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judge books by covers.
But it is something entirely different to job a story by its form, for the way in which an author chooses to frame a story is as important to our understanding of it as the content of the story itself - something that is becomes clear to us when we examine books that tell very different stories shaped by very different forms. Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights could not have conveyed either the passion or the essential, existential solitude of the characters had it not been written as an amalgam of first-person narratives wrapped in a Romantic form. Likewise, Theodor Fontane's highly realistic Effi Briest would also have been a very different novel had it been written - for example - as a Romantic work. This paper examines the ways in which form and content affect each other in these two works to the extent that they become essentially indistinguishable from each other.
Wuthering Heights is an essential Romantic work, and we cannot understand the skill with which Bronte married form to content within it if we do not ourselves read it within the broader context of the Romantic novel, a form concerned not solely (and often not even particularly) about happily-ever-after-endings but rather with an exploration of a particularly intense, personal relationship with the world. This kind of intensity can best (and arguably only) be told through a first-person narrative, which explains Bronte's rather unusual choice in structuring the novel as a series of first-person narratives rather than using a single first-person narrator or a single first-person narrator in combination with an omniscient authorial voice.
Published in 1847, the year before Emily Bronte died of tuberculosis, Wuthering Heights tells of the passionate relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a relationship that we learn about through a number of different narratives. Each one of these narratives convinces us that the two are psychological matches for each other - both equally wild and free souls. But Catherine marries the gentler Edgar Linton, thereby prompting the thirst for revenge in Heathcliff, who is not sated even by Catherine's death. It is only in the next generation that all of the families involved can find a sense of peace.
Although it is perhaps better now known as a poetic style, Romanticism was of course at its height also an important framework for the novel as well. Romanticism developed in the 19th century both in relationship to previous artistic styles and as a result of the political and historical forces that were reshaping the world during this century and thus must be seen as a style that was in some senses purely aesthetic but in most others essentially political.
Romanticism as a style was linked to a larger social movement that tried to upset the orderly conventions laid down by the Enlightenment in which everyone had a place in society that they were supposed to know and be happy with. It was also a protest against the Industrial Revolution and the ways that industrialization forced people to give up ways of life that they had followed for centuries. We see elements of both of these aspects of Romanticism in Wuthering Heights, in the fiercely held solitude and traditionalism, the love of place and land that run throughout the novel.
There is also, of course, an emphasis on the importance of all emotions - not only romantic love but of all emotions. And not only is there an emphasis on the importance of strong emotions held by the speaker but also an emphasis on attempting to understand what emotions motivate other characters as well. The importance of being attuned to one's own emotional needs and the desire to understand others as powerfully motivated by their own inner lives are aspects common to Romantic literature, but especially prevalent in Wuthering Heights as is clear in this passage from Chapter 17:
ought, and I wish to remain,' answered she, 'to cheer Edgar and take care of the baby, for two things, and because the Grange is my right home. But I Bell you he wouldn't let me! Do you think he could bear to see me grow fat and merry; and could bear to think that we were tranquil, and not resolve on poisoning our comfort? Now, I have the satisfaction of being sure that he detests me, to the point of its annoying him seriously to have me within earshot or eyesight: I notice, when I enter his presence, the muscles of his countenance are involuntarily distorted into an expression of hatred; partly arising from his knowledge of the good causes I have to feel that sentiment for him, and partly from original aversion. It is strong enough to make me feel pretty certain that he would not chase me over England, supposing I contrived a clear escape; and therefore I must get quite away.
Romantic writers discarded certain ideas and practices that the writers who came just before them had thought to be of the greatest important. Romantic writers believed that beautiful, lyrical writing and a sense of spontaneity were more important that following literary "rules." They also wanted their writing to sound more like the poems and songs produced by "common folk." Romantic poets looked to folk poetry and even medieval romance for models for their writing, leading them to reject regular meters, strict forms, and other conventions of the classical tradition.
We see examples of the rural speech of England throughout Wuthering Heights, as in this passage from Chapter Three:
T' maister nobbut just buried, and Sabbath nut o'ered, und t' sahnd uh t' gospel still i' yer lugs, and yah darr be laiking! Shame on ye! sit ye dahn, ill childer! they's good books eneugh if ye'll read 'em! sit ye dahn, and think uh yer sowls!"
Saying this, he compelled us so to square our positions that we might receive from the far-off fire a dull ray to show us the text of the lumber thrust upon us. I could not bear the employment. I took my dingy volume by the scroop, and hurled it into the dog kennel, vowing I hated a good book. Heathcliff kicked his to the same place. Then there was a hubbub!
Maister Hindley!" shouted our chaplain. "Maister, coom hither! Miss Cathy's riven th' back off 'Th' Helmet uh Salvation, un' Heathcliff's pawsed his fit intuh t' first part uh 'T' Brooad Way to Destruction!' It's fair flaysome ut yah let 'em goa on this gait. Ech! th' owd man ud uh laced 'em properly -- but he's goan!"
Fontane's work is dramatically different in form and in style, and the story that it tells is thus fundamentally different as well. This sense of difference is far more profound than any simple differences in plot or character. Of course these are different. But what might loosely be termed the world view of each novel is fundamentally different as well, and this world view in each book is woven into the form of the work as much as the details of its content.
The love story - using this term very loosely - that Fontane relates to us in his 1895 Effie Briest is of a very different sort indeed. It is difficult to imagine a relationship as different from Catherine and Heathcliff as that between Effi and her husband. Bronte's world is one of passion above all else" Heathcliff's hatred is as important to him in defining his sense of self as is his love. He would be nothing if he were not subject to such strong emotions: Emotion is what defines these characters.
This is not at all true of the characters who people Fontane's Realistic novel, which tells us the story of Effi, a teenage girl who has been brought up amid the particular constraints of Germanic society in an especially repressive (at least for girls and women) age. Effi struggles constantly to reject the constraints of her society in a way that, for example, Catherine never has to. Catherine fits into the world of the moors in a way that Effi never can fit into Prussian society, and this is not simply because of differences in their characters but because of the fundamentally different orientations of the novels and the authors.
One of Eyre's most important philosophical tenets as a Romantic writer ws that each person can find personal sanctuary and a large measure of spiritual and existential peace by becoming one with the natural world. (Heathcliff's inability to be at peace even amid the quiet of the moor's makes one wonder if he is in fact entirely human, if he is not perhaps some demonic creature or a changeling like a silkie.)
But, writing at the end of the 19th century rather than during its middle, two generations on in the process of urbanization and industrialization, Fontane is not so sanguine that there can be respite for any of us in the natural world. His world -…[continue]
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