Wuthering Heights: Fantasy and realism

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.

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The Brontë family is an exceptional family but, in a way, it's Emily Brontë whose the most exceptional of them all really – the most singular, the most independent minded and her teacher, Monsieur Heger in Brussels, said she should have been a great navigator and she's got all that kind of spirit to her of independent mindedness and finding new worlds and so the wonderful thing about Wuthering Heights is the way that it – in one way it is the most disciplined and complexly organised novel. If you try and work out its back story and its time scheme, it's beautifully structured and organised and the way it's told – it's got so many different narrators – it's like a little set of Chinese boxes set inside each other. So, in one way it's wonderfully controlled and organised and at the same time, it seems to touch the most kind of primitive and deep human feelings about the nature of human culture – what happens when human culture meets something beyond it, itself – and again, it's quite a realistic novel – so Lockwood at the beginning – he's like somebody from Jane Austen and then he walks into Wuthering Heights and he keeps getting it wrong. You know, he sees some dead rabbits and he thinks they're kittens. He thinks they all must belong to the same family. Well, they all do, but none in the relationships that he thinks that they do – so he constantly misunderstands it, because he's in a world that touches much more powerful and primitive kinds of feelings. So, Emily Brontë, like her siblings, creates these fantasy worlds. So here is the little Grammar of Geography that they had as children and in it you can see that they've written the word Gondal, like it was a real place and that was the fantasy world that she created with Anne. And again, like her sister, Charlotte, she brings lots of Gothic elements, lots of fantasy elements, lots of fairytale elements into the novel, but within that very disciplined kind of framework.

So, think of Heathcliff, for example. In one way he behaves in a totally realistic way. You can see where he lives, you can see the way he speaks and so forth, but in another way, he's deeply mysterious and seems to touch all sorts of supernatural, or near supernatural forces. Nobody knows where he's born, nobody knows who his parents are, he's only got one name – he's just called Heathcliff. Why should he have that? And people call him an afreet or a ghoul, he seems to be in touch with satanic kinds of forces. He digs up Cathy at the end and wants to be buried with her. He seems to be able to choose his own death. People say that he's walking at the end. So, all these kind of Gothic elements and yet they're never fully supernatural – they just seem to haunt the edges of the book, haunt the characterisation of it, so that it's constantly under control, in that you get the power and the emotional force and the eroticism of Gothic in this novel, but at the same time, with all the realistic power of a novel that seizes you as if it could really be true.

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