Wuthering Heights and Race

One of the best novels written in the Victorian age is Wuthering Heights (1847). This novel explores many of the tropes that occupy Victorian scholarship: race, sex, family, nature vs. nurture, and a fascinating narrative exploration of perspective. Two personally motivated frame narrators who are not witnesses to all of the events they describe dilute the novel’s story. They also read those events through their own personal interests. Nelly Dean makes this novel come alive. Brontë suggests that her relations with these families cross the boundaries of servant and employer implicating her in the violent events of the book.

All of the hatred, dishonesty, and violence of the book are bound to Emily Brontë’s portrayal of a harsh landscape. We see Catherine and Heathcliff embrace their most animal instincts and it is through their bond formed on a landscape that rejects domesticity and the picturesque. Heathcliff is an extension of this hostile land and that is why race plays such a complex and fascinating role in the book.

Brontë describes Heathcliff’s dark complexion as a boy through the taunts and sarcasm of Nelly, urging the reader to sympathize with the boy. He also disappears into the landscape as a boy, returning years later with a fortune and a desire for vengeance. Heathcliff is not like the other domesticated characters in the novel. Heathcliff almost succeeds in pulling Catherine into his harsh, yet free, world but she retreats to the Linton’s and the security of passionless domesticity.

Racial ambiguity (the novel refers to him as “gypsy”) becomes a way for Brontë to explore differences in a manner that pulls the reader, and presumably the Victorian reader, out of their own social and domestic isolation. This is why I’m looking forward to tracking down a DVD of Andrea Arnold’s new film version of Wuthering Heights (2011).  The trailer has no music and instead relies on the soundscape of the novel’s harsh landscape. She shows the dirt on young Catherine and Heathcliff. By casting a handsome actor of a non-European ethnic heritage, she communicates how his difference goes beyond the brooding Bryronic charm of Timothy Dalton, Ralph Fiennes, or Tom Brady.

Arnold’s film addresses the provocative scholarship of Christopher Heywood’s Broadview Edition of the novel – an edition I highly recommend.

I won’t say any more here – I’m saving my hypothesis for a journal article, but if you happen to see the film, tell me what you think. I pretty sure I’m still alone on my blog but that’s okay. I’m still  learning how to operate this thing so this gives me time to improve my content.




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