Wuthering Heights: Violence and cruelty

Professor John Bowen explores Emily Brontë’s extraordinary use of violence in Wuthering Heights. Filmed on location on the moors around Haworth.

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Wuthering Heights is an extraordinarily violent book and it's there right from the beginning - you know, Lockwood turns up at Wuthering Heights and these great savage dogs attack him and knock him over and then when he's brought into the house, they immediately throw a bucket of cold water over him. So that right from the start, everybody gets caught up in cycles of violence and it's there even among the children, so the children, when Heathcliff first appears, are really really cruel to him.  So that Cathy, when she asks for a present from her father from Liverpool - she asked for a whip - what she gets instead of the whip, is Heathcliff. And he has that destructive, cruel power through the book and at first, it just seems very uninhibited - all the children are cruel to one another, but also the way they speak to each another, you know - Cathy says, “I hope he'll flog you sick”, she says of Heathcliff and Linton.  It gets more controlled in the second half of the book and whether Heathcliff calculates his violence much more realistically in a way in the second half and it's something that shocks so many of the early reviewers of the book. It seems this completely wild, uninhibited book, disgusting, horrible, violent and that's something I think that readers - since the novel's been written have responded to and it's something new that Emily Brontë brings to the English novel. 

It's hard to know why Emily Brontë was so fascinated by violence. I think it's the way that they managed to keep in touch with very primitive, primal emotions in their childhood and so that they can do the adult controlled things, as it were, but they know that what lies underneath it can often be much more uninhibitedly cruel or destructive.

So, it's a very violent novel and the first readers, I think, were shocked and surprised by it and it was, it seemed so different from the kind of genteel novels that they were often used to. So, an early review wrote:

‘In Wuthering Heights, the reader is shocked, disgusted, almost sickened by details of cruelty, inhumanity and the most diabolical hate and vengeance. And anon come passages of powerful testimony to the supreme power of love, even over demons and the human form. The women in the book are a strange, fiendish, angelic nature, tantalizing and terrible and the men are indescribable out of the book itself.’

In many ways, that's quite a positive review, but captures really well both how shocking the novel was and the way that it unites apparently, incompatible qualities - that they're both seductive and terrifying at the same time.

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