John Donne and Metaphysical Poetry

John Donne
Portrait of Donne in a great hat by unknown English artist, c1595. © Estate of Lord Lothian.   This is possibly the painting ‘taken in shadows’ to which he refers in his will.

John Donne’s poetry experienced a great resurgence in the Twentieth Century, thanks mainly to T. S. Eliot’s influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’  originally published in 1921.  This new found recognition went far in correcting the fact that for the previous two centuries his poetry had been largely overlooked.  Added to this, of course, we must take into account Donne’s own apparent disinterest in his own poems, particularly with regard to their publication.  This disinterest has always been put forward by academics as a reason for this early neglect.  It is well documented that he only published three or four poems in his own lifetime, preferring instead pass round manuscripts of his work among his friends at the universities and at the Inns of Court.

Ben Jonson (c. 11 June 1572 – c. 16 August 1637), the most learned poet of his time, was the closest of such friends.  Like T.S. Eliot many generations later, Jonson left all in no doubt about the admiration he felt for Donne’s poetry; he regarded him as an innovator, ‘the first poet in the world in some things’, and the leader of a new school of poetry in Elizabethan London – this school of poetry has since been called metaphysical poetry.

Donne was certainly not a poet of popular taste.  As far as he was concerned poetry was not for the masses but was an intellectual pursuit where the poet attempted to impress others with his knowledge and education.  He deliberately restricted his audience to those whose education and background equipped them to appreciate a new, more obscure type of poetry.  It is clear that Donne’s poetry shocked his contemporaries just as it still does to this day.  When his poems were first published in 1633, two years after his death, the printer introduced them with a dedication, not to ‘the Readers’ but to ‘the Understanders’.  One can see from this how from the beginning, Donne’s poetry was regarded as being among the most difficult in English literature.

The writers who followed Donne and who were most influenced by his work have since been called the metaphysical poets. This term was of course first used by Dr Samuel Johnston in his famous discussion of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Marvell.  In his Life of Cowley (1779) Johnston observed that ‘about the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that might be termed the metaphysical poets’.  Since then the term metaphysical poetry has come to imply a type of poetry that has certain unique characteristics.  Indeed, so widespread has the term become that there is no longer much doubt as to whom we mean when we speak of the metaphysical poets, namely, John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Andrew Marvell in particular.

Dr Samuel Johnston’s Life of Cowley did more than establish the term ‘metaphysical poets’; it also contained the first detailed discussion of their works.  Donne’s poetry can be considered in three main groups: the love poetry (The Good Morrow, The Anniversary), the miscellaneous poems and verse letters, and the religious poetry (A Hymn to God the Father, Holy Sonnets), all of which correspond roughly to the early, middle, and later periods of his career.  The first group contains the work for which he is probably best known.  The poetry is remarkable for its realism and its variety, and has all the characteristics by which metaphysical poetry is generally recognised.

What therefore are the main characteristics of the metaphysical poets in general and of Donne in particular? 

What first strikes most readers of metaphysical poetry is its concentration.  Poems in this category tend to be brief and closely woven.  This allows various ideas, words and references to be condensed into groups of short lines, sometimes even into single lines and phrases.  For example, in the opening stanza of The Anniversary, Donne introduces groups of associated images drawn from the royal courts and palaces to suggest the transience of earthly glory:

All kings and all their favourites,

All glory of honours, beauties, wits,

The sun itself, which makes time, as they pass,

Is elder by a year now than it was

When thou and I first one another saw.

Everything, he suggests, is subordinate to love, and he describes in detail the intensity of his feelings.  What need has he of kings and princes when they are inconstant and subject to decay?  Even the sun which appears to measure time, is itself subject to destruction, while love has the power to outlive these mortal things.  Behind this opening stanza, therefore, there is intense personal feeling.  This anniversary represents a permanent moment: it is not an anniversary in the ordinary sense, a looking back on something passed.  It is rather an ‘everlasting day’ which is not affected by the passage of time.  So while man’s world and the world of nature are slowly growing old, the persons in the poem enjoy forever the vitality and permanence of love.  To further his argument Donne makes good use of paradox which acts as a sort of clinching device which upholds and strengthens his argument.  The first stanza of The Anniversary ends with an important paradox which expresses the permanence of love in a world of change:

Running it never runs from us away,

But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

The idea that love unites people in a spiritual bond which even transcends death is expressed throughout The Anniversary.

His use of concentration is also very evident in The Good Morrow where we see not only Donne’s love of learning, but also his inclination for using it out of context, applying many references to serve his own purposes in the poem.  The greatest concentration of language is confined to the second stanza.  Man, Donne suggests, is concerned with broadening his physical horizons, but is neglecting to expand his knowledge in a spiritual direction.  Love, in the end, binds all things together and allows man to attain his true destiny.  Suggested in this poem is the idea of the fundamental, and not accidental, limitations of our knowledge.  Science can explain the physical, but not the spiritual universe.  Astronomers may spend their lives studying the heavens but they are always fearful of what they might find.  Similarly, geographical discoveries have brought to man’s attention objects of experience that are not always pleasant (“sharp north”, “declining west”), and the progress of science cannot experiment enough to conquer death (“whatever dies, was not mix’d equally”).  Connected to each of these images is the idea of isolation and lack of real purpose: the lonely astronomer forever watchful, the explorer who spends his life going round the world only to arrive back where he started, the scientist alone in his laboratory making many discoveries, none of which effect the real destiny of mankind.  Donne, therefore, sees the world outside as a symbol of man’s weakness and isolation.  In contrast to this he presents his own rational theory which is itself the result of considerable previous study.  As with The Anniversary, he proposes that the only true art is the art of love which requires knowledge, patience and effort, which overcomes death and prepares man for eternity.

A second characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its vividly dramatic quality, particularly in the opening lines.  Donne’s poetry, in particular, is always, in a special sense, dramatic.  Indeed, all metaphysical poetry springs from the great era of Elizabethan drama dominated, in particular, by Shakespeare.  Donne, we are told, was ‘a great frequenter of plays’ in his youth.  The rhythms of his verse, so misunderstood by many readers, are closer to the ordinary speech found in Shakespeare’s plays than to that of most lyrical poems.  For this reason, Donne’s poems – and those of George Herbert also – are often best considered as dramatic monologues, almost like the soliloquys of an actor on the stage.  Donne specialises in forceful, dramatic openings, e.g. ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’ (Holy Sonnets XIV); ‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we lov’d’ (The Good Morrow); ‘Wilt thou forgive the sin where I begun …’ (A Hymn to God the Father), etc., etc., etc. 

(Probably one of the most daring and dramatic of his opening lines occurs in the sonnet, At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners where he conjures up a marvellous vivid picture of the Last Judgement.  We have to remind ourselves that when this sonnet, often referred to as Holy Sonnet 7, was published in 1633, it was less than 150 years after Columbus had discovered The New World.  Yet here, Donne shows off his new found knowledge that the world is round and yet plays with the old notion that the world was flat and had four corners!)

This dependence on drama leads to a third characteristic of metaphysical poetry which is their constant use of dialogue.  The Good Morrow and The Anniversary depend for their success upon our recognising the presence of an individual speaker involved in each poem.  Indeed, the speakers can even be distinguished by the manner of their speech and by the nature of their arguments.  In the opening lines of The Good Morrow the speaker adopts a very colloquial, unpoetic manner.  He is capable, however, of sudden shifts in attention, and in the second stanza begins to change his tone and emphasis.  The poem suddenly becomes more serious, then very learned in its use of obscure references and peculiar logic, until finally the speaker presents his audience with a definite conclusion:

If our two loves be one, or thou and I

Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

In contrast to The Good Morrow, Donne’s The Anniversary is much more contemplative.  What is common to both poems is not only their theme but also their resolution: true love is constant because it is essentially a relationship of minds.  What is uncommon, however, is Donne’s presentation.  In The Anniversary the speaker is not so much intent on displaying the great depth of his knowledge as in arguing his ideas with simple wisdom.  Despite the fact that he sometimes appears to be frivolous and insincere, Donne always wished to express universal truths in his poetry.  Like Shakespeare, when he expresses something profound, Donne often does it quite simply.  The subject of universal destruction is one of the central themes in The Anniversary, and the death of princes is used to symbolise it.  Indeed, the references to princes, kings and courtly life bring this poem very close to the underlying theme expressed in nearly all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, all of which ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’ (Richard II, Act III, Sc ii, 155).   The dramatic impact of the opening lines of The Anniversary depends upon the emphasis suggested by the word all:

All kings and all their favourites,

All glory of honours, beauties, wits …

All other things to their destruction draw.

The grandeur of princes must inevitably pass away; kings must live in fear of misfortune, treason and death.  The Anniversary has none of the learned references and peculiar logic of The Good Morrow.  He uses a uniform set of royal images throughout the three stanzas, and details of diction reveal ordinary common nouns.  While The Good Morrow displays a superb use of unpoetic words and references the impact of The Anniversary is less rhetorical and more sincere.

A fourth characteristic of metaphysical poets is their use of Wit.  The word ‘wit’ has undergone a remarkable transformation in modern day English.  Our modern idea of a witty comment or image, even though there may be some original thought, does not do the Elizabethan meaning of the word full justice.  The metaphysical poets like Donne, Herbert, Marvel and Vaughan always tried to present brilliant or arresting lines of poetry which surprise the reader by means of unexpected ideas, expressions or associations.  This tendency led in turn to the development of conceits.  A conceit is a comparison made between things which at first sight seem to have little in common: it is a comparison which is more striking than correct.  There are numerous examples of such far-fetched comparisons to be found in the work of the metaphysical poets.  Indeed, it very easy to agree with Dr Samuel Johnson’s remark that in the work of these poets ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’. Many of Donne’s best poems depend for their effect on the extensive use of conceits.  The Good Morrow, for example, contains a number of paradoxes which are grouped together in the second stanza: ‘And makes one little room an everywhere’; ‘Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.’  This poem also contains what is perhaps the most well-known and most famous of Donne’s conceits:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;

Where can we find two better hemispheres

Without sharp north, without declining west?

Together the lovers make one world, each being as hemisphere.  But unlike the real hemispheres, they suffer no shortcomings; their love undergoes neither misery (‘sharp north’), nor cooling of affection (‘declining west’). 

A fifth characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its striking use of imagery and tone.  The principal advantage of the conceits Donne uses in his poems is the degree of inclusiveness they make possible.  They are a means of bringing into his poetry all his interests, activities and new found knowledge.  No part of his experience is regarded as unworthy of poetic investigation, and he prefers to engage our attention not through expected images and associations, but through unusual ideas and comparisons.  Whatever poetic licence is taken, the general effect is to reinforce, modify and generally heighten the reader’s response to each poem.

The Good Morrow is an excellent example of this method.  The poem begins with a realistic description of a morning bedroom.  The poet is waking up beside his mistress and he therefore uses words and images which suggest sleep (‘snorted’, ‘sleepers’, ‘dream’).  In his initial meditation on love there is a strong emphasis on physical activities (‘wean’d’, ‘sucked’, ‘country pleasures’).  Indeed, the number of words relating to physical activities in Donne’s poetry is always very high.  Here, he freely admits to having mistresses in the past (‘If ever any beauty I did see / Which I desired and got,’) but indicates that the pleasures he experienced with them were inadequate (‘pleasures fancies’).  We can see immediately how this stanza with its strong emphasis on sexual fulfilment must have come as something as a shock to Donne’s friends and contemporaries who were used to a completely different, more refined type of love poetry. 

This first stanza alone, with its sense of openness and honesty Donne dissociates himself from the dominant sixteenth-century tradition of Platonic love.  This poem, in contrast, is aggressively personal and ‘muscular’.  We notice the frequent use of personal pronouns which emphasise the presence of an individual speaker.  The overall tone is personal and enthusiastic.  The three stanzas correspond to three stages of his experience: there is a very definite progression from past to present to future.  In the first stanza he defines reality exclusively in physical terms; the questions are abrupt and present striking images of physical activity. 

The second stanza presents a sudden shift from past to present, and contains examples of Donne’s characteristic choice of imagery.  Whereas the Elizabethans relied on images from Greek and Roman mythology for their love imagery, Donne relies heavily on more ‘modern’ sources such as geography, science, history and philosophy.  In this regard, the imagery of The Good Morrow has always impressed readers with its range and variety.  Indeed, this poem illustrates beautifully the range and variety of metaphysical imagery.  From the ordinary activities of breast-feeding and heavy sleeping, Donne progresses to the more exotic activities of explorers, geographers and philosophers.  However, the sea-discoverers with all their topical glamour and novelty are introduced only to be dismissed as lacking in true exploration compared with the relationship he is describing.  Nevertheless, they continue to be present in the poem and eventually lead to the image of  ‘sharpe north’ and ‘declining west’.

The image at the beginning of the third stanza is a simple presentation of the fact that people gazing into each other’s eyes can see themselves reflected there.  It is made more complicated and more meaningful by the line that leads up to it (‘And true plain hearts do in the faces rest’).

Usually the titles of Donne’s poems generally suggest the central image around which the poem revolves.  Therefore, The Good Morrow deals with awakening and with discovery and we can follow how this basic image of discovery is sustained throughout the poem.  Likewise, the major image suggested by The Anniversary is royal and heraldic.  Groups of words appear in each stanza which relate to kings, princes and courtly life.  Donne’s imagery, especially in his religious sonnets is always striking, and always extends the range and understanding of each poem.

Conclusions

Eliot in his influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ refers to the metaphysical poets’ ability to combine disparate kinds of experience and he goes on to say that these poets possess ‘a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’.  Donne’s great achievement, according to Eliot, was to have substituted a natural conversational idiom for a conventional one, carrying out a revolution of the kind ‘which has to occur from time to time … if the English language is to retain its vigour’ (Winny, 52).

With Herbert, Marvel, Vaughan, and the Catholic poet Crashaw, Donne explored the complex relationships between God and man, lover and beloved, time and eternity.  The Metaphysicals used language in a manner as complex as their themes, drawing their comparisons from astronomy, philosophy, theology and natural science, working out their images with a rigorous logic which still to this day demands great alertness from the reader.  At its worst the metaphysical method of writing resulted in what Dr Johnson called ‘heterogeneous ideas …. yoked by violence together’.  At its best, it resulted in the exciting and muscular poetry well represented by the poems mentioned here.

Further Reading

You might also like to read related blog posts by the same author:

An Introduction to Metaphysical Poetry

An Analysis of Some of my Favourite Poems by John Donne

Works Referred to

Shakespeare’s Richard II

Samuel Johnson’s Life of Cowley

Works Cited

T. S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets“.  First published in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 October 1921.

Winny, J., A Preface to Donne, Longman, 1970.

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Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

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The characters in Wuthering Heights are rooted firmly in the natural images of their environment. Catherine compares Heathcliff to the wildness of the moors when she calls him, ‘An unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation: an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone’. Lockwood explains that the very name Wuthering Heights is ‘descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather’. It is exposed to the elemental forces and the characters are frequently exposed to wind, rain and sun.

A typical example of this exposure is described in Chapter 9 on the night of Catherine’s search for the departed Heathcliff:

About midnight, while we still sat up, the storm came rustling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building; a huge bough fell across the roof and knocked down a portion of the chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen fire.

This storm reflects the tumult in Catherine’s mind as she, like King Lear, wanders through the storm in a reckless manner in search of the lost Heathcliff. Indeed, the use of nature imagery in Wuthering Heights is in many ways comparable to its use in King Lear. In contrast with the ‘atmospheric tumult’ at Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange is surrounded by peace and calm. The rough, uncultivated images of the Wuthering Heights environment are associated in our minds with the passionate, inhuman and uncultured qualities of Heathcliff, Hindley and Hareton.

The inhumanity of the characters is frequently conveyed by the use of animal imagery and demonic references. Catherine considers Heathcliff ‘a fierce, pitiless wolfish man’, who would crush Isabella ‘like a sparrow’s egg’. Isabella refers to Heathcliff as ‘a lying fiend! a monster, and not a human being’. On other occasions, she asks if he is a devil and calls him ‘a brute beast’. Nelly Dean, who had read about demons, asks in the final chapter: ‘Is he a ghoul, or a vampire’ and would have preferred to have seen him ‘gnash his teeth than smile’, in his unearthly manner; even after his death ‘his parted lips and sharp white teeth sneered’ at Nelly. There are also frequent references to dogs throughout the novel, which are associated with images of hostility and cruelty. The use of animal imagery shows us the breaking down of the barriers between animal and human. The rough, uncivilised atmosphere at Wuthering Heights and the luxurious, artificial atmosphere at Thrushcross Grange is the background to the contrasts between the characters and shows us the two alternative ways of living as is especially evident in the contrasts between Edgar and Heathcliff.

However, we should not forget that there are scenes of kindness in the novel as well and also scenes of touching tenderness. Nelly relates such a scene of perfect filial love just before Mr Earnshaw’s death:

Miss Cathy had been sick, and that made her still; she leant against her father’s knee and Heathcliff was lying on the floor with his head in her lap. I remember the master, before he fell into a doze, stroking her bonny hair – it pleased him rarely to see her gentle – and saying – “Why can’st thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?” And she turned her face up to his, and laughed, and answered, “Why cannot you always be a good man, father?” But as soon as she saw him vexed again, she kissed his hand and said she would sing him to sleep.

There are other similar scenes, such as the description of Cathy and Hareton at their reading and this helps convince us that not all is bad or evil in human nature. Eventually, through Cathy and Hareton the images of love and books triumph in the final phase of reconciliation in the novel.

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THE WINDOW SYMBOL IN WUTHERING HEIGHTS

The dominant symbol in Wuthering Heights is the window symbol, which is central to all the most intense moments in the lives of Catherine and Heathcliff. The ideas of ‘exposure’ and ‘enclosure’ are always associated with the use of the window symbol: for Lockwood, the window locks out the world of the spirit; for Heathcliff, it allows in the spirit of the wind; for Catherine, it reveals other worlds from which she is excluded.

Lockwood’s dream, after reading through Catherine’s diary, gives us the first insight into the Catherine/Heathcliff relationship. He is sleeping in Catherine’s oak closet and hearing the noise outside the window he is determined to stop it:

“I must stop it nevertheless”, I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, “Let me in – let me in”. “Who are you?” I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself. “Catherine Linton”, it replied shiveringly.

Catherine’s cry, “Let me in” indicates her desire to get from the ‘outside’ ‘in’, to return and be reunited with her human past. Lockwood piles up the books against the window to protect himself from the spirit in the wind and locks out darkness. Lockwood, the city slicker, the outsider, will not be disturbed. Heathcliff, on the other hand, calls to the wind: “Come in; come in” he sobbed “Cathy do come. Oh, do – once more”.

After the episode of Lockwood’s dream, the chronological order of the novel reverts to the childhood of Catherine and Heathcliff. We see them in Chapter 6 looking through the window at the Grange on the verge of the discovery of a way of life unknown to them:

Both of us were able to look in by standing on the basement and clinging to the ledge, and we saw – ah it was beautiful – a splendid place carpeted with crimson and crimson coloured chairs and tables.

The two children discover the luxury and wealth of the civilised world and when Catherine is taken in by the Lintons, she experiences their way of life. This looking through the window and her stay at the Grange is destined to affect the remainder of Catherine’s life, leading as it does to her marriage to Edgar Linton.

In the scenes of Catherine’s delirium, she looks out through the window to the moors and Wuthering Heights, which she had rejected for her present way of life. Catherine says:

I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills. Open the window again wide: fasten it open.

This scene and the scenes previously mentioned are among the most emotionally intense scenes in the novel, each of them with the window as the instrument of separation or discovery. Catherine and Heathcliff looked in from an ‘exposed’ world to the ‘enclosed’ world of Thrushcross Grange. When Catherine becomes a prisoner of fate in the ‘enclosed world’ she looks out again to the ‘exposed world’ of the moors and the Heights in her longing for Heathcliff.

After Catherine’s death, Heathcliff says that, when he slept in her chamber, ‘she was either outside the window or sliding back the panels, or entering the room’ (Chapter 29). This explains Heathcliff’s cry ‘Come in, come in’ when Lockwood tells him about his dream in Chapter 3. When Heathcliff dies Nelly Dean finds him lying inside the open window, his dead body soaked with the rain (Chapter 34). Nelly relates:

The lattice flapping to and fro had grazed one hand that rested on the sill; no blood trickled from the broken skin and when I put my fingers to it I could doubt no more: he was dead and stark!

Heathcliff is finally no longer a prisoner on earth and the spirit of Catherine will no longer cry to be let in, since it is united with Heathcliff at last, the window no longer separates them because they have finally transcended the limitations of the physical world and are now free to roam the moors forever.

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References

Gregor, Ian. The Brontes – Twentieth Century Views, Prentice Hall, 1970.
(A collection of critical essays – five devoted to Wuthering Heights).

Jennings, John. Wuthering Heights, in Inscape 10 (ed. Patrick Murray), Educational Company of Ireland, 1975

Leavis, F.R. and Q.D. Lectures in America, Chatto and Windus, 1969.
(The essay by Mrs Q.D Leavis, ‘A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights’ gives a comprehensive study of the novel and is worth a read).

Further Reading

You might also like to read Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

and Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

and The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights – Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights – Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

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Modern (Leaving Cert) students of Wuthering Heights will undoubtedly notice the striking emphasis on childhood and young adulthood throughout the novel. The major part of the novel is devoted to childhood as we are gradually introduced to the characters of Catherine and Heathcliff, Edgar, Isabella and in the second half of the story, to young Cathy, Linton and Hareton.

Catherine and Heathcliff around whom the entire novel focuses, act in a very childish way. When Catherine discusses her love of Edgar and Heathcliff with Nelly Dean, she shows childish irrationality in hoping that Edgar Linton will allow her to continue her friendship with Heathcliff after their marriage.  Heathcliff’s action in running away for three years and his expectation that Catherine will receive him back with open arms on his return is a further sign of childish irrational thinking. Catherine’s delirious fits in the period from the return of Heathcliff until her death are more like a child’s tantrums than the behaviour of an adult. We are told that she also dashed her head against the arm of the sofa and ground her teeth in a frenzy. She even regresses to her own childhood:

She seemed to find childish diversion in pulling the feathers from the rents she had just made, and ranging them on the sheet according to their different species: her mind had strayed to other associations.

Later, she wants to return to her own bed in Wuthering Heights. There is a deep conflict in her mind as she is drawn between two worlds and tries to live a double life; she is confined in her life at the Grange, but her true nature belongs with Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights. She does not seem to realise that she cannot have both Edgar and Heathcliff.

Another example of this childhood behaviour is Isabella’s total infatuation with Heathcliff despite the fact that he gives no indication of any love or feelings for her. At best, her behaviour can be said to be adolescent, as are her occasional fits of anger.

It is interesting to note also that Cathy, who has already been married to Linton, is only eighteen and Hareton twenty-three when their love relationship begins to mature. Indeed, the attitudes of the different characters towards marriage are somewhat naïve and romantic and the romantic outlook in each case ends quickly except in the case of Cathy and Hareton. Heathcliff and, up to a point Edgar, are possible exceptions. None of the marriage partners has an awareness of any responsibilities in marriage and indeed they seem to live outside the world of moral responsibility. It is difficult to assess the morality or immorality of the actions of the characters without prejudice, nevertheless, we feel convinced that the inherently evil actions of Heathcliff in getting his revenge can only be classified as immoral. Some critics would dismiss Heathcliff’s evil on the basis that it was his environment that was responsible for it and that he was driven to it by Hindley’s treatment of him during his childhood and later by the treatment of the Lintons. We have already noted that Emily Bronte is not slow to manipulate our sympathy for Heathcliff despite his evil and it is clearly her intention that Heathcliff is vindicated in the end. Heathcliff is dehumanised by his own actions but she is eager to point out that he regains his humanity before his death.

We know little of Heathcliff’s origins except that he came from Liverpool. Nelly Dean says:

He seemed a sullen, patient, child, hardened perhaps to ill-treatment: he would stand Hindley’s blows without winking or shedding a tear, and my pinches moved him only to draw in a breath and open his eyes as if he had hurt himself by accident and no one was to blame.

From his earliest years, Heathcliff is a sullen, introverted individual and with Hindley’s harsh treatment of him he becomes bitter and rebellious; this bitterness and rebelliousness characterise his actions throughout the novel.

He lives according to his natural instincts without the benefits of any objective standards or any learned habits of behaviour. He relies on the friendship of Catherine until he learns about her proposed marriage to Edgar and then, feeling totally rejected, he runs away for three years. On his return he ‘looked intelligent and retained no marks of his former degradation’, but internally he is determined on vengeance. For the remainder of his life, he gives vent to his vengeance on Hindley, Hareton, Edgar and Isabella, a vengeance which displays a cruel, brutal nature; he is destructive and this destruction results from his total frustration with life. Heathcliff is a type, a figure from ancient mythology with his origins in nature and animals, and doesn’t seem to have any counterpart in modern literature.

The relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff almost defies analysis, since it goes beyond the boundaries of normal human relationships becoming a union of ‘souls’. Catherine does not have a true identity without Heathcliff; she does not seem a part of the universe without him. ‘I am Heathcliff’, she says. This applies to Heathcliff also and he shows it when he says after Catherine’s death: ‘I cannot live without my life; I cannot live without my soul’. Earlier he had said to Catherine: ‘Would you like to live with your soul in the grave’. He is restless and disturbed from the time of her death until he realises that his own death is approaching when his restlessness on this earth increases as he anticipates and becomes obsessed with the thought of a reunion with Catherine. Despite their personality identification, Catherine gives Isabella an objective assessment of Heathcliff’s character when she says: ‘Pray, don’t imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior. He’s not a rough diamond – a pearl containing oyster of a rustic: he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man’. Nelly backs up this assessment calling him a ‘bird of bad omen’.

The contrast between Edgar and Heathcliff reflects the major contrasts in the novel. Heathcliff on looking through the window into Thrushcross Grange considers Edgar and Isabella poor, petted children each of them crying and acting like ‘idiots’, to use his own expression. When Catherine becomes disenchanted with her life at the Grange, she describes both of them in adulthood saying:

But they are very much alike: they are spoiled children and fancy the world was made for their accommodation; and though I humour both, I think a smart chastisement might improve them, all the same.

Edgar and Isabella’s lives would probably have been happy had they never come into contact with Catherine and Heathcliff, and Nelly Dean leads us to believe that Edgar and Catherine would have been tolerably happy had Heathcliff never returned to intrude in their lives. Nelly Dean usually gives us a favourable impression of Edgar, she considers him ‘kind and trustful and honourable’. He is calm and reserved, happy among his books, only displaying his passion on the occasion when he strikes Heathcliff in his efforts to eject him from Thrushcross Grange. He lacks the strength and determination to curb Heathcliff’s revenge and is unable to cope with the kind of evil which he represents. Our sympathy lies with him, since he is caught in a web of circumstances beyond his control, and some critics consider him a tragic hero in the novel.

The emphasis on childhood continues in the second part of the story. The story of the young Cathy, Linton Heathcliff and Hareton is typically Victorian in concept. The innocent children, Cathy and Linton, are brought together in marriage under the malign influence of Heathcliff. Cathy first marries Linton Heathcliff and, after his death, marries Hareton. Interestingly, there is not one overt reference to sex in this whole story! We sense that Cathy is a lively, pretty, intelligent girl, in love with the peevish, sugar-candy sucking, Linton. It is also obvious to us that Linton has not inherited any of Heathcliff’s qualities or characteristics. Hareton is reared in ignorance by Heathcliff as a part of his revenge on Hindley. Heathcliff makes him live a life similar to his own childhood. Nelly describes Heathcliff’s rearing of Hareton thus:

He appeared to have bent his malevolence on making him a brute: he was never taught to read or write; never rebuked for any bad habit which did not annoy his keeper; never led a single step towards virtue, or guarded by a single precept against vice.

After his relationship with Cathy is established, Hareton is transformed, regaining his dignity and, on Heathcliff’s death, he is bitterly sad and sits all night by the corpse, even though he was the one most wronged by him.

Nelly Dean and Lockwood, who are scarcely involved at all in the action of the story, play an important part in the novel since it is through their eyes that we see the characters and events. Nelly Dean is the servant, first at Wuthering Heights and then at Thrushcross Grange. She grew up with the Earnshaws and experienced, at first hand, most of the story which she tells to Lockwood. In narrating the story, she influences to a degree our impressions of the characters depending on her own view of them, and this is very natural and to be expected. Lockwood is an outsider who becomes Heathcliff’s tenant at Thrushcross Grange. He is not part of the Grange/Heights scene, but his introduction into the story gives it greater credibility. He is not a sociable man but considers himself very sociable when compared to the sullen Heathcliff! He tells us that he had determined to hold himself independent of all social intercourse while staying at the Grange, but he becomes too interested in the story of Catherine and Heathcliff not to become involved.

The characters in Wuthering Heights are in a state of continuous flux, adapting themselves to their changed environments and conditions as the novel evolves: Catherine alters with her movement to and from Thrushcross Grange; Heathcliff comes to a realisation of the futility of revenge with his impending death; the young Cathy and Hareton discover a better way of life in their lonely isolation and are a symbol of hope for the future. Lockwood, who first encountered Heathcliff in the opening paragraph, looks on his grave in the last paragraph ‘and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth’.

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References

Gregor, Ian. The Brontes – Twentieth Century Views, Prentice Hall, 1970. (A collection of critical essays – five devoted to Wuthering Heights).

Jennings, John. Wuthering Heights, in Inscape 10 (ed. Patrick Murray), Educational Company of Ireland, 1975

Leavis, F.R. and Q.D. Lectures in America, Chatto and Windus, 1969.
(The essay by Mrs Q.D Leavis, ‘A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights gives a comprehensive study of the novel and is worth a read).

Further Reading

You might also like to read Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

and Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

and Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

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Readers of Wuthering Heights have long been struck by the complexities it throws up. Some see it as representing the tensions which were becoming evident in nineteenth-century capitalist society while others glory in the story of human passion, love and the personal lives of the various characters and families. Others read it for its emphasis on the theme of revenge, the power of education and the supernatural.

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‘Wuthering Heights’ by American artist Robert McGinnis

NATURE VERSUS CIVILISATION

The main action of the novel is divided between the two houses, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Wuthering Heights reflects the character of Heathcliff with its gloomy, dull and primitive outlook. It seems appropriate that he should live in the cold atmosphere and bare surroundings of the Heights. Thrushcross Grange is very different, reflecting a harmonious – if superficial – way of life which is characterised by civilised habits and behaviour. The residents of Thrushcross Grange, the Lintons, possess qualities of refinement and kindness, cushioned by their surroundings from the harsher realities of life. At the Grange, there is no room for the passion and natural energy of Heathcliff.

In the early stages of the novel, when Catherine and Heathcliff first enter the confines of the Grange, they find it a hostile place, repugnant to their values. As they look through the window at Edgar and Isabella they are surprised to find them quarrelling over a pet dog. ‘We laughed outright at the petted things, we did despise them’. Heathcliff’s contempt for the civilised life of the Lintons remains with him throughout his life. He and Catherine were brought up at Wuthering Heights where they were exposed to the wild and natural energies of the moors and deprived of the luxuries and codes of behaviour which prevailed at Thrushcross Grange. The world of Thrushcross Grange is an enclosed one, while the world of Wuthering Heights is an exposed one. The Grange is a house surrounded by walls, protected by servants and bulldogs, cut off from nature: the Heights is exposed to the elements in a wilderness, it is bare and merely serving the function of providing accommodation. In contrast, the Grange is expensively furnished, decorated with carpets and ornaments, its inhabitants placing a high value on the comforts of life.

Catherine stays at Thrushcross Grange for five weeks after she is attacked by the bulldogs. During this time, she is subjected to an environment very different from that of Wuthering Heights. She adopts some of the values of the Lintons and returns home looking like a lady. Her view of Heathcliff changes on her return and she now sees him as ‘black’, ‘cross’, ‘funny’ and ‘grim’. Her stay at the Grange is a crisis point in her life, a form of discovery which captivates her. She is not completely changed, as is evidenced on the second day of her return when she leaves the company of Edgar Linton in order to be with Heathcliff. Nevertheless, under the influence of the Thrushcross Grange ‘civilisation’, Catherine believes that it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff and she later marries Edgar Linton after Heathcliff’s sudden departure from Wuthering Heights.

The contrast between the two houses remains central to the main story after Heathcliff returns. When he calls to Thrushcross Grange Edgar asks that he is shown into the kitchen signifying that he is of ‘a lower social order’. It is only when Catherine orders the laying of two tables, one for the ‘gentry’ Isabella and Edgar, and one for the ‘lower orders’, herself and Heathcliff, that Edgar finally submits to her wishes. Catherine shows by this that she does not accept the codes of the Lintons but upholds her own values in their place. Though married to Linton and living at Thrushcross Grange, Catherine’s love for him satisfies only the superficial part of her nature, the more powerful and natural passions in her repudiate Linton and attract her to Heathcliff. She is ultimately consumed by this raging conflict between the two rivals for her affections.

The two houses are united in the next generation, through the marriage of the young Cathy and Linton Heathcliff, but this union makes Thrushcross Grange subject to Wuthering Heights and its master Heathcliff.  The union of the two houses is achieved by the domination of one and not yet through the reconciliation of the two. This process of reconciliation begins after Linton Heathcliff’s death through the relationship that develops between Cathy and Hareton. As their love grows, Heathcliff’s destructive inclinations diminish. Heathcliff describes his changed attitude in Chapter 33:

An absurd termination to my violent exertions – I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate of either roof has vanished. My old enemies have not beaten me, now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it and none could hinder me. But where is the use? I don’t care for striking: I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand.

Heathcliff realises that he is going to join Catherine in eternity and he, therefore, allows the union between Cathy and Hareton to flourish.

Nelly Dean reports that ‘Hareton Earnshaw was not to be civilised with a wish’, but the younger Cathy succeeds in redeeming him from the degradation to which he was subjected by Heathcliff. While Heathcliff goes to join Catherine in death, Cathy and Hareton resolve their animosities as the worlds of civilisation and nature are submerged and consummated in the human dignity of their marriage.

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“My great thought in living is Heathcliff. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be… My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks… Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure… but as my own being.”

REVENGE AND DEGRADATION

There is no limit to the depths of degradation and revenge in Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff is monstrously inhuman: what he does to Hindley, Isabella, Cathy and Hareton is cruel, brutal and unnatural. His revenge is inventive and refined, reflecting a twisted mind. No interpretation of the story can fail to recognise the revenge motif, particularly after the death of Catherine. Despite the inhumanity of the revenge we retain our sympathy for Heathcliff; we are kept sympathetic towards him despite his repulsive inhumanity by a series of sudden reversals in the story.

Heathcliff resolves to get his revenge on Hindley for his treatment of him when he says in Chapter 7 – ‘I am trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don’t care how long I wait if I can only do it at last. I hope he will not die before I do’. When he returns to Wuthering Heights, after his three years’ absence, he is in a position to get his revenge on the drunken Hindley. He then embarks on his revenge on the Lintons with his marriage to Isabella. He promises revenge when he says to Catherine in Chapter 11: ‘If you fancy I’ll suffer unrevenged, I’ll convince you to the contrary, in a very little while’. His marriage to Isabella is a cruel blow to Edgar Linton, especially since he treats her so cruelly. His only reason for marrying Isabella, who is infatuated with him, is to bring suffering to the Lintons. He proceeds to arrange the marriage of the younger Cathy and Linton Heathcliff after Catherine’s death, thus placing her under his power. As a result of this marriage, he succeeds in acquiring Thrushcross Grange as his property on the death of Linton Heathcliff. One of the objectives of his revenge plan was to gain both the Heights and the Grange as his own property. His other objective is the degradation of both the Lintons and Earnshaws. He continues with his plan as he keeps Hareton as an ignorant, illiterate slave.

Even though Heathcliff appears to be the epitome of evil and inhumanity in the manner in which he carries out his revenge, we tend to justify his behaviour since Emily Bronte makes us understand why he is inhuman! We recognise that he has suffered, has been deprived and has rebelled unsuccessfully against the treatment meted out to him by Hindley in his earlier life; all of which helps us to identify with Heathcliff in a way that allows us to justify his actions, even though this justification does appear irrational on an objective level.

Emily Bronte also manipulates our feelings through the use of sudden reversals. Heathcliff acts in a more degrading manner as the second part of the novel progresses but then suddenly in Chapter 29, without any warning, we are plunged into Heathcliff’s revelation of his sufferings during the previous eighteen years since Catherine’s death. We learn about the intensity of his yearning for Catherine and about his opening of her grave in the search for unity with her spirit. This retrospective glimpse into Heathcliff’s soul modifies our disgust at the depravity of his revenge since Catherine’s death and we tend to view his actions in a new light. Through such a reversal, which puts Heathcliff into a new perspective, Emily Bronte manipulates our sympathy in his favour at a time when we feel that Heathcliff has gone beyond all decent limits in his revenge.

Heathcliff abandons his revenge in his final days realising its meaninglessness. His obsession with Catherine’s spirit increases as his death approaches and, according to Nelly Dean, his change of heart is associated with the resemblance to Catherine which he sees in Hareton and Cathy:

They lifted their eyes together to encounter Mr Heathcliff: perhaps you have never remarked that their eyes are precisely similar and they are those of Catherine Earnshaw. With Hareton, the resemblance is carried even further: it is singular, at all times – then it was particularly striking: because his senses were alert, and his mental faculties wakened to unwonted activity. I suppose this resemblance disarmed Mr Heathcliff (Chapter 33).

Heathcliff’s dehumanising revenge plan for Cathy and Hareton fails, therefore, because he has ‘lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction’, as he contemplates his hoped-for eventual union with Catherine in the grave.

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LOVE AND THE SUPERNATURAL

In her interview with Nelly Dean in Chapter 9, Catherine elaborates on her idea of love, explaining the difference between her love for Edgar Linton and her love for Heathcliff. She loves Edgar, ‘because he is handsome and pleasant to be with’, but she also loves his status in life, his wealth and his love for her. Without these attractions, she would only ‘pity him – hate him’. In contrast, she says of Heathcliff, ‘I love the ground under his feet, and the air over his head, and everything he touches and every word he says, I love all his looks and all his actions and him entirely and altogether’. It is obvious here that her description of her love for Heathcliff bears no resemblance to the language she uses to describe her feelings for Edgar: ‘if all else perished and he (Heathcliff) remained, I should still continue to be, and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the world would turn to a mighty stranger’.

She ends her description with the powerful assertion, ‘I am Heathcliff’. Her love for Heathcliff is mysterious, it is beyond a mere relationship, it is a union of being. Catherine can only exist in Heathcliff and he in her. She considers the idea of their separation impractical and absurd, yet she intends to marry Edgar Linton believing that he will allow her to carry on her relationship with Heathcliff. It can be said that at this stage in the novel Catherine speaks of Edgar in the language of the Grange and of Heathcliff in the language of the Heights: she loves Edgar in the romantic manner of civilised behaviour and she loves Heathcliff in the very depths of her soul. Catherine has here adopted a dual vision of love and life.

After Catherine’s marriage to Edgar, Nelly Dean says in Chapter 10 that ‘she seemed almost over-fond’ of him. Her harmonious relationship with Edgar ends with the sudden return of Heathcliff and again she adopts a dual personality. She still loves Heathcliff although she considers him ‘a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man’. Her love for Heathcliff is in the realm of the supernatural and she rejects Edgar. ‘My soul will be on that hill-top before you lay hands on me again. I don’t want you, Edgar’. In their desperation at their positions, Catherine and Heathcliff act in a hysterical, delirious, irrational manner, as he pursues his revenge on the Lintons despite the fact that it is killing Catherine (Chapter 15). He accuses Catherine of betraying their love by her marriage to Edgar: ‘You loved me, then what right had you to leave me? What right – answer me – for the poor fancy you felt for Linton?’ On hearing of her death, Heathcliff exclaims: ‘I cannot live without my life. I cannot live without my soul’ – BUT he does and he even pursues his revenge with even greater ferocity!

Catherine and Heathcliff remain spiritually united after her death. This raises the question of the role of the supernatural in the novel. In Chapter 29, Heathcliff relates how he dug up Catherine’s coffin in order to convince himself that she was still in the grave and bring himself some peace of mind.

No! she has disturbed me, night and day through eighteen years, incessantly, remorselessly – till yesternight; and yesternight I was tranquil. I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep by that sleeper with my heart stopped and my cheek frozen against hers.

After her death, he had also dug up her grave and felt her presence by him and leading him home. He feels that her spirit pervades the surroundings of Wuthering Heights. This ‘presence’ of Catherine recalls to us the experience of Lockwood as he slept in Catherine’s room in Chapter 3.

Before Heathcliff’s death, Nelly reports that he stayed awake throughout the night and she heard him speak alone and use the name Catherine, ‘spoken as one would speak to a person present’ (Chapter 34). The country folk believed that Heathcliff and Catherine walked the moors after his death and reported seeing them. Despite the volume of evidence which would indicate that Emily Bronte deliberately intends us to be conscious of the supernatural in the story, many critics reject this interpretation and point to Lockwood’s scepticism at the end, considering his view to be reliable when he says that he believes that Catherine and Heathcliff are quiet sleepers in a quiet earth:

I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth (Chapter 34).

 

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REFERENCES

Gregor, Ian. The Brontes – Twentieth Century Views, Prentice Hall, 1970.
(A collection of critical essays – five devoted to Wuthering Heights).

Jennings, John. Wuthering Heights, in Inscape 10 (ed. Patrick Murray), Educational Company of Ireland, 1975

Leavis, F.R. and Q.D. Lectures in America, Chatto and Windus, 1969.
(The essay by Mrs Q.D Leavis, ‘A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights’ gives a comprehensive study of the novel and is worth a read).

FURTHER READING

You might also like to read Grace Notes on Wuthering Height

and The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights – Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

and Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

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The Life and Times of Emily Bronte

Emily Bronte’s father, Patrick Bronte, was the son of a Northern Ireland farmer. Initially, he earned a living as a blacksmith but by sheer determination and ambition gained a degree from Cambridge and at the age of twenty-nine was ordained a clergyman. He married Maria Branwell in 1812 and in 1818 their daughter Emily was born. Maria Bronte died in 1821 and her sister, Elizabeth, a strict disciplinarian, took on the care of the young Brontes. They were living in the parsonage at Haworth at this time.

Emily, like Catherine in Wuthering Heights, developed an independent spirit as she grew up: she left her school, Roe Head, after only three months, worked as a teacher for six months and left her school in Brussels after eight months. Their father, Patrick, who had had a number of literary works published encouraged a love of books and learning and Emily began to build her own imaginary world called Gondal which contains most of her best poetry. She spent her time helping with the housework, reading, and creating Gondal, until 1845, when her sister, Charlotte, upon reading the Gondal poems for the first time, suggested that they be published. Eventually, they were published but only two copies were sold!

Within a year Emily had finished and published Wuthering Heights and her sister Anne had written Agnes Grey, both following Charlotte who had already published Jane Eyre in 1847, which was very successful. However, Wuthering Heights was not well received by the critics receiving only one good review. Within a year of publication of what was later to become a huge literary success, Emily Bronte died in December 1848. Indeed, her brother Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died from various forms of tuberculosis between September 1848 and May 1849. To put her death into a historical timeline, she died one year after the death of Daniel O’Connell who passed away in Genoa in 1847 and in the same year as Marx and Engels published ‘The Communist Manifesto’.

However, it has to be said that Emily Bronte’s short life (1818 – 1848) coincided with major epochs in Britain, namely The Romantic Movement, led by William Wordsworth and others and also the increasing growth of urbanisation. Cities like Liverpool, from which Heathcliff was brought by Mr Earnshaw, had doubled in size between 1800 and 1830. This era also saw great changes in the countryside also. Agriculture became more efficient with most of the open fields and commonages being enclosed and worked by the estate owners like the Lintons. The cottagers and small farmers who had traditionally farmed these common areas were marginalised after the lands were enclosed and they frequently migrated to the industrial cities. More than likely, Heathcliff’s parents were from this disinherited class.

This new and changing social scene in the nineteenth-century which was no doubt much influenced by the fallout from the French Revolution (1789) also bred a new generation of philosophers and social influencers. One of these was John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) who rejected the utilitarian creed of industrialisation and was an inveterate advocate of human liberty, urging people to develop their individual potential and talents. He believed that it was necessary to bring about many reforms in society before people could achieve this freedom. One of his causes was a campaign for popular education which he believed to be necessary if people were to attain true personal liberty. It is clear from the pages of Wuthering Heights that Emily Bronte’s views on education and freedom and her own spirit of freedom and independence are a reflection of this philosophy which was in vogue at the time.

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Introducing Wuthering Heights

It is difficult to pigeon-hole Wuthering Heights neatly into just one genre alone. These ‘grace notes’ do not seek to be dogmatic and rather try to analyse the novel from different viewpoints. And after all, we have always to give some weight to the views of the individual reader who comes to this novel, probably because it has been prescribed by powers on high, and who brings his/her own values and attitudes to the mesmerising conflicts and contrasts in the story.

• The novel can be interpreted as a love story, but it can also be interpreted as a revenge story, an autobiographical story or a saga depicting the conflict between differing civilisations. If anything, there are elements of all of these views contained within it.

Conflict is elemental and central to this novel. It is the source and origin of the plot and the novel has scarcely begun when the peace and harmony at Wuthering Heights is disturbed by the arrival of Heathcliff bringing discord and conflict to the Earnshaw household. Initially, this conflict centres on Hindley and Heathcliff but it develops and eventually envelops all the characters and ultimately becomes a conflict between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. This conflict engulfs the novel and only shows signs of subsiding in the third generation at the end of the novel.

Wuthering Heights also has an unusual structure and method of narration. Nelly Dean, a servant, relates the history of three generations to Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange. He in his turn records in his journal the story as told to him by Nelly and also some of his own reminiscences. Wuthering Heights is then presented to us in this rather complicated form in a novel spanning thirty years in time. (See further analysis below).

• Critics and scholars have long argued as to which literary genre the novel belongs. Some claim that it is a Romance, while others claim that it is a Saga and others still that it is a Gothic Romance. Certainly, there are reasons for saying that aspects of the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff constitute a typical romance story, but this view is open to question considering the tragic death of Catherine, Heathcliff’s revenge and the supernatural aspects of their relationship. The novel also follows some of the patterns of a Saga in presenting the history of the three generations of the two families told through the eyes of the servant in both families. Gothic influences are also evident in the story. Emily Bronte was an avid reader of Gothic romances in her childhood, feeding her mind with the horror and sensationalism of their mysterious setting and their evil ghost-like characters. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Lockwood’s dream and Heathcliff’s death are two of the more prominent occurrences in the novel which are classic Gothic in their inspiration, but the physical surroundings and settings of the novel bear no comparison with the mysterious castles and unknown lands typical of the Gothic romance. We can also say that even though Heathcliff’s origins are unknown and his actions at times seem demonic, he is a human creature displaying human qualities.

• In all our discussions of Wuthering Heights, we are continually drawn to the characters of Catherine and Heathcliff. At first, we see their idyllic love relationship which is subjected to many trials and pressures, as a result of which we find Heathcliff turning into a fiendish monster. This transformation in Heathcliff fascinates and sobers us. Despite the evil of Heathcliff, we still maintain some shreds of sympathy for him even as he reaches the worst depths of his degradation. (See further analysis below).

• If we take a telescopic view of the novel (or maybe, we could use a drone!), we have on the one hand Wuthering Heights in the Yorkshire Moors, surrounded by the world of raw nature with its calms and storms, an untamed world whose inhabitants live in an untamed manner. At the centre of life at the heights we have Catherine, Heathcliff and Hindley. On the other hand, we have Thrushcross Grange, representing the world of civility, surrounded by beauty, protected from the untamed world. The inhabitants of this world live a life of civilised gentility with the benefits of education and society. At the centre of life at the grange are Edgar and Isabella Linton. The Heights and the Grange provide the setting in which the story is acted out by each generation in its turn.

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Structure in Wuthering Heights

The opening chapters give us certain details about Heathcliff, Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. However, the essential story only begins in Chapter 4 when Nelly starts to relate it to Lockwood. The novel begins with the date 1801, but Nelly tells the story to Lockwood of events which happened in the past, beginning with the arrival of Heathcliff to Wuthering Heights, thirty years earlier (1771).

The story records the events in the lives of three generations at Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. This naturally presented an overwhelming problem of structure for Emily Bronte in selecting and organising the events in such a manner so as not to confuse the reader. She is also faced with the problem of retaining the reader’s interest throughout the lives of the three generations.

The most interesting aspect of the structure is the composition of the two families. The Earnshaws at Wuthering Heights have one son, Hindley, and one daughter, Catherine. The Lintons at Thrushcross Grange have one son, Edgar, and one daughter, Isabella. Edgar Linton marries Catherine Earnshaw, while Isabella Linton marries Heathcliff, Earnshaw’s adopted son. Edgar and Catherine’s only daughter Cathy, marries first, Heathcliff and Isabella’s son, Linton Heathcliff, and later marries Hindley Earnshaw’s son, Hareton.

It is obvious that Emily Bronte was very conscious of the necessity for a pattern in the selection and composition of the two major families. The list of relationships above may cause some confusion but if you examine the family tree you will see the pattern clearly. We can see that there were three marriages in the second generation and one child by each marriage.

The novel can be divided into two parts: the first part dealing with Catherine, Heathcliff, Hindley, Edgar and Isabella, the second part dealing with young Cathy, Linton Heathcliff, Hareton and Heathcliff’s revenge. Unifying both parts is the character of Heathcliff, a mixture of evil and romance in the first part, a dehumanised, revengeful recluse in the second part. Nelly and Lockwood, the narrators, also help to give unity to the novel, Nelly because, like Heathcliff, she is present through the history of the three generations. Lockwood is present at the beginning and the end, he introduces us to Heathcliff at the beginning of the novel and leaves us at his grave at the end.

A further pattern in the story, contributing to the formality of the structure, is the series of young romances. Catherine has two romances, one with Edgar the other with Heathcliff, while the young Cathy also has two romances, one with Linton Heathcliff, the other with Hareton. This pattern of romances ensures a continual inter-relationship between the Heights and the Grange.

As the novel opens there is no contact between the Heights and the Grange, but from the moment Catherine is taken in by the Lintons after being bitten by the dogs, conflict between the two houses begins. When Catherine returns after her stay with the Lintons she is further estranged from Heathcliff. This separation and Catherine’s marriage to Edgar gives rise to Heathcliff’s revenge. The revenge story increases the sense of tension and this tension helps to maintain our interest and curiosity.

The novel begins with harmony and ends with harmony. Heathcliff is a disruptive force. The disharmony and conflict between the two houses and between the characters continue through the novel until the young Cathy succeeds in becoming a civilising influence over Hareton. Heathcliff’s determination in his revenge fades and he is unsuccessful in gaining his revenge over Hareton. Cathy teaches Hareton and brings him under her influence, the values of the Grange and book values. They are described in Chapter 32 as ‘one loving and desiring to esteem, the other loving and desiring to be esteemed, they contrived in the end to reach it’. She succeeds where the first Catherine failed and with her marriage to Hareton the reconciliation of the conflict in the novel is achieved and harmony is once more restored to both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.

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Victorian lady: Emily Bronte

Narrative Technique

There were two methods of writing a novel in common use among Emily Bronte’s contemporaries: one method involved the narration of the story in an autobiographical manner by a character who was involved in the action of the story; the other method involved the use by the author of an omniscient third person who had sufficient knowledge of the events to be in a position to narrate the story. Emily Bronte’s method is similar to the latter except she uses two narrators; Nelly Dean who is the servant at Wuthering Heights and later at Thrushcross Grange, and Lockwood who acquires the tenancy of Thrushcross Grange from Heathcliff.

The novel opens with the date 1801 as Lockwood becomes a tenant at the Grange. He is an outsider and a city man who claims to be unsociable by nature, but his curiosity about Heathcliff and Catherine is aroused by his two visits to Wuthering Heights and his ghost-like experience of Catherine during his second visit. After these experiences at the Heights, described in the opening three chapters, he makes enquiries of Nelly Dean about Heathcliff and the other residents at the Heights on his return to Thrushcross Grange. Lockwood tells us:

‘Under the pretence of gaining information concerning the necessities of my establishment, I desired Mrs Dean when she brought in supper, to sit down while I ate it, hoping sincerely that she would prove a regular gossip and either rouse me to animation or lull me to sleep with her gossip’.

Thankfully for us, Nelly Dean does prove to be ‘a regular gossip’, satisfying Lockwood’s curiosity by responding to his questions and proceeding to tell him about her childhood at Wuthering Heights and the arrival of Heathcliff from Liverpool as a child. In this manner, Emily Bronte lulls us into the story of Catherine and Heathcliff as Nelly continues to narrate her story to Lockwood.

Nelly Dean’s story, covering a period of thirty years in the lives of three generations of the Earnshaws and Lintons, occupies most of the novel and there are only brief interventions in the story by Lockwood. Nelly Dean is in a perfect position to tell the story since she was either directly involved in the events, was an observer of them or was told about them directly by a confidant on the rare occasions when she was not present at the scene of the action. She, therefore, has the authority to tell the story and we accept it as authentic. She grew up at Wuthering Heights with Heathcliff and Catherine; she lived at Thrushcross Grange after Catherine’s marriage to Edgar and before Heathcliff’s death she is again living at Wuthering Heights. She is not a direct observer of the events at Wuthering Heights after Isabella’s marriage to Heathcliff, but she learns about their life together from Isabella’s letter to her (Chapter 13). She learns about Heathcliff’s re-opening of Catherine’s grave and his suffering after her death from his own lips (Chapter 29) and she learns about the life of the young Catherine at Wuthering Heights from the account of Zillah (Chapter 30). Heathcliff’s description of his suffering in Chapter 29 is an excellent example of the use of a reversal which influences our feelings towards Heathcliff by giving us a flashback to earlier events in the story. Isabella’s letter as a literary device is unobtrusively woven into the story so that we learn about events which Nelly Dean could not have otherwise known about.

Lockwood records in his journal the entire story as told to him by Nelly Dean and also adds his own experiences. He records his first impressions of Wuthering Heights and his reading of Catherine’s diary in the first three chapters and then records Nelly Dean’s story with only minor interruptions until his visit to Wuthering Heights before his departure for the city (Chapter 31). On his return, in September 1802, he discovers about the growing relationship between the young Catherine and Hareton. He meets Nelly again and she continues to narrate the story until Lockwood leaves us in the final paragraph as he lingers by the graves of Catherine, Heathcliff and Edgar. Lockwood, a sceptical outsider like us, the readers, lends an air of authenticity and realism to this tale from the Yorkshire moors and therefore gives the story added credibility for the reader: the reader can identify with him and his curiosity arouses our curiosity also.

Whether we consider the narrative technique too complicated or not, we have to agree that it does achieve its aim in presenting a strange gothic world in such a manner as to make it interesting and familiar to the reader. The two narrators, Nelly Dean and Lockwood give the story a credibility and a plausibility which it might not have had Emily Bronte chosen to present it in an autobiographical manner without their intervention.

 

 

Author’s Note: The term ‘Grace Notes’ comes to us from the world of Irish Traditional music where they are used as embellishments, added extras to further personalise the tune. Here they are used in a similar fashion – maybe the nuggets unearthed here could be the difference between H1 or H2!

REFERENCES

Gregor, Ian. The Brontes – Twentieth Century Views, Prentice Hall, 1970.
(A collection of critical essays – five devoted to Wuthering Heights).

Jennings, John. Wuthering Heights, in Inscape 10 (ed. Patrick Murray), Educational Company of Ireland, 1975

Leavis, F.R. and Q.D. Lectures in America, Chatto and Windus, 1969.
(The essay by Mrs Q.D Leavis, ‘A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights‘ gives a comprehensive study of the novel and is worth a read).

FURTHER READING

You might also like to read Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

and The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights – Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

and Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

Exposure by Seamus Heaney – An Analysis

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“In the Attic”, a portrait of Seamus Heaney by the artist Jeffrey Morgan now hanging in the HomePlace Centre in Bellaghy, Co. Derry.

Exposure

 

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner emigre, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.

– Seamus Heaney

 

Commentary
‘Exposure’ was written in 1975 and significantly is the last poem in the poet’s volume, North. Not only that, but ‘Exposure’ is the final poem in a six poem sequence grouped under the title The Singing School, a phrase borrowed from W. B. Yeats’ famous poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, which concludes that great collection. The poem itself is, to an extent, a reflective self-analysis, as Heaney takes stock of his life and poses a series of questions about his role and function as a poet. The poem depicts Heaney’s anxiety and discomfort with his position in society and with his role as a poet. The poem explores Heaney’s dilemma as ‘The Troubles’ detonate and resonate and invade his artistic space. He has removed himself from the North and like his friend Michael Longley, who had already moved to Carrigskeewaun in Mayo, he has thus acquired a new perspective from his cottage in Glanmore in County Wicklow. He is, however, troubled by self-doubt and uncertainty and hurt by the whispers, the innuendo, the charge that he hasn’t taken sides, that he has abandoned his people and taken the English ‘shilling’.

It is a ten stanza poem that is separated into quatrains. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme. They are composed in free verse, meaning there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The poem opens, ‘It is December in Wicklow.’ December is deep winter in Ireland, characterised by its cold bracing wet weather, it is also the end of a year. This sets up a peaceful and tranquil scene providing time for self-reflection and a chance to reappraise his situation. This time affords him an opportunity to analyse his obvious anxiety and discomfort and the horrible tension that has arisen between his private persona and his very public career as a poet. It is a rainy, wintry month, the ‘alders [are] dripping,’ the ‘birches’ are fighting for the ‘last light,’ and ‘the ash tree’ is bare, too cold ‘to look at.’

It is obvious that his main source of frustration is that he feels that he is being dragged unwillingly into the current fraught political situation in his own native place. His former neighbours in Bellaghy have all been forced by circumstances to take sides and here, Bellaghy’s most famous son is seen to be ambivalent and non-committal. Earlier on in North, in the poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’, he has made the famous statement:

The famous

Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, say nothing.

In ‘Exposure’, then, we see the poet is under pressure from all sides to say something and he feels that he is being used by all sides for their own political ends. How then can he solve this dilemma? He tries to wrestle with this dilemma in his solitary walk in the Wicklow hills. He considers the inherent differences between a comet and a meteorite. A comet is predictable and appears after sunset on a set date once every four years or four hundred years. A ‘falling star’ or meteorite is totally unpredictable and appears randomly in the evening sky. The comet ‘visible at sunset’ is expected, it ‘should’ appear. Yet, the ‘falling star’ only ‘sometimes’ appears. Heaney himself admires the meteorite, the ‘falling star’. This is shown through the use of the exclamation mark. Unlike the comet which typically follows a cycle, a meteorite is free, it does not need to keep to a designated orbit. Rather, it is able to float and fall whenever and wherever it wishes. Here, Heaney is making the metaphorical comparison between the comet and the meteorite and his own role as a poet. He wishes to be able to express himself freely yet the political circumstances in Northern Ireland do not allow for such, it forces him to choose sides, and tries to drag him into the conflict. Here, Heaney poses an important question – is he to be simply another insignificant individual pushed around by politics or is he to be an independent figure able to freely voice his own thoughts?

In the next two stanzas, Heaney further ponders his role as a poet. He plaintively asks ‘How did I end up like this?’ There is a certain degree of torment shown through this as he sits, ‘weighing and weighing’ his worth. This repetition places emphasis on his vulnerable psychological state. He identifies two opposing groups: the rational ones with their ‘beautiful prismatic counselling’ and his enemies with their impenetrable ‘anvil brains’. He feels isolated from all groups and becomes an ‘inner émigré’ as he is unable to satisfy the demands of one, without conflicting with the others. Heaney is frustrated that he is unable to change the perceptions of those people, close-minded and devoted to their own beliefs. Once again, he questions his role as a poet; he questions himself as to who he is to please, who should he be serving – the minority, the various political groups or society as a whole?

This poem helps him resolve his dilemma and therefore it is a seminal poem in which he takes his lonely stand as an artist and refuses to be drawn in and forced to take sides – he will be his own man – the epiphany comes like Austin Clarke’s ‘The Lost Heifer’ appearing out of the mist. He clarifies the reference to ‘the alders’ in stanza one and this time the image is clearer and more definite:

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.

This is more hopeful as Heaney gradually comes to terms with himself. He realises, despite the rain causing ‘let-downs and erosions,’ it is able to ‘(recall) the diamond absolutes.’ Through his self-imposed ‘exile’ in Wicklow, he has ‘grown long-haired and thoughtful.’ He repudiates both extremes – the fanaticism of ‘the internee’ languishing ‘on some muddy compound’ in Long Kesk and the despicable betrayal of ‘the informer’. He emphatically states that ‘I am neither’. Instead, he has gained wisdom and realised that like the ‘wood-kerne,’ the Irish soldiers of old who having lost the battle retreat to the woods to regroup, he is able to use his writing as a way of controlling and fighting for his voice in society. His solitary trek through the winter woods has given him a deeper insight into his role as a poet in a society devastated by violence and divisions.

In ‘Exposure’, Heaney reflects on his changed circumstances and on his present situation living and writing in the quiet backwater of Glanmore in County Wicklow. He reflects on the great expectations being placed on him as a poet of standing. This marks a drastically different approach to that seen in earlier collections such as Death of a Naturalist. In this final poem of The Singing School sequence and the final poem in the collection, North, Heaney wonders whether his move South will have any effect. Will it give him the perspective he craves or will he be exposed to ridicule like the emperor without clothes in the children’s fable. He knows he is taking a risk and giving his critics and the ‘anvil brains’ ammunition to mortally wound him. What if after all the brouhaha he only produces the odd spark to illuminate the daily atrocities taking place further North when what the situation really needs is the arrival of a ‘comet’s pulsing rose’?

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Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

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There are two very strong fairy-tale motifs underlying the novel Persuasion. The most obvious one is the Cinderella story; the other is that of Sleeping Beauty. Some central aspects of each of these tales are reflected in the story of Anne Elliot.

To take the Cinderella aspect of Persuasion first, a brief outline of the main details of the story may help to make the parallels clear. In the fairy-tale, the gentle, good-natured Cinderella is cruelly treated by her stepmother and two stepsisters, and when she has performed the most menial household tasks, is left to sit among the cinders at the hearth. Her stepsisters have gone to the ball, while she is left at home crying, only to be rescued from her plight by her fairy godmother, who sends her to the ball where the Prince falls in love with her, loses her for a time, but finally finds and marries her.

In Chapter 1, Jane Austen places the Cinderella-like Anne side by side with a callous parent, Sir Walter Elliot, and her two self-centred, uncaring sisters. The parallels are almost explicitly drawn:

Anne with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way – she was only Anne.

Jane Austen produces a fairy godmother figure in the person of Lady Russell, Anne’s real godmother, but also an ironic version of the fairy godmother, since her well-meaning intervention in Anne’s affairs, far from helping her, has led to a seven-year spell of lonely frustration. Captain Wentworth is, of course, the principal figure who is separated from the heroine but recognises her worth and rescues her from her uncongenial environment. The story progresses, like the Cinderella one, towards the triumph of the heroine and the embarrassment of her tormentors.

The second fairy-tale motif, that of the Sleeping Beauty, whose fate it is to fall into a sleep of a hundred years, only to be awakened by a prince. Anne’s fate is to be the victim of a seven-year period of loss and isolation, deprived of the possibility of playing an active role. Her state is presented as a condition akin to sleep, which she must endure as best she can until she is reawakened to new life by Wentworth, the prince of the story.  Here, for example, is how she appears after her father has gone to Bath with Elizabeth and Mrs Clay: ‘Anne walked up, in a sort of desolate tranquillity, to the lodge, where she was to spend the first week’.

The themes of sleep and re-awakening are also underlined in the nature imagery of the novel. One dark November day, the silent, pensive Anne is rescued from her dismal meditations by Lady Russell, who seems to find her much improved in appearance:

And Anne, in receiving her compliments on the occasion, had the amusement of connecting them with the silent admiration of her cousin, and of hoping that she was to be blessed with a second spring of youth and beauty (Chap 13).

Whereas Lady Russell’s role is an ironic comment on the fairy godmother theme, Louisa Musgrove’s mishap can be read as a parody of the Sleeping Beauty story. After her fall at Lyme, she falls into an unconscious state, from which she is awakened to love, not by the man she loved before the event, but by another one, Captain Benwick.

The critic, D.W. Harding argues that throughout her novels Jane Austen was fascinated with the Cinderella story, albeit with the fairy godmother omitted. He proposes that if we look closely we can see the same pattern that is evident in Persuasion repeated in Pride and Prejudice:

The heroine is in some degree isolated from those around her by being more sensitive or of finer moral insight or sounder judgement, and her marriage to the handsome prince at the end is in the nature of a reward for being different from the rest, and a consolation for the distresses entailed by being different.

However, in Persuasion, Harding suggests, Jane Austen provides us with an interesting development of the Cinderella theme: ‘She brings the idealised mother back to life and admits that she is no nearer to perfection than the mothers of acute and sensitive children generally are’. In Lady Russell, he argues, ‘she provides a godmother, not fairy but human, with whom Anne Elliot can have much the relationship of a daughter with a greatly loved, but fallible mother’, and through the novel ‘there runs a lament for the seven years’ loss of happiness resulting from Anne’s having yielded to her godmother’s persuasion’.

If Harding is correct, then the pattern of events in Persuasion reflects Jane Austen’s attempt to tell the full truth about the Cinderella situation, of which the traditional version tells only part of the truth.

Works Cited
Harding, D. W. ‘Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen’ reprinted in Jane Austen, A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Watt, Twentieth Century Views, 1963.

References

Murray, Patrick. Persuasion in Inscapes 13, The Educational Company of Ireland, 1978

Further Reading:

You might also like to read Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

and  Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

 

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In Jane Austen’s Persuasion fairy tales meet biting feminist critiques

Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

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Jane Austen places all her heroines in difficult situations.  Their ultimate goal is happiness and self-fulfilment to be achieved through marriage to a compatible and worthy partner, but this can be reached only after numerous formidable obstacles have been overcome.

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Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot in Persuasion (TV Movie 2007) – directed by Adrian Shergold.

Anne Elliot

Persuasion is Anne Elliot’s book.  And like other Austen heroines, she too labours under various major difficulties.  She lacks material resources and is, therefore, less eligible than she might otherwise be, particularly in a society which places a high value on financial competence in both partners in a marriage.  This is best exemplified by the fact that Captain Wentworth has no fortune when he first proposes to Anne and this fact tells heavily against him in the eyes of Lady Russell and Anne’s family.  Her own family situation is little better and, despite Anne’s best efforts to give her father prudent advice, she is ignored and he continues to live beyond his means.   There is no member of her family in whom she can confide, and her sisters are cruelly insensitive.  She has refused to marry Wentworth, the one man she can love, on the mistaken advice of her godmother, Lady Russell.  As the novel opens, seven years have elapsed since her rejection of Wentworth, who again enters her world, still resentful and bitter over her past treatment of him.  Her present circumstances seem to offer her little or no scope for achieving reconciliation with Wentworth.  Two important factors combine, however, to see her through: her own considerable resources of character and personality, and, last but not least, some good fortune.

As already mentioned Anne is central to the novel and every other character we encounter is significant only in relation to her: Wentworth and William Walter Elliot as her admirers; Lady Russel as her adviser; Mrs Smith as her informant about William Walter Elliot; Louisa as her rival, and so on.  Everything that happens is seen as having some relation to Anne’s concerns, and what the readers see, they see through her eyes and from her point of view.

The only recorded comment from Jane Austen about Persuasion was that she felt that Anne was almost too good to be true.  She is presented from the outset as an admirably sensible young woman, loyal, self-reliant, with a sound and penetrating judgement and the highest ideals.  Indeed, all she has to achieve through the course of the novel is a greater reliance on the soundness of her own judgement, and the rightness of her own principles.  She learns from her mistake in following Lady Russell’s earlier advice when she refuses Charles Musgrove, although this time around Lady Russell is in favour of the match.  Her strong feelings and sensitive, emotional nature, are balanced by sanity and intelligence.  She doesn’t give in to being over-sentimental and she doesn’t allow herself to become despondent or depressed.  She busies herself with cataloguing the books and pictures at Kellynch, visits the tenants, nurses her nephew, frequently acts as accompanist for the Musgroves, advises Captain Benwick about his reading programme, and visits the unfortunate Mrs Smith.  Her strength of character is revealed in the degree of self-discipline she has achieved during the seven-year separation from Wentworth.  Her eyes may fill with tears at the sight of Captain Wentworth dancing with Louisa, but she allows nobody to notice this.  Instead, she offers her services as a musical accompanist, ‘extremely glad to be employed, and desiring nothing in return but to be unobserved’.  Her intelligence, good sense and self-control, then, are always to the fore.

She gets a unique opportunity to demonstrate her practical good sense, quickness of wit and self-control after Louisa’s accident on the Cobb at Lyme.  While everybody around her panics and falls to pieces, and even Wentworth displays an alarming loss of nerve, she assumes control and does all the appropriate things.  There can only be one verdict, Wentworth’s: ‘No one so proper, so capable as Anne’.

But this is only one aspect of her character.  Jane Austen is successful in communicating her emotional nature, her intensity of feeling.  This is all the more impressive in the light of her normally restrained and controlled manner.  One good example of her strong feeling finding an outlet is her impassioned declaration to Captain Harville that women (for the reader and the listening Wentworth this means Anne) are capable ‘of loving longest when existence or when hope is gone’.  Again, when reconciliation with Wentworth seems to be on the cards, we learn that ‘she had some feelings which she was ashamed to investigate.  They were too much like joy, senseless joy’.

Anne approaches as near to perfection as any fictional character could, while still retaining some measure of credibility.  However, she has her weaknesses.  When all hope seems lost, she plunges into a sentimental self-indulgent reverie, recalling literary works appropriate to her melancholy state, and generally feeling sorry for herself.  She has enough self-control, however, to put an end to such musings and to face reality.  Again, she experiences ‘exquisite’ gratification at the thought that Wentworth is jealous of Mr Elliot’s attention to her.  She sometimes resorts to harmless and endearing female wiles, as when she wants to give Wentworth an opportunity to talk to her at the opera: ‘by some other removals and a little scheming of her own, Anne was enabled to place herself nearer the end of the bench than she had been before, much more within reach of a passer-by’.  She is human after all!

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Rupert Penry Jones as Captain Wentworth. He starred alongside Sally Hawkins in the 2007 remake of Persuasion for TV – directed by Adrian Shergold.

 

Captain Wentworth

From a casual reading of Jane Austen’s novels, it does seem that most of the eligible men are indeed eagerly and with great enthusiasm contemplating marriage and are searching for a suitable life partner.  We all remember that famous quote from Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’.  Wentworth’s tendency in this regard is made explicit in his comments to his sister:

Yes, here I am, Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match.  Anybody between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking.  A little beauty, a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man (Chap 7).

So, we gather that Wentworth is indeed in search of a wife.  In fact, unknown to himself, he is the one being pursued, the thrust of the entire novel is towards the creation of a set of circumstances in which he must recognise the inevitability of taking Anne as his wife.  Anne may appear to be confined, Cinderella-like, to a state of immobility, imprisoned by the conventions of the time, and powerless to take direct action in her own cause, and Wentworth to have total freedom of movement, choice and initiative.  Circumstances, however, conspire to Anne’s advantage by opening Wentworth’s eyes to his true position in relation to Anne, and to his true emotional state, which he is finally forced to acknowledge in his letter to her:

I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago.  Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death.  I have loved none but you (Chap 23).

Wentworth is an ideal hero, ‘a remarkably fine young man’, having ‘a great deal of intelligence, spirit and brilliancy’.  Socially, he represents the rising bourgeois class: independent, aggressive, speculative, becoming rich through enterprise.  In Persuasion, this class, whose other representatives are Admiral Croft and Captain Harville, is contrasted with the Elliots, who represent the entrenched establishment, inheritors rather than creators of wealth.  Like Anne, and in contrast to the other Elliots and Charles Musgrove, Wentworth has an active busy temperament: ‘It was a great object with me, at that time, to be at sea, a very great object.  I wanted to be doing something’.  This is after Anne’s rejection of him.  His reaction to this episode reveals two aspects of his character: his confidence and independence of mind which cause him to despise over-cautious temperaments, and his pride, both emerging in the following:

She had used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shown a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure.  It has been the effect of over-persuasion.  It has been weakness and timidity.

Wentworth is a man of considerable tact and social grace.  His treatment of the embarrassing Miss Musgrove is a model of kindness and discretion.  He attunes himself perfectly to the elegant world at Bath.  Elizabeth Elliot recognises him as a decided social asset.  His manners, conversation and commanding social presence set him apart from the other male characters.  Such is his power over Anne that she bases her judgement of all other men on the standards he has set.  What she admires in William Walter Elliot, for example, is what she has found in Wentworth; what she finds lacking in Elliot, Wentworth has exemplified.  She sees Elliot as,

‘rational, discreet, polished but not open.  There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others.  This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection … She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others.  Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still’.

Captain Harville reveals to Anne a strain of compassion and tenderness in Wentworth which may surprise us as we read.  Knowing that the death of Captain Benwick’s fiancée has plunged him into misery, Wentworth rushes top comfort his friend, he

‘travelled night and day till he got to Portsmouth, rowed off to The Grappler that instant, and never left the poor fellow for a week; that’s what he did, and nobody else could have saved poor James.  You may think, Miss Elliot, whether he is dear to us!’.

This, of course, is not his only spontaneous act of kindness; he sees to it that Anne is given a place in the Crofts’ carriage, something she owes ‘to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest’.  This affects Anne deeply, as does his consideration in removing Mary’s troublesome child from her back!

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William Walter Elliot – the least favourite Austen character?

William Walter Elliot

William Walter Elliot is a necessary part of the mechanism of the novel’s plot.  He is a foil to Wentworth and is the means of arousing the latter’s jealousy, of making him realise the strength of his feelings for Anne and eventually acting accordingly.  Elliot serves to expose the false values of Sir Walter and Elizabeth and to underline the basic unsoundness of Lady Russell’s judgement, while at the same time confirming the soundness of Anne’s judgement.  He has snubbed the Elliot family by neglecting to seek Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, settling instead for ‘a rich woman of inferior birth’.  Despite this, they all welcome him back with alacrity when he re-appears as an impressive looking widower, pleasant, courteous, anxious to please.  Anne, as we might expect, has her doubts about him, experiencing ‘the sensation of there having been more than immediately appeared, in Mr Elliot’s wishing, after an interval of so many years, to be well received by them’.  Lady Russell thinks him admirable, a fit husband for Anne, whose evaluation, after a month’s acquaintance, is perceptive.  Her conclusions tell us much about her powers of judgement, and also give us a glimpse of Jane Austen the moralist.  Her judgement, ‘on a serious consideration of the possibilities of such a case, was against Mr Elliot’, even before Mrs Smith’s revelations.  But why?  She has to acknowledge that Elliot, ‘talked well, professed good opinions, seemed to judge properly and as a man of principle’.  But the problem is that she cannot answer for his conduct, as distinct from his professions.  His past remains doubtful.  She knows that for long periods of his life he had been ‘careless on all serious matters’.  She cannot be sure that his mind has been ‘truly cleansed’.  One aspect of his doubtful past has been his Sunday travelling: an interesting reflection of the standards of Jane Austen’s day.

The real Mr Elliot emerges late in the novel.  Even Anne is astonished at Mrs Smith’s revelations of the wickedness concealed beneath the mask of gentility.  It is at this point that Mr Elliot turns from the shadowy relative into the villain of melodrama, almost too bad to be true:

Mr Elliot is a man without heart or conscience; a designing, wary, cold-blooded being, who thinks only of himself; who, for his own interest or ease, would be guilty of any or any treachery, that could be perpetrated without risk of his general character.  He has no feelings for others.  Those whom he has been the chief cause of leading into ruin he can neglect and desert without the smallest compunction (Chap 21).

It is significant that even after this, Anne is beginning to find Mr Elliot something of a bore, despite her fleeting moment of happiness at the thought of being Lady Elliot of Kellynch.  During the concert, he flatters her excessively and makes her an oblique proposal of marriage: ‘If I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name (of Anne Elliot) might never change’ (Chap 20).  But the sight of Wentworth dissipates Anne’s interest in Elliot’s company: ‘She had no longer any inclination to talk to him.  She wished him not so near her’ (Chap 20).

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The Minor Characters

The other characters in Persuasion serve their purpose in the scheme of the story, but none of them gives a very powerful illusion of life.  Sir Walter is a caricature: one or two striking features of his character are highlighted to the virtual neglect of all others.  This is made clear in the manner of our introduction to him: ‘vanity of person and situation’, we are told, are the clues to his character.  For the remainder of the novel, he is obsessed with himself, his social position and his personal appearance, taking all of these with such intense seriousness that he becomes an absurdity.  He does not develop with the progress of events and learns little or nothing from his experiences.  In the end, he is as vain, self-obsessed and trivial as he was at the beginning.  A telling detail about his narcissistic nature is provided by Admiral Croft, who finds it necessary to remove some of the large mirrors from Sir Walter’s dressing room: ‘Such a number of looking-glasses! Oh, Lord! There was no getting away from one’s self’ (Chap 13).  He becomes reconciled to Wentworth largely because of his fine appearance and well-sounding name.  Jane Austen deprives him of Mrs Clay, his companion, and leaves him with the Dalrymples.  She cannot resist the final ironical comment on the fate of such people as Sir Walter and Elizabeth, who ‘must long feel that to flatter and follow others, without being flattered and followed in return, is but a state of half-enjoyment’ (Chap 24).

The is little that one can say about Elizabeth except that in almost everything she reflects the manners and attitudes of her father, who thinks more highly of her than he does of his other daughters because he finds her most like himself – a sufficiently damaging and damning indictment of her character!  Her attitude to Anne exposes her total incapacity for decent human feeling: ‘then I am sure that Anne had better stay, for nobody will want her at Bath’ (Chap 5).

Mary is rather more interesting.  Like her father, she is a caricature rather than a fully-rounded, vividly-realised character, but she is still a familiar and easily recognised type: spoiled, easily upset, wilful, self-centred, and a hypochondriac to boot!  When she has her way, she is pleasant; when anything interferes with her wishes, she becomes difficult, bored, ill or irritable.  True, she is not ‘so repulsive and unsisterly as Elizabeth’, but her comments to Anne are sometimes as distressing as Elizabeth’s.: ‘This is the end, you see, of Captain Benwick being supposed to be an admirer of yours’.  The cruelty here is not deliberate and calculated like Elizabeth’s: it is as a result of limited awareness, a lack of sensitivity.  Her immaturity appears in her behaviour during the November outing:

Mary sat down for a moment, but it would not do; she was sure Louisa had found a better seat somewhere else, and she would go on till she overtook her (Chap 10).

In spite of all her obvious failings, she still feels the family’s sense of social superiority, looking down ‘very decidedly upon the Hayters’.  The following passage puts her social attitudes in their place: ‘It is very unpleasant having such connections!  But, I assure you, I have never been in the house above twice in my life’.  The neurotic side of her character is beautifully suggested in a letter to Anne: ‘My sore throats are always worse than anybody’s’ (Chap 18).

Captain Benwick is the most interesting of the minor characters.  The loss of his fiancée appears to have rendered him inconsolable.  He is driven, as a consequence, to read poetry, to which he responds with profound and tender feelings.  All this is observed by Anne with amused tolerance.  His tastes are, of course, unbalanced, his poetical education still not far advanced:

He showed himself intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated with such tremulous feeling the various lines which imagined a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness (Chap 11).

He luxuriates in his own grief and welcomes any literary occasion which may seem to reflect or intensify it.  Anne does her best for him, ironically recommending ‘a large allowance of prose in his daily study’, and some ‘memoirs of characters of worth and suffering’.  Benwick, however, is reluctant to abandon the literature of distress and self-pity.  Anne is at first astonished when Benwick’s shallow grief evaporates and he turns his attention to Louisa Musgrove, but on reflection, she finds an explanation:

She was persuaded that any tolerably pleasing young woman who had listened and seemed to feel for him would have received the same compliment.  He had an affectionate heart (Chap 18).

Jane Austen treats all such self-deceivers as Benwick with the same mild irony.

She does little enough to individualise her other characters.  The Crofts are hearty, open and unpretentious; the older Musgroves pleasant, hospitable and kind; their unmarried daughters lively but shallow, and Charles decent, pleasant and unsubtle.  Lady Russell’s personality does not impress us at all: she functions as a useful and important part of the mechanism of the plot, since it is she who advises Anne to reject Wentworth, but after this, although she remains Anne’s confidante, she is of little importance in the development of events, and never really comes alive as a character.  The same may be said of Mrs Clay, whose freckles and insinuating manner are her distinguishing characteristics.  Mrs Smith seems a careless piece of characterisation, at one stage appearing harmless and long-suffering, at another cynical and worldly-wise.  Again, of course, her shadowy character matters little; her chief role in Persuasion is mainly as the means by which Anne learns the truth about William Walter Elliot.

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References:

Murray, Patrick. Persuasion in Inscapes 13, The Educational Company of Ireland, 1978

Further Reading:

You might also like to read Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

and Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

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Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

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The Theme of Persuasion in Persuasion

Like many of Jane Austen’s novels what you see is what you get and the major theme of the novel is usually helpfully pointed out in the title!  In Persuasion, Jane Austen presents Anne Elliot, her father, her sisters, her friends and her acquaintances in terms of their persuadability or ‘unpersuadability’.  Therefore, we are here invited by Austen to judge the characters of Persuasion within this narrow frame of reference provided by its title.

Anne Elliot’s seven years of suffering arise directly from her having been persuaded by Lady Russell to end her association with Captain Wentworth.  The cautious Lady Russell, we are told, regarded the connection with Wentworth as ‘a most unfortunate one’, and ‘deprecated the connection in every light’.  The central passage follows; in which we find the key to Anne’s subsequent misfortunes:

Such opposition, as these feelings produced, was more than Anne could combat.  Young and gentle as she was, it might yet have been possible to withstand her father’s ill-will, though unsoftened by one kind word or look on the part of her sister; but lady Russell, whom she had always loved and relied on, could not, with such steadiness of opinion, and such tenderness of manner, be continually advising her in vain.  She was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing; indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it (Chap 4).

This is where the theme of persuasion is first raised and the plot develops from here.  The second example of persuasion is largely devoted to attempts to persuade Sir Walter to live within his means.  Lady Russell draws up plans to help the family economise: ‘If we can persuade your father to all this, much may be done’.  She has no success, and Mr Shepherd, ‘who was perfectly persuaded that nothing could be done without a change of abode’, is able to have his plan for retrenchment accepted, not on its merits, but because it seems to Sir Walter to entail the least sacrifice.  They move to Bath because Sir Walter and Elizabeth ‘were induced to believe that they should lose neither consequence nor enjoyment by settling there’.  Louisa Musgrove tries to impress on Captain Wentworth the contrast between Anne and herself.  She knows that Anne’s persuadability has caused her to forfeit Wentworth’s esteem.  She is determined, therefore, to appear unpersuadable, at least temporarily.  Anne overhears her making her point:

What!  Would I be turned back from doing a thing that I had determined to do, and that I knew to be right, by the airs and interference of such a person, or any person, I may say?  No, I have no idea of being so easily persuaded.  When I have made up my mind, I have made it (Chap 10).

Wentworth responds with warm admiration, and the listening Anne can take his comment on what she fancies he must think of her earlier conduct:

It is the worst evil of too yielding and indecisive a character that no influence over it can be depended on.  Let those who would be happy be firm (Chap 10).

This last comment is somewhat ironic in the light of the incident at Lyme when Louisa’s vaunted firmness causes her to crack her skull!:

And instantly, to show her enjoyment, she ran up the steps to be jumped down again.  He advised her against it, thought the jar too great; but no, he reasoned and talked in vain; she smiled and said: I am determined I will; he put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb and was taken up lifeless (Chap 12).

We learn from Louisa that Henrietta is persuadable to the point of having no mind of her own:

And Henrietta seemed entirely to have made up her mind to call at Winthrop to-day; and yet she was as near giving it up out of nonsensical complaisance (Chap 10).

We can see clearly from these examples that persuasion is central to the novel and some critics find this limiting in that we, the readers, are being manipulated mainly to illustrate this abstract principle; or to make a moral point just as the writer of a traditional fable might arrange his or her materials.  However, there is more to the novel and indeed the novel is most enjoyable when Jane Austen forgets about this notion of persuasion and entertains us with closely observed social comedy and satirical touches.

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Snobbery

There are also a number of other subsidiary themes in Persuasion.  All of Jane Austen’s novels are social comedies, and much of the comedy arises from the follies and absurdities of her comic figures.  At some points in the novel, the comedy takes on the harsher tones of satire, whose main victims are Sir Walter and Mrs Musgrove.  Among the recurring sources of comedy and satire in Persuasion are Sir Walter’s false pride, his exaggerated notions of his own importance, his condescending attitude to those he considers inferior to himself, and his vanity in his personal appearance.  Sir Walter is sometimes described as a snob.  This is a person whose ideas and conduct are prompted by a vulgar admiration for wealth or social position.  There are elements of snobbery in sir Walter and Elizabeth.  Both of them do, indeed, defer to those of superior social standing.  Sir Walter wonders whether they should present the worthy Admiral Croft and his wife at Laura Place to meet Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret:

Situated as we are with Lady Dalrymple, cousins, we ought to be very careful not to embarrass her with an acquaintance she might not approve.  If we were not related, it would not signify; but as cousins, she would feel scrupulous as to any proposal of ours.  We had better leave the Crofts to find their own level.  There are several odd-looking men walking about here, who, I am told, are sailors.  The Crofts will associate with them (Chap 18).

Sir Walter also displays another prejudice of the snob: contempt for those below him on the social scale.  Anne has been visiting Mrs Smith with the approval of Lady Russell, but Sir Walter is disgusted:

A widow, Mrs Smith, lodging in Westgage Buildings!  A poor widow, barely able to live, between thirty and forty – a mere Mrs Smith – an every day Mrs Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland!  Mrs Smith – such a name! (Chap 17).

In Sir Walter, we are presented with a portrait of the quintessential egotist.  His self-esteem and self-contemplation make it easy for us to label him a narcissist; proud of his fine appearance, anxious to preserve it, and frequently admiring it in his large collection of mirrors!  Jane Austen damns him with faint praise:

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter’s character – vanity of appearance and of situation.  He had been remarkably handsome in his youth, and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man.  Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society.  He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot who united these gifts was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion (Chap 1).

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Physical Beauty

Another recurring theme in Persuasion is introduced in the opening chapter, where we learn that ‘a few years before, Anne had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early’.  In a sense, Persuasion is about the loss and return of youthful beauty and vigour.  Again and again, we find references to physical appearance, the ravages of time, the vain struggle to avert its consequences.  Sir Walter thinks Elizabeth and himself,

as blooming as ever, amidst the wreck of the good looks of everybody else; for he could plainly see how old all the rest of his family and friends were growing.  Anne haggard, Mary coarse, every face in the neighbourhood worsting; and the rapid increase of the crow’s feet about Lady Russell’s temples had long been a distress to him (Chap 1).

On the steps at Lyme, Anne, ‘the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind’, wins the admiration of Mr Elliot and Captain Wentworth.  The latter seems to see ‘something like Anne Elliot again’.  The ‘new’ Anne Elliot appears in all her radiance as she is finally secure in Wentworth’s love, ‘glowing and lovely in sensibility and happiness and more generally admired than she thought about or cared for’.

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Old Age/Human Decay

The theme of advancing age and human decay are underlined in the numerous references to the rhythms of nature.  The following is an impressive example; the reference is to Elizabeth:

Thirteen winters’ revolving frosts had seen her opening every ball of credit which a scanty neighbourhood afforded; thirteen springs had shown blossoms, as she travelled up to London with her father, for a few weeks’ annual enjoyment of the great world. She had the remembrance of all this; she had the consciousness of being nine-and-twenty, to give her some regrets and some apprehensions; she was fully satisfied of being still quite as handsome as ever (Chap 1).

The Somerset chapters are also coloured by references to the autumnal landscape, which reflects Anne’s moods as she waits, without much hope, for ‘a second spring of youth and beauty’ (Chap 13).

The visitors to Lyme are impressed by the romantic landscape, described in almost guide-book fashion, ‘green chasms between romantic rocks, scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth’.  They are also invigorated by ‘the fresh-feeling breeze’ by the sea.  The most moving ‘natural’ passage is that conveying Anne’s feelings as she prepares to leave for Bath:

An hour’s complete leisure for such reflections as these, on a dark November day, a small thick rain almost blotting out the very few objects ever to be discerned from the windows, was enough to make the sound of Lady Russell’s carriage exceedingly welcome; and yet, though desirous to be gone, she could not quit the Mansion-house, or look adieu to the Cottage, with its black, dripping and comfortless verandah, or even notice through the misty glasses the last humble tenements of the village, without a saddened heart (Chap 13).

Passages such as these make Persuasion the most poetic of Jane Austen’s novels.  The descriptions are not there simply for atmosphere and background; in passages like the last one there is profound interaction between external nature and the mind of the character who beholds it; for the reader, Anne’s mood becomes part of the gloomy November landscape.

 

References:

Murray, Patrick.  Persuasion in Inscapes 13, The Educational Company of Ireland, 1978

Further Reading:

You might also like to read Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

and Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

 

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Some Central Themes in Shakespeare’s King Lear

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The gods in King Lear

King Lear is set in England – an England before history, a country of swirling mists and violent tempests where ancient gods hold sway. It has been sometimes described as a Christian play with a pagan setting.  For us Irish, even the name Lear/Lir conjures up legendary tales from Irish mythology.  The Children of Lir, for instance, is a tale from the early Christian period that mixes magical elements such as druidic wands and spells with a Christian message of faith bringing freedom from suffering.  This is very similar to the underlying theme in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

We also need to be aware of the historical events taking place in England around 1605 when this play was written.  Queen Elizabeth I had died in 1603 without a direct heir to the throne.  She was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who later became James I of England, Scotland and Ireland – the first early version of the United Kingdom.  Shakespeare’s company was known as The King’s Men and many of the plays were produced with a Royal Command Performance in mind.  It is interesting that Macbeth – set in Scotland – was first performed in 1606 for the same monarch.

Even a casual reader of King Lear is bound to notice the frequency with which the gods are invoked or discussed by many of the characters in the play.  More striking perhaps, is the great variety of distinct points of view on the gods and their dealings with men expressed from beginning to end of the play.  Some of these are merely passing references, as, for example, Albany’s amazed reaction to Lear’s behaviour towards Goneril: ‘Now gods that we adore, whereof comes this?’.  Others are obviously ironic or insincere, as when Edmund, in conversation with Gloucester, claims that he tried to dissuade Edgar from his murderous intent by telling him that ‘the revenging gods / Against parricides did all their thunders bend’; or when Regan invokes ‘the blest gods’ in response to Lear’s curses.  But such casual references are rare enough: elsewhere, whenever the gods are mentioned, the tone is almost invariably serious, betraying the concern of the speakers with the nature and attributes of the ultimate Power, and their awareness of the problems of affirming cosmic justice in the face of the evil and suffering so rife in their universe.

Many commentators have remarked on the number of conflicting theories on the nature and disposition of the gods that are advanced by the different characters, sometimes indeed, by the same character, during the course of the play.  Almost every major point of view is expressed.  Gloucester in his despair sees men as the victims of a capricious and malevolent divinity: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods’.  At other times, particularly after suffering has awakened his religious sense, he addresses heartfelt prayers to the ‘ever-gentle gods’ and speaks feelingly of ‘the bounty and the benison of heaven’.  Edgar pictures the gods as dispensers of a merely retributive justice:

The gods are just and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to plague us.

But his other, and more characteristic, religious utterances reveal a deep faith in supernatural goodness, and his view of the gods is best seen in his encouraging words to Gloucester after he has saved him from suicide:

                                                Therefore, thou happy father,

Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours

Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee.

The speeches of the other characters also help to enlarge and diversify the range of references about the gods.  When Kent, who normally expresses faith in the just dealings of the heavenly powers, is momentarily overwhelmed by the apparent triumph of wickedness and injustice in the play and dismayed by the unnatural dealings of Lear’s daughters, he falls back on an astrological determinism, ‘It is the stars’, he cries, ‘the stars above us govern our conditions’.  Edmund’s deity is a nature-goddess while Lear appeals to primitive magic when he disinherits Cordelia ‘by the sacred radiance of the sun / The mysteries of Hecate and the night’, and he calls on Nature, his ‘dear goddess’ to curse Goneril, as if he believes that the heavens are at the service of man’s evil whims.  In his great speech on the heath (III, iv, 28ff), he implies that the wretched condition of the poor is an indictment of divine justice.  By exposing himself to feel what naked wretches feel, and by sharing his superfluous goods among them, he hopes to ‘show the heavens more just’.

For many students of the play, Gloucester’s cry of despair, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport.’, strikes the keynote of the play and sums up its spirit.  There is indeed much in the play to justify this point of view.  Time after time Shakespeare seems to underline the futility of looking to the heavenly powers for help, pity or the alleviation of suffering.  He throws into the sharpest possible relief the bitter and ironic contrast between the seemingly justifiable aspirations of men, so often nourished by belief in divine goodness, and the apparent indifference and blindness of the gods to even their most urgent and insistent demands.  Some of the juxtapositions contrived by Shakespeare seem to make a mockery of prayer and faith in providential justice.  Lear invokes the heavens against the ingratitude of his daughters and begs them to make his cause their cause, to come down and take his part, but the heavens are silent and Regan adds to his misery by demanding that he dismiss half his train.  His next prayer, ‘You see me here you gods, a poor old man’ is answered by the sound of the approaching storm, and soon after, the elements let fall their ‘horrible pleasure’ and join with his two evil daughters in punishing ‘a poor, infirm, weak and despised old man’.

Edgar on the heath thinks that ‘the worst returns to laughter’: he is immediately confronted with the bleeding face of his blinded father.  Just before the battle he urges Gloucester to pray that the right may thrive, and assures him ‘If ever I return to you again I’ll bring you comfort’.  He returns only to lead his father away; his prayers have not been answered: ‘King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta’en’.  The most dreadful example is reserved for the last scene.  Edmund has repented.  He reveals his plan to have Cordelia murdered in prison, and Edgar hastens to save her life.  Albany’s prayer, ‘the gods defend her’ is at once followed by the stark stage-direction: Enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms.  By means of deliberate effects like these, the play seems to suggest that there is no basis for faith in heavenly justice or benevolence, that the Powers who control the universe are either hostile or indifferent to the good of man.

The idea of universal justice is most sharply challenged by the ending of this play.  The wasteful deaths of Lear and Cordelia following their long exposure to suffering and torture inevitably make us wonder what conception of the universe caused Shakespeare to impose so ‘cheerless, dark and deadly’ an ending on a play which, in the Fourth Act, seemed to be heading to a reasonably happy ending  True enough, Lear has sinned, but he is, in his own words, ‘more sinned against than sinning’, and the punishment he is made to undergo seems absurdly disproportionate to his original fault.  It is not enough that he should humbly repent and willingly renounce the name and the trappings of a king for life in prison with Cordelia, that his pride should be broken and he is driven to madness but also during his last moments on earth he must endure the overwhelming sorrow of Cordelia’s death.  This grim ending has horrified many critics.  Samuel Johnson rebuked Shakespeare for having ‘suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to our natural ideas of justice, and to the hope of the reader’.  There are those who argue that the ending in King Lear destroys any basis for faith in a god or gods, and quenches the notion that in our universe the good thrive and the wicked will be eventually punished.

This pessimistic view of the Lear universe is not universally held.  There are those who argue, that, far from being a bitter indictment of cosmic justice and of providence, the play offers a profoundly Christian comment on the dealings of providence with men – that it is, in fact, a Christian play about a pagan world.  These critics point to the fact that the play’s attitude toward human suffering is, in fact, a Christian one.  It has always been part of Christian teaching that man is perfected through suffering and the image of the Cross is central to this idea.  Christians believe that any painful experience is good when it leads the sufferer, however unwillingly at first, along the path of righteousness and humility; that, in fact, suffering leads to redemption and enlightenment as is the case with Lear and Gloucester in the play.

The failure of ‘the gods’ to answer many of the prayers addressed to them throughout the course of the action has been interpreted by some critics as evidence that Shakespeare pictured the Lear universe as one in which the gods are indifferent to man’s needs.  Here, however, it is possible to find the values of the play are very compatible with those of traditional Christianity.  With regard to prayer, it seems to make the point, one which very few Christian scholars would disagree with, that prayers are sometimes answered as the suppliant wishes, but that it is often otherwise, that the answer can take a totally unexpected form, or that no direct answer may be forthcoming.  At the end of the blinding scene (III, vii) the Third Servant prays for Gloucester: ‘Now Heaven help him’.  His prayer is answered.  Almost at once we see him reunited with Edgar, who saves him from despair and suicide and restores a measure of happiness to his tortured mind.  On the other hand, when Lear prays that the vengeance of heaven may fall upon the head of Goneril, his demand recoils upon himself, and he becomes the victim of the elements during the storm.  And there is no answer to Albany’s prayer that Cordelia’s life may be spared.

Edgar’s is perhaps the best expression of the general attitude of the play towards the gods.  As R.B. Heilman points out, he consistently shows his faith in human justice, but he ‘does not presumptuously expect divinity to be a magical servant’.  With regard to Lear’s pleadings, the same critic argues that in the scheme of things as Shakespeare has here conceived it, he can expect justice, but he cannot dictate terms.  Samuel Johnson, dissatisfied as he was with Shakespeare’s decision to allow Cordelia to die in spite of the justice of her cause, nevertheless believed that the play convincingly exposed the self-destructive and abnormal nature of evil.

What the play seems to be saying to us concerning cosmic justice is not that ‘the gods’ wait for man to fall into the most trivial error in order to punish him, but that once man has wilfully embraced a wrong course of action, he is liable to set in motion a long train of disasters over which he has little control.  There is also the notion that it is in the nature of evil to spread its influence far and with fearful rapidity, visiting both good and bad with misery and ruin, and that once the evil has been let loose man has no control over the consequences. Furthermore, the sufferers in the Lear universe cannot expect the gods to grant them or their fellows immunity from further suffering, as soon as they have repented, and it is part of the order of things in that universe that individual evil can never remain individual.  The main point to be made about the idea of cosmic justice as seen in King Lear is that it is quite distinct from the poetic justice that so many critics seem to think that Shakespeare should have preserved.  Poetic justice ensures that rewards and punishments are carefully distributed and bear as exact a relationship as possible to the nature of the deed.  King Lear makes no attempt to establish such a relationship.  It suggests, instead, that the notion of a purely retributive justice is one of mankind’s illusions, and that although evil may be ultimately self-destroying, being good and virtuous provide us with few guarantees or protection against evil in the world.

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Nature and its Meaning in King Lear

Shakespeare often focuses on major philosophical issues in his tragedies.  For example, the famous critic and scholar, Wilson Knight, declares that ‘the theme of Hamlet is death’.  However, no Shakespearean play is so consistently devoted to a single central idea as King Lear is to the exploration of the meaning of the concept of ‘Nature’.  The play explores the idea of human nature, the natural world, what is natural and unnatural, and the many references to monsters and monstrous deeds, and so on, are numerous and occur throughout the play.

The events of the play and the behaviour of most of the character’s underline Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the idea.  Lear disowns his one loyal and loving daughter in favour of two who will turn savagely on him.  Gloucester, with that deep irony so characteristic of almost every major statement of its kind in the play, calls the utterly treacherous Edmund his ‘loyal and natural boy’, and disowns his totally devoted son Edgar.  Each parent severs the bond of nature with animal ferocity, then, with grim irony, invokes nature as a reason for doing so.  Lear’s argument: Cordelia is a wretch whom nature is ashamed ‘Almost to acknowledge hers’; Gloucester’s: Edgar is ‘an unnatural, detested, brutish villain: Worse than brutish’.

Lear and Gloucester, in Shakespeare’s scheme of things, commit mortal sins against nature, and the rest of the play is mainly concerned with the awful revenge that nature will take on the two offenders, who act from brute instinct and in blindness.  But Lear and Gloucester, however we may weigh their moral guilt, will each pay a price that bears little proportion to the admitted evil of their parallel actions.

Each will be largely cut off from the kindness, generosity and protection which human beings naturally afford each other.  They will be forced to wander in a storm, one of the great Shakespearean symbols of disorder.  They will learn the lessons of their folly through pain and suffering.  Gloucester, paradoxically, must be blinded in order to see; Lear, paradoxically, must be driven to madness to achieve an understanding of himself and his acts.

The following are some examples of the many and varied aspects of the term ‘Nature’ as seen in the play:

  • Allow not nature more than nature needs

Man’s life is cheap as beasts. (II, iv, 265)

Here nature means the primitive condition of mankind before civilisation.

  • Thou has one daughter

Who redeems nature from the general curse

Which twain have brought her to (IV, vi, 210)

Here we have the idea of an originally innocent nature before the Fall of Adam and Eve which requires a redemption.

  • That nature, which contemns in the origin

Cannot be bordered certain in itself (IV, ii, 32)

Nature here is used to define the bond between child and parent.  Goneril’s unnatural treatment of her father involves the breaking of this bond.  Albany warns Goneril that in so doing she will, like a branch severed from a tree, ‘wither and come to deadly use’.

  • The characters in the play embody quite different conceptions of the meaning of nature. Cordelia represents an ideal: human kindness, the sense of a close kinship between human beings.  Her sisters and Edmund see Nature as red in tooth and claw, and all men, irrespective of family ties, at war with others for personal advantage.

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The Death of Lear

What is Lear’s state of mind at the moment of his death?  The answer we give depends on whether we believe Shakespeare meant the play to close on a bleak and cheerless note or whether (if Lear is seen to die happy if deluded) that he intended the play to end on a more hopeful note.  The crucial lines are these:

Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips.

Look there, look there. (V, iii, 312-3)

A. C. Bradley, the great Shakespearean scholar, suggests that Lear dies of joy, believing Cordelia to be still alive. Bradley pointed out that when Lear was still in doubt as to whether she was alive or dead he declared:

                                                She lives!  If it be so

Its is a chance which does redeem all sorrows

That ever I have felt.

If, in other words, she was still alive, this would counterbalance for him all the miseries he had endured up to this.  Bradley distinguished between what the reader must feel as he watches Lear’s pathetic deception and what the deluded Lear himself is experiencing:

To us, perhaps, the knowledge that he is deceived may have a culmination of pain, but if it brings only that, I believe we are false to Shakespeare, and it seems almost beyond question that any actor is false to the text who does not attempt to express in Lear’s last accents and gestures and look, an unbearable joy (Shakespearean Tragedy).

This analysis has often been criticised as being too sentimental, but it has two fairly strong supports.  One is the fact that in Shakespeare’s source for the play, Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Lear’s heart is described as being ‘stretched so far beyond his limits with this excess of comfort’.  The other is that we are almost certainly intended to see Gloucester’s last moments as providing a parallel to Lear’s, all their other major experiences being parallel.  And here is how Gloucester dies;

                                                His flawed heart

Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,

Burst smilingly (V, iii, 196).

In recent times, strong voices have been raised against the view that joy is the keynote of Lear’s departure from this life.  One point that should be borne in mind is that Lear’s illusion that Cordelia still lives recurs three of four times in the last scene:

She’s dead as earth.  Lend me a looking glass.

If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,

Why then, she lives….

Here there is a heart-breaking tension in Lear between an absolute knowledge that Cordelia is dead, and an absolute inability to accept it.  When his test with the looking-glass fails, he snatches a feather and tries a second test:

This feather stirs; she lives!  If it be so,

It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows

That ever I have felt…

This effort, like the last one, fails.  Then again he tries to prove that she is alive by putting his ear to her lips in the hope that she might be speaking:

Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little.  Ha,

What is’t thou sayest?  Her voice was ever soft.

Gentle, and low – an excellent thing in woman …

He dies vainly seeking (or thinking he finds) life in her lips (‘Look there, look there’).  What comfort can be extracted from the manner of his death?    It might well be argued in response to Bradley that, given the cycle of despair, insanity and the illusion of hope, it hardly matters very much at what point of it Lear expires.  One bleaker version is that of J. Stampfer, who argues that,

Gloucester died between extremes of joy and grief, at the knowledge that his son was miraculously preserved.  Lear between extremes of illusion and truth, ecstasy and the blackest despair, at the knowledge that his daughter was needlessly butchered.  Gloucester’s heart burst smilingly at his reunion with Edgar; Lear’s, we are driven to conclude, burst in the purest agony at his eternal separation from Cordelia (Shakespeare Survey, 1960, p.4).

Whatever the relative merits of the views expressed by Bradley and Stampfer, it is perhaps going too far to say that at the moment of Lear’s death, joy is in equal balance with grief.  What is safe to say is that Lear’s heart breaks.  The words of Kent make this clear (‘Break heart, I prithee break’).  It is also clear that we are meant to see his death as the culmination of an ordeal of torment renewed beyond reasonable endurance.  Again Kent is our authority:

Vex not his ghost.  O, let him pass! He hates him

That would upon the rack of this rough world

Stretch him out longer.

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King Lear: The Spirit of the Play

When one tries to describe one’s overall impression of King Lear, its spirit, its overall mood, one can easily fall into the trap of imposing a pattern based on one’s own preferences and attitudes.  Many critics have seen, and described, King Lear as the embodiment of utter despair, chaos and cynicism.  Others see it as Shakespeare’s endorsement of love as the supreme and absolute human value.  Both these extreme views fail to do justice to the range of issues so deeply touched on by Shakespeare in this tragedy.

The spirit of the play cannot be wholly pessimistic.  At play’s end, Lear has been reconciled to Cordelia and Gloucester to Edgar.  Evil, as represented by the wicked quartet, Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril and Regan, has prospered for a while, taken possession of the Lear universe, caused men to descend to sheer bestiality, but has, by the close, destroyed itself.  But is it too much to say that good has enjoyed a corresponding triumph?  The ‘good’ characters, Lear, Cordelia, Edgar, Gloucester, Kent, must suffer, and even when their sufferings seem no longer supportable suffer again until the two chief characters die in harrowing circumstances.

Where, then, do we look for an ‘optimistic’ note in King Lear? It is easy, after all, to define the pessimistic ones: the forces of suffering and evil have possessed the play so long, and have so steadily enjoyed their various triumphs, that it may seem false to the overall tone of the play to underline the less despairing indications that offer themselves, if even tentatively, and almost apologetically.  It may be too much to claim that Lear’s reunion with Cordelia is the final seal on the salvation he has begun to achieve through suffering and deprivation.  His real salvation is, perhaps, a more prosaic one: release at last from the torture of his life.  The major theme of the play is what men must endure at the hands of those forces, inner and outer, which govern the courses of their lives.  The play shows these forces as capable of almost continuous cruelty and torment.  But it also sounds another note.  The entire course of events in King Lear suggests that the forces of life perform another function.  John Holloway, in his excellent study, puts the matter as follows:

To follow the master, to sustain the state, top bless one’s child, to succour the aged and one’s parents – the idea of being brought back to rectitude is what the play ends with.  These are the things which it falls to living men to do; and if the play advances appositive, I think it is that when men turn away from how they should live there are forces in life which constrain them to return.  If anything rules creation, it is (though only, as it were, by a hairsbreadth) simply rule itself.  What order restores, is order.  Men tangle their lives; life, at a price, is self-untangling at last (The Story of the Night).

 Faced with the overwhelming depravity of the four chief villains, and the relative success of their schemes, it is easy to lose sight of the depth of human goodness and decency in King Lear.  Kent and the Fool remain loyal to Lear to the end; Albany grows in moral stature as the plot develops; Edgar at times reaches heights of selfless perfection.  Lear learns to recognise goodness and love for what they are, and his gratitude at this revelation is one of the more memorable things in the play.    It is true that the lessons learned by Lear and Gloucester have involved a huge amount of suffering, and a terrible waste, a cosmic upheaval.  But this in itself may be seen as offering grounds for optimism about man’s place in the overall scheme of things.  That the forces of life and nature should so disarrange themselves to teach two old men how to live is powerful testimony to the fundamental worth of human beings.  Lear recognises this.  Even the Supreme Powers, he feels, witness the events in which he is the central figure with awe and reverence:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,

The gods themselves throw incense …

 

 

As I pointed out earlier, King Lear is set in England – an England before history, a country of swirling mists and violent tempests where ancient gods hold sway.  This new cinematic adaptation of the play places it at some unknown time in the future – although recent political events in Westminster suggest that the United Kingdom may not be united for much longer!  Ironically, this was one of the major reasons why Shakespeare gave us the great tragedies – he was saying to his audience: ‘This is what happens when you mess with order – do not go there!’.  Four hundred years later ……. the Bard is still relevant!  Study well!

 

Works Cited

Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.

Granville Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol 2. King Lear, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar.  Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd, 2006.

Heilman, R.B., This Great Stage: Structure in King Lear. Louisiana State University. 1948.

Holloway, John.  The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. Routledge: London and New York. 1961 (Reprinted 2005).

Murray, Patrick. King Lear in Inscapes published by The Educational Company of Ireland. 1980

Schucking, Levin L., Character Problems in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Guide to the Better Understanding of the Dramatist.  First published by George G. Harrap in July 1922.

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.

Stampfer, J., The Catharsis of King Lear’ in Shakespeare Survey 13, Cambridge, 1960

Further Reading

You might also like to read my ‘Single Text Study Notes on King Lear’ here.

Also, you might like to have a look at ‘Image Patterns in King Lear’ here.