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What Makes Wuthering Heights a Classic?

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson, we will interrogate the reasons that Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights' is a classic by examining the novel's genre, its formal structure, and its themes. Then you'll take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Emily Bronte

Emily Bronte was the middle daughter of a family that lived in northern England in the mid nineteenth century. Bronte's father was an Anglican clergy member, and her brother, Branwell, was a struggling artist. Her older sister, Charlotte, is probably the most famous Bronte, because she wrote Jane Eyre, among other notable novels. The youngest Bronte sister was Anne, who was also an accomplished novelist. Tragically, all the Bronte children would die young, with the exception of Charlotte. While Anne completed two novels before her death, Emily would publish only one: Wuthering Heights (1847). The fact that Wuthering Heights is Emily's only novel adds a lot to its mystique and perhaps is part of what makes it a classic.

Emily Bronte
Emily Bronte

Genre

Wuthering Heights is not only a classic novel, but also a pioneering text of the Gothic genre. The Gothic novel began with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in 1764, but by Bronte's time it had fallen out of favor. Wuthering Heights breathed life back into the genre by mixing the dark, macabre themes of the past with the unrelenting realism that would dominate the Victorian Period, a period of British history from 1837-1901 (the rule of Queen Victoria) that was characterized by what was seen as 'proper' moral values and a stretched out period of prosperity. To put it another way, Wuthering Heights feels real with its turbulent study of human emotions, but this realness is intermixed with themes of death, disease, and even the supernatural. Many novels would follow this example, which suggests that Wuthering Heights is a genre-defining classic.

Structure

Wuthering Heights is structured through a series of narrative frames, or frame stories, which are a method of telling a story within a story and were a staple of previous Gothic novels. But Emily Bronte adds quite a lot to the device, making readers question the actions and motivations of its various narrators. The result is that the truth remains veiled; we have no objective voice to confirm what really happened.

The bulk of the novel is narrated by the servant Ellen Dean (known as Nelly), though she tells her story to Lockwood, who has traveled to the area and interacted with the novel's main characters. Thus, we have two unreliable narrators before we even get to some smaller narratives within. All these narratives, these differing voices, perspectives, and motivations, have a bewildering effect on the reader. Wuthering Heights is a classic example of a confusing, but rich narrative, one that many subsequent novels and even films have borrowed from.

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