The Psychology of Loneliness in 'Wuthering Heights.'

By Levy, Eric P. | Studies in the Novel, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

The Psychology of Loneliness in 'Wuthering Heights.'


Levy, Eric P., Studies in the Novel


As Walter Allen has observed, Wuthering Heights "is utterly unlike any other novel."(1) Historically, the most celebrated aspect of its uniqueness concerns the portrayal of character. According to E. M. Forster, "the emotions of Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw function differently to other emotions in fiction."(2) But the psychological strangeness of these two figures has undermined their intelligibility. Bernard Paris points out several critics who do not regard Heathcliff as "a mimetic character"--that is, one whose function is to represent a person.(3) Similarly, Joyce Carol Oates finds Catherine's unusual fixation on her own childhood inaccessible to analysis: "why, as a married woman of nineteen, she should know herself irrevocably `changed'--the novel does not presume to explain."(4) Mr. Lockwood, the primary narrator of the novel, has also aroused perplexity. David Sonstream judges Lockwood's character to be incoherent because he "is alternately happy warrior and repressive milksop."(5) Dorothy Van Ghent sees Lockwood's famous nightmare of Catherine's ghost as somehow extraneous to its dreamer and the result of autonomous "powers of darkness."(6) Ruth Adams argues that the nightmare "contaminates" Lockwood with the violence proper to Wuthering Heights.(7)

The difficulty of explaining these three characters has led many critics to approach Emily Bronte's fiction with the aid of psychological theory. Freud is the theorist most frequently invoked(8) but there are several others, as evident for example in Paris's attempt to define Heathcliff in the nomenclature of Karen Horney as an "arrogant-vindictive personality" and in Pratt's Jungian linking of both Heathcliff and Catherine with the "[d]ying-god archetype."(9) Other critics found the explication of character on fundamental oppositions detected in the text and corresponding (in most cases) to the two households depicted in the novel, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Even a short list of these polarities is impressively varied: "the land of storm" and "the home of calm" (Cecil), Hell and Heaven (Gilbert and Gubar), "the Sexual" and "the Spiritual" (Prentis), classless society and hierarchal society (Winnifreth), disappearing farm culture and emerging Victorian gentility (Q. D. Leavis), savagery and civilization (Reed), patriarchal society and negated feminine authority (Lavabre).(10)

Though each interpretation enhances our understanding of the novel, none has approached consensual acceptance. Indeed, in 1964 Mildred Christian could already observe that "[t]he contradictory judgments on Wuthering Heights are the most striking fact in its critical history."(11) More recently, both Miller and Baldridge have insisted that the novel lacks any central or formative principle by which its meaning can be comprehensively explicated.(12) Mid such boisterous disagreement, there remains the opportunity to combine the psychological and polarizing approaches in order to explain Heathcliff, Catherine, and Lockwood in terms of a distinctly Brontean psychology embedded in the text and founded on the fundamental polarities of their own experience.

The prominent role played by Catherine's ghost in the lives of both Heathcliff and Lockwood can serve as an introduction. As we shall see, the most important afterlife in the world of Emily Bronte is the life after childhood--the persistence in adulthood of the attitude toward love acquired in childhood. Wuthering Heights explores two types of defective love in childhood, each barring the path to fulfilling love in adulthood. For reference purposes, they can be named descriptively as Unlove and Overlove. The Earnshaw family of Wuthering Heights is the representative household of Unlove where childhood is an experience of neglect, abuse, and rejection. In contrast, the Linton family of Thrushcross Grange is the representative household of Overlove with its tendency to overprotect and coddle children, treating them as "petted things. …

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