Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell

Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell

Sandra M. Gilbert, & Susan Gubar


Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the Gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend's: there's hell, there's darkness,

 There is the sulphurous pit... 

- King Lear 


It indeed appear'd to Reason as if Desire was cast out, but the 

Devils account is, that the Messiah fell. & formed a heaven of what 

he stole from the Abyss 

- William Blake 


A loss of something ever felt I –
The first that I could recollect
Bereft I was - of what I knew not 
Too young that any should suspect

A Mourner walked among the children
I notwithstanding went about
As one bemoaning a Dominion
Itself the only Prince cast out –

Elder, Today, a session wiser 
And fainter, too, as Wiseness is –
I find myself still softly searching 
For my Delinquent Palaces –

And a Suspicion, like a Finger
Touches my Forehead now and then 
That I am looking oppositely
For the site of the Kingdom of Heaven –

- Emily Dickinson


Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights (1847) are not usually seen as related works, except insofar as both are famous nineteenth-century literary puzzles, with Shelley's plaintive speculation about where she got so "hideous an idea" finding its counterpart in the position of Heathcliff's creator as a sort of mystery woman of literature. Still, if both Bronte and Shelley wrote enigmatic, curiously unprecedented novels, their works are puzzling in different ways: Shelley's is an enigmatic fantasy of metaphysical horror, Bronte's an enigmatic romance of metaphysical passion. Shelley produced an allusive, Romantic, and "masculine" text in which the fates of subordinate female characters seem entirely dependent upon the actions of osten- sibly male heroes or anti-heroes. Bronte produced a more realistic narrative in which "the perdurable voice of the country," as Mark Schorer describes Nelly Dean, introduces us to a world where men battle for the favors of apparently high-spirited and independent women. 

Despite these dissimilarities, however, Frankensteinand Wuthering Heights are alike in a number of crucial ways. For one thing, both works are enigmatic, puzzling, even in some sense generically problematical. Moreover, in each case the mystery of the novel is associated with what seem to be its metaphysical intentions, intentions around which much critical controversy has collected. For these two "popular" novels-one a thriller, the other a romance-have convinced many readers that their charismatic surfaces conceal (far more than they reveal) complex ontological depths, elaborate structures of allusion, fierce though shadowy moral ambitions. And this point in particular is demonstrated by a simpler characteristic both works have in common. Both make use of what in connection with Frankenstein we called an evidentiary narrative technique, a Romantic story-telling method that emphasizes the ironic disjunctions between different perspectives on the same events as well as the ironic tensions that inhere in the relationship between surface drama and concealed authorial intention. In fact, in its use of such a technique, Wuthering Heights might be a deliberate copy of Frankenstein. Not only do the stories of both novels emerge through concentric circles of narration, both works contain significant digressions. Catherine Earnshaw's diary, Isabella's letter, Zillah's narrative, and Heathcliff's confidences to Nelly function in Wuthering Heights much as Alphonse Frankenstein's letter, Justine's narrative, and Safie's history do in Frankenstein.

Their common concern with evidence, especially with written evidence, suggests still another way in which Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein are alike: more than most novels, both are consciously literary works, at times almost obsessively concerned with books and with reading as not only a symbolic but a dramatic-plot-forwarding-activity. Can this be because, like Shelley, Bronte was something of a literary heiress? The idea is an odd one to consider, because the four Bronte children, scribbling in Yorkshire's remote West Riding, seem as trapped on the periphery of nineteenth-century literary culture as Mary Shelley was embedded in its Godwinian and Byronic center. Nevertheless, peripheral though they were, the Brontes had literary parents just as Mary Shelley did: the Reverend Patrick Bronte was in his youth the author of several books of poetry, a novel, and a collection of sermons, and Maria Branwell, the girl he married, apparently also had some literary abilities. And of course, besides having obscure literary parents Emily Bronte had literary siblings, though they too were in most of her own lifetime almost as unknown as their parents. 

Is it coincidental that the author of WutheringHeights was the sister of the authors of Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey? Did the parents, especially the father, bequeath a frustrated drive toward literary success to their children? These are interesting though unanswerable questions, but they imply a point that is crucial in any consideration of the Brontes, just as it was important in thinking about Mary Shelley: it was the habit in the Bronte family, as in the Wollstonecraft-Godwin-Shelley family, to approach reality through the mediating agency of books, to read one's relatives, and to feel related to one's reading. Thus the transformation of three lonely yet ambitious Yorkshire governesses into the magisterially androgynous trio of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell was a communal act, an assertion offamily identity. And significantly, even the games these writers played as children prepared them for such a literary mode of self-definition. As most Bronte admirers know, the four young inhabitants of Haworth Parsonage began producing extended narratives at an early age, and these eventually led to the authorship of a large library of miniature books which constitutes perhaps the most famous juvenilia in English. Though in subject matter these works are divided into two groups  one, the history of the imaginary kingdom of Gondal, written by Emily and Anne, and the other, stories of the equally imaginary land of Angria, written by Charlotte and Brаnwell  all four children read and discussed all the tales, and even served as models for characters in many. Thus the Brontes' deepest feelings of kinship appear to have been expressed first in literary collaboration and private childish attempts at fictionalizing each other, and then, later, in the public collaboration the sisters undertook with the ill-fated collection of poetry that was their first "real" publication. Finally Charlotte, the last survivor of these prodigious siblings, memorialized her lost sisters in print, both in fiction and in non-fiction (Shirley, for instance, mythologizes Emily). Given the traditions of her family, it was no doubt inevitable that, for her, writing  not only novel-writing but the writing of prefaces to "family" works  would replace tombstone-raising, hymn-singing, maybe even weeping.

That both literary activity and literary evidence were so important to the Brontes may be traced to another problem they shared with Mary Shelley. Like the anxious creator of Frankenstein, the authors of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall lost their mother when they were very young. Like Shelley, indeed, Emily and Anne Bronte were too young when their mother died even to know much about her except through the evidence of older survivors and perhaps through some documents. Just as Frankenstein, with its emphasis on orphans and beggars, is a motherless book, so all the Bronte novels betray intense feelings of motherlessness, orphanhood, destitution. And in particular the problems of literary orphanhood seem to lead in Wuthering Heights, as in Frankenstein, not only to a concern with surviving evidence but also to a fascination with the question of origins. Thus if all women writers, metaphorical orphans in patriarchal culture, seek literary answers to the questions "How are we fal'n, / Fal'n by mistaken rules ... ?" motherless orphans like Mary Shelley and Emily Bronte almost seem to seek literal answers to that question, so passionately do their novels enact distinctive female literary obsessions. 

Finally, that such a psychodramatic enactment is going on in both Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein suggests a similarity between the two novels which brings us back to the tension between dramatic surfaces and metaphysical depths with which we began this discussion. For just as one of Frankenstein's most puzzling traits is the symbolic ambiguity or fluidity its characters display when they are studied closely, so one of WutheringHeights's key elements is what Leo Bersani calls its "ontological slipperiness." In fact, because it is a metaphysical romance (just as Frankenstein is a metaphysical thriller) Wuthering Heights seems at times to be about forces or beings rather than people, which is no doubt one reason why some critics have thought it generically problematical, maybe not a novel at all but instead an extended exemplum, or a "prosified" verse drama. And just as all the characters in Frankenstein are in a sense the same two characters, so "everyone [in Wuthering Heights] is finally related to everyone else and, in a sense, repeated in everyone else," as if the novel, like an illustration of Freud's "Das Unheimlische," were about "the danger of being haunted by alien versions of the self." But when it is created by a woman in the misogynistic context of Western literary culture, this sort of anxiously philosophical, problem-solving, myth-making narrative must  so it seems  inevitably come to grips with the countervailing stories told by patriarchal poetry, and specifically by Milton's patriarchal poetry. 

Milton, Winifred Gerin tells us, was one of Patrick Bronte's favorite writers, so if Shelley was Milton's critic's daughter, Bronte was Milton's admirer's daughter." By the Hegelian law of thesis/antithesis, then, it seems appropriate that Shelley chose to repeat and restate Milton's misogynistic story while Bronte chose to correct it. In fact the most serious matter Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein share is the matter of Paradise Lost, and their profoundest difference is in their attitude toward Milton's myth. Where Shelley was Milton's dutiful daughter, retelling his story to clarify it, Bronte was the poet's rebellious child, radically revising (and even reversing) the terms of his mythic narrative. Given the fact that Bronte never mentions either Milton or Paradise Lost in Wuthering Heights, any identification of her as Milton's daughter may at first seem eccentric or perverse. Shelley, after all, provided an overtly Miltonic framework in Frankenstein to reinforce our sense of her literary intentions. But despite the absence of Milton references, it eventually becomes plain that Wuthering Heights is also a novel haunted by Milton's bogey. We may speculate, indeed, that Milton's absence is itself a presence, so painfully does Bronte's story dwell on the places and persons of his imagination. 

That Wuthering Heights is about heaven and hell, for instance, has long been seen by critics, partly because all the narrative voices, from the beginning of Lockwood's first visit to the Heights, insist upon casting both action and description in religious terms, and partly because one of the first Catherine's major speeches to Nelly Dean raises the questions "What is heaven? Where is hell?" perhaps more urgently than any other speech in an English novel: 


"If I were in heaven, Nelly, I should be extremely miserable. ... I dreamt once that I was there [and] that heaven did not seem to be my home, and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy." 


Satan too, however  at least Satan as Milton's prototypical Byronic hero  has long been considered a participant in Wuthering Heights, for "that devil Heathcliff," as both demon lover and ferocious natural force, is a phenomenon critics have always studied. Isabella's "Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not is he a devil?" (chap. 13) summarizes the traditional Heathcliff problem most succinctly, but Nelly's "I was inclined to believe ... that conscience had turned his heart to an earthly hell" (chap. 33) more obviously echoes Paradise Lost. 

Again, that Wuthering Heights is in some sense about a fall has frequently been suggested, though critics from Charlotte Bronte to Mark Schorer, Q D. Leavis, and Leo Bersani have always disputed its exact nature and moral implications. Is Catherine's fall the archetypal fall of the Bildungsroman protagonist? Is Heathcliff's fall, his perverted "moral teething," a shadow of Catherine's? Which of the two worlds of Wuthering Heights (if either) does Bronte mean to represent the truly "fallen" world? These are just some of the controversies that have traditionally attended this issue. Nevertheless, that the story of Wuthering Heights is built around a central fall seems indisputable, so that a description of the novel as in part a Bildungsroman about a girl's passage from "innocence" to "experience" (leaving aside the precise meaning of those terms) would probably also be widely accepted. And that the fall in Wuthering Heights has Miltonic overtones is no doubt culturally inevitable. But even if it weren't, the Miltonic implications of the action would be clear enough from the "mad scene" in which Catherine describes herself as "an exile, and outcast ... from what had been my world," adding "Why am I so changed? Why does my blood rush into a hell of tumult at a few words?" (chap. 12). Given the metaphysical nature of Wuthering Heights, Catherine's definition of herself as Han exile and outcast" inevitably suggests those trail-blazing exiles and outcasts Adam, Eve, and Satan. And her Romantic question- "Why am I so changed?"- with its desperate straining after the roots of identity, must ultimately refer back to Satan's hesitant (but equally crucial) speech to Beelze- bub, as they lie stunned in the lake of fire: "If thou be'est he; But O ... how chang'd" (PL 1. 84). 

Of course, Wuthering Heights has often, also, been seen as a subversively visionary novel. Indeed, Bronte is frequently coupled with Blake as a practitioner of mystical politics. Usually, however, as if her book were written to illustrate the enigmatic religion of "No coward soul is mine," this visionary quality is related to Catherine's assertion that she is tired of "being enclosed" in "this shattered prison" of her body, and "wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there" (chap. 15). Many readers define Bronte, in other words, as a ferocious pantheist/transcendentalist, worshipping the manifestations of the One in rock, tree, cloud, man and woman, while manipulating her story to bring about a Romantic Liebestod in which favored characters enter "the endless and shadowless hereafter." And certainly such ideas, like Blake's Songs of Innocence, are "something heterodox," to use Lockwood's phrase. At the same time, however, they are soothingly rather than disquietingly neo- Miltonic, like fictionalized visions of Paradise Lost's luminous Father God. They are, in fact, the ideas of "steady, reasonable" Nelly Dean, whose denial of the demonic in life, along with her commitment to the angelic tranquility of death, represents only one of the visionary alternatives in Wuthering Heights. And, like Blake's metaphor of the lamb, Nelly's pious alternative has no real meaning for Bronte outside of the context provided by its tigerish opposite. 

The tigerish opposite implied by Wuthering Heights emerges most dramatically when we bring all the novel's Miltonic elements together with its author's personal concerns in an attempt at a single formulation of Bronte's metaphysical intentions: the sum of this novel's visionary parts is an almost shocking revisionary whole. Heaven (or its rejection), hell, Satan, a fall, mystical politics, metaphysical romance, orphanhood, and the question of origins-disparate as some of these matters may seem, they all cohere in a rebelliously topsy-turvy retelling of Milton's and Western culture's central tale of the fall of woman and her shadow self, Satan. This fall, says Bronte, is not a fall into hell. It is a fall from "hell" into "heaven," not a fall from grace (in the religious sense) but a fall into grace (in the cultural sense). Moreover, for the heroine who falls it is the loss of Satan rather than the loss of God that signals the painful passage from innocence to experience. Emily Bronte, in other words, is not just Blakeian in "double" mystical vision, but Blakeian in a tough, radically political commitment to the belief that the state of being patriarchal Christianity calls "hell" is eternally, energetically delightful, whereas the state called "heaven" is rigidly hierarchical, Urizenic, and "kind" as a poison tree. But because she was metaphorically one of Milton's daughters, Bronte differs from Blake, that powerful son of a powerful father, in reversing the terms of Milton's Christian cosmogony for specifically feminist reasons. 

Speaking of Jane Lead, a seventeenth-century Protestant mystic who was a significant precursor of Bronte's in visionary sexual politics, Catherine Smith has noted that "to study mysticism and feminism together is to learn more about the links between envisioning power and pursuing it," adding that "Idealist notions of transcendence may shape political notions of sexual equality as much as materialist or rationalist arguments do." Her points are applicable to Bronte, whose revisionary mysticism is inseparable from both politics and feminism, although her emphasis is more on the loss than on the pursuit of power. Nevertheless, the feminist nature of her concern with nee-Miltonic definitions of hell and heaven) power and powerlessness, innocence and experience, has generally been overlooked by critics, many of whom, at their most biographical, tend to ask patronizing questions like "What is the matter with Emily Jane?" Interestingly, however, certain women understood Bronte's feminist mythologies from the first. Speculating on the genesis of A. G. A., the fiery Byronic queen of Gondal with whose life and loves Emily Bronte was always obsessed, Fanny Ratchford noted in 1955 that while Arthur Wellesley, the emperor of Charlotte Bronte's fantasy kingdom of Angria, was "an arch-Byronic hero, for love of whom noble ladies went into romantic decline, ... Gondal's queen was of such compelling beauty and charm as to bring all men to her feet, and of such selfish cruelty as to bring tragedy to all who loved her. ... It was as if Emily was saying to Charlotte, 'You think the man is the dominant factor in romantic love, I'll show you it is the woman.'" But of course Charlotte herself understood Emily's revisionary tendencies better than anyone. More than one hundred years before Ratchford wrote, the heroine of Shirley, that apotheosis of Emily "as she would have been in a happier life," speaks the English novel's first deliberately feminist criticism of Milton – "Milton did not see Eve, it was his cook that he saw" – and proposes as her alternative the Titan woman we discussed earlier, the mate of "Genius" and the potentially Satanic interlocutor of God. Some readers, including most recently the Marxist critic Terence Eagleton, have spoken scornfully of the "maundering rhetoric of Shirley's embarrassing feminist mys- ticism." But Charlotte, who was intellectually as well as physically akin to Emily, had captured the serious deliberation in her sister's vision. She knew that the author of Wuthering Heights was  to quote the Brontes' admirer Emily Dickinson –"looking oppositely For the site of the Kindom of Heaven” (J. 959).

Because Emily Bronte was looking oppositely not only for heaven (and hell) but for her own female origins, Wuthering Heights is one of the few authentic instances of novelistic myth-making, myth-making in the functional sense of problem-solving. Where writers from Charlotte Bronte and Henry James to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf have used mythic material to give point and structure to their novels, Emily Bronte uses the novel form to give substance-plausibility, really-to her myth. It is urgent that she do so because, as we shall see, the feminist cogency of this myth' derives not only from its daring corrections of Milton but also from the fact that it is a distinctively nineteenth-century answer to the question of origins: it is the myth of how culture came about, and specifically of how nineteenth-century society occurred, the tale of where tea-tables, sofas, crinolines, and parsonages like the one at Haworth came from. 

Because it is so ambitious a myth, WutheringHeights has the puzzling self-containment of a mystery in the old sense of that word-the sense of mystery plays and Eleusinian mysteries. Locked in by Lockwood's uncomprehending narrative, Nelly Dean's story, with its baffling duplication of names, places, events, seems endlessly to reenact itself, like some ritual that must be cyclically repeated in order to sustain (as well as explain) both nature and culture. At the same time, because it is so prosaic a myth – a myth about crinolines! – Wuthering Heights is not in the least portentous or self-consciously "mythic." On the contrary, like all true rituals and myths, Bronte's "cuckoo's tale" turns a practical, casual, humorous face to its audience. For as Levi-Straus's observations suggest, true believers gossip by the prayer wheel, since that modern reverence which enjoins solemnity is simply the foster child of modern skepticism.

Gossipy but unconventional true believers were rare, even in the pious nineteenth century, as Arnold's anxious meditations and Carlyle's angry sermons note. But Bronte's paradoxically matter-of- fact imaginative strength, her ability to enter a realistically freckled fantasy land, manifested itself early. One of her most famous adolescent diary papers juxtaposes a plea for culinary help from the parsonage housekeeper, Tabby – "Come Anne pilloputate" – with "The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine" and "Sally Mosely is washing in the back kitchen." Significantly, no distinction is made between the heroic exploits of the fictional Gondals and Sally Mosely's real washday business. The curiously childlike voice of the diarist records all events without commentary, and this reserve suggests an implicit acquiescence in the equal "truth" of all events. Eleven years later, when the sixteen-year-old reporter of "pilloputate" has grown up and is on the edge of Wuthering Heights, the naive, uninflected surface of her diary papers is unchanged: 


... Anne and I went our first long journey by ourselves together, leaving home on the 30th of June, Monday, sleeping at York, returning to Keighley Tuesday evening… during our excursion we were Ronald Mcalgin, Henry Angora, Juliet Angusteena, Rosabella Esmalden, Ella and Julian Egremont, Catharine Navarre, and Cordilia Fitzaphnold, escaping from the palaces of instruction to join the Royalists who are hard driven at present by the victorious Republicans .... I must hurry off now to my turning and ironing. I have plenty of work on hands, and writing, and am altogether full of business.


Psychodramatic "play," this passage suggests, is an activity at once as necessary and as ordinary as housework: ironing and the exploration of alternative lives are the same kind of "business' – a perhaps uniquely female idea of which Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson, those other visionary housekeepers, would have approved. 

No doubt, however, it is this deep-seated tendency of Bronte's to live literally with the fantastic that accounts for much of the critical disputation about Wuthering Heights, especially the quarrels about the novel's genre and style. Q.D. Leavis and Arnold Kettle, for instance, insist that the work is a "sociological novel," while Mark Schorer thinks it "means to be a work of edification [about] the nature of a grand passion." Leo Bersani sees it as an ontological psychodrama, and Elliot Gose as a sort of expanded fairytale. And strangely there is truth in all these apparently conflicting notions, just as it is also true that (as Robert Kiely has affirmed) "part of the distinction of Wuthering Heights [is] that it has no 'literary' aura about it," and true at the same time that (as we have asserted) Wuthering Heights is an unusually literary novel because Bronte approached reality chiefly through the mediating agency of literature. In fact, Kiely's comment illuminates not only the uninflected surface of the diary papers but also the controversies about their author's novel, for Bronte is "un-literary" in being without a received sense of what the eighteenth century called literary decorum. As one of her better-known poems declares, she follows "where [her] own nature would be leading," and that nature leads her to an oddly literal – and also, therefore, unliterary – use of extraordinarily various literary works, ideas, and genres, all of which she refers back to herself, since "it vexes [her] to choose another guide." 

Thus Wuthering Heights is in one sense an elaborate gloss on the Byronic Romanticism and incest fantasy of Manfred, written, as Ratchford suggested, from a consciously female perspective. Heathcliff’s passionate invocations of Catherine ("Come in! ... hear me" [chap. 3] or "Be with me always-take any form-drive me mad" [chap. 16]) almost exactly echo Manfred's famous speech to Astarte ("Hear me, hear me ... speak to me! Though it be in wrath ... ") .18 In another way, though, Wuthering Heights is a prose redaction of the metaphysical storms and ontological nature/culture conflicts embodied in King Lear, with Heathcliff taking the part of Nature's bastard son Edmund, Edgar Linton incarnating the cultivated morality of his namesake Edgar, and the "wuthering" chaos at the Heights repeating the disorder that overwhelms Lear's kingdom when he relinquishes his patriarchal control to his diabolical daughters. But again, both poetic Byronic Romanticism and dramatic Shakespearean metaphysics are filtered through a novelistic sensibility with a surprisingly Austenian grasp of social details, so that Wuthering Heights seems also, in its "unliterary" way, to reiterate the feminist psychological concerns of a Bildungsroman Bronte may never have read: Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Catherine Earnshaw's "half savage and hardy and free" girlhood, for example, recalls the tomboy childhood of that other Catherine, Catherine Morland, and Catherine Earnshaw's fall into ladylike "grace" seems to explore the tragic underside of the anxiously comic initiation rites Catherine Morland undergoes at Bath and at Northanger Abbey.

The world of Wuthering Heights, in other words, like the world of Bronte's diary papers, is one where what seem to be the most unlikely opposites coexist without, apparently, any consciousness on the author's part that there is anything unlikely in their coexistence. The ghosts of Byron, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen haunt the same ground. People with decent Christian names (Catherine, Nelly, Edgar, Isabella) inhabit a landscape in which also dwell people with strange animal or nature names (Hindley, Hareton, Heathcliff). Fairy-tale events out of what Mircea Eliade would call "great time" are given a local habitation and a real chronology in just that historical present Eliade defines as great time's opposite.s" Dogs and gods (or goddesses) turn out to be not opposites but, figuratively speaking, the same words spelled in different ways. Funerals are weddings, weddings funerals. And of course, most important for our purposes here, hell is heaven, heaven hell, though the two are not separated, as Milton and literary decorum would prescribe, by vast eons of space but by a little strip of turf, for Bronte was rebelliously determined to walk:


... not in old heroic traces
And not in paths of high morality.
And not among the half-distinguished faces, 

The clouded forms of long-past history. 


On the contrary, surveying that history and its implications, she came to the revisionary conclusion that "the earth that wakes one human heart to feeling / Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell." 


Gilbert, Sandra M. & Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000.



1liebestod - литературен термин (от немски: liebe, любов и tod, смърт). Отнася се до темата за еротичната смърт или „любовта като смърт”, или за двама влюбени, консумиращи своята любов в смъртта/след смъртта. (бел. прев.)

2Уризен е въплъщение на конвенционалния разум и закон според митологията на Уилям Блейк. Обикновено се изобразява като брадат старец. (бел.прев.)

3Бронте, Шарлот. Шърли. Прев. Васил Антонов. София: Народна култура, 1985.