Wuthering Heights: Marriage, Patriarchy, & Gender Conventions

Wuthering Heights, a literature nerd’s dream! Let’s take a deeper look into the way marriage, patriarchy, and gender conventions play throughout this novel.

Specifically, lets focus on how far Catherine’s marriage choice in Wuthering Heights is influenced by the patriarchal attitudes and gender conventions of her society.

Catherine’s marriage choices were greatly influenced by the patriarchal attitudes and gender conventions of her society, however, in answering this question I would like to argue that these influences were not the only motives for Catherine’s actions. I will explore the extent which patriarchal law and gender conventions influenced Catherine, but I also endeavor to explain ulterior reasons behind Catherine’s marriage choices and how Bronte gives the reader hints of Catherine’s personal matrimonial ambitions. These motives can be seen through key concepts such as that of ‘the gaze’, Catherin’s pathological ego, her mental health, the duality of her fluid approach to marriage and her financial ambitions.

Firstly I would like to discuss the patriarchal attitudes and how these gender conventions may have given some weight to Catherine’s marriage choice. Andrew Abraham explains that “Patriarchy is a regime, and a regime works through rules. Therefore patriarchy works specifically through gender rules (Abraham, 2004, p. 93)”. The key features of Catherine’s patriarchal society are that of laws that focus on the exclusion of women from civil society. Married women had no identity, and “…all her real and personal property passed into the control of her husband upon marriage (Abraham, 2004, p. 94).” It was the woman who was the object of exchange, along with her possessions and inheritance; she was not one of the agents making the exchange. Interestingly enough Wuthering Heights projects male dominance in the female sphere by associating the domestic female environments, such and the home spaces (Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights) with literary techniques such as the title ‘master’ for Edgar and later on Heathcliff. This is something that is very specific to this text, purely because the home space is not able to be dominated by women because the men live and work in their estates. If the Victorians believed that “…a woman’s position should be restricted to the home (Abraham, 2004, p. 94)” then how could Catherine be in control of that sphere when Edgar was constantly the “master” of the only place she was allowed to be.

When we apply this specifically to Catherine, her marriage to Edgar meant the loss of her identity and was reflected symbolically through her inability to recognize herself after their marriage. Abraham argues that “The marriages in the first generation, between Catherine and Edgar, and Heathcliff and Isabella, propel conflicting forces of feminism and patriarchy as they unite in ultimate failure (Abraham, 2004, p. 96).” This quote explores the issue of loss of a woman’s legal ability to choose and her identity through the mechanism of the law. We witness a sense of discipline and control associated with patriarchal law with regards to Catherine, she begins as a latent feminist that is suppressed and soon develops into the ideal Victorian woman by marrying Edgar and not Heathcliff, however this does not last long as Catherine’s mental health decays and ultimately kills her.

While it is evident that there are definitely patriarchal constraints placed on Catherine and her decision on marriage, it is important to note several other factors that the text explores behind the reasons as to why Catherine chose to marry Edgar. These two main reasons are derived from the textual evidence that supports the idea that Catherine wanted Edgar’s money and essentially used him for his wealth, which ironically tips the ideas of patriarchy on its head as she becomes the agent of exchange, and that exchange is her body and identity for his wealth. Another reason that Catherine may have made the decision to marry Edgar could be due to her mental instability.

We are made to believe that Catherine loves Heathcliff; they have ‘the love that devours itself (Thormahlen, 1997, p. 1)’ and are often referred to as an inexorable force, overriding the laws, conventions, and considerations of lesser mortals, even transcending the boundary between life and death. As we continue to read, Catherine does not act like a woman in love, a woman who so famously states ““He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same. (Bronte, 1847).” The moment this feeling changes is when Catherine stays at the Linton’s, it is in this transition that I begin to question the validity of Catherine’s love to Heathcliff and he ambitions and motives in marrying Edgar. When Catherine first stays at the Linton’s she returns transformed as a young lady. While there Catherine was exposed to the attractions of luxury, refinement, opulence and flattery and begins to explore the avenues of self-gratification which rejects the companionship she had with Heathcliff. Catherine becomes more ‘pathologically egotistical’ and self-obsessed. It is Catherine’s inability to see anyone else’s importance other than her own. Even Nelly is amused by the 15 year old girl’s attempts to adapt herself to the company she happens to be in, acting in a lady like manner among the Linton’s and giving free rein to her ‘unruly nature’ at the heights. Nelly understands that there is a duality in “her character without intending to deceive anyone (Bronte, 1847).”

Catherine’s inability to conceive of any other viewpoints than her own is crucial the relationship she has with Heathcliff. To Catherine, Heathcliff is an extension of herself, and integral component of her egomania; this is why she cannot understand why her marriage to Edgar would separate her from Heathcliff. This fact only further reinforces the theory that Catherine had motives other than that of the patriarchal constraints and married Edgar because of her financial ambition. Catherine’s interest in commodity culture appears to be a denial of her love for Heathcliff.

Garofalo argues that “Catherine’s transformation in order to enjoy the commodity filled world of the Linton family signifies either her degraded attachment to status or her inability to escape the strictures of patriarchy (Garofalo, 2008, p. 831).” Garofalo argues that Catherine’s motives are either social ambition or patriarchal entrapment; however the text itself seems to give hints of social ambition. Nelly claims Catherine is merely ambitious (Bronte, 1847), this is backed up by Catherine’s own words when she tells Nelly that “he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood, and I shall be proud of having such a husband (Bronte, 1847).” Catherine’s love for Edgar is conditional to his wealth and her place in the social hierarchy. Catherine’s “desire to remain close to Heathcliff while married to Edgar defies mainstream ideas of women’s roles in courtship and marriage (Garofalo, 2008, p. 835).” Furthermore her “resistance to established gender roles is also a revolt against the economic system with which such roles are entwined. Catherine also seems to “disrupt the crucial control on women’s sexuality” which is also a control on reproduction: a woman who is not sexually possessed by the husband “makes impossible the fact of securing without a doubt a man’s wealth upon his child. Thus one of the crucial foundations of the capitalist-patriarchal state is weakened by the novel (Garofalo, 2008, p. 835).”

There are two statements in the text that exemplify the distinction between Catherine’s desires for Edgar’s ability to give her economical comfort and Heathcliff’s ability to give her love. Catherine claims to “love the ground under [Edgar’s] feet, and the air over his head, and everything he touches, and everything he says (Bronte, 1847).’ This claim of love is superficial and materialistic, she never claims to love him but the things he has, and touches, a very different type of love than she has with Heathcliff. Catherine asks Nelly “Did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I were to be married, we should be beggars? (Bronte, 1847).” This exemplifies how Catherine defines Heathcliff’s handicaps; his poverty, ignorance and low social status are the reasons that she could never marry him, in contrast to Edgar who can give her all the things that Heathcliff can’t. For Catherine “money will give her exactly what she wants; the plenitude of love, not loss or nostalgia, or Heathcliff’s metonymic experience of desire. For Catherine commodity culture is a means of perpetuating desire (Garofalo, 2008, p. 836).”

Another theory that explores the text as Bronte’s way of breaking patriarchal conventions is the idea of the ‘male gaze’. Beth Newman explores this concept in Wuthering Heights and argues that “the sexual politics of looking” is reversed in this narrative (Newman, 1990, p. 1032). Catherine gives Heathcliff a gaze that escapes patriarchal specular relations would in doing so simply reverses the positions of male and female and eliminates the hierarchy altogether. In assuming the role of the spectator, Catherine seeks a masculine position, that because she is a woman redefines her as a ‘monster’ or a ‘witch’ (Newman, 1990, p. 1032). The idea that because Heathcliff is of lower economic and social status undermines the gender hierarchy and allows for the ‘gaze’ to be undermined by Catherine and actually put’s her in a position of power therefore deflecting from the idea that her choices were influenced by patriarchal conventions of her society.

Catherine’s decaying mental health may also be a reason behind her decision in marrying Edgar Linton and may be a plausible explanation behind her split character within the book. Following the marriage Catherine demonstrates ‘fits, rages, ravings, mania, insanity, delirium, derangement, madness and melancholy (Thormahlen, 1997, p. 3)’ only indicating that her mental instability goes further back. One of these indications comes from Nelly who states that ‘the spirit which served [Catherine] was growing intractable: she could neither lay nor control it. (Bronte, 1847).”

Another indication of Catherine’s inescapable mental regression could be the inherent description of her father’s illness, a possible foresight into her future. Catherine’s father “grew grievously irritable’ and ‘suspected slights of his authority nearly threw him into fits (Bronte, 1847)’ and some years later Catherine regards anyone who contradicts her as a potential murderer. It is clear that the ‘physical sturdiness of the Earnshaws is not matched by the soundness of mind (Thormahlen, 1997, p. 3).’ Thormahlen explicitly states that “Catherine Earnshaw Linton has a predisposition to insanity which duly develops into full-scale lunacy (Thormahlen, 1997, p. 3).” It is plausible to argue that Catherine’s mental state distorted her ability to make a well informed decision with regards to marriage; this validates the theory that the patriarchal constraints of her society may not have necessarily been an influence at all. This theory is further validated by what appears to be a split in personality. Catherine engages in “simultaneous rebellion and submission, challenge and adherence, defiance and deference (Abraham, 2004, p. 93).” This split could potentially be due to her love and desire for Heathcliff, and her love and desire for Edgar’s wealth and social standing.

Ultimately the question asks to explore how far Catherine’s marriage choice in Wuthering Heights is influenced by the patriarchal attitudes and gender conventions of her society and through my research I have discovered two plausible theories that have allowed me to develop inconsistencies with the theory of patriarchal influence. I do not completely disregard that Catherine’s marriage choice was certainly influenced by these conventions I believe that the extent in which she was influenced by these constraints is actually rather minimal.

I have offered two main theories that explain why Catherine may have executed her plans the way she did. These theories are based on the textual evidence that leads me to believe that Catherine was either more focused on Edgar Linton’s wealth and social standing or her mental capacity had regressed to the point of disability. Through heavy research I would like to offer the theory that all three aspects that have been discussed in this essay have come together to mutually influence Catherine’s decision making process. Firstly the patriarchal conventions are intrinsically linked to Catherine’s though process as it is an environmental law that has been perpetuated by the society that she lives in. Secondly, Catherine’s desire for wealth and social standing is a clear factor in her drive to marry Edgar Linton as he can comfortably fulfill her economic and social desire. And thirdly, I would like to argue that Catherine’s mental health had been in decay for most of her life and that it progressively got worse, altering her thought process and ultimately rendering her incapable of making any major decisions. The text shows us that it is the amalgamation of all three theories that have influenced Catherine’s decisions.

Photo Credit Illusion

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