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Gothic Elements in Victorian Literature: A Comparative Analysis of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre

Introduction

The topic of love has always been important in literature across the centuries. Nevertheless, while the central theme remained the same, its presentation and particularities have taken different forms following the spirit of the time. Despite existing genre constraints, there have always been works of literature that stand out from the rest. Wuthering Heights was published in the 19th century by Emily Brontë, and the book did not correspond with the conventional perception of gothic love novels of that period. Certain elements of its plot, characters, and general setting contributed to the unique atmosphere and image of Wuthering Heights. These aspects reveal themselves in an obvious way through a comparative analysis with other works of that time. The purpose of this essay is to examine the way in which Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë subverts the genre of Victorian romantic literature, as compared to Jane Eyre written by the author’s sister.

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Gothic Elements in Victorian Literature

Victorian literature encompasses many genres and categories, as the term is related to the particular era rather than a distinct style. Nevertheless, it is possible to say that gothic literature was among the prevailing genres that influenced the works of that time. According to Qiao, gothic novels reached the peak of their popularity in the early 18th century, during the childhood of the Brontë sisters (1578). Naturally, future authors absorbed the primary characteristics of the style. Accordingly, their most popular works, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are inspired by the gothic atmosphere and themes that surrounded them. At the same time, Emily Brontë managed to subvert the conventional elements of a romantic novel of that period, adding a revolutionary perspective that would later receive due recognition.

While the concept of Gothic literature and art had been known for centuries, it took a particular form in the Victorian context. Qiao states that realism had become the leading tendency in literature by the time the Brontë sisters matured (1579). Prior to its decline, the genre of gothic novels boasted such masters as Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and Matthew Lewis. Nevertheless, even though this style was not as popular in the early-to-mid 19th century, it soon evolved and influenced the works of renowned authors, including Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson (Qiao 1578). In other words, while gothic writing barely survived at the time of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, its specific aspects had an evident impact on the novels. Simultaneously, while both works share crucial elements of the gothic style, Emily Brontë managed to subvert some of the aspects, which retained their traditional nature in Charlotte’s book. The peculiarity of the situation is highlighted by the fact that the two authors were sisters whose novels were published within a short period.

The comparison between Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre can be drawn within the general context of gothic literature elements. This genre utilizes an array of tools and focuses on creating an atmosphere of tension and tragedy (Haque 151). This goal is usually attained by the correct setting, aiming at putting the reader in the right mood. Indeed, Gothic novels are usually characterized by the overall sense of unease that highlights the challenges faced by their characters. The list of specific instruments used by the authors may include grim descriptions of the locations, a problem-focused plot filled with tragedy, and ghastly weather. The tragedy remains an integral part of every gothic story, but, as realism was becoming the leading style in the 18th century, Brontë sisters and contemporary authors seemed to keep the tragedies relatable. The atmosphere of tension and unease mentioned above is attained through other means of a stylistic nature rather than fantastic events. Moreover, the reality of the described situation may be the key factor contributing to novels’ shocking effects on their readers.

On the other hand, despite the prevailing role of realism in Victorian gothic literature, supernatural elements remain important. Haque refers to the supernatural as one of the key aspects that render a novel truly gothic (152). Qiao supports this point of view, adding that such hints help the authors create an atmosphere of suspense and even horror (1580). At the same time, a typical gothic novel does not have to include supernatural occurrences directly. Spoken differently, these elements serve to grasp the readers’ attention and add a touch of mystery through dark omens and bizarre events. The supernatural in gothic novels may not be present without full explanations and confirmations of magic. Furthermore, such occurrences are often presented through the prism of characters’ mental states. According to Giordano, human psychology plays a role of paramount importance in Victorian novels, serving as an area of intense interest in related studies (30). Therefore, the supernatural elements of Victorian gothic literature become the background, leaving the characters’ psychology in the focus of readers’ attention. The described elements can be used as the framework for a comparative analysis of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

Setting and Atmosphere

Both Charlotte and Emily Brontë devote much attention to the atmosphere of suspense in their novels. The former incorporates particular elements of gothic writing in Jane Eyre in a traditional way. The atmosphere of this novel is tense in several parts, which correlates with the protagonist’s life at that specific point. Charlotte Brontë highlights the hardships of Jane’s childhood in her aunt’s house. As the plot progresses, the author creatively plays with the readers’ feelings, as periods of hope and tragedy change one another (C. Brontë). Jane’s time at Thornfield Hall serves as the epitome of gothic writing in this novel. The suspense is created through mysterious occurrences inside the manor, as the protagonist hears strange noises and laughter coming from the restricted part of the building (C. Brontë 111). Even the owner of Thornfield Hall remained mysterious until Jane met mister Rochester in person. Quasi-supernatural elements occur once more, as Jane hears Rochester’s voice following her departure from the mansion (C. Brontë 447). Even though the inexplicable nature of the event is highlighted by the protagonist, no particular explanation is given.

Overall, Jane Eyre changes its tone throughout the novel, and the contrast helps to keep the readers engaged. Furthermore, the atmosphere becomes lighter by the end, as all obstacles between Jane and her happiness with Rochester are eliminated. On the other hand, Wuthering Heights, while generally demonstrating a typical gothic setting, is a darker novel. Emily Bronte devotes a lot of attention to the description of moorlands surrounding Wuthering Heights, as well as poor weather. Unlike her sister, she does not mix happy and tragic parts, and the atmosphere of the novel continuously becomes darker (E. Brontë). Wuthering Height is entirely set in the self-titled manor and its surroundings, showing the gradual nature of the place. Supernatural elements exist in the form of Catherine’s ghost, which allegedly takes Heathcliff to the afterlife. In addition, the two were seen by remaining tenants walking in the field (E. Brontë 287). Although both novels comprise supernatural elements, Jayne Eyre devotes less attention to such occurrences. As for the atmosphere, Wuthering Heights remains dark and tragic until the end with little or no lighter chapters.

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Plot and Structure

The particularities of Wuthering Heights are revealed through a comparison in terms of plot and structure. Charlotte Brontë arranged Jayne Eyre in a conventional manner, in which each part follows the previous one chronologically. The novel begins with the chapters dedicated to the life of ten-year-old Jane as an orphan and later explores a particular period of her adulthood. At the same time, Wuthering Heights encompasses the lives of three generations and introduces a greater number of characters (E. Brontë). In fact, Emily Brontë’s novel demonstrates a much higher level of complexity, which may have been the reason why it was received more poorly than her sister’s work. In addition to numerous important characters, the plot of Wuthering Heights is not chronologically arranged, meaning that the focus of attention shifts between different generations. Besides, there are several narrators in this novel, which adds complexity to its structure. Jayne Eyre can be more easily understood, as its plot is linear, and there are fewer important characters.

As mentioned above, the level of tragedy in Wuthering Heights increases as the story progresses. Jayne Eyre is a typical gothic novel in this respect, which reaches its climax when Thornfield Hall is set on fire. All previous issues and conflicts converge at that point, changing the course of the novel and creating a new status quo for Jane and Rochester. Following the fire and the death of Bertha Mason (C. Brontë). The two can finally get together and have a proper wedding, ultimately making Jayne Eyre a classical romantic novel with gothic elements. Its final part is a classic example of catharsis in Victorian literature. The protagonist and her relationship with mister Rochester faced a series of challenges, but the issues were resolved by the end.

The same cannot be said about Wuthering Heights, in which the darker side prevails until the final chapters. Emily Brontë’s plot subverts readers’ expectations on several occasions, beginning with Heathcliff’s personality. As he departs from the manor following years of abuse by Hindley and returns a changed man, one may expect Heathcliff to be a classic positive character looking for justice. Nevertheless, he turns out to be a wily tyrant who shortly takes over the manor and terrorizes all its tenants (E. Brontë). Ansari et al. state the purpose of Wuthering Heights was to explore the dark side of human nature (299). Emily Brontë paints a promising picture of an eternal romance between Catherine and Heathcliff, which ends up being a red herring. Their relationship is full of tragic turns, and the climax is reached when the woman unexpectedly dies. The second half of the story unfolds in the fallout of this tragedy, and each of the main characters meets their demise. The author hints at Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s a happy reunion in the afterlife, but no material catharsis is given.

Conclusion

While gothic literature almost lost its importance by the 19th century, it managed to undergo substantial transformations and remain relevant in the age of realism. Brontë sisters’ novels were directly influenced by gothic elements, but one of them managed to subvert the canons of the genre. Jayne Eyre, while possessing necessary gothic aspects, ended in a powerful catharsis. Simultaneously, Wuthering Heights introduced a new level of tragedy and complexity in the genre. The novel by Emily Brontë became a revolutionary work, which later found due recognition and inspired new generations of authors.

Works Cited

Ansari, Sanaullah, et al. “The Themes of Evil and Revenge in “Wuthering Heights”, a Novel by Emily Bronte.” International Journal of English and Education, vol. 6, no. 2, 2020, pp. 298-308.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Carleton, 1864.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Harper & Brothers, 1858.

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Giordano, Giuseppe. “The Contribution of Freud’s Theories to the Literary Analysis of Two Victorian Novels: Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.” International Journal of English and Literature, vol. 11, no. 2, 2020, pp. 29-34.

Haque, Farhana. “Wuthering Heights Represents the Perfect Theme of Gothic Novel by Emily Bronte.” BEST: International Journal of Humanities, Arts, Medicine and Sciences, vol. 4, no. 9, 2016, pp. 149-154.

Qiao, Weirong. “How is Wuthering Heights a Gothic Novel?” International Journal of English Literature and Social Sciences, vol. 4, no. 5, 2019, pp. 1578-1583.

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