Genre of Wuthering Heights

Instructor: Millie van der Westhuizen

Millie is currently working in tertiary education, whilst completing her master's degree in English Studies.

In this lesson, we will consider Emily Brontë's 1847 novel, 'Wuthering Heights', as it relates to the concept of genre. You will also learn about the different genres that some consider this novel to exemplify.

Thinking about Genre

Do you have a favorite genre? These days this question is often used to refer to movies or music, but have you ever considered what this term implies? In a fairly basic sense, the term genre, which means 'kind' or 'sort,' indicates a tendency to group things according to some shared characteristics. Most literary works adhere to the norms of one specific genre, though some do not, like Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Let's consider to what extent this book conforms to certain genres and to what extent it challenges the norms.

The Genres of Wuthering Heights

Since genres might change over time, it's often necessary to consider when a text was written when thinking about genre. Wuthering Heights was published in 1847. At the time, many critics responded negatively to this strange novel. This is not because the novel presented something completely different to everything that came before it. Instead, the novel is unique because it combines a number of different genres. While Wuthering Heights is best known as a gothic novel, it also contains aspects of a romance, bildungsroman (coming-of-age narrative), and revenge tragedy.

The Gothic Novel

When Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights, the gothic novel was an established genre in England, with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (published in 1818) having been very popular in this country. When considering what gothic literature entails, you'll see why many consider this to be the dominant genre characterizing Wuthering Heights. Using a definition of gothic fiction constructed by Peter Childs and Roger Fowler for their Dictionary of Literary Terms, let's consider how this relates to Brontë's novel.

Dark Setting

First off, gothic fiction is often set in 'ruined houses or suitably picturesque surroundings.' This reminds us of the Earnshaws' house, which is described by Mr. Lockwood as having 'grotesque' carvings and 'crumbling griffins' around the main entrance. Similarly, the moors are presented as being menacing (with its 'atmospheric tumult' and 'gaunt thorns'), yet they inspire initial awe in Lockwood, who exclaims that it is 'certainly a beautiful country.'

Deviant Characters

Secondly, the gothic often contains characters who are quintessentially 'good or evil', yet present innocence in a menacing way. Examples of this in the novel include Heathcliff (of whom Edgar's father says: 'the villain scowls so plainly in his face'), and Isabella (who, whilst being described as a 'cowardly' child who is lisping, nevertheless wants her father to put Heathcliff in the cellar when she first sees him). Although these are only two examples, it is clear that even the 'good' characters are presented as having an evil side.

Threatening Plot

Finally, the gothic is characterized by a plot in which the 'irrational and evil forces threaten both individual integrity and the material order of society.' In more simple language, the gothic works against an ideal in which everyone has strong moral values and functions within an ideal society. Since we've briefly considered how none of Brontë's characters are represented as being completely innocent, it's useful to examine how the novel shows 'evil forces' (or the form of Heathcliff) going against the social order commonly found in Victorian England. The role reversal we see when Heathcliff goes from being treated like a servant by Hindley to being Hareton's master reflects the paranoia that many people felt, since there were very clear class distinctions in England at that time.

In addition to these traits, the gothic also often contains supernatural elements, like ghosts. Although Wuthering Heights might not be filled with ghosts and vampires, Catherine's ghost plays a central role in the novel's climax, when she lures Heathcliff to his death.

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