Catherine Earnshaw: Female or Fiend?
Emily Brontë's protagonist and her implications in "Wuthering Heights"
Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2006 13 Pages
Table of contents
2.2 Catherine and Emily
2.2.1 Catherine and Gondal
2.2.2 Catherine and Emily
2.3 Catherine’s Dilemma
The character of Catherine Earnshaw is one of the most complex and fascinating in world literature. Her story is that of a young woman who “betrays her deepest self and so destroys herself”1 but whose love is so strong that not even death can extinguish it. Readers cannot help but be moved by her fate, even though she appears to be a thoroughly unpleasant person in more than just one respect. They are forced to pity her, even though they feel they have every reason to believe that it is her, and her alone, who is to blame for the misery that befalls her. And, worst of all, they see her suffering and dying, but at the same time they cannot help envying her ability to feel as strongly as she does.
These confusing and seemingly contradictory impressions have led many critics of the novel to describe Catherine using terms like “creature of another species, hysterical, savage or demonic”2 out of a sheer inability to make anything else of her, anything that they could understand. In this paper, I shall attempt to determine whether these “otherwordly” terms that reek of madness and hell are really necessary or whether it might not be possible to do without them and see Catherine simply as a young woman in a very 18th/19th-century dilemma, a girl who marries the wrong man and ends up heartbroken.
I will begin by attempting a characterization of Catherine and then introducing her author, Emily Brontë, to have a closer look at the world and the mind that Catherine is rooted in.
Finally I will try to discover the true nature of Catherine’s dilemma and whether all these aspects will make it possible to demystify Catherine and return her to the state of a human being.
Catherine’s upbringing is most unusual. In the absence of a strong mother or father figure, it is nature who raises her. Forever escaping into the moors with Heathcliff, it is nature that surrounds and shapes her and not the walls of Wuthering Heights. She grows up the way that animals grow up, and therefore really and truly is a child of nature. As a consequence of this she is essentially instinct-driven which is the reason for her brutality in matters of self-defence: when cornered, she explodes, like a frightened animal.
When asked by her father what she wants him to bring her from Liverpool, Catherine chooses a whip, a sure sign that she is an extremely domineering character.
When their father brings Heathcliff home, Catherine and Hindley react to the infant intruder by “grinning and spitting” (p. 37) at him, defending their territory in an animal fashion.
Nelly describes Catherine as a high-spirited, tiresome child who is always “singing, laughing and plaguing everybody” (p. 42). Her liveliness derives from a singular wholeness of being. Heathcliff represents “a complementary addition” to herself3. She consists of 100% Catherine, which makes her so very much alive. Mr Earnshaw’s gradual decline puts Catherine in a position to rule over the entire household. Everybody treads lightly around her so as not to provoke her temper and Heathcliff as her devoted servant makes sure that Catherine gets her way. She moves from the bottom of the pecking order to the very top of it. Nelly describes her as “the queen of the countryside” (p. 65), as “full of ambition” (p. 66) and “proud” (p. 67). It is this feeling of superiority that has been instilled into her ever since early childhood, first by Heathcliff, then by Edgar and Isabella, that breaks Catherine’s neck in the end. It makes her wide open to the attractions of Trushcross Grange.
For Eva Figes it is the moment that Catherine is put on the sofa at the Grange that is the turning point in her life. Figes describes the sofa as “that symbol of the Victorian emasculation of women, the constant invalidism which went with being a civilised lady”4. It signifies the transition from an active to a passive character, from a Catherine who is running wildly over the moors and a Catherine who stays indoors so she does not dirty her dress.
Her stay at the Grange marks the beginning of an inner division: from now on, there are two Catherines: Catherine when she is with Edgar and Catherine when she is with Heathcliff. What has been whole before, is split in two now, with disastrous consequences for everybody.
As Chitham points out, the visit to the Grange is also the starting point of a division between Catherine and Heathcliff.5 After Catherine’s return to the Heights, she spends less and less time with Heathcliff. At first, Heathcliff tries to accept this as this is obviously what Catherine wants, but then jealousy begins to stir in him. When Heathcliff reproaches her for not spending enough time with him, Catherine abuses him, calling him “no company at all” and accusing him of “saying and knowing nothing” (p. 69). The glamour of Edgar’s world has blinded her, she no longer seems to remember Heathcliff’s qualities. It is in this mood that she encounters Edgar. Catherine, angry and confused, loses control over herself, she confuses both her worlds and shows Edgar her Heathcliff self. She lies in his presence and beats him. It is on this and on several other occasions that the reader sees the most despicable part of Catherine’s character: her manipulativeness when events turn against her. She threatens Edgar that she will cry herself sick if he should leave (p. 71). This her standard way of dealing with a crisis works well enough for the youthful Catherine, it will fail and kill her as an adult.
Edgar, though “greatly shocked at the double fault of falsehood, and violence” (p. 70), cannot resist her. He stays and and seals his fate by asking Catherine to be his wife.
In her confession to Nelly, Catherine gives her most important reason for marrying Edgar as “he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood, and I shall be proud of having such a husband.” (p. 78). She has chosen her husband to satisfy both her social ambition and her pride, proving that Nelly’s assessment of her character has indeed been correct.
1 Visick, Mary, “The Genesis of Wuthering Heights”, in: Emily Brontë. Wuthering Heights. A Casebook, Miriam Allott (ed.), London: Macmillan 1992 (1970), p. 181-182.
2 Kinkead-Weekes, Mark, “The Place of Love in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights”, in: The Brontës. A Collection of Critical Essays, Ian Gregor (ed.), London: Prentice Hall, 1986 (1970), p. 89.
3 Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar, Susan, The Madwoman in the Attic. The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979, p. 265.
4 Figes, Eva, Sex and Subterfuge. Women Writers to 1850, London: Pandora Press, 1990 (1982), p. 143.
5 Chitham, Edward, A Life of Emily Brontë, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1987, p. 66.