How does literary theory change the meaning of a literary text? Focus on one text from Genres, and analyse it in relation to two theories.
Literary theory allows readers to consider aspects of a text, or film, or any part of culture in fact, to be read in an entirely different way to how they may have been thinking before. It therefore, prompts discussion on an author’s ideology and intentions, when they were writing.
In relation to a literary text, in this case Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, by applying two separate theories on to the text, we gain different perspectives of its characters and on the texts meaning, and also on the underlying views of the author and how it influenced their writing, even if they were not explicitly aware of this. Here, I will be using a feminist and Marxist reading of Wuthering Heights to show how these perspectives change the way we read this 19th Century novel.
The feminist movement, as opposed to feminist literary theory, emerged at the beginning of the 20th Century, in which we now call First Wave Feminism. The women of this time were fighting for equal political rights, such as being allowed to vote, and having the same marriage rights as men. Moving on several decades, we come to what is now known as Second Wave Feminism that was ignited during the 1960s, involving women’s opposition to conform to traditional ‘feminine’ roles within society and the home. It is this Second Wave that is of most relevance to the theory of feminism, as Barry (2002) points out that “the feminist literary criticism of today is the direct product of the ‘women’s movement’ of the 1960s.” Women began to notice that their representation throughout literature had a great impact on the way society viewed them, and therefore they began to question the authority and integrity of these portrayals. Initially, criticism focused upon the issue of patriarchy, and the way that culture encouraged sexual inequality between men and women, but later, around the 1980’s, feminist criticism began to broaden in spectrum. No longer did criticism focus upon the stereotypical ‘male bashing,’ but instead incorporated other types of literary theory into it’s work, and began to revaluate women’s experiences and challenge the image of women in literature in order to create a new type of history for themselves.
Within Wuthering Heights, Brontë draws attention to the theme of identity, or lack of it, for particular characters. This is particularly relevant for Catherine, who through the course of the novel is torn between two entirely different ways of life – that of her wild and uncontrollable behaviour associated with Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff and Hindley, versus her mild mannered and stereotypically feminine behaviour in conjunction with Thrushcross Grange and the Linton’s. Catherine’s battle between her two choices naturally comes with various controlling forces, be it Mr Earnshaw at the beginning of the novel, or Edgar and Heathcliff during. This control is what constitutes Catherine’s lack of identity and this is suggested by the various manifestations (Earnshaw, Heathcliff, Linton) of the writing of Catherine that Lockwood sees on the windowsill at Wuthering Heights (chapter 3). This reveals the crucial lack of identity that is common to all women under patriarchal control, “what Catherine, or any girl must learn is that she does not know her own name, and therefore cannot know who she is or whom she is destined to be.” (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979, p.276)
In similarity to the idea that names confuses identity, Gilbert and Gubar also suggest that Heathcliff can be read as ‘female’. As Heathcliff is essentially a second son in the Earnshaw family, and therefore not liable to inherit the position as head of the family or take up the patriarchal throne, he could be viewed in a sense as a daughter figure, and therefore as feminine. He has neither social power, nor any actual status as he is simply known as ‘Heathcliff’ not master, sir, or even Mr Heathcliff. He also rebels against the social conventions of class, marriage and inheritance which similarly suggests he can be read as female, since endorsing such conventions would only put him into a position of adhering to patriarchal culture.
As well as reading Heathcliff’s rebellion against particular social conventions as ‘female,’ we can also look at it from a Marxist perspective. By rebelling against the values that are so important to the social structure present within the novel, Heathcliff is essentially rebelling against the social constraints of the time period in which the text is both set and written in.