Silas Marner by George Eliot is a radically disturbing social document…

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The Postcard Beautiful English village of Bilberry, Gloucestershire, England. (Photo by Saffron Blaze)

One of the major themes raised by George Eliot in Silas Marner is the English class system. However, it has to be noted that she doesn’t deal with anything like the whole range of English class distinctions that were in existence in the early years of the nineteenth century. For example, she omits the aristocracy in all its graduations, and, since her chief location is a quintessential English village, she cannot include the great industrial factory owners who were beginning to emerge as a potent force. And although the community at Lantern Yard is an urban one, we are given only the briefest sketch of the lives of the people who live there.

Those caveats aside, in Silas Marner, the highest social class is represented by the Cass family. In English social history, the local squire represented the class of medium landowners, who were less important than the landed aristocrats with their great estates. The squire was really a landowning gentleman; the village squire, such as Squire Cass, would be the chief landowner in the neighbourhood or ‘manor’. His house was often called the ‘manor house’, and many of the people of the surrounding area would have been tenants on his land.  Squire Cass of Raveloe cannot be called a major representative of his class. He is, with pleasant irony, called ‘the greatest man in Raveloe’, but really only in the sense that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king! He is not a great landowner, although he does occupy the most impressive house in Raveloe. Indeed, he has, it transpires, only ‘a tenant or two’, who complain to him about the activities of poachers ‘as if he had been a lord’, which he is indeed far from being.

He and his family have, however, a considerable estimation of their own importance. Those next in rank to them, the Osgoods, who merely own the farm they occupy and have no tenants, and the Lammeters, must be content with a somewhat inferior place in Raveloe society. The social superiority of the Squire is nicely emphasised in the remark about asking Nancy’s father to agree to her marriage with Godfrey:

‘Well, then, let me make the offer for you, that’s all if you haven’t the pluck to do it yourself. Lammeter isn’t likely to be loath for his daughter to marry into my family, I should think’.

Decidedly below the landowning class, represented by the Squire, the Osgoods and the Lammeters are a variety of occupations and include some of the most interesting figures in the novel. We have the Squire’s brother-in-law, Kimble, who is an apothecary (our modern-day pharmacist); Mr Crackenthorpe, Rector of Raveloe; Mr Macey, tailor and parish clerk; Mr Tookey, deputy parish clerk, Ben Winthrop, the wheelwright, husband of Dolly; Mr Snell, the landlord of the Rainbow Inn; Solomon Macey, the fiddler; Jem Rodney, the mole catcher; and last but not least Silas Marner, the weaver. These humble characters are the life and soul of the novel; their social superiors are a great deal less vital, less human, less sympathetic.

In Silas Marner, George Eliot casts a cold eye on the English social system, particularly on its more privileged sectors. Her comment on the class to which the Cass family belongs is less than flattering:

‘It was still that glorious war-time which was felt to be a peculiar favour of providence towards the landed interest, and the fall of prices had not yet come to carry the race of small squires and yeomen down that road to ruin for which extravagant habits and bad husbandry were plentifully anointing their wheels’.

Details of the extravagant habits and carefree attitudes towards social and personal responsibility soon follow. The Squire keeps all his sons at home in idleness. Dunstan, in particular, is a noted rake, spiteful, jeering, drunken, a gambler and a waster; his brother Godfrey seems to be following the same path. George Eliot, significantly, gives Godfrey a miserable fate; he ends up humiliated and unhappy. Meanwhile, the chief representative of the lower orders, on the other hand, has luck on his side: despite his early reverses, Silas survives to enjoy a relatively happy old age. The moral of this contrast in fortunes is clear: Godfrey’s fate is bound up with the habits and attitudes of his class; he is conditioned by these to be the man he is.

Silas Marner deals with rich and poor people, a common enough theme of novelists of all ages. What is interesting here, however, is not so much the theme, but the way in which it is treated. Traditionally, romances involving rich and poor characters, if they were to end in marriage between persons of different classes, would employ a stock device: the poor character would not really belong to the lower class at all but would turn out to have noble or wealthy ancestors or rich parents who had died. George Eliot is having none of this! Instead, she turns the conventional social approach on its head by implying that the life of the poor is superior to that of the rich and expects our approval when she has Eppie reject the comfort and status of the Red House for a marriage to a working-man. Furthermore, she suggests to her readers that Silas is a better man than Godfrey, in that, while both men have to cope with the events surrounding Eppie, Godfrey proves himself inadequate, and Silas does all the right things. She lets us see that Godfrey is a prisoner of his class. While his ‘inferiors’ give their thoughts to helping others, Godfrey is concerned with the effects on himself of ‘the increasing poor-rate and the ruinous times’. At no level, except on the purely economic one, do the privileged people in Silas Marner enjoy any superiority. Nancy Lammeter is a self-regarding woman whose ‘principles’ will not permit her to adopt a child; while, on the other hand, Dolly Winthrop enjoys helping Silas to care for Eppie, and has a deeper understanding of the mysteries at the heart of things than her socially and better educated ‘superior’ has.

There is a nice irony here. The events of the novel show up the moral inferiority of the ‘better’ class. Despite this, their chief representative, Godfrey Cass, is convinced of his own superiority and of that of his way of life. His tone with Silas during their vital interview about Eppie’s destiny is very much that of a superior talking down to a man of lower degree: unfeeling, patronising, narrow-minded, insulting. It is his unwitting admission of his contempt for the working-class that deprives him of any chance he might otherwise have had of winning the confidence of Silas and Eppie:

‘I should have thought, Marner, he said severely – ‘I should have thought your affection for Eppie would have made you rejoice in what was for your good, even if it did call upon you to give up something. You ought to remember your own life’s uncertain, and she’s at an age now when her lot may soon be fixed in a way very different from what it would be in her father’s home: she may marry some low working-man, and then, whatever I might do for her, I couldn’t make her well off’.

I suppose there are some who would argue that George Eliot is not being overly radical here in her depiction of the class distinctions that prevailed in the early 1800s in England. Some would argue that she is simply following the status quo and that she takes for granted the fact that class divisions are part of the natural order of things. In her defence, we must acknowledge, however, that this novel would have been read by the Nancy Lammeters of the time rather than the Dolly Winthrops: surely it took great courage and conviction to write a novel which could potentially alienate most of your readers?  When we read closely, there are numerous examples given of stark divisions of class and it is obvious that George Eliot is disapproving rather than approving of these episodes. For example, she describes the scene following Sunday morning service in Raveloe church:

‘It was the rural fashion of that time for the more important members of the congregation to depart first, while their humbler neighbours waited and looked on, stroking their bent heads or dropping their curtsies to any large ratepayer who turned to notice them.’

Eliot presents this to us in such a way that it is difficult not to feel distaste at the social system that encourages this kind of debasement of human beings in the presence of others. Again what is one to make of the Squire’s wish to prolong the war with France solely because to do so would serve the interests of his own class?:

‘And that fool Kimble says that the newspaper’s talking about peace. Why, the country wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Prices ‘ud run down like a jack, and I should never get my arrears, not if I sold all the fellows up’.

Here, ‘the country’ means the Cass family and the landed interest generally. Of course, nowhere in the novel does George Eliot advocate the destruction of the class system, but her presentation is such that no sensitive reader can fail to question the validity of an order of things that causes Silas Marner, Dolly Winthrop and Mr Macey to think of members of the Cass family as their betters. The Squire imposes his social authority mainly by being loud of voice and by speaking to people ‘in a ponderous and coughing fashion’. The tone and manner of their presentation here, and in many similar instances, tend to undermine whatever respect the reader might feel for the Squire and his family. This is the same Squire who favours prolonged war as a means of enriching himself and who is seen to give his deerhounds ‘enough bits of beef to make a poor man’s holiday dinner’. Therefore, I think you’ll agree there are enough such disturbing scenes and incidents to make Silas Marner a radically disturbing social document.

 

 

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Typical nineteenth-century English village (Photo by Dirk Seifert).

 

Further Reading:

You might also like to read

Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

Silas Marner – The Characters

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

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The main fairy-tale element in Silas Marner is found in the story of Silas and Eppie. Remember the paragraph which launches the main plot:

‘In the early years of this century, such a linen weaver, named Silas Marner, worked at his vocation in a stone cottage that stood among the nutty hedgerows near the village of Raveloe, and not far from the edge of a deserted stone-pit’.

This opening has some of the essential features we expect in a fairy-tale: its compactness, its air of authority, its establishment of essential detail. The location of Marner’s cottage and the suggestion of timelessness are other appropriate details. The ending, too, is a typical fairy-tale one, reminiscent of hundreds of endings in children’s stories, where the good characters live happily ever after:

‘O father’, said Eppie, ‘what a pretty home ours is! I think nobody could be happier than we are’.

The details, the style and the tone of these passages convey the impression that we are in the world of fairy story where the good characters, having been tested, emerge to live happily ever after. Between the beginning and end of the novel, numerous passages take us far away from anything we might expect to find in a realistic novel, and into the magical world of the Brothers Grimm  or Hans Christian Anderson:

‘Turning towards the hearth, where the two logs had fallen apart and sent forth only a red uncertain glimmer, he seated himself on his fireside chair and was stooping to push his logs together when, to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth. Gold! – his own gold – brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away!’

Fairy-tale elements are scattered freely throughout the novel and gold is a dominant influence on the action, as it is in so many fairy-tales: other features worth mentioning are the themes of loss and discovery, of death and rebirth, restoration, regeneration and transformation. The mystery of Eppie’s identity is also relevant here, as are the many secrets long hidden but at last revealed. The extremes of good and evil represented by some of the characters should also be noted, as should the motif of stolen, buried and recovered treasure. Finally, it is significant that Eppie appears on New Year’s Eve. This accords with the ancient superstition that luck commonly turned with the New Year. For Silas, Eppie’s arrival fulfils the old prediction of ‘third time lucky’. Two previous entrants to his home brought ill-luck with them; now Eppie is to transform his life for the better.

However, we have to agree that if Silas Marner were simply a fairy-tale, it would scarcely have achieved its classic status. It is, of course, much more than that. While the fairy-tale elements are numerous, it is the solid grounding of the story in the actual and familiar sights, sounds and events of everyday life that makes the story so credible. Raveloe and its immediate environs are compellingly presented in realistic detail:

‘…… orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty; the large church in the wide churchyard; which men gazed at lovingly at their own doors in service time; the purple-faced farmers jogging along the lanes or turning in at the Rainbow; homesteads, where men supped heavily and slept in the light of the evening hearth and where women seemed to be laying up a stock of linen for the life to come’.

The atmosphere of Raveloe is presented to us in concrete detail. Its inhabitants impress themselves unforgettably on our consciousness with their diverse personalities and rich, distinctive speech. The most striking instances of this are found in the Rainbow Inn scenes (Chapter 6). Here the leading personalities of the district drink, argue and gossip:

‘The pipes began to be pulled in a silence which had an air of severity; the more important customers, who drank spirits and sat nearest the fire, staring at each other as if a bet were depending on the first man who winked; while the beer drinkers, chiefly men in fustian jackets and smock-frocks, kept their eyelids down and rubbed their hands across their mouths as if their draughts of beer were a funereal duty attended with embarrassing sadness’.

Realistic scenes like this one are common throughout the novel where very real characters speak very realistically against a realistic background. George Eliot pays great attention to the thought processes of her characters and constantly renders these with great fidelity. One very good example of this is the way in which she traces the pattern of reflection forming in Dunstan’s mind as he enters Marner’s cottage and finds nobody there:

‘If the weaver was dead, who had a right to his money? Who would know where the money was hidden? Who would know that anyone had come to take it away?’

Her realistic treatment of the way in which people’s thoughts can be influenced is also very well illustrated in the affair of the pedlar’s earrings:

‘On the spread of enquiry among the villagers, it was stated with gathering emphasis that the parson had wanted to know whether the pedlar wore earrings in his ears, and an impression was created that a great deal depended on the eliciting of this fact. Of course, everyone who heard the question, not having any distinct image of the pedlar as without earrings, immediately had an image of him as with earrings, larger or smaller, as the case might be, and the image was presently taken for a vivid recollection, so that the glazier’s wife, a well-intentioned woman, not given to lying, and whose home was the cleanest in the village, was ready to declare, as sure as she ever meant to take the sacrament, that she had seen big earrings, in the shape of the young moon, in the pedlar’s two ears’.

George Eliot once argued that ‘a man or woman who publishes writings, inevitably assumes the office of teacher or influencer of the public mind’.  In Silas Marner she has a stark lesson for her audience: there is a strong implication in the novel that the lives of the poor have a lot more to recommend them than those of the rich and also that the attitude of the poor towards the important issues of living are often more valid than those of their social superiors. There are also many contrasts made in the novel between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ characters. Silas and Godfrey Cass are both deeply involved in Eppie’s fate, but, while Silas makes all the right decisions, Godfrey, who should know better, makes all the wrong ones.

Finally, in dealing with Eppie’s choice of a humble marriage rather than the life of a lady in the Cass household, George Eliot combines realism with one other classic fairy-tale motif.  This time, however, the usual fairy-tale ending does not quite materialise. If Eppie is Cinderella, she does not achieve the same result as her fairy-tale counterpart, and the reason for this lies in her own conscious choice. Her rejection of ease and privilege in favour of life with Silas and her working-class husband makes explicit her refusal to play the role of Cinderella:

‘I shouldn’t know what to think on or to wish for with fine things about me, as I haven’t been used to. And it ‘ud be poor work for me to put on things, and ride in a gig, and sit in a place at church, as ‘ud make them as I’m fond of think me unfitting company for ‘em.  What could I care for then?  …. I like to working folk and their victuals and their ways’.

The ideal fairy-tale ending generally implies that happiness and material wealth are synonymous. However, here we have a young heroine, Eppie, who can declare with great feeling:

‘I’m promised to marry a working-man, as’ll live with father, and help me to take care of him’.

Her arrival in the story may have carried strong associations from the world of fairy-tales, but the life she has eventually chosen for herself is clearly to be based in the real, everyday world.

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Further Reading

You might also like to read:

Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

Silas Marner – The Characters

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

Silas Marner by George Eliot is a radically disturbing social document…

Silas Marner – The Characters

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SILAS MARNER

The Pious Youth  In Lantern Yard, Silas was a very happy young man. He was very respected for his piety by the religious community to which he belonged; he had a good trade as a weaver and he was engaged to be married to a pretty serving girl named Sarah. However, it was during this period that Silas experienced his first attack of catalepsy. When he suffered a fit during a religious service, his co-religionists taking his trance-like state to be a divine visitation were filled with admiration. This aroused the jealousy of his best friend William Dane, who now sought some way to destroy his friend’s standing in Lantern Yard. His opportunity came when Silas had another attack while watching at the bedside of an old Dean, who had died before Silas recovered. While Silas was in his trance, his former friend stole the Dean’s bag of money and made it look as if Silas were the thief. When charged with the theft, the young weaver decided to rely on Providence to clear his name: he asked the elders to draw lots to determine his guilt or innocence. When the lots condemned him Silas was cast out by the community and ostracised. Sarah broke off her engagement, leaving Silas utterly friendless. With his faith in God and man destroyed by these events, Silas turned his back on Lantern Yard and city life forever and sought somewhere out of the way where he would be completely unknown.

Raveloe – The First Fifteen Years  George Eliot tells us that Raveloe, ‘was a village where many of the old echoes lingered, undrowned by new voices.’  She further describes it as being, ‘Not …. one of those barren parishes lying on the outskirts of civilization — inhabited by meagre sheep and thinly-scattered shepherds: on the contrary, it lay in the rich central plain of what we are pleased to call Merry England’. However, like Harper Lee’s Maycomb it was well off the beaten track, ‘it was nestled in a snug well-wooded hollow, quite an hour’s journey on horseback from any turnpike, where it was never reached by the vibrations of the coach-horn, or of public opinion’.  Much of this abundance is, of course, meant to contrast with Silas Marner’s previous place of residence in Lantern Yard. Whereas Lantern Yard had been austere, white-walled, and filled with serious and devout Puritans, Raveloe is a place of lazy plenty, pints at the local tavern, and carefree religion on Sundays. Chapter One declared it to be a place where bad farmers are rewarded for bad farming! Here Silas found his trade of weaving in such great demand that work kept his hands busy and his mind occupied. The villagers viewed their new strange outsider with interest at first, but when he repulsed their friendly overtures they stayed well clear of him. His paleness, his protuberant eyes (due to shortsightedness) and his unsocial ways led to rumours developing about the hermit-like weaver who lived alone in the stone cutter’s cottage and showed no interest in finding a wife.

Strange Powers  During his early days in Raveloe an incident occurred which had profound consequences. Noticing that one of his customers, Sally Oates, was suffering from dropsy, Silas was moved to pity. He prepared a herbal tea which he had learnt from his mother and gave it to the sick woman. When she was cured, Silas was eagerly sought out by people seeking remedies for all kinds of ailments. Rumours were rife about Silas’s magical powers and soon his cottage was under siege. Unable to pretend to skills he did not possess, and too honest to take their money under false pretences, Silas sent them all away empty-handed. However, this did not prevent the locals from continuing to believe he knew how to charm and cure when he wished, and thus he became even further isolated from the community.

The second event which affected his relationship with his new neighbours and increased his fearful reputation was due to his catalepsy. When he experienced a fit while out walking, his strange state was noticed by Jem Rodney the mole catcher. Jem was thoroughly frightened by Silas’s condition, and when he reported what he saw, the villagers came to believe that Silas could send his soul in and out of his body.

The Miser  Having no faith in God or man, and completely friendless, it was inevitable that something had to fill the terrible vacuum in the weaver’s heart. The bright shining gold coins which Silas received for his work gave his life a new meaning. Soon he was hoarding the precious metal and devoting himself totally to the amassing of further wealth. Reluctant to spend any of his bright darlings, he lived frugally and dressed in clothes that were little better than rags.

The Robbery  Fifteen years after he came to Raveloe, Silas had become very well known throughout the district. Feared for his magical powers and envied for his treasure, he spent his days at his loom and his evenings counting and stacking his pile of gold. This routine would have continued for many more years had not the robbery of his hoard by Dunstan Cass completely destroyed his lifestyle. Bewildered by his loss, Silas was forced to seek help from his neighbours. The sight of the wretched weaver in his forlorn state was enough to arouse the villagers’ pity and warm humanity. Yet Silas was not ready to rejoin the world of men. Though Mr Macey and Dolly Winthrop sought him out and urged him to go to church, Silas was not yet ready to turn back to the God whom he believed had cast him off.

The Arrival of Eppie and the Awakening of Compassion  The robbery had ended Silas’s pastime of counting his gold. Now he spent his evenings standing by his open door looking out into the dark nights. While the rest of the village made merry on New Year’s Eve, Silas kept his lonely vigil waiting for his money to return. One again his catalepsy played a crucial role. Overcome by it, he fell into a fit, and so was unaware of the little child toddling past towards the welcoming light and heat of his fire. When he came to, Silas saw the child’s golden hair, and at first thought his treasure had been restored to him. However, the discovery that instead of lifeless metal he had found a lost child did not disappoint him. Emotions, long-buried surfaced again, responding to the child’s cries. Silas’s compassionate self, so long dormant, was awakened. More importantly, the child sent Silas once more seeking help from the Raveloe community, thereby transforming his life again.

The Father  Silas’ determination to adopt the child surprised the villagers. Once again they were forced to revise their opinion of the weaver. That the erstwhile miser should willingly burden himself with another’s infant was amazing but, in its way, admirable, and so they were quick to help.

At first, Silas was entirely ignorant of the demands of parenthood. Dolly’s assistance and advice were invaluable in those early days. Though he made mistakes, Silas was above all a loving and unselfish father. Eppie had replaced his gold in his heart, but this new-found love was not a possessive self-centred obsession such as he had felt for his treasure: he never sought to own his child. Even as an infant he tried to give her as much freedom as possible. Later he would show the same generous spirit when she wished to marry Aaron. He was even prepared to return Eppie to her natural father, Godfrey, had she wished it. Paradoxically, it was this willingness to free her from his care which grappled him all the tighter to her heartstrings, so that she refused the chance to become a lady, and chose instead to remain in the humble cottage which had proved her first refuge.

Faith Restored  The advent of Eppie forced Silas to once again embrace a communal life. As a father, he could no longer plough his own lonely furrow living aloof from his neighbours. Their kindness melted any residual bitterness remaining from his Lantern Yard days. By having Eppie christened, Silas also returned to the Christian fold. The Raveloe church was very different from the religious community he had known before in his youth, but he soon adapted and adopted to its easy ways and he became a regular church-goer.

However, the experience of Lantern Yard had deeply troubled Silas. To seek some understanding of God’s betrayal in the lots, he and Eppie journeyed north to find the answer. But Lantern Yard no longer existed. He could find none of the community and no trace of William Dane and Sarah. Resolved to accept God’s mysterious ways, which made him so unhappy once but then brought him Eppie, Silas decided that henceforth he would trust in Providence until he died.

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GODFREY CASS

A Moral Coward  Though handsome, well-built and well-born, Godfrey Cass is no hero. His father’s neglect and the absence of a mother encouraged Godfrey and his four brothers to idle away their youth. His weak character had allowed him to be easily led by his younger and more dissolute brother, Dunstan, into a life of drunkenness and other forms of immorality. He had become involved with a barmaid, Mollie Farren, made her pregnant and then secretly married her. Ashamed to acknowledge his low-born wife, he found himself being blackmailed by Dunstan who was aware of the whole affair. To keep him quiet, Godfrey had given Dunstan £100 rent money which he had received from Fowler, one of his father’s tenants.

The Lover  Godfrey loves Nancy Lammeter, the daughter of a local landowner. For her sake, he reforms his ways. Nevertheless, he cannot propose to Nancy while Molly Farren is still alive. Yet Godfrey refuses to do anything to resolve his dilemma; instead he relies on chance to save him.

His faith seems to have been rewarded when Dunstan disappears and Molly dies in the snow. Freed of the burden of his opium-addicted wife, and rid of his blackmailing brother, Godfrey’s troubles appear to be at an end. At last, he can openly woo Nancy and seek her hand in marriage.

The Father  In refusing to accept responsibility for his infant daughter, Godfrey commits his most shameful wrong-doing. Rather than reveal his secret marriage, he allows his child to be adopted by the weaver and brought up in humble circumstances. When his marriage to Nancy proves childless, Godfrey feels that God is punishing him for his rejection of Eppie. To ease his conscience, he makes generous gifts of money and furniture to Silas and helps him to extend his cottage. Later he tries to persuade Nancy to adopt the little girl but she, unaware of the child’s true parentage, stubbornly resists, believing such an act to be against God’s will.

The Snob  Though Godfrey entrusts his daughter to Silas’s care, he clearly regards the weaver as his inferior. As a member of the gentry, Godfrey has been brought up to believe his own class to be superior in every way to the humble villagers. He addresses the weaver as ‘Marner’ and refers to Aaron Winthrop as ‘a low working man’. Yet, as he discovers when he reveals himself to Eppie and Silas, the reformed miser is a far better man morally and has been a better father to Eppie. Shamed by her rejection, Godfrey is forced to face up to his moral shortcomings and accept his guilt. Now, at last, he can show true repentance and achieve redemption. The experience also teaches him to appreciate Nancy’s love and forgiveness; so, though chastened, Godfrey is a far better person at the end of the novel than he was sixteen years earlier.

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SQUIRE CASS

The Gentry  George Eliot was largely unsympathetic to the pretensions of the landed gentry of her time and was particularly critical of those who gave themselves airs and graces. The idea, then common, that landowners were superior to their tenants and the villagers, is savagely satirised in this novel. The Squire imposes his social authority mainly by being loud of voice and by speaking to people ‘in a ponderous and coughing fashion’. In fact, George Eliot does a good job in undermining whatever respect the reader might feel for the Squire and his family. This is a man who favours prolonged war as a means of enriching himself and is seen giving his deerhounds ‘enough bits of beef to make a poor man’s holiday dinner’. There is, therefore enough disturbing scenes like this one to make this novel a very radical and disturbing social commentary of its time. The Squire may own more land than everyone else, but he has few if any admirable qualities.

The Father  As a father, Squire Cass has proved a complete failure. His five sons have been allowed to grow up in idle and spoilt. Godfrey, his heir, has almost ruined himself through an unsuitable marriage, while Dunstan is a thief and a blackmailer. Bob is his favourite, though his only achievement is that he dances well.

Personal Habits  In his personal appearance is Squire is slovenly and dirty. His house is no better – untidy, dusty and littered with unwashed tankards. Since his wife’s death, there has been no domestic order in the Red House. Breakfasts are taken at all hours, and the servants neglect their cleaning duties.

The Landowner  In the management of his estate, the Squire has also shown his characteristic lack of purpose and order. Despite the high prices for agricultural produce due to the war, he is in financial trouble and he is forced to hound his tenants for their rent. Yet his extravagance and wastefulness are shown when we watch him feeding his dogs on steak.

The Jovial Host  Only on New Year’s Eve, when he is the host at the biggest party in Raveloe, is the Squire seen at his best. Even then he is loud, boisterous and boastful. He is also tactless in his remarks, embarrassing both Godfrey and Nancy by his rather obvious hints.

The Moralist  Though a man of many faults himself, he is quick to condemn others. He disowns Dunstan and criticises Godfrey as if he were himself a man of impeccable morality. When George Eliot refers to him as ‘the greatest man in Raveloe’, she is clearly being ironic.

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DUNSTAN CASS

Dunstan Cass, the Squire’s second son, is the villain of the novel. He is described as ‘a spiteful jeering fellow’ who is happiest when hurting others. Godfrey’s predicament is a source of great amusement to him, especially since he can profit from it through blackmailing him. By nature, a drunkard, he is never without a flask of brandy and rarely sober.

He loves to bargain and swap since it allows him to swagger before others. Foolishly, Godfrey allows him to sell his horse. Even when the price has been agreed, Dunstan insists on riding the horse to the hunt to show off. His recklessness, due in part to having drunk too much brandy, encourages him to take one fence too many, and he stakes and kills the unfortunate animal.

His worst crime is his robbery of Silas Marner. Ironically, the theft proves to be the start of the weaver’s redemption. However, Dunstan has no time to enjoy his loot, as he falls into the quarry and is drowned within minutes of leaving Silas’s cottage.

Dunstan exhibits the worst features of the landed gentry in Eliot’s time. Idle and wasteful, he is full of his own importance, prepared to bully and blackmail and even to stoop to stealing when the opportunity arises. His disappearance is a relief to all in the village. Though mourned by none, the discovery of Dunstan’s skeleton prompts Godfrey to make a full confession to Nancy and restores his lost gold to Silas.

The Rarer Pleasure of seeing Miss Nancy Lammeter

NANCY LAMMETER

The Village Beauty  The loveliest girl in Raveloe is Nancy Lammeter.  As the daughter of a rich landowner, she is seen as the obvious choice of wife for Godfrey Cass and the match is greatly desired by the Squire. Godfrey is very much in love with Nancy but can do nothing as long as Molly, his secret wife, lives. For her part, Nancy loves Godfrey but abhors his dissolute ways. Only when he reforms completely after Molly’s death is she prepared to accept his proposal and become the mistress of the Red House.

Her Religion  Nancy is deeply religious. However, her Christianity is narrower and more rigid than that of Raveloe people in general. Since she also is stubborn by nature, she is prepared to take inflexible stances on what she believes are moral issues. Thus, when her baby dies in infancy, she decides it is god’s will that they remain childless. Having made up her mind, she stubbornly opposes Godfrey’s efforts to adopt a child.

Her Class  Though she belongs to the gentry, Nancy has none of the snobbery associated with her class. She has worked with her hands and thought nothing of it. Her beauty and charm are acknowledged by all, even the envious Miss Gunne. Her dress may not be the latest fashion, but it is far more becoming than theirs.

The Wife   As a wife, Nancy has devoted herself to her husband. She has restored the Red House to its former glory. Their marriage would have been perfect had they had children. Instead, Nancy finds her life empty and is even considering setting up a dairy to busy herself. Godfrey’s revelations about his former marriage test her love, but she proves herself truly Christian in her forgiveness. Her first thoughts are of Eppie, and she is prepared to accept the drug addict’s daughter as her own. She accepts Eppie’s rejection bravely and bears no grudge towards the girl. Indeed, she supplies Eppie with her bridal dress. Godfrey, realising how fortunate he is to have such a good wife, appreciates Nancy more than ever, and both discover a richer life together as a result of their experiences. Both have paid dearly for their mistakes, but in learning the lessons of life they achieve real happiness at last.

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DOLLY WINTHROP

Note: Though George Eliot favoured the ordinary villagers more than their so-called betters, she was not prepared to glamorise them in any way. Her working people are shown warts and all, but with enough endearing qualities to ensure our sympathy and even admiration.

An Unlikely Saint  Dolly Winthrop is illiterate and uneducated, yet she possesses great wisdom and kindness. She is known throughout Raveloe for her caring ways; she tends the sick and comforts the dying. When Kimble hears of Molly’s death, Dolly is the first person he sends for. She visits Silas after the robbery, bringing him lard cakes and homely advice. Dolly’s experience of suffering tells her that Silas’s real problem is loneliness. To remedy that, she encourages him to go to church to join the community.

The Godmother  When Silas finds himself the adoptive parent of a baby girl, he needs Dolly. Her maternal know-how proves invaluable in the early days as Silas takes on the new and daunting role of parent. As well as instructing him in the basics, she provides Eppie with clothes. She also becomes the child’s godmother and thereafter takes an active interest in Eppie’s development and welfare. However, at no time does she try to supplant Silas in his daughter’s affections. As always, her help is entirely unselfish and altruistic.

The Confidante  Dolly is Silas’s closest friend in Raveloe. He learns to value her help and advice. He also confides in her, revealing the story of the earlier theft at Lantern Yard and the judgement of the lots. Knowing how difficult it is for him to come to terms with this, Dolly advises him to have faith in Providence. Silas wants to know more, but after his fruitless journey back to Lantern Yard he comes to accept that God’s ways are too mysterious for men to understand. Yet, had he not suffered in lantern Yard, he would never have come to Raveloe and never known Eppie’s love. This realisation puts his mind at peace, and he resolves to follow Dolly’s philosophy and to ‘trusten ‘ till he dies.

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Further Reading:

You might also like to read

Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

Silas Marner by George Eliot is a radically disturbing social document…

Free Resources for Leaving Cert English Students 2020

Because of the ongoing school closures and the uncertainty and anxiety which this causes all Leaving Cert students, I have brought together here in one post links to a series of relevant notes which you may consider useful in your English course studies for 2020.  These notes cover Single Text, Comparative and Poetry Sections.

Caveat Emptor!  Leaving Cert Student Beware !!  These are resources which you should use wisely.  They are personal responses to the various texts and you should read and consider them if you find them useful.   IN OTHER WORDS, MAKE YOUR OWN OF THEM, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.  ALSO, YOU MIGHT SPREAD THE WORD, DON’T KEEP THEM ALL TO YOURSELF!

THE SINGLE TEXT

(You know the drill, click on the link!)

Hamlet

Shakespearean Tragedy Defined

Hamlet: An Introduction

Hamlet: The World of the Play

The Problem with Hamlet – is Hamlet

Hamlet’s ‘Antic Disposition’ – That is the Question!

Hamlet’s Delay

Death and Deceit in Hamlet

The Moral Question in Hamlet

The King and Queen in Hamlet

Polonius and his family in Hamlet

Comparisons and Contrasts in Hamlet

Ghosts and the Supernatural in Hamlet

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Persuasion

Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

The Playboy of the Western World

An Analysis of the characters of Christy Mahon, Pegeen Mike and the Widow Quin in The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge

 

THE COMPARATIVE STUDY QUESTION IN 2020

RATIONALE
This section was introduced in order to bring some variety and interest to the manner in which texts are studied at Leaving Cert. level and to give students another perspective on the potential of literature in their lives.

Although literary texts are aesthetic artefacts they can be gainfully approached from a range of other viewpoints, e.g. cultural, historical, social, which can enrich our understanding of the role and significance of literature.

Studying texts comparatively from these perspectives invites students to interact with the different worlds encountered and to make discriminations and evaluations. Such study will hopefully reflect back on the student’s own world and raise her or his awareness of it.

MODES OF COMPARISON

For each Leaving Certificate course, three modes of comparison will be prescribed. This means that the texts chosen for comparative study must be studied under these particular modes (headings).

This year the modes of comparison at Higher Level are as follows:
• Literary Genre
• Theme or Issue
• Cultural Context

Two of these three will be examined in 2020.

Literary Genre
This mode focuses on the ways that texts tell their story. This is also a legitimate basis for comparison: whether it is a tragic play, a detective thriller, a film, a historical novel, an autobiography or a travel book. (The amazing thing is that all these differing genres are available for study on this course!).

The following questions should be asked about the texts being studied by you:
• How is this story told? (Who tells it? Where and when is it told?)
• Why is the story told in this way?
• What effects do all these have?
• Is there just one plot or many plots? How do these relate?
• What are the major tensions in the texts? Are they resolved or not?
• Was this way of telling the story successful and enjoyable?
• How do the texts compare as stories?
• Is the story humorous or tragic, romantic or realistic?
• To what genre does it actually belong?
• Because your three texts are so different you have to be very aware of how different the experience of encountering a novel, a play, and viewing a film is.

Theme or Issue
This involves comparing texts on a prescribed theme(s). These would have to be themes that were pervasive and central to the texts chosen for study e.g.

  • Isolation and Loneliness
  • Relationships
  • Family
  • Childhood
  • Fantasy and reality

These themes/issues will be the messages or concerns that the writer or film director wishes to impart to the audience. In most texts, there will be a number of themes/issues worth considering

Your task, therefore, in this section is to compare and contrast the same theme as it is treated by different authors or film directors.

Cultural Context
Compare the texts focusing on social rituals, values and attitudes. This is not to be seen as a sociological study of the texts alone. It means taking some perspectives, which enable the students to understand the kind of values and structures with which people contend. It amounts to entering into the world of the text and getting some insight and feel for the cultural texture of the world created. This would imply considering such aspects as the rituals of life and the routines of living, the structures of society, familial, social, economic, religious and political: the respective roles of men and women in society, the position of children, the role and nature of work, the sources and structures of power and the significance of race and class.

When you answer a question in the Comparative Section remember that you have to be selective in emphasising the most meaningful similarities and differences between texts. The more similar they appear to be, the more provocative and challenging it is to contrast them and to draw out differences between them. Remember also that when you draw out surprising or disputable similarities or differences, you require detailed support from the texts.

In a Comparative answer, it is vitally important to compare and contrast these different ways of looking at life, or to examine if there is coherence or a lack of coherence between all these differing viewpoints.

THE COMPARITIVE STUDY

EXAM HINTS

• There are three modes of comparison this year – literary genre, themes and issues, and cultural context. Two of these modes will be examined this year.

• Four questions will be offered in this section to cater for the variety of texts that have been studied. (Only one question is to be answered from this section.) You must read each question carefully and in full to see if it suits your own set of texts.

• Some questions will be in the form of a statement to be discussed. Others will be presented in parts with the marking for each part clearly stated following the question.

• It is vitally important that you remember that the questions here will be mode-specific and not text-specific. Remember that you must approach this section with the comparative headings in mind and then you must apply them to your chosen texts.

• You should bear in mind that, as with the single text, e.g. Hamlet, you must avoid the easy option of merely summarising the story. This will fill up pages (and pages!) of foolscap and will give the impression of writing a lot but will not give the examiner the opportunity of awarding marks. Remember, THINK, ANALYSE, PROVE AND SUPPORT your points as you go.

• The most important words to remember in writing answers here in this section is COMPARE and CONTRAST. You should present texts alongside one another and then compare, contrast and think about interesting parallels and divergences as they arise.

• Remember to have your KEY MOMENTS well prepared for this section so that you can make use of them in comparing one text with another.

 

Links to Notes on Comparative Texts

A Doll’s House

Study Notes on A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

Persuasion

Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Wuthering Heights

Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

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

Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

Silas Marner

Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

Silas Marner – The Characters

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

Silas Marner by George Eliot is a radically disturbing social document…

The Great Gatsby

Introducing ‘The Great Gatsby’

The Spinning Heart

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

 

THE POETRY SECTION IN 2020

I include links to FIVE of the eight poets on your course here – simply click on the link.

Eavan Boland

Major Themes in Eavan Boland’s Poetry

The Beauty of Ordinary Things – In the Poetry of Eavan Boland

‘Child of Our Time’ by Eavan Boland

Emily Dickinson

An Overview of the Poetry of Emily Dickinson

Robert Frost

AN ANALYSIS OF THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST (1874 – 1963)

Some Personal Thoughts on ‘The Road not Taken’ by Robert Frost

Analysis of ‘Spring Pools’ by Robert Frost

Commentary on ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost

Adrienne Rich

Exploring the Poetry of Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012)

Hidden Riches in The Poetry of Adrienne Rich

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth’s Poetry

Tintern Abbey – An Analysis

Analysis of ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth

 

REMEMBER ALL THIS WILL PASS – STAY SAFE AND KEEP THOSE CLOSE TO YOU SAFE ALSO.  IN ACTUAL FACT, MOST OF THESE SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDIES WOULD HAVE BEEN AVERTED IF PEOPLE HAD STAYED HOME…..

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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

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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