Shrouded in Mystery
April 6, 2015
Wuthering Heights is a dark and complicated story that transcends its time. Critics and theorists have examined the novel carefully—speculations have been made and rumors have sprouted; yet few have been able to come to a conclusion about this novel. Authors often have a goal for their work—they use what they are proficient at to advocate for and shed light on social injustices; some critics believe that Brontë did the same with Wuthering Heights; by making Heathcliff both darker skinned and of a lower class, she is speaking to the injustices of a racist class system; however, though that theory may be true, that singular detail can be interpreted in a completely different way, and goes hand in hand with a different theory. An argument that is based solely off of a rumor that Emily Brontë and her brother Patrick Branwell engaged in an incestuous affair gives life to a whole new interpretation of the book, and if that is true Wuthering Heights is merely a creative parallel of Emily Brontë’s life.
Starting from early infancy in Emily’s life as well as in the book, there is a significant amount of death. First Emily lost her mother when she was just a baby, and soon after she lost her two older sisters who had most likely become mother like figures. Within the book, every single mother figure is killed off besides the nanny, very similar to the lives of the Brontë’s. Because of a reclusive father, the four remaining siblings were left in the care of a nanny, very much like Cathy, Hindley, and Heathcliff, who was adopted into the family. Next is the setting of the lives of the Brontë’s as well as the lives of the characters. Both are set in the moors of England, where the characters and the Brontë’s are isolated from society, “I’m now quite cured of seeking pleasure in society, be it country or town. A sensible man ought to find sufficient company in himself,” (Brontë, 28). Then there is the question of class, which has led so many to believe that Emily is calling into question the rigid class system. Yet, Emily and her family were of the lower class, much like Heathcliff; “Cut off from the local goings on by virtue of their not entirely secure social class (Patrick, [Brontë, the father] who attended Cambridge on a scholarship, had risen from humble Irish stock) and looked after by a spinster aunt and a housekeeper named Tabby, they [the children] were thrown mostly on their own company,” (Merkin, xiv). Next is the slight favoritism shown to their brother Branwell, despite the obvious talent of his three sisters; “Emily’s ill-fated brother, Branwell, who had been earmarked within the family for artistic glory (money was scraped together to send him to London to pursue his artistic interests) but died ignominiously at the age of thirty-one, a hostage to gin and opium,” (Merkin, xviii). Heathcliff was also shown favoritism in the Earnshaw house, and though Hindley hated him because of it, Cathy loved him anyways. Though Charlotte did not grow to hate her brother because of favoritism that may have surrounded him, she did grow to hate him nonetheless. But like Cathy, Emily stood by her brother and loved him until his dying day; “This aspect of the Brontë family life led to speculations about a possible incestuous aspect to Branwell and Emily’s relationship, especially in regard to its being the model for the relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. (One theory suggested that Heathcliff was in fact the bastard son of Mr. Earnshaw and thus Catherine’s half brother.)” (Merkin, xix).
If in fact this theory of incest were true, it would show a remarkable parallel to Emily’s life. For example, this theory would give a deeper explanation as to why Catherine Earnshaw’s struggle to give in to her heart and be with Heathcliff is so impossible to her; not only is she lowering herself to a different social class, everything in society is telling her that this is wrong, and is an abomination to nature, that this relationship would absolutely “degrade” her. This could reflect the life of Emily and her brother, which would explain why the love story is full of so much turmoil and secrecy, and why in the end the lovers are never together. Though there is no evidence as to whether the siblings did have an incestuous affair, so many elements of the story accurately portray the lives of the Brontë’s. One of the driving arguments for this theory is the fact the Emily had never experienced such a passionate form of love as to which she so accurately describes in the Wuthering Heights; “How its young author, living quietly with her three siblings and father in a remote Yorkshire parsonage (…), came to be on intimate terms with the savagely possessive nature of desire is part of the mystery of creative inspiration,” (Merkin, xxiii). This theory was no doubt concocted because of this very idea; how could Ms. Brontë ever be able to come up with such a transcending and dark love story without any kind of experience? Maybe she did have experience in unrequited love and passion, and perhaps that experience was with her brother.
Another example of this theory is the way in which Emily uses names. From the beginning the names are confusing for the reader, because the names are so interchangeable. But they can be seen as interchangeable in more ways than one. For example, Emily could be considered both Cathy and Heathcliff, not only because she is the writer who created these characters, essentially making her these characters, but because these characters are a reflection of both her and her family. The most famous line of the book “I am Heathcliff” (Brontë, 82) can be interpreted in multiple ways. Catherine Earnshaw is Heathcliff because as she says “He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same,” (Brontë’, 80), but the same can be interpreted for Emily and her brother, because they are the same; they are of the same flesh and blood: family. So not only can Emily be interpreted as being both Cathy and Heathcliff, so can her brother. The names are as interchangeable as the characters are to the personalities of the Brontë siblings, with Emily having the deepest connection as the creator of the characters.
However, it is also possible and likely that Emily and her brother never engaged in an incestuous affair, and this love story that transcends even death came to her despite never herself having experienced romantic love herself. Sometimes there is a story that is so great and so developed that it is not the writer that is directing the story, instead it is the story that is directing the writer, and it is possible that Emily merely drew off of personal experiences to structure and give background to this omnipotent love story. The story itself becomes a force of nature that is as primal and all consuming as the love of Heathcliff and Catherine.
Despite the overwhelming amount of parallels that permeate the story and the lives of the Brontë’s, it is possible that Emily Brontë did not have an incestuous relationship with her brother and instead just gave birth to this complicated, messy, and dark story that is still a questionable force to this day. Despite the millions of times it has been read and the numerous theories and speculations that surround both the book and the lives of Emily Brontë and her family, no one is truly close to coming to understand the purpose of this novel, and how the story came to fruition. Whether the book is actually based upon her personal life, and whether she actually did have an affair with her brother, will always be an unanswerable and impossible question, despite the burning curiosity of the readers of this mysterious novel. Emily Brontë may have had a goal for the novel and she may not have, her goal may have been to shed light on the racist class system of England, it may have been based on her life, or maybe it she had no goal and instead she just had a story inside of her that she was dying to get out. Unfortunately, the book and the author behind it will remain as evasive as ever, despite the many theories and speculations.
“I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.”