[Part 5 of the "Family Dynamics of Victorian Fiction." These materials have been excerpted by the author from Jerome Bump, "The Family Dynamics of the Reception of Art," Style 31.2 (1997): 328-350]

Decorative Initial the value of emphasizing the family-as-system rather than the individual character in isolation to Jane Eyre has been explored (Bump), but it is even more relevant to other novels by the Brontë sisters because inevitably they were reacting to their sibling, Branwell Brontë, an alcoholic and drug addict. Their need to temper their love for him with detachment led to anew representation of love in fiction, one that demands a revision of J. Hillis Miller's pioneering studies, The Disappearance of God and The Form of Victorian Fiction. Miller showed that with the "disappearance" of God in literature in the last two hundred years artists increasingly turned to human relationships as substitutes. The primary substitute has of course been romantic relationships like that of Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Yet, preoccupied with this kind of love, rooted in the courtly love traditions of the twelfth century, critics have failed to notice the emergence of a new model of love and the family in the second generation in Wuthering Heights and in the novels of the other Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Anne. The model is most fully developed by Anne, whose The Tenant of Wildfell Hall focuses on the wife of an alcoholic. Anne recognized that alcoholism is often transgenerational: the heroine's father is an alcoholic and her alcoholic husband, Arthur, attempts to transmit alcohol abuse to his son. Other addictions represented in the novel are to laudanum and gambling. Hence it is not too surprising that even the heroes choose secrecy over direct, honest communication. The narrator, Gilbert, lies about how often he goes to see the heroine, Helen. Helen calls herself by a lie, "Mrs. Graham," and refuses to let her relatives know about the alcoholism and the verbal and physical abuse in her new family. And, of course, her alcoholic husband, Arthur, is a liar, especially when talking to Helen. The family systems critic aware of the nature of addictions would focus especially on how Helen plays the standard role of the "coalcoholic" or "codependent." At first refusing to consider changing her own attitudes, she is addicted to fixing and controlling him. She is caught in all the usual double binds. She wants to cure his alcoholism but she enables it by accepting blame and responsibility for his actions. Aware of the hole in his soul, she tries to change him both "by shaming him" and by building up his self esteem.

Nor is she the only "codependent" in the novel. A critic familiar with addictions to people knows that men are just as likely to exhibit this behavior. Both Gilbert and Arthur end up making a god out of the loved one, as Jane Eyre admits she did with Rochester: "My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for his creature: of whom I had made an idol." Similarly, Gilbert "idolizes" Helen, and Arthur actually tells her he is willing to sacrifice his soul for her. Of course Arthur has already sacrificed his soul to his chief idol, alcohol, but Anne Brontë explores the relationship of "codependence" to chemical dependence more fully in the addictive personality of Lord Lowborough. Like Gilbert and Arthur he is "besotted" by a woman. Marriage solves this problem no better than it did for Helen. But it is his dependence on his male friends, especially Arthur, which is more threatening to his health. He overcomes his addiction to gambling, only to switch to chemical dependence (alcohol and laudanum) because he can not resist their attacks on sobriety.

The only person who breaks out of the cycle of abuse and addiction is Helen, perhaps because she adopts a form of the talking cure. In her case as in Jane Eyre's (and the Brontë sisters') it is the writing cure. In her journal, which is eventually read by others, she unburdens herself of the family secrets, one of the primary therapies in family systems theory as in many others (Imber-Black 73-75ff.) This leads to self-knowledge. Asking herself, "what shall I do without him," she admits her loneliness, beginning to move toward awareness of the hole in her soul she is trying to fill with another person. Like Jane Eyre she must first recognize her idolatry.

The solutions Helen eventually adopts are those emphasized in the treatment of "coalcoholism": disregarding the alcoholic's promises, lessening dependence on the opinions of others, and learning to set boundaries, to express feelings, and to live in the present moment. She begins to feel serenity, self-esteem, and, finally, independence: "I was determined to show him that my heart was not his slave, and I could live without him if I chose." Becoming aware of the danger to self and others of his alcoholism, she turns Arthur's fate over to God, and is able to remove herself and her son from the alcoholic household.

But what about Wuthering Heights, which does not seem to be about chemical dependence at all? It is a good test case because it is discussed by both Cohen and Schapiro. Schapiro cites Gilbert and Gubar's comment on the "shift in family dynamics" caused by the arrival of the orphan Heathcliff (46), but her exploration of those dynamics adds only the preoedipal focus on the mother to the oedipal focus on the father. Schapiro's distinctive contribution is to reveal the psychodynamics of rage, "directed both inward and outward, at self and other, and the consequent intrapsychic splitting" (47). In her view the "end of the novel achieves a restructuring and integration of self" (61). Cohen demonstrates that the two heroines, Catherine Earnshaw and Catherine Linton, are mediators and stress relievers for others in their family systems and thus victims of split loyalties, triangulation, and scapegoating. Cohen documents Catherine Earnshaw's oscillation between hysteria and invalidism (especially anorexia) and resists reading the ending as hopeful. Though the family's immediate death is prevented by the intervention of the servant, Nelly Dean, the ending is "the beginning of yet another spiral leading to that degenerative conclusion embodied by the Cathy-Heathcliff story" (109).

[These materials have been excerpted by the author from Jerome Bump, "The Family Dynamics of the Reception of Art," Style 31.2 (1997): 328-350]


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Last modified 25 November 2004