Melding fantasy and realism in Wuthering Heights

Professor John Bowen explores the intertwined nature of fantasy and realism within Emily Brontë’s novel.

Professor John Bowen considers Emily Brontë’s combination of fantasy and reality in Wuthering Heights and the way in which fairy tale and Gothic elements ‘haunt the edges’ of the novel. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth.

A world of passionate intensities

Wuthering Heights creates a world of passionate intensities, in which particular events are burned on the characters’ and readers’ memories, beyond reason, measure or reserve. Terror stalks the book and defines so many of its central relationships, concerned as it is with the ecstatic, eerie and mad. The book plays with death, courts death, stages death, even jokes with death, as we see when the dying Catherine is haunted by the face in the ‘black press’ (ch. 12) or when Heathcliff breaks through the side of Catherine’s coffin or hangs his wife Isabella’s puppy from the back of a chair. The book is fascinated by what lies at the limits of the human and is haunted by the forces of death and the diabolical, by cosmpulsive modes of behaviour, by infantile and sublimely powerful emotions, by the force of irresistible will, and by the terrible consequences done to human beings by radical evil. The book is full of animals, spirits and ghosts, and those, like Heathcliff, about whom we can never be sure.

Illustrations to Wuthering Heights by Clare Leighton

Illustration of Heathcliff digging up Catherine’s grave by Clare Leighton, 1931.

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Copyright: © By arrangement with the Estate of Clare Leighton

The extraordinary within the real

It is also a highly organised and rationally planned novel, with a complex time scheme and several interlocking narrators. It sets its extraordinary actions in a vividly realised family history and landscape. It is fascinated by the power of fantasy, particularly erotic fantasy, in people’s lives – Isabella thinks of Heathcliff as ‘“a hero of romance”’ (ch. 14) until she learns the truth of his brutality – but those fantasies take their place within a carefully plotted story about inheritance, intermarriage and theft. The erotic is not separated from the economic, and the passage of power and land across generations. Emily Brontë was fascinated by extreme emotions, radically opposing mental and social forces, and the creation of moments of moral revelation and transformation that were typical both of Gothic fiction and Victorian melodrama, but she could control, ironize and discipline those energies to serious purpose. Through the care she took to implant her writing in a particular history, landscape and material world, through complex time-schemes and inset narrators, through making Gothic into a mode of psychic exploration, she decisively extended the range and affective power of the English novel.

Professor John Bowen and Ann Dinsdale discuss the fantasy worlds of Gondal and Angria, created by the Brontë children, and the lasting influence of these on the sisters’ later novels. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth.

Poetry

Emily Bronte is one of the very few authors to be an important poet as well as a major novelist, and there is a close relationship between the two bodies of work. Many of her poems appeared first in stories of the 'Gondal' world that she created with her sister Anne; she collected them in a manuscript notebook (now in the British Library) entitled 'Gondal Poems' although when she published six of them in the collection Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846), she removed all references to Gondal. So the poems do not depend on an underlying narrative context for their power; like other great Victorian poems, they dramatize questions of identity and self through different personae in impassioned utterance and often extreme situations. Like Wuthering Heights, they are drawn to emotional extremity and passion, to scenes of loss and oblivion, and to the affirmation of desire in the face of death.

Manuscript of Emily Brontë's Gondal poetry

Manuscript copy of Emily Brontë's Gondal poetry [folio: 3v]

'A.G.A. to A.S.', a poem from Emily Brontë's Gondal saga, 20 May 1838.

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  • John Bowen
  • John Bowen is a Professor of 19th century literature at the University of York. His main research area is 19th-century fiction, in particular the work of Charles Dickens, but he has also written on modern poetry and fiction, as well as essays on literary theory.

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