Childhood in Wuthering Heights

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson, we will explore the representation of childhood in Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights' by examining the context of childhood in Bronte's time and then highlighting the actions and emotions of some children in the novel.

The Concept of Childhood

Think back to when you were a child. Depending on where you grew up in the world, there was probably an unspoken set of rules about how your life was supposed to go. In Western countries, generally, a child's daily life is based around learning, not only at school, but also at home. All of this education is supposed to prepare the child for the responsibilities of adulthood. This seems like the correct path, right? However, this wasn't always the case.

In many ways, the concept of childhood was invented in the eighteenth century. The period was inundated with guidebooks for how to properly educate and care for children. By the end of the century, Western cultures began to consider childhood as a precious and fleeting time of a person's life that must be protected. For the first time, child labor laws were passed to regulate the hours and types of employment at which children could work. (Charles Dickens, for example, spent his childhood working in a factory.)

Throughout the nineteenth century, these laws would become more and more strict, as children and childhood were increasingly valued. We have many laws today, some of which we don't even think about, that protect children, making it illegal for them to work, to marry, to be sold, etc. Quite a lot of this sort of thinking was part of the cultural consciousness in the 1840s, when Emily Bronte was writing.

Wutheirng Heights and Childhood

Childhood is a troubling theme in Wuthering Heights. Almost without exception, children are treated badly, and subsequently, they end up precocious, spoiled, and violent. One could read the novel as a commentary on how bad traits get passed from generation to generation. Childhood is not valued in Wuthering Heights, but is rather neglected and abused. In some sense, all of the violence and pain in the novel is a result of the treatment of children.

Heathcliff and the Earnshaws

The first family we meet in Wuthering Heights is comparatively harmonious. The Earnshaws seem to be happy and stable. But one day the father brings home an orphan, a 'dirty, ragged, black-haired child,' and the family dynamic is thereafter ruined. The siblings, Hindley and Catherine, are immediately jealous of Heathcliff, and treat him badly. Eventually, Catherine warms to the young boy, but Hindley remains emotionally and physically abusive: 'He seemed a sullen, patient child; hardened, perhaps, to ill-treatment: he would stand Hindley's blows without winking or shedding a tear.' Readers can trace Heathcliff's aggressive adult disposition to the events of his childhood. His passionate, unrelenting love for Catherine is a result of her early acceptance of him. And his shocking violence is a consequence of Hindley's maltreatment.

Cathy and Linton

Wuthering Heights can be split into two parts that follow two generations. Heathcliff and Catherine dominate the first part, and their children the second. (Cathy is the daughter of Catherine Earnshaw and Edgar Linton, and Catherine dies just after giving birth; Linton is the son of Heathcliff and Isabella Linton. To make things even more confusing, Linton's last name is Heathcliff.) Cathy is spoiled as a child by her (generally) gentle father, Edgar, and her caretaker, Nelly. Linton is raised primarily by Heathcliff after Isabella dies, but he is a sickly, a 'pale, delicate, effeminate boy,' and is unable to carry out Heathcliff's plans for revenge.

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