Emily Brontë's "Cathy from Wuthering Heights" (1847) during the Victorian Age. The Depiction of Women in English Literature of the 19th Century

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2017 15 Pages

Didactics - English - History of Literature, Eras


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background
2.1 The Concept of Gender
2.2 The Depiction of Women in the Victorian Age

3. Emily Brontë’s Catherine Earnshaw in the Victorian Age
3.1 Emily Brontë
3.2 Wuthering Heights
3.3 Catherine Earnshaw – The Most Untypical Female Victorian Protagonist

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

As for literature figures nowadays, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a prime example for classic English literature of the Victorian Age, whereas coeval critics refused to accept the novel as appropriate according to the predominant behavior patterns and norms. Its solid position in classic English literature was not foreseeable then since Ellis Bell – the Brontë-sisters used to write under pseudonyms at the beginning – had been criticized for his violent and ruffian storyline and characters (cf. Kestner 2011: 263) which were unconventional and shocking for a society in which it was not common to have or depict such strong and blatant feelings. In contrast to the passionate and impulsive love story which also includes revenge, hate and violence, other authors such as Charlotte Brontë published works that were typical and appropriate for the mindset of Victorian people and managed to achieve purely success and admiration, for instance the governess-novel Jane Eyre. Also Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which has been published before the Victorian Age and tells the love story between Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy abides the common norms and fits into the sophisticated world Austen presents (cf. 2011: 263).

The depiction of women in English literature reveals a whole load of information concerning the coeval mindset, the perception of women then and the author himself. Keeping this in mind and realizing the significance of gender depictions in literature, one should consider the importance of analyzing classic English novels and its protagonists. As Wuthering Heights still occupies one of the most famous ranges of English literature nowadays and was one of the most criticized works then, the female protagonist Catherine (so-called “Cathy”) appears to be a great opportunity to depict the gender roles and women’s perceptions of the Victorian Age.

The following term paper will deal with the several depictions of female protagonists in English literature while the focus will be on Catherine Earnshaw and the typical English characteristics. The character development will be analyzed in context of the concept of gender and compared to other English female protagonists. In order to so, firstly the principle of gender itself will be delineated, subsequently the characteristics of the Victorian Age will be briefly summarized. Thereafter, Catherine Earnshaw’s character development will be elaborated and its similarities with and differences from other female protagonists will be emphasized.

2. Theoretical Background

2.1 The Concept of Gender

Firstly, the most important distinction concerning the concept of gender in general is the differentiation of sex – whereby the biological sex with which one is born with is meant – from gender, the social position one occupies and which is often but not mandatory linked with the biological gender (cf. Gymnich 2005: 271). As this distinction was not made up until the midst of the 20th century (cf. 2005: 271), the following term paper will concentrate solely on the gender itself, thus the social construct of a role a person had had due to his or her sex during a time when the gender debate had not been discussed at all. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first definition of the term “gender” is stated as

Either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones. The term is also used more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female (Oxford English Dictionary, 2. October 2017)

Thus the concept and terminology of gender enables people whose gender does not accord with their biological sex or who do not identify themselves solely as female or male to relieve themselves from the restraints of the former terminology “male” or “female” and allows them to decide for themselves with which gender they want to be connected with. In most cases, our we tend to show our gender by making usage of the socially common ways: Dressing in a certain style, having a haircut that fits – according to the norms – to our gender and acting typically male or female (cf. Ryan 2010: 26). However, there are still a whole load of people who tend not to accept a person who has been born with male sex characteristics but sees himself (or correctly herself) as a female. Further, the Oxford English Dictionary also summarizes the usage of the term “gender”:

The word gender has been used since the 14th century as a grammatical term, referring to classes of noun designated as masculine, feminine, or neuter in some languages. The sense denoting biological sex has also been used since the 14th century, but this did not become common until the mid 20th century. Although the words gender and sex are often used interchangeably, they have slightly different connotations; sex tends to refer to biological differences, while gender more often refers to cultural and social differences and sometimes encompasses a broader range of identities than the binary of male and female (Oxford English Dictionary, 2. October 2017)

Nonetheless, more than the terminology itself, the connotations which are made concerning certain genders should be in the focus. According to Longhurst, when thinking about gender, the first thing that comes up in most people’s head is inequality, as women are always looked down to as the inferior sex whereas men are accepted as the superior sex (cf. Longhurst 2008: 81). He claims that this “hierarchy” (2008: 82) may be evoked by several examples from the hierarchy in the animal world or even by the common assumptions referring to women as symbol for the nature and the “private and domestic” (2008:82) whereas men are considered symbols for culture, the “public and collectivity” and the superiority the terms referring to men have in comparison to the terms that refer to women (cf. Longhurst 2008: 82).

Despite the fact that feminism should be naturally in our everyday life, it is undeniable that there is still no equality and will not be in the next years. That is to say, that in many parts of the world women are still oppressed and forced to fit into a certain model, any sign of being rebellious or strong is directly linked with being masculine and non-feminine and can lead to being excluded or subdued (cf. Ryan 2010: 29). Furthermore, it is emphasized how every human community is “dominated by heterosexual men” (Ryan 2010: 28), a statement which is not absolutely correct, as there are indeed countries that have – even though the number of them is not as impressive as the number of men in higher political positions – female politicians in significant functions and by doing so enable women to have an impact, too. Additionally, the increasing numbers of people who begin to realize and accept the equality of both genders should be considered.

Nonetheless, being female still seems to have some negative connotations and these even have an impact on everyone’s sexual activities, as being male automatically is connected with being dominant, strong and active, while being female seems to mean being passive and subordinate (cf. Ryan 2010: 28). In order to emphasize the not only the negative connotations made regarding the term “female” but also concerning being female in general, the newspaper The Guardian published an article about how eight words in the English language which are defined in the Oxford English Dictionary got their meaning changed in such a way that words which were completely common and neutral then now have become sexist descriptions for women (cf. Shariatmadari 2016: n.pag.). In general, Shariatmadari presents why the author of the Oxford Dictionaries has been criticized as he connects the adjective “rabid” with the term “feminist” and how eight words – to set an example the term “Madam” which used to be a synonym for women of higher positions now has become the definition for a female owner of a brothel – changed their meaning in a for women quite unflattering way (cf. 2016: n.pag.)

To sum it up, one could delineate how certain genders or sexes still are connected with prejudices and expectations that remain from earlier centuries and are tremendously obsolete. Still, men seem to have the task to be strong, dominant and protective whereas women tend to be seen as the weak, subordinate and shy sex and / or gender. Even though several progresses can be noticed in the recent years concerning equality, women becoming independent and men being allowed to be weak and in need of protection if they want to be so, reaching the goal of complete equality and getting rid of biased images of genders seems to be far away. Being depicted in numerous novels, poems, movies and in our everyday life in forms of norms, advertisements or habits, the progress of the changing positions of women and men can be seen. In the following sub-chapter the role of women in the Victorian Age will be analyzed based on how the female gender has been characterized and depicted then.

2.2 The Depiction of Women in the Victorian Age

Being known for the time in which the “Grandmother of Europe” reigned from 1837 to 1901, the Victorian Age occupies several historical, social and economic developments. Further, as in every period there were commonly accepted and presupposed cultural norms and etiquettes which had to be respected in order to be socially accepted. Despite the fact that Britain got more dominant, confident and powerful, women in the Victorian Age were the exact opposite of for what their empire stood for.

Focusing on women of the upper- and working-class, it is obvious that they still stood in the shadow of their men. Being submissive, modest and norm-appropriate were typical characteristics of the Victorian woman who was subordinated to men and was not worth of being educated too well (cf. Nowak 2010: 292). As described in the sub-chapter “The Concept of Gender” women were supposed to be inferior solely based on their biological sex and forced into a certain role in the society model. Especially in the Victorian Age, in which the middle class succeeded in getting wealthier and by doing so having more influence in general, women in the upper- and middle-classes had to stay at home and were not supposed to have anything to do in the public society. They were either daughters, mothers or housewives, thus always linked to a man what legitimated their being (cf. Nowak 2010: 293). Nowak cites Vicinus who delineated the image of the perfect Victorian women as a person who gets married and gives birth to children, which are nursed by governesses and nannies, while the mother solely has to be in her role to certain times which can be per a day, week or also year, although she does not work at all due to her attendants. (cf. Nowak 2010: 291). Concerning her position in the society, the woman herself was not essential at all, it depended on her fathers and husbands wealth and reputation (cf. Nowak 2010: 291) which is the consequence of the assumption women were naturally inferior concerning mental, physical and moral affairs (cf. Strachey 1928: 16). While men were supposed to be an active part of the expanding British Empire, women were expected to stick to their domestic area convenient to the gender stereotyped role model of the “angel in the house” as presented in Coventry Patmore’s narrative poem from 1854 (cf. Gymnich 2007: 14). In exceptional examples if women did not marry, the only socially approved way to earn money for their living was teaching and becoming a governess, whereas there were numerous prostitutes too, considered as “fallen women” (cf. Nowak 2010: 291). And still, also the employment as governess had no immaculate reputation: “Female teachers, like governesses, were an embarrassment to Victorian society, being educated middle-class young women forced into the “unladylike” position of having to earn a living.” (Berg 1996: 4).



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Justus-Liebig-University Giessen
emily literature english women depiction victorian heights wuthering cathy brontë century



Title: Emily Brontë's "Cathy from Wuthering Heights" (1847) during the Victorian Age. The Depiction of Women in English Literature of the 19th Century