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Romanticism in Wuthering Heights

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Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

The Romantic period in literature is generally defined as the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Emily Bronte's only novel, Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, is considered a classic of Romantic literature. Updated: 03/29/2021

Romantic Literature Defined

It might sound as if Romantic literature is about romantic love, like a contemporary romance novel. However, this is not quite what is meant. Hopefully, this lesson about Wuthering Heights can help with this confusion.

One of the key values of the Romantic Movement in music, art, and literature was the emphasis on the experience of the individual in both the creator of the work and the characters depicted. Characters are often complex and mysterious, with dark problems in their past. The goal of Romanticism as a movement was to experience the world with emotional intensity and to transcend the ordinary in everyday life.

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Romantic Literature: Characteristics

Let's now take a few moments to look at the different characteristics of Romantic literature one at a time.

1. Nature and Landscape

One characteristic of a Romantic-period novel is a setting of isolation, grandeur, and perhaps fear. This view of nature and landscapes in the Romantic Movement was connected to the philosophical concept of the sublime. Edmund Burke and other 18th-century philosophers wrote about an experience of nature that was so overwhelming as to be indescribable.

Think of the most spectacular natural setting or event you have ever seen in person. Those emotions you feel are what the Romantic writers referred to as ''the sublime.'' Imagining the wild and wind-swept moors of Yorkshire adds to the emotional and passionate atmosphere of the tale for the reader.

Here is how the moors of Yorkshire are described by Lockwood in Chapter One, when the reader is introduced to Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff: ''Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.''

2. Complex Characters

Characters in Romantic literature are often difficult to understand. They seem to be one thing, but then turn out to be another. Heathcliff is an example of this transforming type of character. He is rescued from the streets of Liverpool by Earnshaw and brought up as part of the family. Yet he's never thoroughly accepted until he returns later in the story, having become rich and powerful. Hareton, too, is at first portrayed as crude and uneducated, yet later loved by Cathy for his innate noble character.

3. Death and the Supernatural

Supernatural elements may also appear in Romantic literature. Apparitions or ghosts often symbolize a blurring between life and death. Many times, Romantic characters have such obsessions with a love interest that they long to die to be with them in the afterlife. In Chapter 15, when Catherine is dying, Heathcliff says to her, ''So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you—oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?''

A later scene, when Heathcliff vows to open Catherine's coffin and passionately wishes to join her in death, is an excellent example of how Romantic literature illustrates the passion of a character. Heathcliff is not satisfied and can't rest until he starves himself and dies, joining Catherine at last. Even after his death, the villagers are reported to see his ghost walking among the moors or near the house.

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