and etiquette in that Jane refuses to indulge in an illicit relationship with Rochester. Wuthering Heights, in contrast, displays no such concern in its unabashed narration of Heathcliff and Catherine's passion for each other, a passion that completely disregards the presence of spouses. Indeed, this aspect of the work has invited a great deal of comment. For instance, Margaret Lawrence
points out, "the love in it was not only devastatingly possessive; it was also unaware of the gulf that marriage vows were supposed to make between lovers when they were married to other people."
This deviance from all cultural norms of behavior has, in particular, been commented on in critical analysis of Catherine Earnshaw's character. While Bloom interprets Catherine's behavior as emanating from "no coward soul," a more overt Victorian Gnostic, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, went to the extent of describing the book as a "fiend of a book, an incredible monster ... The action is laid in hell ...." In fact, as Bloom observes, Rossetti even imputed to Wuthering Heights a considerable female sadism.
While Rossetti's reaction may have been extreme, it is still indicative of the power of Wuthering Heights to shock and disturb its readers. Jane Eyre, for all its relative simplicity, has a similar effect. Naturally, therefore, many critics have attempted to analyze the source of the effect that these two novels are most renowned for. For example, Tillotson
ascribes the effect of Jane Eyre as timeless precisely because it stems from the fact that it is "primarily a novel of the inner life, not of man in his social relations; it maps a private world." From this, it can be inferred that the appeal of Jane Eyre lies in Charlotte Bronte's ability to "lift a curtain, and reveal what the world usually keeps hidden."
In other words, Jane Eyre touches on human emotion in its raw form.
Clearly, it is the critics' opinion that Jane Eyre reveals the private world of women, rather than men. Indeed, Teachman
has even interpreted Bertha Mason Rochester's character as one that showcases the repressed side of Victorian women. "As the shadow side of respectable Victorian women, Bertha displays the rage and violence that women were required to repress in Victorian life." To prove her point, Teachman
also suggests that Jane Eyre acts as a counterfoil to Bertha in so much that she strives to be a fully developed human being. As she observes, Jane "believes that, as a human being, she has a right to want more than the proper Victorian lady is expected to want. 'Anybody may blame me who likes,' Jane challenges her readers." As it is, neither Jane nor her creator, Charlotte Bronte was blamed. For, the novel was an instant success and hailed as a work of genius by the Examiner and Fraser.
Of course, there were a few contemporary dissenting voices such as the Quarterly Review, which denounced Jane Eyre as an anti-Christian composition.
Such reactions, at that time, are not surprising if considered from the view of the prevalent social values. Indeed, what is surprising, if anything, is Jane Eyre's success in appealing to both its Victorian and later audiences. This implies that the private world of women in Jane Eyre has universal qualities. Therefore, the only possible explanation must lie in Jane's desire to assert her rights as a woman and a human being. Indeed, Jane, as Teachman
points out, expresses this desire when she reflects, "I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach that busy world ... regions full of life ... I desired more of practical experience ...."
Similarly, critics have deduced that the power of Wuthering Heights lies not so much in the daemonic qualities of Heathcliff, but in the fact that the novel reflects a "quality of suffering," which is universally felt.
To see this quality, however, Van Ghent suggests that critical analysis must go beyond the fact that the novel appears unsympathetic to social and moral reason. And, instead, see it as the recognition of an absolute, which is universal and undistracted. The primordial chord that Wuthering Heights then addresses goes far beyond the inner world of Jane Eyre, to a plane that is mystical and primeval. Van Ghent explains this plane as representative of the forces of nature or an unregenerate universe, as depicted in the great Chinese paintings of the Middle Ages.
Other critics view the primordial power of Wuthering Heights on a more earthy level. Hinkley, for example, admits to the "quality of suffering" in the novel but asks as to why Emily Bronte "put her theme of literally death-defying love in a triple setting of utter contrast: unsympathetic narrators to tell it, a brutal and repellent environment to surround it, violent, selfish, and ruthless souls to contain it." One answer to Hinkley's question could well be Bloom's view that Heathcliff and Catherine were no cowardly souls, and that they were merely representative of human nature in its true form.
Or, perhaps, Hinkley herself has the answer when she says that Emily Bronte was deeply influenced by her own long endurance of oppression and suffering of her brother's behavior. Hinkley draws this inference by observing that Catherine Earnshaw saw Heathcliff's miseries as her own: "Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same." From this, Hinkley deduces that, in good and evil, she is Heathcliff's mate.
It is this highlighting of the dark side of human nature that has perhaps also led contemporary critics to comment that Wuthering Heights "is a strange artistic story. Jane Eyre is a book which affects the readers to tears; it touches the most hidden sources of emotions. Wuthering Heights casts a gloom over the mind not easily to be dispelled."
In Charles Morgan's view, this gloom could only be explained by the fact that Wuthering Heights touched a primordial chord by embracing the idea of "the illusory nature of time and material happenings."
Naturally, therefore, the work creates gloom by touching on a raw nerve, namely, the illusions of the material and social world.
Both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have been closely analyzed over the years from several different angles. However, as this paper has attempted to show, there is one singular fact that stands out among all the critical interpretations. And, that is, the primordial quality of the two works in that they touch upon inner, hidden emotions and human kind's…