Alternative Interpretations of Wuthering Heights

Instructor: Melissa Rohen

Melissa has taught college English and has a master's degree in English and Composition.

When we read something, we can interpret it in different ways and gain different understandings and perspectives of the meaning of the story. In this lesson, we will be exploring some alternative interpretations of Emily Bronte's novel 'Wuthering Heights'

Alternative Interpretations of Wuthering Heights

In this lesson, we will be exploring alternative interpretations of Wuthering Heights. Before we do, let's review the story.

Wuthering Heights: A Review

The story follows Heathcliff, a young man who is adopted by the well-meaning Earnshaw family. His inclusion in the family is met with mixed responses from the Earnshaw children. The daughter, Catherine, befriends him. However, the son, Hindley, is resentful, viewing him as a rival.

This resentment grows as the children age. When Hindley becomes head of household after his parents' death, he punishes Heathcliff by making him a servant. Despite this, young Catherine and Heathcliff fall in love. However, because Heathcliff is not a part of her own social class, Catherine marries another man. Heathcliff is, perhaps understandably, resentful about this turn of events, and spends the rest of his life seeking revenge against his adopted siblings and their families.

What do we mean by 'interpretations?'

To interpret something means to look for deeper understanding and meaning in a story that might not be initially obvious. By interpreting a story, we can find different explanations of what the author meant to express. There can be many different ways of interpreting a single story.

Interpretation of literature is based on literary theory. This is the study and analysis of literature including a variety of methods for finding meaning in all types of writing. There are many different types of lit theory including: Formalism, Post-Structuralism, Marxism, New Historicism, Deconstruction, Reader Response, Feminist, and Psychoanalytical.

We'll focus on three interpretations: Feminist, Formalist, and Marxist.

Feminist Interpretation

Feminism: An Interpretation of Female Oppression
The Gibson Girl: The Crush

The Feminist approach to interpretation looks at a story using feminist theory. Feminist theory explores how themes, plots, characters, or other components of a story may reinforce the oppression of women and support the inherent patriarchy of society.

If we interpret Wuthering Heights this way, we can get a deeper understanding of Catherine. She is more than just a young girl in love. Because of the patriarchal politics of Victorian England, Catherine's own desires are repressed - she cannot, because she is a woman, choose who she weds because men rule all aspects of a woman's life. It doesn't matter of Heathcliff is the love of her life, she cannot wed him. This lack of freedom is form of oppression. Heathcliff's angry and vindictive response can be seen as another form of patriarchal oppression - because he cannot get what he wants, he acts out towards the woman he once loved even though it was not her initial choice to leave him.

Formalist Interpretation

Formalism: An Interpretation of How it is Written
Inside of the Book Wutheirng Heights

The Formalist approach to interpretation looks at the story's structure, word choice, and format. Formalist interpretations do not really care about plot, but instead focus on how the form of the story impacts our understanding of it.

This interpretation is interesting because it lets us look in between the story, characters, and plot to look at the structure - the techniques the author used to describes the scenery, the way she forms and uses her words - to find deeper understanding. For example, notice the number of times Bronte mentions windows and doors in the story. Consider what these objects do - they represent boundaries. A character must cross a physical boundary to connect with another character. Bronte is using them to represent the unspoken boundaries these characters are crossing in their pursuits of love, social standing, and revenge. By exploring the form this way, the sense of conflict between the characters is deepened.

Marxist Interpretation

Marxism: An Interpretation of Socio-Economic Influences
Caricature of Capitalism

The Marxist approach to interpretation looks at literature by using socialist theories. Essentially, when exploring a story with a Marxist interpretation, we're looking at how society and economy are represented by, or how these ideas affect, the characters, the choices they make, and how they relate to their fictional world.

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