19th century, Arts

Rebellion against the ‘silken snare’: two Bronte sisters and the struggle against convention

By Elly McCausland

The authors of both Jane Eyre (1847) and Wuthering Heights (1847) present women that rebel against constraining and oppressive social norms, attempting to free their passionate natures from the many limiting forms of the yokes and moulds of convention. However, there is a stark difference between the ways in which both sisters’ work broke literary and social boundaries. Charlotte Bronte presents her characters’ passions and rebellions within a moral framework that allows for eventual reconciliation, but Emily refuses to do so. Instead, rebellion pervades Wuthering Heights unresolved. Its keynote is passion; a focus that helped to free female imaginations from the constraints of previous social and literary conventions, from the monotony of the domestic sphere and the social ladder.

Bronte’s presentation of female restlessness caused uneasiness when Jane Eyre was first published. One critic remarked that it ‘dashed into our well-ordered world, broke its boundaries, and defied its principles – and the most alarming revolution of modern times has followed the invasion of Jane Eyre‘. (Margaret Oliphant review of Jane Eyre 1855, cited in Casebook Series: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Vilette, ed. Allott. M) Such notion of revolution is a response to Jane Eyre’s belief that ‘when we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard’ (p57), a rebellion against the submissive meekness that was typically valued in Victorian women. Rebellion in Wuthering Heights is also inherent in a series of ‘recurrences’: Cathy and Hareton’s revolt against Heathcliff mirrors Catherine and Heathcliff’s revolt against Hindley. Emily Bronte uses this to emphasise that Catherine ought to have rebelled and married Heathcliff. This is the crux of the novel, favouring passion over convention.

In 1854, Coventry Patmore first published his poem ‘The Angel in the House’. It portrayed the ideal woman as a wife and mother, selflessly devoted to her children and submissive to her husband. The Bronte sisters rejected this convention, creating women whose passion leads them to reject the bland domesticity of traditional female roles. As Jane Eyre remarks, women ‘seek to do more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex’ (p109). She seeks an egalitarian relationship with her husband. The language of slavery permeates Jane Eyre: Rochester tells Jane, ‘I will myself put the diamond chain around your neck’ (p269). Jane struggles against the ‘diamond chain’, against the prospect of an unequal marriage, however attractive it might seem. Catherine Earnshaw prefers to spend her time wandering the moors with Heathcliff than ‘making puddings and knitting stockings’ (Jane Eyre p109), demonstrating a passion and a restlessness that cannot be compressed into the conventional female sphere. Her choice to marry Edgar Linton because she ‘shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood’ (p97) would traditionally be applauded by Victorian society, but Emily Bronte portrays it as having disastrous consequences, leading to a lasting bitterness in Heathcliff’s heart that is responsible for the misery he wreaks upon others after Catherine’s death.

Charlotte Bronte also rejects Victorian conventions of beauty through her plain heroine; Emily Bronte refuses to conform to the stereotypes of romantic love, focusing instead on violent passion. Heathcliff defies the expectations of the romantic hero. Emily Bronte plays the same game with the reader as Heathcliff plays with Isabella: she establishes expectations of Heathcliff as a Byronic hero with a tortured soul, a ‘rough diamond’ who will eventually succumb to the educative powers of affection. Catherine tells Isabella that ‘he’s not a rough diamond – a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic; he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man’ (p126). This expostulation could equally be addressed to the reader, who is continually disappointed as they search for the pearl in Heathcliff’s oyster.

However, the two novels differ in a crucial respect. Jane’s struggle for autonomy is placed by Charlotte Bronte into a moral framework, enabling her to reach a reconciliation. Her conflicting desires regarding her marriage to Mr Rochester are reconciled, and she asks, ‘Which is better? To have surrendered to temptation; listened to passion; made no painful effort – no struggle; but to have sunk down in the silken snare…’ (p359). Although she initially rebelled, this enabled her to escape and develop the financial and emotional capacity to return to Rochester. She tells Rochester: ‘I love you better now, when I can really be useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector’ (p445).

Emily Bronte, however, depicts an ‘exhausting confrontation of contending forces’ (Eagleton. T, Wuthering Heights, cited in Critical Essays on Emily Bronte ed. Winnifrith. J) that cannot function within Charlotte’s method of reconciliation. Heathcliff refuses to entertain the concept of forgiveness (‘God won’t have the satisfaction that I shall [forgive]’ – p76), and Catherine refuses to entertain the concept of reconciliation (‘I’ll try to break their hearts by breaking my own! – p143). Heathcliff’s apostrophe to the dead Catherine – ‘May you not rest, as long as I am living!’ (p204) forbids the possibility of a reconciliation of polarities; the only possibility exists in his death. Wuthering Heights confronts the notion that passion and human society are not fundamentally reconcilable: the insular, all-encompassing passion of Catherine and Heathcliff (‘I am Heathcliff’ – p102) has no reconcilable place in a society that prefers the domestic values of Edgar Linton.

Wuthering Heights‘ most lasting subversion is against interpretation; the vast nature of its critical heritage alone is testimony to this. Emily Bronte’s ultimate rebellion appears to be the creation of a love that defies explanation and comprehension both within the world of her novel, and without. Catherine herself declares: ‘I cannot express it’. She must resort to natural similes to describe her passion: ‘my love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods…my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath’ (p100-101). Nelly Dean is a conventional woman shocked by Catherine’s attitudes to love and marriage. Whilst the reader perhaps understands her disapproval, they can also see an unimaginative and moral person failing to comprehend an original and subversive one. It is this juxtaposition that Emily Bronte uses to suggest the elusive and inexpressible nature of the passion between Catherine and Heathcliff.

It is this passion that defines the subersiveness of Emily’s novel. Whilst her sister broke boundaries in a portrayal of women that contradicted the Victorian ideal, Emily did so in a way that is even more memorable. No reader of Wuthering Heights ever truly comprehends the love of Catherine and Heathcliff, but no reader ever forgets it, either. Emily Bronte created a dynamic and passionate alternative to the dreary domestic monotony that faced many Victorian women, and opened up new ways of thinking about the relationship between love and social convention. This passion has remained with readers since Wuthering Heights was published, and has left hearts and minds – as well as the wild moors – haunted by the restless ghosts of Catherine and Heathcliff.

Oliphant. M, ‘Review of Jane Eyre 1855′, cited in Allott. M (ed.) Casebook Series: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Vilette
Eagleton. T, ‘Wuthering Heights’, cited in Winnifrith. J (ed.)Critical Essays on Emily Bronte
Bronte. C, Jane Eyre
Bronte. E, Wuthering Heights

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