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In this lesson, we explore the role that feminism plays in ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte. Although women’s rights were limited during this time period, each of the women in the story finds a way to show strength and independence.

Women’s Rights

When Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, feminism , or gender equality, was just beginning to emerge and seemed like a radical idea to many people. The notion that a woman must rely on a man for survival is prevalent in the culture where this story takes place. Despite the limitations they face, each of the women in the novel is portrayed with a degree of strength that supports Emily Bronte’s feminist views.

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Let’s look at feminism in Wuthering Heights.

Catherine

While Catherine‘s character can easily be viewed as self-absorbed, childish, and stubborn, her free-spirited independence might be considered progressive. By today’s standards, a woman who marries for wealth and security may not be considered strong, but in Catherine’s world, it was the only means by which a woman could ever hope to get ahead.We learn that Catherine’s marriage to Edgar is actually a misguided attempt to help Heathcliff when Catherine says, ‘Nelly, I see now you think me a selfish wretch; but did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars? whereas, if I marry Linton I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother’s power.

‘In Catherine’s opinion, she is martyring herself to make things better for Heathcliff. However, making the assumption that she is Heathcliff’s only hope does not say very much about her opinion of him.

Isabella

Isabella is often portrayed as immature, spoiled, and foolish.

During her childhood at the Grange, one would never suspect that she has it in her to stand strong when she needs to, but her time at Wuthering Heights after marrying Heathcliff proves otherwise. On her first night at the Heights, Hindley, Catherine’s older brother, shows Isabella the gun he hopes to use against Heathcliff someday. Isabella tells Nelly, ‘I surveyed the weapon inquisitively. A hideous notion struck me: how powerful I should be possessing such an instrument! I took it from his hand, and touched the blade.’This is the first time that Isabella began to consider the possibility that she is not a victim. However, she still harbors romantic notions of a violent, passionate romance with Heathcliff.

There is violence, but very little passion. Isabella tells Nelly, ‘I’ve recovered from my first desire to be killed by him: I’d rather he’d kill himself! He has extinguished my love effectually, and so I’m at my ease.’Isabella does an amazing thing for a woman of her time and leaves her abusive relationship, striking out on her own to settle near London. Isabella shows that a woman can survive on her own as she cares not only for herself, but for Linton, the child she delivers a few months after leaving the Heights.

Nelly

Nelly, the servant, narrates much of the story. She tries to tell it objectively, but she is so much like family that her perceptions may be skewed by love. She offers honest advice to the characters in the story and speaks her mind, while remembering that she is not an equal.

Nelly becomes fiercely protective of the second generation, feeling as though they are partly her own children.When Heathcliff kidnaps Cathy, Catherine’s daughter, with the intention of forcing Cathy to marry his son, Linton, Nelly speaks up. She says to Cathy, ‘There’s law in the land, thank God! there is; though we be in an out-of-the way place. I’d inform if he were my own son: and it’s felony without benefit of clergy!’ Nelly’s independence comes from a motherly desire to protect Cathy.

Cathy

Cathy is much like her mother in many ways, including her tendency to be headstrong, but that stubbornness and independence is not fully developed until she moves to the Grange. Cathy’s character endures injustices based on a legal system that prioritizes men, allowing Heathcliff to use her as a tool to exact his revenge.

At the same time that Cathy’s father, Edgar, nears death, Heathcliff’s son, Linton, is also at death’s door. By forcing Cathy and Linton to marry just before both men die, Heathcliff is able to inherit Edgar’s estate. How is that fair? Cathy has no choice and is ultimately forced to live with her father-in-law’s abuse at the Heights while he makes a profit by renting out her father’s estate.

The only way Cathy retains her dignity, is through sarcastic quips, which she maintains despite the physical abuse it inspires. As Heathcliff orders her to put away her books, she responds, ‘But I’ll not do anything, though you should swear your tongue out, except what I please!’

Lesson Summary

Feminism is a term used to describe gender equality. Although women had very few rights during the time period in which this novel was written, some radical notions were beginning to emerge about a woman’s ability to make her own decisions.

When Catherine marries Edgar for his money, it is different than how we view these types of marriages today. Catherine has come to the conclusion that the only way she can help herself or Heathcliff would be to marry someone with the means to help them both.Isabella, however, proves that women can care for themselves and their offspring independently when she makes the bold decision to leave her abusive husband and raise her child on her own in another town. Nelly is not afraid to offer her opinion, but when she really steps up and shows her power is when she jumps to the defense of Cathy, who is like a daughter to her.

Cathy is a victim of a system set up against women. When her father and husband die, both of their estates are transferred to Cathy’s abusive father-in-law, leaving her at his mercy. All she has left is her voice, which she is not afraid to use.

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