Lord David Cecil on 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.

Lord David Cecil's 1935 essay on ''Wuthering Heights'' helped the book gain the status of a classic by arguing that it was a well-crafted masterpiece based on the principle of calm and storm, as opposed to the fascinating mess many readers saw it as.

Early Criticism of Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights had a bumpy road on the way to being established as one of the greatest novels ever written. Bronte's dark, unusual style was so far ahead of its time that it took many readers and critics decades to catch up.

First, Emily had the misfortune of having her only novel published just a few months after her sister Charlotte's Jane Eyre. In opposition to the carefully crafted plotting, and uplifting moral message, of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights seemed like a mess. Its plot wandered all over the place, its characters were disturbing, and its ambiguous ending offered little satisfaction to the reader.

Early reviews of Wuthering Heights complained about this apparent lack of structure and shocking subject matter but admitted that Emily (or Ellis Bell, the masculine name she published under) was an immense talent. In the decades after the book's first publication in 1847, its reputation gradually improved. But many readers and critics still agreed that it was an uneven work of genius.

Cecil's Essay and Arguments

English critic Lord David Cecil helped to dispel that idea with his 1935 examination of Wuthering Heights in his book Early Victorian Novelists: Essays in Revaluation. Cecil's essay had a huge impact on the book's reception and helped establish its reputation as an unqualified masterpiece.

Cosmic Forces

Cecil starts his essay by acknowledging that even admirers of Wuthering Heights see it as uneven. He then goes on to challenge this by arguing that the novel is unified by its focus on cosmic forces.

In Cecil's reading, there are two opposing cosmic forces at work in the novel. The first is the principle of the storm, which is harsh and wild. The second is the principle of calm, which is gentle and passive. According to Cecil, all of the characters are defined by their identification with one of these two principles. Heathcliff, of course, identifies with the storm while Edgar Linton identifies with calm, for example. Catherine tries identifying with the calm when she marries Edgar, but cannot deny her essentially stormy nature.

Nature, Man, and Supernatural

Another influential argument Cecil makes is about Bronte's use of nature. Since its publication, readers have recognized the role nature plays in the book, with its setting on the stormy moors. But Cecil makes the argument that Bronte deliberately breaks the tradition of making a distinction between man and nature.

In other words, while many writers and philosophers see conflict between the civilized world of man and uncontrollable nature, for Bronte there is no dividing line. The only division is between those cosmic forces of storm and calm. To take one example he gives, an angry man and an angry, stormy sky are no different, because both are just manifestations of the principle of storm.

A Pre-Moral World

With no distinction drawn between an angry Heathcliff beating his wife Isabella, and a stormy sky kicking up the winds on the moors, one might ask what role morality has in this world. Shouldn't Heathcliff's domestic violence be condemned as immoral?

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