Religious Reflections from the Life of Emily Bronte: The Number Three and Its Significance in Wuthering Heights

By Crosier, Janet | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Religious Reflections from the Life of Emily Bronte: The Number Three and Its Significance in Wuthering Heights


Crosier, Janet, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

Emily Bronte's only novel, Wuthering Heights contains many allusions to God and the religious influences that surrounded much of Bronte's life. The major religious influences from her upbringing and surroundings are reflected in the themes evident in her writing as well as in the actions of her characters. These include the importance of God in an individual's life, blessings from God, punishment from God, birth, life, death, and the afterlife.

The focus of this paper is the lesser spoken of religious themes behind Bronte's use of the number three in Wuthering Heights. This paper offers a brief look at some of the meanings, spiritual and otherwise, upon which Emily Bronte may have reflected as she wrote and how these are apparent in her abundant use of three. This is followed by an analysis of how these meanings may have applied to the three most prominent examples of the number three in Bronte's novel. The remaining examples are displayed in a Table, listing where the specific uses of the number three can be found in Wuthering Heights, which character(s) are involved, and a brief description of the event(s) or circumstance(s) involved.

Bronte's Background

Nineteenth-century British author Emily Bronte lived in a small town in the rural Yorkshire area of England during the early to mid-1800s. The fifth of six children, Bronte was no stranger to hardship and grief. At only one year and nine months old, Emily moved with her family to the rural town of Haworth. The Bronte family lived in Haworth for less than a year when Emily's mother fell seriously ill. Within a year, she was dead. Emily Bronte was three years old. Her youngest sister, Anne, was not yet a year old. Only a few years later would come the deaths of Emily' s two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. Significant or not, this would now make Emily Bronte the third child of the family.

Religious Influences upon Emily Bronte

After the death of her mother when Emily was little more than a toddler, Emily, her one brother, and four sisters were raised by their father, Pastor Patrick Bronte. As the town's minister, his beliefs were made known to his children through his teachings, by their attending Sunday school, and by their listening to his sermons. Patrick Bronte wrote his own sermons, many of which were published. One such sermon emphasizes the need for "personal commitment to Christ," and the need for each individual "to live, as well as preach, his word" (qtd. in Alexander & Smith, 2006, 123). Emily was taught that the only source for true happiness was religion and that sinners had to be punished. Yet Patrick Bronte followed a more middle-of-the-road outlook than some members of the Church of England, emphasizing repentance and conversion that would lead to sinners being granted eternal life, rather than dwelling upon some form of eternal punishment, a prevalent belief by many during Bronte's time.

Emily Bronte was also under the influence of her Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, who had been helping to raise the Bronte children since the death of their mother, Aunt Branwell's sister. Elizabeth Branwell's religious beliefs differed from those of Emily's father, as she was a Wesleyan Methodist. According to the religious teachings of Emily's father, if a sinner was to be saved, he must first reflect upon his life and his actions, then take the steps needed for self-improvement. This would guarantee God's acceptance and a person's entrance into heaven in the afterlife.

One recurring theme in Emily Bronte's upbringing (and later in her writing) is the influence of death and the afterlife. This seems reasonable as more than forty percent of the people born in Haworth during the time when the Bronte family resided there died before they were six years old. The average age at death was twenty-five (Whitehead, 2007). Emily's father himself tells the world that from 1820 on, he presided over more than 111 deaths annually. …

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