Binary oppositions and the concept of love in Wuhering Heights and Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Emily Brontë and Thomas Hardy are both considered great novelists born in the Victorian era, and although their works which I am going to discuss display different features (Wuthering Heights being written at the beginning of the Victorian period, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles at the end), there is one element that might be said to link the two novels, namely the notion of love. The concept of this feeling undoubtedly plays a significant role in the stories and influences the plot in both of them. Thus, the aim of this article is to provide readers with the brief characterization of the love’s force and how it plays a major part in the chosen works.
In the case of the book by Emily Brontë, it would probably not come as a surprise if readers, asked about the novel, would simply state that this is a story about love. In his introduction to the study of Wuthering Heights, Stephen Coote says that the novel is mostly preoccupied with “showing the nature of love” (10). It would be, indeed, a very difficult task to disagree with this statement. Wuthering Heights, with the passionate and violent love of Heathcliff and Catherine as its centre, discovers how this immense feeling creates the reality in which the protagonists have to learn to live. Ever since the lovers were rebellious children, their relation has had far-reaching consequences on others, even after Catherine’s death in childbirth. Nevertheless, it would be a negligence to state that the novel is merely a love story, since it also touches the theme of human condition, and symbolism and imagery employed by Brontë contribute to its aesthetic value. Although the book was written already in the Victorian era, its roots date back to the atmosphere of Romanticism, when artists “put feelings first” (Coote 76). What is also significant while defining Wuthering Heights as a novel untypical of the Victorian era are its gothic elements (characteristic of Romantic literature), which greatly contribute to the presentation of love between the main protagonists. At the same time, however, certain Victorian elements should also be distinguished, and the most prominent contrast presented in the novel between nature and culture can be depicted as the opposition between Romanticism and Victorianism, Romanticism being expressed by the very place of Wuthering Heights or the main couple, Heathcliff and Cathy, and Victorianism being represented by the Linton family and Thrushcross Grange. Hence, some critics claim that Wuthering Heights is a book connecting two periods, including both Romantic and Victorian elements. Nevertheless, so great is the love between the main figures, Cathy and Heathcliff, that the novel cannot be said to fully meet the standards of the Victorian literature.
In this respect, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is much closer to the standards of the Victorian novel in its apparent inspiration derived from Victorian reality, for instance from the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution or Darwin’s theory. Also, the most prominent theme does not seem to be that obvious. Among various ideas appear the issues of human fate, natural and social law or religion. Definitely, the novel successfully manages to cover not only the aforementioned topics, but also many other themes which earn the reader’s attention and appreciation. However, a great deal of importance is invested in the notion of love, which is truly significant in the novel. Throughout the plot, Tess remains in specific relationships with two men, Alec and Angel, each of whom is an integral part of her life in a different way. An innocent girl at the beginning of the story, Tess changes into an experienced young woman by the end of it, a woman whose life and death are to be defined through her links with the two men.
Although the books differ in many aspects, in both of them three main characters (one woman and two men) are interconnected, and placed under the influence of their inward feelings.
In Wuthering Heights, the love between Heathcliff and Cathy has a passionate dimension on both parts, but one should also remember about Edgar’s affection for Catherine, and her reciprocated fancy for Linton, which probably plays some part in her decision to marry him. Hence, Catherine’s sort of feeling for Edgar and her naivety or self-deception that the marriage to another man does not change anything in her relation with Heathcliff causes the latter pain, and as a consequence, results in his revenge on others. What should be mentioned here as well is the social factor which influences Cathy’s decision to reject Heathcliff, a man of no origin and with no money, and at the same time to choose Linton, a person with a higher social status, descended from a wealthy family.
In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy emphasized the role of accident and coincidence in human life, however, love undoubtedly affects characters’ actions. Alec’s attraction to Tess induces him to possess her in a physical sense at the beginning of the story, and to seduce her once more in a later part of the novel. Similarly, Tess’s actions are controlled by her feelings. It is only for great love for Angel and a fear of losing him that she does not tell him the whole truth about her past before the wedding, which, in turn, leads to a couple’s parting as soon as Tess confesses what has happened to her sexual purity some time earlier. Furthermore, Tess, having been subjected to traumas for a very long time, and in despair of losing Angel once more when he eventually returns from Brazil to find her, kills Alec in a moment of emotional instability. The murder ultimately leads to the death of the main protagonist.
Thus, it can be concluded that in the two books love is presented as a destructive feeling, producing serious consequences for those who are in love as well as for the others. In Wuthering Heights all the three characters (Cathy, Heathcliff and Edgar) are suffering: Heathcliff and Cathy from the impossibility of fulfilling their love on the earth, Edgar from the awareness, though probably hidden deep inside, that his wife really loves someone else. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the situation is similar: feelings inflict pain on Tess. Firstly, this is Alec’s affection which brings with itself irreparable consequences, and secondly, it is Tess herself, who, in the name of the love for Angel, commits a crime and is sentenced to capital punishment.
However, apart from being destructive, love might seem eternal. In Wuthering Heights, the eternity is expressed in the relationship of the younger Cathy and Hareton, as well as in the suggestion that Catherine and Heathcliff are finally happy after death, walking together on the moors. In this respect, Emily Brontë presents us with a more romantic and optimistic vision of the human life than Thomas Hardy does. In his novel, there is indeed an indication of love’s eternity, but the very fact that Liza – Lu probably takes Tess’s place in the relationship with Angel may symbolise as well that no one is really irreplaceable, and that every generation must die to be replaced by a younger one. What is also important here is that in Tess’s death one can see the human powerlessness in struggling with fate and his/her insignificance in the relation with nature.
Tess is not only helpless when it comes to predestination, but she is also defenceless in her relationships with the men in which she is definitely a victim. Taking into the consideration the issue of a presentation of a woman, then, the two novels differ significantly. While Tess is apparently subordinate to men, there is no such an indication when interpreting Catherine’s character. She is presented as a woman with a possibility of choice, and the only thing she can be partially a victim of is social pressure, which might be a factor influencing her decision to marry Linton. Therefore, it may be stated that what is natural in Cathy (the love for Heathcliff) is suppressed by social reality in which her marriage to Heathcliff would be unacceptable, and the opposition between nature (represented by Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights) and culture (expressed in Edgar and Thrushcross Grange) is clearly seen. Another interpretation of Catherine’s personality suggests that nature and culture meet in her, and the struggle to reconcile the two makes the woman miserable.
The contrast between the social and the natural is also noticeable in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess’s natural and sincere love for Angel is rejected when the truth about her past comes out. Clare, a believer in social morality, seems to ignore Tess’s obvious innocence, and utterly fails to act like a good husband. Similarly, the society judges the girl unjustly, seeing only the fact that Tess has an illegitimate baby, as though sexual intercourse and pregnancy were not natural. Thus, “Tess dwells in both worlds, the natural and the social, and must suffer for their incompatibility” (Miller 80). Finally, the discrepancy between the social and natural law can be found in Tess’s execution, when her moral innocence is not recognized by the legal system. Hence, the words at the end of the novel “’Justice’ was done” (508) cannot be interpreted in any other way but as a bitter irony and social criticism on Hardy’s part.
Coote, Stephen. ”Characters.” Penguin Pass Notes: Emily’s Brontë Wuthering Heights. London:Penguin Books, 1984. 45 – 55.
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. London: Penguin Books, 1994
Miller, Hillis. ”What The Narrator Sees.” Thomas Hardy: Distance And Desire. Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press, 1970. 65 – 82.