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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bending to the Will of a Man

                In last week’s discussion of the story Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte I broached on the theme of social status and power in the story. For this week I would like to touch on the theme of having no power within the story, mainly focusing on the women of the novel.
                During the late 18th and 19th century in England women were not equal to their male counterparts. In fact women were not considered citizens at all. Take this excerpt from a piece on property rights by Hiam Brinjiki accessed from http://www.umd.umich.edu/casl/hum/eng/classes/434/geweb/PROPERTY.htm
The property rights of women during most of the nineteenth century were dependent upon their marital status. Once women married, their property rights were governed by English common law, which required that the property women took into a marriage, or acquired subsequently, be legally absorbed by their husbands. Furthermore, married women could not make wills or dispose of any property without their husbands' consent. Marital separation, whether initiated by the husband or wife, usually left the women economically destitute, as the law offered them no rights to marital property. Once married, the only legal avenue through which women could reclaim property was widowhood”
                A woman could not hold property on her own, and so her and her  possessions were passed from her father to her husband. The male controlled all aspects of her property including property she held before their marriage. If a woman worked the money she made was not considered hers, but her husband’s as well. A woman could not take her children from the husband, he had legal right to his children over her.
                The powerlessness of women is very prominent within Wuthering Heights. It is seen when Cathy makes her decision to marry Edgar, because his power and status will benefit her. Cathy will live comfortably in wealth and not have to worry about being poor. Since a woman could not make something for herself, she had to choose to marry well in order to survive.
                Another example of the powerlessness of women during this time comes from Isabella. Once she chooses to marry Heathcliff, and realizes what a monster he truly is she cannot get free of him. During this period divorce was not allowed by women. She chooses to flee, however Heathcliff makes it apparent that he could come and get her anytime he pleased, as well as take his child anytime he wanted to.
                Heathcliff uses this power over women many times within the story. He uses it on Catherine to force her into marriage with his son Linton, and then forces her to stay with them at the Heights,  instead of letting her live at her home in the Grange. He also knows that because of her marriage to his son that should his son die her property would pass to him, since Catherine cannot own property or possessions.
                The women in the story are forced into situations that they do not want to be in because they have no true control over their lives. They are controlled by the men in their lives and the decisions they choose to make. 
                For me, living in the 21st century, and being as independent as I am I cannot even begin to fathom how this powerlessness felt. As a woman in the 19th century you had no mind, and no choice. Many times in the story I would become upset at the way Heathcliff was able to bend women to his will because they had no choice.  Because of this power Heathcliff in many ways resembles the gothic vampire. He may not be drink their blood, but he can bend a woman to his own will and wishes, and she is powerless to control her own fate. It is almost the same way Dracula uses his powers of hypnosis over woman to make them bend to his whims.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you that women are basically powerless in Wuthering Heights in most respects. The women in Wuthering Heights are often treated as possessions, rather than people, which says a lot about 19th century ideas. As you point out, the marriages in the novel are more to do with power than love -- if it had to do with love, Heathcliff would’ve married Catherine in their youth. Instead, Catherine marries Edgar because it is what is expected and will bring her into a more powerful family, while Heathcliff marries Isabella because it will boost his status and put him in line to inherit Thrushcross Grange.

    Edgar’s treatment of both Catherines is interesting to examine. He wanted to shelter both Catherine and their daughter from the rest of the world (or at least from Heathcliff), so he uses his power to restrict their actions -- the fact that young Cathy had never been near Wuthering Heights is just one example of this. Edgar knows what his effect his actions have on his daughter, but in his view (which, of course, is “more important” because he is male), he is doing what needs to be done. Edgar states that “should Linton be unworthy -- only a feeble tool to his father -- I cannot abandon her to him! And, hard though it be to crush her buoyant spirit, I must persevere in making her sad while I live” (241). He feels that keeping her away from Wuthering Heights, as mad as it makes Catherine, is what is best for her.

    Edgar is concerned with providing for his daughter once he is dead, as “he felt that his will had better be altered: instead of leaving Catherine’s fortune at her own disposal, he determined to put it in the hands of trustees … it could not fall to Mr. Heathcliff should Linton die” (265). He initially has thoughts that Catherine marrying Linton might not be bad, as it will guarantee that his daughter will not live poorly.

    I also think that the power Heathcliff holds over the women in the novel interesting to examine. As he climbs the social ladder, his power grows over all the characters, especially the women. But there is one thing that he could not control, and one thing that he did not have power over: Catherine’s love. I think that clearly the male characters hold the power in Wuthering Heights, but they do not hold power over love, nor can they control who falls in love. Perhaps this is another reason why Heathcliff is so malevolent -- he can control almost anything, except for matters of the heart.