Wuthering Heights: Social Standing as a Motivation Behind Characters

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The actions and choices of characters in Wuthering Heights are often an attempt to raise their social status. This is clear in Catherine’s reason for marrying Edgar Linton instead of Heathcliff, and the sense of revenge that overtakes Heathcliff in his adult life when he attempts to inherit Thrushcross Grange as well as the Heights. It is not within the nature of all characters to be infatuated with social class and the desire to elevate it, instead such feelings frequently come about from being exposed to a material wealth which is not inhabited by that character. Often social class becomes a character’s motivation because of the power of greed in the novel and class frictions resulting in the desire for revenge.

It is fairly easy to read Wuthering Heights through a Marxist lens as from the outset, there are clear social divisions between the characters. Upon Mr Earnshaw adopting Heathcliff, there is initial discontent from Mrs Earnshaw as well as Catherine and Hindley who were ‘grinning and spitting’ at the ‘gipsy brat’, as described by the pair. This behaviour is expected more from the children, though it is surprising that Ellen dehumanises Heathcliff by referring to him with the pronoun ‘it’ and leaving him ‘on the landing of the stairs’, like a dog, hoping he would leave. This brings to light the fine lines between social classes and how this defines how characters are treated. Ellen grew up alongside Catherine and Hareton, allowing her integration into the family, and for her position as a maid to become increasingly irrelevant to those she serves as they know her as a companion. Nonetheless, Ellen is a maid to the family, which lowers her status, allowing the reader to assume she would be more sympathetic towards an abandoned character like Heathcliff and recognise his needs, but she does not. ‘Marxism questions whether the text supports the prevailing social and economic system or undermines it’, significant when considering Wuthering Heights as the Earnshaws and Lintons would have been members of the gentry, providing them with a high social standing. Despite being landowners, they do not have titles of nobility like aristocrats and royals above them, thus their place in the late 18th/early 19th century hierarchy would not have been utterly secure. This makes Nelly Dean’s initial reaction to Heathcliff more surprising as her social class is lower to Heathcliff’s once he is adopted into the Earnshaw family as he is, theoretically, ascribed the same status as the other two children. Additionally, after this point, she will have to serve him as a maid. This confirms the importance of social class as motivation in Wuthering Heights and that even those in the lowest positions look down on others within their own class, presenting the importance of material wealth and that looking down on others for what they do not have becomes a generalised concept, whether you are at the bottom or top of the social hierarchy.

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The desire for social status becomes Catherine’s motivation when she returns from Thrushcross Grange. After initial reluctance, Catherine quickly accepts Heathcliff in the family, the pair becoming inseparable and reckless, promising to grow up as ‘rude as savages’ together. Eagleton expresses how Heathcliff’s lack of place in the social and economic structure of Wuthering Heights makes his and Catherine’s relationship natural and one of ‘direct personal equality’ as she is a daughter who does not expect to inherit; she is ‘the least economically integral member’ of the family. Though, upon Catherine’s return, the situation sours between her and Heathcliff and their friendship is tainted by Catherine’s transformation into a ‘dignified’ woman with ‘much improved’ manners along with her new lavish appearance. Bertens (2001) argues that capitalism allows us to ‘become alienated from ourselves’ and ‘turns people into things’, a view which mirrors the transformation of Catherine in a short amount of time. As a child, Catherine became friends with Heathcliff and disregarded her appearance for companionship where ‘punishment grew a mere thing to laugh at’. Exposure to a social class higher than her own and the pressure to behave in an unfamiliar environment alienated Catherine from herself and turned her into the epitome of a woman of gentry’s status, in both her appearance and person. Catherine’s language and treatment of other characters also changes, seen when she ‘burst into a laugh’ upon seeing Heathcliff’s ‘funny and grim’ appearance, which threatens their relationship. This is a turning point in the novel where, previously neglected, social class now becomes the focal point of Catherine’s motivation and the decisions she makes. Marxist ideas are drawn upon here because the work of capitalism has resulted in a girl of only twelve years old to recognise the pressure surrounding her to conform to a social class above her standing. Catherine’s childhood and friendship with Heathcliff had, up to this point, offered her the freedom of isolation from class and social structure. Therefore, the power of capitalism, enforced by the Linton family, caused a young woman to reevaluate her identity. The upkeep of her appearance continued outside of the Linton household, where it was unnecessary to look and act in such a way in front of the people she is most comfortable with, displaying how capitalist ideas manifested themselves enough for Catherine to internalise the pressure to obey the expectations of this social system, enforcing her motivation through the rest of the novel.

Social class becomes Heathcliff’s motivation once his main motivation, his love for Catherine and desire to marry her, becomes hopeless. Catherine expresses how she would be the ‘greatest woman of the neighbourhood’ if she were to marry Edgar Linton, whereas if Heathcliff and her married, they would be ‘beggars’. Catherine marries Linton to gain material wealth, making her a product of the capitalist social system. Upon Catherine’s declaration of her marriage, revenge becomes Heathcliff’s main motivation. However, this revenge is to acquire the status and wealth of both the Lintons and Earnshaws, thus social status is at the heart of what he wants to achieve. Perhaps Heathcliff’s love for Catherine is still his main motivation; money and status will prove his worthiness to be equal to Linton’s. Although, even after Catherine’s death, Heathcliff is determined to inherit both estates by taking advantage of people - including his own and other characters’ children via encouraging their marriage - specifically his own son becomes a tool for Heathcliff’s revenge. Bertens (2001) expresses that some politicians would be of the view that ‘you have options...all you have to do is to make the right choices and start moving up that social ladder’, the opposite to what Marx believed. Yet, Heathcliff internalises this view when he leaves to begin his revenge. Heathcliff also becomes reliant on violence to fulfil his motivations. After being abused by Hindley for large proportions of his childhood, violence towards others becomes tied to Heathcliff’s much sought after revenge on Hindley. Marxist links here tie to the fact that Hindley had always seen Heathcliff as a threat to his inheritance since Mr Earnshaw adopted him into the family, causing this wealth-based friction to amount to the abuse of Heathcliff. Marxism argues that minds are not ‘unaffected by material circumstances’ and ‘aren’t free at all’ (Bertens 2001), relating to how this drive of Heathcliff’s to obtain Hindley’s inheritance is a product of the varying status between them. If Heathcliff was accepted by Hindley as his equal socially, there would be no ground for revenge to form. However, it is this ‘class struggle’ that Peck and Coyle believe ‘must be made evident’ to a Marxist reading that Heathcliff and Hindley experience.

Manipulation of love and character becomes a means to fulfil motivation. Although Heathcliff and Catherine should have married - halted by wealth and social standing - they married partners they did not truly love to gain material wealth or revenge. Catherine appears to be the only character in the novel that Heathcliff will not act violently towards or treat abhorrently, displaying his adoration for her, but also portraying how status has changed his personality. Heathcliff uses his power to force various marriages between the children of Catherine, Hindley and his own to confirm his control over Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff also appears to punish every other character in Wuthering Heights apart from Catherine, who rejected him as a husband and caused the ‘train of destruction’ that is Heathcliff’s revenge. Bertens (2001) is of the view that if our values are ‘determined by the sort of economy that we happen to live in, then clearly there is no such thing as an unchanging human condition’. This applies to the character of Heathcliff as the economy this novel lives within holds the power to change the characters’ attitudes towards wealth and status, ultimately bringing destruction into their lives. The characteristics which make us human certainly change throughout the novel because of the economic climate and how characters react to it. Being exposed to and denied the rewards of capitalism fuel Heathcliff’s desire and greed, changing his human experience and personality greatly throughout the novel, depicting how we do not live separately to the economic condition over us.

Overall, the motivation of the characters in Wuthering Heights often has social class at its heart, even when this is camouflaged as love or revenge. Catherine’s desire for a higher social standing through marriage is ultimately what descends the novel into turmoil, with Heathcliff’s desire to increase his wealth to be depicted by Catherine as a gentleman. Upon exposure to a character’s own class and the expected behaviour attached to this label, characters transform and threaten the relationship with those closest to them to acquire a higher place in the social hierarchy. It is an obsession with wealth and status that brings the characters to their doom, both Catherine and Heathcliff becoming their ‘own executioner’.

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