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The Presentation of Desire Within the Gothic

Info: 3032 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 14th Dec 2020 in English Literature

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Catherine Earnshaw spends her entire life at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange fighting between two desires she feels burning inside her; desire for two men and for two lives. She is torn between a transcendental desire for Heathcliff and an empirical desire for Edgar and is constantly fighting the battle between head and heart (Phillips, 2013). This ongoing battle essentially controls Catherine’s entire life, dictating every decision she makes, and which leads to her eventual downfall.  Desire can be defined as a strong feeling or wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen and is often used interchangeably with ‘love’ (OED, 2020). However, in Wuthering Heights Bronte presents desire as the catalyst for many of the negative consequences we see in the novel, instead of an affirming positive action. This essay is going to explore the differences in these two desires, what they mean for Catherine, and ultimately what they mean for the Heights itself and everyone whose lives are touched by it. I will argue that these two desires subsequently present us with two ‘Catherines’ and destroy her in both life and death. The distinction between these two Catherines impacts the properties at play and the next generation.

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Throughout the course of the novel, the audience comes to view Catherine as an unruly and adventurous rebel, a wild and free spirit. She is the only being in Wuthering Heights to give any empathy and sympathy to Heathcliff asides from her father. Bronte gives us two polarising versions of Catherine; the nature-loving wild child whom Lockwood first learns of, and the status-conscious social climber whose marriage, or ‘betrayal’, ultimately destroys Heathcliff. 

There are essentially two sides to Catherine, to match the two desires she fields; Catherine Earnshaw and Catherine Linton. When Mr Lockwood first learns of Catherine, we can see she also fantasized about a third Catherine; Heathcliff, a fantasy that would then turn into her daughter; Cathy Heathcliff. 

This writing, however, was nothing but a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small - Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton. (Bronte, 1847/2012, p20)

The two Catherine’s are not alike in any way. One belongs entirely to Edgar, and one belongs entirely to Heathcliff. It is this separation of self due to her desires that sparks the fire for the downfall of not only herself, but of Heathcliff and Edgar too. When Catherine leaves her life at the Heights behind to make a new, more luxurious life at Thrushcross Grange she still takes with her some traces of her former self. Heathcliff continues to yearn for Catherine, a sentiment mirrored by Catherine also. Catherine’s decision to marry Edgar drives Heathcliff to leave the Heights after realising he and the object of his heart will never be together as they were as children. As when they were children, others kept them from engulfing one another. Now that they are adults, Edgar is the roller that maintains the dyad. This is why Edgar’s insistence that she choose between them renders her ill and distraught to the point of madness and eventual death. This decision from Catherine is the singular pivotal choice in the novel which changes not only her own fate, but everyone's(Markotic, 2019).

As mentioned above in the introduction, Heathcliff can certainly be a representative of both Catherine’s transcendental desire and the wild and unruly personality of this version of Catherine, the Catherine belonging to Heathcliff. Transcendental can be described as relating to a spiritual necessity, as opposed to a physical and strictly earthly necessity or desire. When something is described as being transcendental it is describing something that cannot be of ordinary, daily experience. It might be religious, spiritual, or otherworldly, but if its transcendental, it transcends and goes beyond the regular physical realm (OED, 2020).  This given personality perfectly encapsulates Catherine’s desire towards and relationship with our romantic lead Heathcliff. It’s not simply love and desire that Heathcliff and Catherine wish to pursue, but a relationship that is more in tune with their spiritual selves and existence. This relationship would be enduring and immutable, as Catherine makes abundantly clear as she compares her desire for Linton to the seasons, and he desire for Heathcliff to the rocks;

My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees - my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath - a source of little visible delight, but necessary. (Bronte, 1847/2012, p88) 

Catherine takes pain to justify herself, convinced and satisfied that she is neither betraying Edgar nor Heathcliff due to the desires she feels for one is not at the detriment of the other. While Heathcliff represents the transcendental appeal, Edgar is every bit his equal in the empirical, worldly realm. Here empirical is taking on the meaning of something being rooted firmly in logic and fact (OED, 2020). Catherine deeply loves and desires Edgar, arguably for his money and standing within the community and the wider society, and marriage to him would provide progression for Catherine as a person, it would be seen by everyone as a positive betrothal. Therefore Edgar, and the life he would provide, becomes the object of empirical desire. She is incapable of declaring and recognising the disloyalty towards either Heathcliff or Edgar because she sees them as very different, and not at all involved, desires. She would quite happily, as we see in the novel, live with both men tending to her differing desires. It is the family around her that incite competition between the transcendental and empirical aspects of her desires. 

Wuthering Heights can indeed be understood as a story in which the intensity depicted is of a metaphysical authority; one in which Catherine can be described as being Heathcliff’s reverse or complementary. Indeed, their passion may be described as transcendental and ideal, something which exceeds the worldly and the necessities of class propriety and sexual union. 

Wuthering Heights is also constantly classed as one of the most romantic books in all of literature (Talbot, 1997), but what sets Wuthering Heights apart from the average romance story is the depth and ferocity of the dedication, desire, and devotion that possess Catherine and Heathcliff, especially when Catherine declares that she and Heathcliff are one and the same, when she tells Nelly “I am Heathcliff” (Bronte, 1847/2012, p88). This declaration suggests that they are two equal parts of one being, and can only be whole and complete when together, thus constantly having to depend on one another in both life and death. The idiosyncratic essence of this very particular romance is that it is truly transcendent in that it does not rely on any earth-bound qualities such as class equality and sexual fulfilment, it goes beyond these things and thrives off it. It is a very animalistic natural selection perspective that goes back to the so-called ‘star-crossed lovers’ being childhood companions, forming a bond that haunts them and carries them through their all-consuming passion for one another. The guttural craving between Catherine and Heathcliff is thus transcendent and not of this world. It exceeds the realm of normality due to its vigour and savagery (chin-yi, 2014).

It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire (Bronte, 1847/2012, p87). 

Though Catherine certainly admires and worships Heathcliff as if he were her own being, she sees him as below her stature and indeed incomparable to the social guarantee that Edgar would provide upon marriage. Terry Eagleton in Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontes stated that “In a crucial act of self-betrayal and bad faith, Catherine rejects Heathcliff as a suitor because he is socially inferior to Linton, and it is from this that the train of destruction follows” (Eagleton, 1975, p101).  It’s hard to reconcile such profound love and desire with the decision made but she deigns to figure out the warped logic in her own mind. Ultimately Catherine’s ultimate desire is to have the two houses united and at peace and for this to happen Heathcliff and Edgar must form a truce. 

Even though Catherine makes the decision to marry Edgar, she is still territorial and possessive over Heathcliff, Nelly chalks this up to human nature saying that “Heathcliff would hate just as much to hear him [Edgar] praised.” (Bronte, 1847/2012, p105) This becomes apparent when Nelly witnessed an embrace between Heathcliff and Isabella. Catherine however will not accept this and tells Nelly she is “not envious” (Bronte, 1847/2012, p105). The subsequent confrontation between Catherine and Heathcliff would suggest otherwise when she berates him for being so openly affectionate with Isabella to which he retorts “I’m not your husband, you needn’t be jealous of me!” (Bronte, 1847/2012, p120) but of course Catherine insists she is not jealous and is amazed when Heathcliff finally admits to her and perhaps himself that she has treated him “infernally” (Bronte, 1847/2012, p120)in the past and he will be revenged. 

The desire Catherine feels for Heathcliff and that version of herself, the version where she can truly be her own wild and uncontained self, is so substantial that at two specific points in the narrative it leads to death, more so than any extraneous forces (Markotic, 2019). Sometime after marrying Edgar, Catherine lies dying and Heathcliff takes it upon himself to admonish her:

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You teach me now how cruel you’ve been — cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears. They’ll blight you — they’ll damn you. You loved me — then what right had you to leave me? What right — answer me — for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery, and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it (Bronte, 1847/2012, p175) 

Heathcliff feels that Catherine rejected and neglected him by marrying Edgar. Catherine, however, of course, doesn’t see it this way. She fights back and believes that nothing, especially not this marriage to Edgar, could, should, or would isolate and divorce them. Earlier in the narrative she had declared that

I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself – but as my own being – so don’t talk of our separation again – it is impracticable (Bronte, 1847/2012, p88) 

To Catherine, there is not a single prospect or probability of withdrawing from Heathcliff, as she believes it to be impossible due to the strong, transcendental nature of their bond; the empirical connection to Edgar cannot destroy the transcendental dyad (Phillips, 2013).

 Before Catherine’s death she strives to bring her two loves and the two desires together; both Heathcliff and Edgar, and Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Readers of Wuthering Heights tend not to take any notion of Catherine’s plan to do this very seriously (Stoneman, 1996); Arnold Kettle says, for instance, that ‘Catherine betrays Heathcliff and married Edgar, kidding herself that she can keep them both.’ (Kettle, 1960, p145). The two objects of her very different desires do not take to this idea of a happy, unified family well. Upon Catherine affirming her decision to marry Edgar, Heathcliff takes leave of Wuthering Heights and is not seen or heard from again for three years. When he unexpectedly returns, he begins pursuing Isabella, Edgar’s younger sister and due to this Edgar announces that Thrushcross Grange will never again accommodate Heathcliff. As a direct link to this tumultuous relationship between the two men, Catherine ceases eating and goes mad. When Heathcliff finds out Catherine’s wanton state, he is outraged at Catherine for killing both herself and him when she elected to marry Edgar and betray her own heart.

Through Catherine acting upon her two desires so erratically and thinking she can live being both Heathcliff’s Catherine and Edgar’s Catherine, she is driven to insanity and eventually death. It is believed by both characters in the story and readers of the novel that Catherine ultimately betrays her own heart by marrying Edgar instead of Heathcliff. Edgar is every part the submissive husband as Heathcliff would be Catherine’s equal. It is Catherine’s living and dying desire for the houses to be united and for her two loves to consolidate, and when this doesn’t go as planned for Catherine she falls ill and deteriorates seemingly with every interaction with either man, starting when Edgar tells her she must choose between them; 

Will you give up Heathcliff hereafter, or will you give up me? It is impossible for you to be my friend and his at the same time; and I absolutely require to know which you choose (Bronte, 1847/2012, p126)

Catherine receives an ultimatum from her husband respecting her relationship with the true desire of her heart. Edgar stays collected and deliberate when detailing his assumptions. Here, once again, Edgar presents himself as a proper gentleman even in the most of tense circumstances. While the majority of people would look fondly upon this type of behaviour, Catherine certainly does not appreciate it and views it as an example of weak character, which only adds tension to the struggle.

The final setting place of Catherine’s coffin is symbolic of the battle that troubled her throughout her life and continues to touch those she left behind. She is neither buried with her husband’s family, the Lintons, nor is she buried with her own family, the Earnshaws. Rather, Catherine is buried, as Nelly describes, “in a corner of the kirkyard, where the wall is so low that health and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor” (Bronte, 1847/2012, p182). Furthermore, her final resting place is in between both Heathcliff and Edgar so in death she presents her conflicted loyalties as she did in life.

When Catherine dies, Bronte creates a contrast between the ways the two men react to her death. “Edgar Linton had his head laid on the pillow, and his eyes shut” (Bronte, 1847/2012 p178). This shows that he is mourning silently, calmly, and dignified, but Heathcliff ‘dashed his head against the knotted trunk and lifting up his eyes howled not like a man but like a savage beast getting goaded to death with knives and spears’(Bronte, 1847/2012, p181). This harsh diction portrays Heathcliff’s pain, torment and anger at Catherine’s death. Bronte uses this language to show that Catherine was Heathcliff’s other half; without her, half of his soul was missing.

Catherine’s actions are motivated partly by her desire to be in an elevated social standing than that which she had been brought up in. this desire is initially ignited during her first visit to Thrushcross Grange and being amongst the Lintons’, this wish drives her to marry Edgar. Nevertheless, she is still compelled by her instincts to dote on Heathcliff, run around wildly without consequences on the moor, and to throw fits whenever she desires. This essay had argued that if she had only picked one man, and followed one desire, be that heart or head, transcendental or empirical, Heathcliff or Edgar, then her early demise would not have happened.

References:

  • Bronte, E. (1847), Wuthering Heights. London: Penguin English Library, 2012
  • Chin-Yi, C. (2014). Wuthering Heights as Metaphysical Romance, New Man International Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies, 1(5), 12-15
  • Eagleton, T. (1975). Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontes, (1st ed.). London: Macmillan
  • Kettle, A. (1960), An Introduction to the English Novel, (1st ed.). London: Harper Torchbooks
  • Markotic, L. (2019). Desire, Identification, and Two Peculiar Deaths: The Long Story  of Wuthering Heights, Mosaic, an Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 52(2), 75-91
  • "desire, n.". OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/50880?rskey=aawarC&result=1 (accessed February 23, 2020).
  • "empirical, adj. and n.". OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/61341?redirectedFrom=empirical (accessed February 23, 2020).
  • "transcendental, adj. and n.". OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/204610?redirectedFrom=transcendental  (accessed February 23, 2020)
  • Phillips, J (2013). The Two Faces of Love in Wuthering Heights, The Journal of the Bronte Society, 32(2), 96-105
  • Stoneman, P. (1996), Catherine Earnshaw’s Journey to Her Home among the Dead: Fresh Thoughts Wuthering Heights and ‘Epipsychidion’, The Review of English Studies, 47(188), 521-533 
  • Talbot, M, M. (1997) ‘An Explosion Deep Inside Her’ Women’s Desire and PopularRomance Fiction. In K. Harvey & C. Shalom, Language and Desire: EncodingSex, Romance, and Intimacy (pp.106-122) Abingdon: Routledge 

 

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