Wuthering Heights accurately reflects the sharp class divisions of nineteenth century England. Discuss
Wuthering Heights accurately reflects the sharp class divisions in nineteenth-century English society.
In the Victorian Era, the three main classes in society were the elite class, the middle class, and the working class; however, further divisions existed within these three class distinctions. In addition, social class was not solely dependent upon the amount of money a person had; money, manners, speech, clothing, education, and values also contributed to a person’s position in the social hierarchy.
This is made evident in the novel as when Heathcliff returns to the Grange following his three year absence as a nouveau riche, having money is not enough for Edgar to consider him a part of acceptable society. This is because of Heathcliff’s non-noble birth which is reminiscent of Oliver from Dickens’ novel, ‘Oliver Twist’; a child who could have been of noble birth but because he lived on the streets he was automatically placed at the bottom of society. Unlike the Lintons, Heathcliff was born and abandoned as an orphan on the streets of Liverpool and ‘seeing it starving, and houseless, and as good as dumb’, Mr. Earnshaw brought him home to raise as a son amongst his two legitimate children. As an abandoned orphan, Heathcliff belonged to the lowest station in society. During this time, it was unheard of for a middle class family to raise someone of lower statute in their home therefore; it is the reaction of Mr. Earnshaw’s family on the arrival of Heathcliff upon his arrival into the home that accurately reflects the sharp class divisions and expectations of this time as, ‘Mrs. Earnshaw was ready to fling it out of doors’ and Cathy and Hindley, ‘entirely refused to have it in bed with them, or even in their rooms’.
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Despite the fact that the Earnshaws living in a farmhouse and were not the elitist family within the novel (that position is held by the Lintons), they still upheld these societal norms as they were not members of the working class as they possessed numerous servants; thus, their station in society was below the Lintons but not significantly below. When Mr. Earnshaw elevates the status of Heathcliff, eventually favouring him to his own son, this goes against societal norms but Hindley puts this to rights in accordance with the sharp class divisions following the death of his father by returning Heathcliff to his previous status at the bottom of the social hierarchy as a manual labourer, even Nelly, the servant holds a higher position than Heathcliff.
It is Heathcliff’s inferior social status that keeps him and Catherine apart and ultimately drives Catherine to marrying Edgar Linton as, ‘if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars’ but if she marries Linton she will be ‘the greatest woman of the neighbourhood.’ The sharp class division in nineteenth century England prevent marriage out of love and encourage marriage for the retention or elevation of a person’s current social status. This is evident through Cathy’s marriage of Edgar as Nelly points out that she wouldn’t marry him unless he was rich despite being, ‘handsome, and young, and cheerful.’ Catherine acknowledges that her, ‘love for Linton is like foliage in the woods. Time will change it’ while her, ‘love for Heathcliff is like the eternal rocks beneath-a source of little visible delight, but necessary’; still, Catherine chooses to marry Edgar, or rather marries the Linton’s elite social status.
It is ironic that Hindley ‘puts things to right’ with regards to social class by subjecting Heathcliff to hard labour thus degrading him and placing him at the bottom of the hierarchy when in fact, he goes against it by marrying a woman with lower social standing than himself. Ellen Dean comments, ‘Mr. Hindley came home from the funeral; and… he brought a wife with him. What she was, and where she was born, he never informed us: probably, she had neither money nor name to recommend her, or she would scarcely have kept the union form his father.’ This demonstrated the sharp class divisions as it is clear that it was unacceptable to marry someone of a lower class.
However, there are elements in ‘Wuthering Heights’ that do not provide an accurate reflection of class divisions in nineteenth-century English society. One of these is the way in which Nelly interacts with those she serves. She frequently steps out of place; causing trouble and acting in self-preserving ways. She appears to view herself as holding a greater position within the novel than she does. When young Cathy Linton is corresponding with Linton at the Heights, Nelly takes it upon herself to expose this and then blackmails her by burning her letters in return for her keeping Cathy’s communication with her cousin a secret from her father. However, she tells Edgar anyway. This behaviour may demonstrate Ellen’s unhappiness in being at such a low position in the social hierarchy which is why she abuses her power, attempting to usurp that which her young mistress has, thus breeching the strict social class divisions of nineteenth century English society.
In conclusion, due to the choices made by characters within this novel; Cathy marrying Edgar, and her brother keeping his marriage to a woman of a lower social class a secret from his father, it is clear that Emily had a clear knowledge of class-divisions of this time and clearly reflects these expectations within ‘Wuthering Heights’.