The Incest Theme in Wuthering Heights Eric Solomon Nineteenth

The Incest Theme in Wuthering Heights
Eric Solomon
Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1. (Jun., 1959), pp. 80-83.
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Nineteenth-Century Fiction
fiction. "Veterans' Ranks," on the other hand, is merely a description
of a parade; the sentiments are conventional, the style reveals the
hurried hand of an undistinguished journalist.
Even with Crane's "The Gratitude of a Nation" before us it seems
rash to say-as Gullason does-that the existence of an article on
Decoration Day and a warlike description of a Harvard football
game "imply that the writer's close study of America-not, as most
critics insist, the novels of Tolstoy ( Ww and Peme, Seuastopol) and
Zola (Le De'bdc1e)-served him well when he created his masterpieces of war fiction, beginning with The Red Badge."Yt is simplistic indeed to assert but a single source for almost any literary
work, and particularly fo,r one so complex as The Red Badge of
Courage, in which influences of several kinds are synthesised into
an original expression with a unity of effect which almost successfully disguises the diversity of its origins. In my introduction to the
Harper's edition I have traced the indebtedness of Crane's book, in
point of treatment, aesthetic creed, ethical coherence, and certain
metaphors and structural elements, to Seuastopol, Le De'bdcle, and
Kipling's The Light That Failed. T o assert Crane's affiliations with
these works of foreign literatures neither impugns his own originality
nor makes negligible the role of his native American experience in
forming his sensibility. I prefer to maintain that
Crane in T h e Red Badge of Courage brings together the martial and religious
strains in his own family heritage, and, drawing on the crucial event in our
national history, he combines fictional treatments suggested by European models
with an individualism and concern for death traditional in American literature.'
'
Gullason, p. 160. "offman,
"Introduction" to The Red Badge.
Swarthmore College
. . (1957),
p. xv. DANIEL
G. HOFFMAN
THEINCEST
THEME
IN Wuthering Heights
According to two recent critics, much of the power of Wuthering
Heights stems from the inevitability of the tragedy. Richard Chase
considers that it is impossible to imagine such a stormy, undisciplined
pair as Cathy and Heathcliff ever settling down to a normal life of
domesticity.' Dorothy Van Ghent goes further to point out that the
'"The
BrontEs: A Centennial Observance," The Kenyon Review, I X (Autumn, 1947), 496.
Notes and Reviews
81
foster kinship "provides an imaginative reason for the unnaturalness
and impossibility of their mating."%ight not the tragic fate that
envelops the lovers be even more inevitable? Might not Heathcliff
and &thy be brother and sister?
One need not follow the dark Freudian lines of the Emily-Bramwell relationship-which have been fully explored by the author's
biographers-a to prove Emily Bronte's familiarity with the concept
of incestuous connections. Echoes of Byron and Byronism exist
throughout her poems; to a writer familiar with the life of the lover
of Aurora Leigh
and the works of the author of Manfred, the incest
motif would hardly be unknown. Eighteenth-century fiction certainly
provided numerous examples of the theme-incest is a plot device in
Moll Flanders, T o m Tones, Humphrey Clinker, and Evelinu, among
others.
External evidence is rarely of much value in a consideration of
Emily Bronte's fiction, however; nor does the dark poetry of Wuthering Heights call for a gloss from the standpoint of logical coherence
and careful motivation. Still, Emily Bronte's technique is not haphazard. The manipulation of time sequence and angle of vision is
carefully handled. Why, then, is there such confusion and mystery
surrounding Heathcliff's entrance on the scene?
At first glance, the discovery of Heathcliff might appear to be the
pbvious way to introduce a strange child whose birth is to remain a
mystery, who may be gypsy or prince, animal or devil. Old Earnshaw
travels to Liverpool, notices a child wandering the streets, and, overcome by pity, brings the boy home with him. But this section of the
novel is strangely unsatisfactory, leaving many questions unresolved.
In Nelly Dean's narrative, no reason is suggested for Earnshaw's
visit to Liverpool, and this in a passage where Nelly describes not only
the distance, "sixty miles each way,"\nd the fact that he is going to
make the journey on foot, but also the gifts-a fiddle and a whipto be purchased for Hindley and Cathy. These details are presented
clearly, but Nelly never so much as indicates why Earnshaw is maka "The Window Figure and the Two-Children Figure in Wuthering Heights," NineteenthCentzwy Fiction, VII (Dec., 1 9 5 3 ) ~196.
See, for example, Romer Wilson, All Alone (London, 1928) or Norma Crandall, Emily
Bront?: A Psychological Portlait (Rindge, N . H., 1957).
' A l l citations to Wuthering Heights refer to chapter iv of Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
(Oxford, 1931) [ T h e Shakespeare Head Bronte]. Italics in passages quoted are mine.
82
Nineteenth-Century Fiction
ing this arduous trip, whether in connection with the farm, legal
matters, or personal reasons.
Earnshaw returns with a mysterious dirty child whom his wife
"must e'en take as a gift of God." H e gives a vague and illogical report of finding the homeless and starving child in the Liverpool
gutters. Earnshaw's rationalization of the adoption seems weak:
Not a soul knew to whom it belonged, he said, and his money and time, being
both limited, he thought it better to take it home with him, at once, than run
into vain expenses there; because he was determined he would not leave it as he
found it.
Even in an eighteenth-century provincial slum, the waif must have
had some protector. Mrs. Earnshaw considers her husband to be mad,
and the narrator, tart Nelly Dean, expresses doubts through her
manner of recounting the tale. She informs Lockwood that Earnshaw
"tried to explain the matter; but he was redly half dead with fatigue
. . . all that I could make out.. . was a tale of his seeing i t . . ."
The brief picture of Mrs. Earnshaw presented here would certainly
supply an added motive for concealment of a child who could possibly be Earashaw's illegitimate offspring. She "was ready to fling it
out of doors"; she grumbles and berates the exhausted traveler. How
would such a woman have reacted to any honest admission of sinful
adultery?' Earnshaw could only bring a by-blow into the family by
devious means, as long as his wife was still alive.
In addition, Heathcliff soon becomes Earnshaw's favorite, more
cherished than his own children, an unnatural occurrence surelyunless this is a natural child. Nelly has her suspicions. Earnshaw, she
comments, "took to the child strangely," this "poor fatherless child,
as he called him." Hindley, for his part, sees Heathcliff "as a usurper
of his parent's affections."
There can be no doubt that Emily Bronte casts a vague incestuous
aura over the entire plot of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff marries
his lost love's sister-in-law; his wife's son marries her brother's daugh' I t m i g h t be objected at this point that Earnshaw hardly seems the type o f m a n w h o would
have a clandestine affair to conceal. O n e can, however, derive Emily Bronte's belief i n heredity
f r o m the strong family resemblences displayed by her characters. T h e second generation o f
Heathcliffs and Lintons markedly show the parents' characteristics. Since Cathy and Hindley,
Earnshaw's legitimate children, display the wild and drunken natures that their author assigns
t h e m , m i g h t not this indicate something about her view o f the parent, something not incommensurate w i t h siring a n illegitimate child?
Notes and Reviews
83
ter; Cathy's daughter marries her brother's son. An unconsciously
incestuous love between the two leading characters would not run
counter to the tone of a novel filled with violent and savage scenes,
such as the sadistic rubbing of a wrist over a broken window-pane,
Cathy's fierce delirium, or the sight of Heathcliff smashing his bloody
head against a tree.
Certainly Wuthering Heights can be read without any such theory
of Heathcliff's birth. Yet this view supplies an answer to some of the
novel's ambiguities. If Heathcliff and Cathy were-even unknowingly-brother and sister, they obviously never could marry on earth,
however violent their passion might be. Despite her powerful vision
of moral decay, Emily Bronte could not overthrow all traditional
canons of taste. Again, Heathcliff, as Earnshaw's real son, would have
an increased motivation for his bitter insistence that Wuthering
Heights must belong to him.
Above all, the tragedy of W ~ t h e r i n gHeights is increased in intensity and inevitability if Heahcliff and Cathy are seen not only as
the products of their own wilfully destructive natures, but as the
victims of a fate beyond their control. When Cathy cries out that she
is Heathcliff, does she mean that they are of one flesh as well as one
spirit ?
ERICSOLOMON
Harvard University
From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad
From 1914until his death in 1956,~JamesTheodore Hillhouse was
a member of the Department of English at the University of Minnesota. Respected and admired for his own scholarly publications (chief
among them his indispensable T h e Waverley Novels and Their
Critics), he also won the affection of students in his classes in British
drama and a sequence of seminars in the British novel. Tn From lane
Austen to loseph Conrad (University of Minnesota Press: $5.75),
Robert C. Rathburn and Martin Steinmann, Jr., have .collected as
a memorial twenty essays originally solicited to honor Hillhouse
upon his retirement.
By limiting contributions to essays on British novelists of the nineteenth century, the editors have avoided the usual diversity of a