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Critical Analysis & Criticism of Wuthering Heights

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Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

In this lesson, we will learn about the critical history of and some important approaches and methods for understanding Emily Bronte's novel 'Wuthering Heights.'

Critical Literary Analysis

The word ''critical'' often has a negative meaning. It can refer to a derogatory remark or a dire situation. Literary criticism, however, simply refers to various established approaches to understanding a text. A few major examples include formalist criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, feminist criticism, and Marxist criticism.

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  • 0:03 Critical Literary Analysis
  • 0:28 Critical History of…
  • 1:42 Psychoanalytic Criticism
  • 3:10 Feminist Criticism
  • 4:37 Marxist Criticism
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Critical History of Bronte's Novel

Critical history refers to how literary reviewers reacted to a work around the time it was published and to later academic perceptions of it. Wuthering Heights is Emily Bronte's sole novel; she wrote it under the pen name Ellis Bell so it wouldn't be discredited for having a female author. Victorian reviewers acknowledged its potent, gripping story, but some complained that it lacked a clear moral message and contained crude language. (For the Victorians, even a modified expression like: ''Go to the deuce!'' was offensive--''deuce'' meant ''devil'').

Many nineteenth-century critics sought out biographical, historical, and literary sources for Wuthering Heights. C.P. Sanger (an English barrister) and Lord David Cecil (an English literary critic) argued that readers should analyze the novel's formal elements (themes, metaphors, narrative structure, etc.) rather than relying on social or moral biases. This influenced formalist criticism and critics, whose approach in the mid-twentieth century was popular before other, newer forms of criticism emerged.

Portrait of Emily Bronte by Patrick Bronwell Bronte
Portrait of Emily Bronte by Patrick Bronwell Bronte

Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism in literature originated in the work of Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst who in 1900 published his model of the conscious and unconscious mind. He argued that thoughts and emotions repressed by the conscious mind are often expressed unconsciously. (You have probably heard of a ''Freudian slip,'' which is a verbal example of this). Psychoanalytic criticism became a literary approach in 1909, and it's useful in studying Wuthering Heights because many of the novel's characters exhibit abnormal behavior. Freudian critics might study, for example, the way Hindley chooses to cope with Frances' death. Carl Gustav Jung's thought on the collective unconscious was introduced in the early twentieth century, and a Jungian critic might focus on the unconscious drives of Wuthering Heights characters as universal ones that we all share.

A third major psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, argued that the subconscious was a language. He created a symbolic structure to study it. Many literary critics have used or adapted the ideas of Freud, Jung, or Lacan in their research. Philip K. Wion, for example, argues that Catherine's declaration that she 'is Heathcliff'' comes from her unconscious confusion about unity versus separateness, and he says this is caused by the loss of her mother at an early age.

Sigmund Freud, circa 1900
Sigmund Freud, circa 1900

Feminist Criticism

Feminist criticism includes diverse perspectives and interests. The fact that female writers were rare during Bronte's lifetime makes feminist criticism of this novel even more important. Beginning in the 1970s, three main types of feminist criticism have been defined: British, American, and French.

British feminists, like Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt, tend to focus on political, historical, and cultural factors in discrimination against women to encourage social change. A British feminist might study how women in Wuthering Heights are disenfranchised by inheritance laws.

American feminists often analyze literature to demonstrate the impact of patriarchal ideology; some major figures are Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar. American feminists might study Bronte as a female Gothic writer (distinct from male Gothic writers, which society has treated as the norm).

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