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Gender Roles in Wuthering Heights

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights' challenges the strict gender roles of its time in the character of Catherine, who embodies both masculine and feminine qualities. Other characters such as Edgar also blend feminine and masculine characteristics, while Heathcliff represents pure masculinity.

Victorian Gender Norms

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights shocked its Victorian audiences when it was first published in 1847. Among the many reasons for this reception was the novel's upending of traditional gender roles, though the book also reflects the attitudes of its time in many ways.

In the Victorian period, which spanned most of the nineteenth century in England, gender roles were very rigid. Women were supposed to embody all of the stereotypes of femininity and be pure, caring, and submissive. Men, on the other hand, were expected to be strong, virile, and independent.

Catherine Earnshaw, the heroine of Wuthering Heights, breaks out of the Victorian stereotypes of womanhood by blending masculine and feminine qualities. However, while Emily Bronte pushes against the restrictions of Victorian gender roles, she seems to agree with others of her time in believing masculine qualities were superior to feminine ones. While Catherine's defiance of gender norms is portrayed positively, the feminine qualities embodied by her husband, Edgar, are not. And Heathcliff, the hero of the story, is defined by his pure manhood.

Catherine, Mannish Girl

Catherine Earnshaw holds within herself extreme qualities of both the masculine and feminine. As a child and young woman, she is what we would today call a tomboy, tramping around the moors with Heathcliff. She's outgoing, adventurous, and independent, all qualities traditionally associated with the masculine.

After her stay at Thrushcross Grange, Catherine does a 180 and becomes a perfect Victorian lady. She becomes cultivated, well-dressed, and demure, at least on the surface. This causes her break with Heathcliff, who resists such taming, and enables her marriage to the wealthy Edgar. It seems like she has outgrown her tomboy phase and settled into the life of a proper Victorian woman.

However, it becomes clear that Catherine's masculine qualities have not totally been abandoned. As Nelly explains, Edgar, despite both being of a higher social class and the man in the relationship, takes on an almost subservient role in their marriage. He walks on eggshells around her so as not to cause an outburst of her fiery temper and tries everything to make her happy.

Catherine's blending of masculine and feminine is perhaps best summed up by Nelly in this description: ''Her spirits were always at high-water mark, her tongue always going--singing, laughing, and plaguing everybody who would not do the same. A wild, wicked slip she was--but she had the bonniest eye, the sweetest smile, and lightest foot in the parish.''

Edgar, Girlish Man

Now let's talk about Edgar for a second. Like his wife, he seems to embody a mixture of masculine and feminine qualities. This starts with his looks, which are described as fair and fragile, and continues to his character and constitution. He is weak-willed and submissive. Edgar seems to be made out of glass and about to break at any minute, especially when Catherine loses her temper. As Nelly says, ''I observed that Mr. Edgar had a deep-rooted fear of ruffling [Catherine's] humour. He concealed it from her; but if ever he heard me answer sharply, or saw any other servant grow cloudy at some imperious order of hers, he would show his trouble by a frown of displeasure that never darkened on his own account.''

Edgar highlights a contradiction in Victorian male gender roles. Men were supposed to be virile, strong, and violent, when need be, but also able to tame these passions and be ''proper gentlemen'' when the situation demanded. There were those Victorians who believed these codes of gentlemanly conduct ''feminized'' men, and Edgar would seem to provide evidence for this hypothesis.

He also illustrates the inequality embedded in these masculine and feminine gender roles. Catherine's masculinity makes her an attractive and powerful heroine, while Edgar's femininity makes him a pitiable figure. Although Emily Bronte is challenging gender roles through Catherine, she also seems to be conforming to the common idea that masculine qualities are preferable to feminine ones.

Heathcliff, Manly Man

If we doubt that Emily Bronte has a love of masculine qualities, let's turn our attention to Heathcliff. As opposed to both Edgar and Catherine, there is no gender ambiguity in Heathcliff. To put it simply, he is all man.

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