[Part 6 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]
critic informed by the family systems theory derived from the treatment of chemical dependence can add many insights to standard crticism of Wuthering Heights. He or she would emphasize that as soon as Lockwood asks that he be told their stories by Nellie, the novel becomes the histories of several family systems and all the characters in the systems, male as well as female, living and dead. Focusing on the family as a unit at Wuthering Heights we discover one of the best illustrations of a closed system in literature. They are not merely extremely isolated from others, they are actively hostile: instead of welcoming the protoreader, Lockwood, they refuse to come to his aid as six dogs attack him inside the house. Even the reader is excluded from some of the activity at the Heights, for at times it is presented in a dialect almost unintelligible to all but those raised in the neighborhood. Even members of the family at times find Joseph's "speech difficult to understand" when he got excited and "his jaws worked like those of a cow chewing its cud."
When Lockwood does manage to get past some of the rigid boundaries, Hareton Earnshaw is instantly angry at him and "Mrs. Heathcliff" at first won't even speak to him. Many readers no doubt identify with Lockwood's sarcastic understatement, "I began to feel unmistakably out of place in that pleasant family circle." When Lockwood tries to escape from the system, a dog prevents him, as in the Leary household. In his case, two dogs attack and pin him to the ground and a servant asks, "Are we going to murder folk on our very door-stones?" The family motto, "Every man's hand was against his neighbor," appears to Lockwood in a dream and he adopts it has his own. When one of the ancestors, a recently dead family member. comes to him as a child in the dream, crying "Let me in .... I'm come home," Lockwood, already imitating the others, slashes her wrists on the broken window and replies, as the blood stains his bed, "I'll never let you in."
Lockwood proclaims to the family, "I'm not going to endure the persecutions of your hospitable ancestors," but as soon as one enters a family system of any age one is in the presence of ancestors. "Before passing the threshold" for the first time" Lockwood looked up and "detected the date `1500' and the name `Hareton Earnshaw'." He then confronted the latest incarnation of that name who, when he was learning to read, began by reading his own name carved on the door. This is an example of transgenerational repetition in the same house for centuries almost beyond the imagination of readers in America, which had just been discovered in 1500. At Wuthering Heights names are simply repeated, as if there were little difference between the generations, as if they kept adopting the same roles and following the same script century after century. When we add to name repetition the habit of cousins marrying cousins in a complicated genealogy, we can see why readers of the novel are as confused as Lockwood was when he first entered the family. Readers get to feel exclusion from a closed system as they wonder which Catherine, for example, is being discussed. Because of "the thousand forms of past associations, and ideas" a family member "awakens, or embodies," even the inmates become bewildered: Heathcliff, for example, at times believed that Catherine II was Catherine I and often "Hareton seemed a personification of my youth, not a human being; I felt to him in such a variety of ways, that it would have been impossible to have accosted him rationally."
Thus, as Lockwood put it, "Time stagnates here," not only in choice of names but also in repetition of abuse and addiction. After Hindley's funeral Heathcliff went to Hareton, "lifted the unfortunate child on to the table and muttered, with peculiar gusto — 'Now, my bonny lad, you are mine! And we'll see if one tree won't grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it." Heathcliff says later, "I can sympathize with all his feelings, having felt them myself. I know what he suffers now, for instance, exactly — it is a mere beginning of what he shall suffer, though. And he'll never be able to emerge from his bathos of coarseness and ignorance. I've got him faster than his scoundrel of a father served me, and lower .... And the best of it is, Hareton is damnably fond of me! You'll own I've outmatched Hindley there." As family systems histories document so often, the habit of abuse binds the victim to the abuser: Hareton "took the master's reputation home to himself, and was attached by ties stronger than reason could break — chains, forged by habit." One of those habits was patrolling the boundaries of the closed system like a guard dog: Hareton stones even his old nurse Nelly when she tries to return to the Heights. The law of repetition compulsion in this kind of a patriarchal family system is, in Heathcliff's words, that "The tyrant grinds down his slaves and they don't turn against him; they crush those beneath them." When Heathcliff elopes with Isabella he hangs her dog to prevent its barking; when Isabella finally escapes from him she passed by "Hareton, who was hanging a litter of puppies." Heathcliff's next student of sadism, Linton, learns the same lesson: "He'll undertake to torture any number of cats." Sadism infects all who enter that system, whether or not they come under Heathcliff's direct tutelage. The second Catherine, for example, comes from a different family system but soon "seemed to have made up her mind to enter into the spirit of her future family, and draw pleasure from the griefs of her enemies."
A chemical dependency family systems theorist would focus on the addictions that result from these abuses. Like Lockwood, such a critic would say to Nelly Dean, "I am interested in every character you have mentioned." Hindley, for example, an apparently minor character, emerges as an important father figure. He has a process addiction — gambling — and eventually mortgages all of his land, but his drug of choice is alcohol. In the habit of coming "home rabid drunk," he is often in a murderous rage. Nelly tries to control his drinking, but Heathcliff exclaims "It is a pity [Hindley] cannot kill himself with drink ... He' s doing his very utmost but his constitution defies him." Hindley is a true alcoholic, unable to stop even when he wants to. For example, "he kept himself sober" in order to attend his sister's funeral but he "rose in suicidal low spirits, as fit for the church as for a dance; and instead, he sat down by the fire and swallowed gin or brandy by the tumberful." Like many alcoholics, he was apparently trying to medicate depression with alcohol. Alcohol is his way out of a depressing family system. When he dies at the age of 27 we learn that "he has spent the night in drinking himself to death deliberately."
This novel reminds us that in such family systems, women are not the only victims of split loyalties, triangulation, scapegoating, invalidism, and anorexia. The story proper begins with one of the patriarchs named Earnshaw bringing Heathcliff into the system. He is named him after a child who died in childhood, but like Jane Eyre he is an outsider and the tension is intense. Absorbing that tension, Mr. Earnshaw soon succumbs to invalidism and death. Nelly says, "It hurt me to think the master should be made uncomfortable by his own good deed. I fancied the discontent of age and disease arose from his family disagreements, as he would have it that it did." Nor are women the only ones who manipulate illness to control others: Linton Heathcliff does so even more consistently than Catherine does and, like her, ends up a victim of the family dynamics he tries to control.
A critic oriented to process dependencies such as addictions to control and to rage can identify Catherine's personality as addictive before she succumbs to anorexia. Catherine tries to enlist Nelly in her means of control, asking her to communicate to others the peril of provoking her, reminding them "of my passionate temper, verging, when kindled, on frenzy." When Nelly calls her bluff Catherine turns to anorexia. Nor are rage and fasting the only ways we see her control others: "I have such faith in Linton's love, that I believe I might kill him, and he wouldn't wish to retaliate."
Of course, the most obvious process addiction in the novel is the "love" of Heathcliff and Catherine, one of the most famous examples in literature of pure enmeshment, a total loss of boundaries that seems to triumph over death, sustaining the myth that romantic love is a viable form of spirituality. A family systems critic oriented to addictions can explore parts of this pattern that are often overlooked. Catherine is not the only character to choose anorexia as a means of self-destruction. Early in their relationship, like an aspiring saint in the courtly school of love, "fasting and reflection seemed to have brought" Heathcliff to the point where he could ask Catherine to "make me decent." After he loses Catherine to anorexia, Heathcliff finds himself also unable to eat until finally, after swallowing nothing for four days, he manages to die. Despite, or perhaps because of, this conclusion to their relationship, this half of the novel remains popular, often the only half made into movies.
Movie versions rarely show what we now call functional behavior. Yet some of the children at Wuthering Heights are able to stand up for themselves against abuse. Heathcliff defends himself against Cathy's laughter, and Cathy confronts her father. Nelly defends herself against Catherine's physical abuse: "You have no right to nip me, and I'm not going to bear it." And Edgar Linton follows her example, complaining to Catherine, "You've made me afraid and shamed of you.... I'll not come here again." These defenses do not stop the abuse, but readers' childhood memories of similar instances of courage may be positively reinforced in such passages.
Longing for a healthier family is better satisfied by the second generation. Closed family systems change usually only in response to their almost complete disintegration and/or to intervention from the outside. In this case, the influence of Catherine Earnshaw's husband, Edgar Linton, seems to be the key. His daughter, Catherine Linton, seems much "healthier" than her mother and thus some readers may perceive that transgenerational repetition is not inevitable. After a considerable struggle she manages to transplant some flowers from Thrushcross Grange to Wuthering Heights. They become the symbol of the change. She makes amends to Hareton for her sadistic behavior and helps him to read. Hareton is then able to give the lie to Heathcliff's assertion, "I've got him faster than his scoundrel of a father served me, and lower." Ultimately, they transform Wuthering Heights into an open system. The protoreader, Lockwood, recounts, "I had neither to climb the gate, nor to knock — it yielded to my hand. That is an improvement! I thought .... Both doors and lattices were open." Many readers, like orphans, seek such functional family systems in life but find them only in fiction.
- Introduction: Family Dynamics and the Limitations of Psychoanalytic and Postmodern Conceptions of Self
- Object Relations Theorists
- Family Dynamics, Family Systems Theory, and Literary Criticism
- Family-Systems Theory, Addiction, and the Novels of the Brontës
- Family-Systems Theory, Addiction, and Emily Brontës Wuthering Heights
- Family-Systems Theory, Addiction, and Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge
- Family-Systems Theory and Great Expectations
- Works Cited
Last modified 25 November 2004