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Family Systems Theory and Wuthering Heights

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Introduction

Family Systems Theory and Wuthering Heights A critic informed by the family systems theory derived from the treatment of chemical dependence can add many insights to standard crticism of Wuthering Heights. He or she would emphasize that as soon as Lockwood asks that he be told their stories by Nellie, the novel becomes the histories of several family systems and all the characters in the systems, male as well as female, living and dead. Focusing on the family as a unit at Wuthering Heights we discover one of the best illustrations of a closed system in literature. They are not merely extremely isolated from others, they are actively hostile: instead of welcoming the protoreader, Lockwood, they refuse to come to his aid as six dogs attack him inside the house. Even the reader is excluded from some of the activity at the Heights, for at times it is presented in a dialect almost unintelligible to all but those raised in the neighborhood. Even members of the family at times find Joseph's "speech difficult to understand" when he got excited and "his jaws worked like those of a cow chewing its cud." When Lockwood does manage to get past some of the rigid boundaries, Hareton Earnshaw is instantly angry at him and "Mrs. Heathcliff" at first won't even speak to him. Many readers no doubt identify with Lockwood's sarcastic understatement, "I began to feel unmistakably out of place in that pleasant family circle." ...read more.

Middle

One of those habits was patrolling the boundaries of the closed system like a guard dog: Hareton stones even his old nurse Nelly when she tries to return to the Heights. The law of repetition compulsion in this kind of a patriarchal family system is, in Heathcliff's words, that "The tyrant grinds down his slaves and they don't turn against him; they crush those beneath them." When Heathcliff elopes with Isabella he hangs her dog to prevent its barking; when Isabella finally escapes from him she passed by "Hareton, who was hanging a litter of puppies." Heathcliff's next student of sadism, Linton, learns the same lesson: "He'll undertake to torture any number of cats." Sadism infects all who enter that system, whether or not they come under Heathcliff's direct tutelage. The second Catherine, for example, comes from a different family system but soon "seemed to have made up her mind to enter into the spirit of her future family, and draw pleasure from the griefs of her enemies." A chemical dependency family systems theorist would focus on the addictions that result from these abuses. Like Lockwood, such a critic would say to Nelly Dean, "I am interested in every character you have mentioned." Hindley, for example, an apparently minor character, emerges as an important father figure. He has a process addiction -- gambling -- and eventually mortgages all of his land, but his drug of choice is alcohol. ...read more.

Conclusion

Heathcliff defends himself against Cathy's laughter, and Cathy confronts her father. Nelly defends herself against Catherine's physical abuse: "You have no right to nip me, and I'm not going to bear it." And Edgar Linton follows her example, complaining to Catherine, "You've made me afraid and shamed of you.... I'll not come here again." These defenses do not stop the abuse, but readers' childhood memories of similar instances of courage may be positively reinforced in such passages. Longing for a healthier family is better satisfied by the second generation. Closed family systems change usually only in response to their almost complete disintegration and/or to intervention from the outside. In this case, the influence of Catherine Earnshaw's husband, Edgar Linton, seems to be the key. His daughter, Catherine Linton, seems much "healthier" than her mother and thus some readers may perceive that transgenerational repetition is not inevitable. After a considerable struggle she manages to transplant some flowers from Thrushcross Grange to Wuthering Heights. They become the symbol of the change. She makes amends to Hareton for her sadistic behavior and helps him to read. Hareton is then able to give the lie to Heathcliff's assertion, "I've got him faster than his scoundrel of a father served me, and lower." Ultimately, they transform Wuthering Heights into an open system. The protoreader, Lockwood, recounts, "I had neither to climb the gate, nor to knock -- it yielded to my hand. That is an improvement! I thought .... Both doors and lattices were open." Many readers, like orphans, seek such functional family systems in life but find them only in fiction. ...read more.

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