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The Social Norms Of Wuthering Heights

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4139 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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When I speak of the social norms and conventions of the 19th century, it must first be stated what these norms and conventions actually entail. In the 19th century, more specifically in the Victorian era social norms were something every person must try to live up to, to keep their reputation and respect of their peers intact. In the Victorian era life was very different for women in comparison to our life today, women’s rights have improved and grown immensely since then, this is something that must also be taken into consideration when analyzing the formation of the female protagonists (Wuthering Heights, written by Emily Brontë in 1847 and Jane Eyre written by Charlotte Brontë in 1847). Some of the basic norms and conventions of that time were for example; that women had to be taken care of by men, first by their fathers and then once married by their husbands. This norm helps extrapolate on the decisions that were made in both novels by the protagonists. A woman in an upper or middle class family was expected to stay at home and host dinner parties, calling on friends or visiting her dressmaker. A man was expected to be the head of the family, and his rules were to be respected as such. It was a norm that a man and a woman could only be married if they were from the same social class, this was to keep their families wealth and reputation intact. For a man and woman from different classes to be wed, was seen as unacceptable and therefore treated as such, in most cases this meant that the lovers would be disowned if they’d choose to defy their families will. But in the Victorian era, and especially in its literature it also became an expectation that the men who were considered gentlemen for their class would also be gentlemen in their conduct instead of only wealth, the title of a gentleman began to also have a moral expectancy attached to it.

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“He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults [. . .]. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blunder.” [1] 

As Newman states, a ‘real’ gentleman was also expected to have these internal qualities aside from the obvious expectations of his wealth. If we look at the male protagonists of both novels we see that Heathcliff has none of the characteristics of being a gentleman, and that Rochester has some traits of the selection above, but not all. And if we look at what was seen as a ‘real’ gentleman, it helps put the choices made by the female characters into more perspective.

The female protagonists are both very restrained in their romantic life, because of the era they were born in, and the social class they inherited at birth. There are clear romantic restrictions, such as Jane Eyre not being of a high enough social class to be considered a potential partner for Rochester. And the expectations that were put upon Catherine Earnshaw’s shoulders pushed her towards Edgar Linton. These two women who are completely different from each other, they’re not from a similar social class nor do they have compatible personalities, yet both suffer from the restriction to be close to the men they love. But even though society’s norms are the main restrictions for these their romantic choices, their personalities also play a role in prohibiting them from following their heart. Catherine having been raised in a middle class family with decent social standing has had most things handed to her on a silver platter due to her beauty. But her personality has great similarities with that of Heathcliff, as she can be very crude and selfish; this selfishness combined with her being acclimatized to the wealth of her family led her to choose for Edgar Linton over Heathcliff. Edgar had the security in wealth of a gentleman, and he also had the characteristics of a gentleman, making him the more secure option in that era. Jane Eyre’s personality prohibited her in a completely different manner; she was raised to be a governess for a wealthy family. She was taught to be the lesser person, to always put her own desires and needs second. Jane learnt to have dignity without wealth; she ironically has all the characteristics described in Newman’s quote. And because of this sense of dignity she refuses to be with Rochester as a mistress, as she feels there is no pride in being one, it is either all (marriage) or nothing. There lies a certain level of irony in the fact that marriage under different classes was so frowned upon, and that the lower classes received so little respect from the higher classes. But even so Jane’s personality is that of a ‘gentleman’ and Catherine’s personality is crude and selfish, and yet Catherine receives more respect from society purely based on her social standing, when in reality Jane deserves this respect more because of who she is as a person. The strong differences in the personalities of the females, gives us the opportunity to observe the romantic restrictions created by society’s social norms and conventions from two different perspectives.

The reason I chose this topic is because of the way both novels caught my interest, but for completely different reasons. Wuthering Heights was a story that kept me on my toes, and Jane Eyre was more of a down-to-earth novel. But even though these novels are completely different they still share similar elements, such as the masculinity of the male protagonists, and the forbidden romantic love that takes place. And the fact that these two works were written by sisters, yet are written in such a distinctly diverse manner made the novels all the more intriguing.

Society’s influence on choices made by the female protagonists

Social status has great influence on what was expected of people in the 19th century. The society of that time had a completely different perspective on under what conditions two people should be wed, they felt that one should marry within their own class. This is different from the western society of today where people can marry within any class for any reason. The fate of an individual in the 19th century was set from the day they were born, depending on the family they were born into. Jane’s situation is a good example of the strength of societies influence when it comes down to the norms of social status, her mother was born into a wealthy family but she chose to follow her heart and marry a man of a lower status, her family disowned her and left her with no inheritance. This is ironic because, Jane’s mother chose to follow her heart and because of this Jane cannot follow hers, when she’s originally meant to have been born into the same class as Rochester. And the only other option left for Jane was to become Rochester’s mistress, but her dignity and self-respect wouldn’t allow her to become such. A mistress is a woman that is frowned upon, always comes in second next to a wife, whose children have no right to their father’s family name and who would also be shunned for her virginity not being intact and being unmarried, Jane felt she deserved a life with more dignity than that. And Heathcliff, whom was found and brought into the Earnshaw family, was never truly accepted because he had not been born into the family, and so wasn’t accepted as being from the same social status as the rest of the Earnshaw’s.

In the 19th century the middle class could be split up into two different forms, a family’s wealth could either be achieved or inherited. A good example of this are the Earnshaw’s and the Linton’s who both inherit their wealth and reputation, but Heathcliff achieves his wealth in some mysterious manner and returns as a ‘gentleman’ in wealth. Heathcliff’s wealth is considered less prestigious than the wealth of the Linton’s, since the Linton’s have ‘old’ money. The reason ‘old’ or inherited money was considered more respectable is because with wealth comes a certain way of living. Education was better for the rich, and therefore their speech and mannerisms as well. The word ‘poor’ didn’t only mean a person without wealth but it was related to someone that is filthy and lacks manners. Therefore someone with ‘new’ or achieved money would be considered as a person that has lacked manners and was filthy until they turned wealthy, leaving their wealth to be less respected than the wealth of a person with a more respectable background. The Linton’s are a perfect example of a family that has inherited wealth, due to their mannerisms and educated ways of handling matters. Like said before being a gentleman wasn’t only about being wealthy in the 19th century it was also connected to the way one acted. This is why even though Heathcliff became a richer man, he still could not be called a ‘real’ gentleman as he’s still rude, with a bad temper and has a foul vocabulary.

Catherine chose Edgar because he could offer what their society respected, wealth and a good name. And Heathcliff at first could offer her neither, and when he was able to offer her a wealthy life it was too late, as Catherine had already married Edgar.

“You love Mr. Edgar because he is handsome, and young, and cheerful, and rich, and loves you. The last, however, goes for nothing – You would love him without that, probably, and with it, you wouldn’t, unless he possessed the four former attractions.” [2] 

As Nelly Dean mentions in the quote, Catherine only loves Edgar for what he has to offer, but she doesn’t love him for the love he has to offer, as that isn’t what attracts her it is his wealth and good name that she loves. She wants for herself what society would expect and want from her, to marry into a good family.

Jane Eyre

Jane is plain, educated and independent and yet she manages to find a balance in which she keeps her boldness to herself most of the time, as to fit in with the expectations of someone of her social position. In the 19th century a governess was a woman who worked as an educator and nanny of wealthy children. A governess was always unmarried, girls that weren’t suitable for marriage either because of their family situations or beauty were sent to schools to become governesses. An example of when this would occur would be in a case similar to Jane’s where her parents passed away and she moved in with wealthy relatives, who then sent her to a governess school because they could afford it and she wasn’t suitable to be married into a good family because of her lack of beauty and femininity. Being a governess was a way for a woman to be independent and still be respected even though she’s unmarried.

“If they have no husbands to toil for them, they must win food for themselves. They found, if they would not sink in the scale, they must work with their heads, and not with their hands (qtd. in Fraser’s Magazine 569).” [3] 

Becoming a governess was an alternative for woman of the middle class who were unsuitable to be married to a husband of good standing, because of their lack of beauty or in some cases families that refused to invest in her marriage, this was the case with Jane whose aunt did not care for her at all. By being a governess the woman would keep some social standing in the middle class. But even though her social standing was above that of the servants, it was still below her masters, and even though her status is said to be above that of a servant she’d still have to share some utilizations with the servants and they were not obliged to serve her. A governess was also expected to be submissive to her masters and their peers, and she could not retaliate to insults made by either.

“You should hear mama on the chapter of governesses: Mary and I have had, I should think, a dozen at least in our day; half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi – were they not, mama?”4

“My dearest, don’t mention governesses; the word makes me nervous. I have suffered a martyrdom from their incompetency and caprice. I thank Heaven I have now done with them!” [4] 

This is the way Rochester’s guests would speak of Jane whilst she was in the room, they didn’t care for her feelings, nor did they respect her enough to whisper or wait till she left the room. It is a great example of how Jane was expected to be submissive, and that she fulfilled this expectancy by not retaliating to these insults.

But Jane also had traits that weren’t common in an average governess, she was independent and strong-willed. These characteristics come out when she tries to pursue and intimate relationship with Rochester despite her social class. This takes courage and a strong sense of what she wants, and shows that she’s willing to give up the respect from her society to follow her heart. Another sign of her strong courage is when she leaves Thornfield, even though she wanted to be with Rochester her self-respect and dignity wouldn’t allow her to put aside her pride and become his mistress. Society’s norms and conventions have a great influence on how Jane reacts and presents herself in situations. And her story shows how society strongly influenced who she was on the surface – submissive, quiet, and plain – but it couldn’t oppress her strongest characteristics that always came out in her biggest decisions. And it was thanks to her strength and perseverance that she was able to end up with the man she loved after having waited patiently. And her courage that made sure she kept true to herself till the end, and Jane is rewarded for staying true to herself by eventually ending up with Rochester.

Jane’s lifestyle was very much criticized in the Victorian era, not only by the people in the novel, but by its readers of the 19th century.

“It is a very remarkable book: we have no remembrance of another combining such genuine power with such horrid taste. Both together have equally assisted to gain the great popularity it has enjoyed; for in these days of extravagant adoration of all that bears the stamp of novelty and originality, sheer rudeness and vulgarity have come in for a most mistaken worship.”(Elizabeth Rigby) [5] 

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Rigby states that the reason Jane Eyre is appreciated is because it is original, but she also finds that it is ‘vulgar’, ‘rude’, and a ‘mistaken worship’. If we compare this to for example my view on Jane Eyre, which is that she was a young woman who had to live through a lot of hardships and managed to still stay true to what she felt was right and in the end got rewarded for this self-perseverance. We see that opinions have changed immensely with time.

Catherine Earnshaw

Catherine comes from a family with good social standing, and is also very beautiful. These are two traits, which are necessary for a woman to be an eligible option for marrying into a wealthy family. But these aren’t the only traits that were expected from a suitable bride in the Victorian era, they were also expected to be submissive to their husband, a good hostess to their guests during dinner parties and such, and have children for whom they’d hire a governess to take care of. Catherine had the beauty, but her personality wasn’t that of a suitable wife, she’s depicted as wild in the novel, bad tempered, selfish and passionate. Catherine had the superficial traits of becoming a good wife, but none of the internal characteristics necessary.

During this era a woman was completely dependent on her husband, so it’s understandable that Catherine would choose the safer road, and marry Edgar Linton for his security and status. But it became an internal conflict for Catherine, because even though she thought Edgar could offer her what she wanted, he could not. She thought that what she wanted was what society proposed she should want, even though her personality traits are that of a person who in our time would be considered livelier and wants the things that are less conventional, and what she actually wanted was to be with Heathcliff.

“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. Nelly I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always on my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself – but, as my own being” [6] 

This describes Catherine’s internal conflict, she loves Edgar for what he has to offer her, but she loves Heathcliff as a part of herself, he is her true love. Yet she cannot be with him according to the norms of society. Emily Brontë shows how society’s conventions of the Victorian age stand in the way of a woman’s heart and feelings, by describing the conflict Catherine feels when she has to make a choice between what is conventional and what she truly wants. And her when she chose society’s conventions, she also chose her own ruin, because she discovers she chose the path of a wasted life. Catherine choosing Edgar instead of Heathcliff brings out a lot of sympathy in readers of today’s society, because we’re now used to people getting married for love instead of it purely being based on wealth and status. Most readers feel so much sympathy, Catherine’s flaws become less apparent.

“We do not condone their outrages, but neither do we merely condemn them. We do something larger and more important: we recognize in them the tragedy of passionate natures whom intolerable frustration and loss have stripped them of their humanity.”(John Hagan) [7] 

“The success is not equal to the abilities of the writer; chiefly because the incidents are too coarse and disagreeable to be attractive, the very best being improbable, with a moral taint about them, and the villainy not leading to results sufficient to justify the elaborate pains taken in depicting it.” (Unknown) [8] 

When we compare these two statements made by two different critics, the first statement being by Hagan who is nearer to our society of today and the latter one being a statement made by a critic in 1847 the year that the novel was written we see that our take on morality and sympathy is completely different from the morality of the society Wuthering Heights took place in. When we look at the criticism made in the 19th century, it helps put perspective on the choice Catherine made, choosing Heathcliff would’ve been ‘disagreeable’ and have a ‘moral taint’ as expressed by the critic. But even though Catherine chose Edgar, the novel still received moral criticism because her heart wasn’t in agreement with her choice and Emily Brontë displayed that in a fierce manner, which according to the critic was ‘improbable’. When Hagan states that the passion between Heathcliff and Catherine is something we recognize, and even makes us neither ‘condone’ nor ‘condemn’ their crude acts of revenge. Catherine’s decision to choose Edgar and try to live up to her society’s expectations seems more understandable now we’ve compared these two critic’s opinions. Emily Brontë shows us the controversy Catherine was undergoing by having her make the conventional choice, but having her display her feelings for Heathcliff in an ‘immoral’ way.


In conclusion, both females suffered in their romantic life because of what society’s social norms and conventions expected from them. Jane was expected to remain submissive, quiet and in the background, and Catherine was expected to marry a man of her social status, bare children, and become a good hostess. Both women refused to become what their society tried to enforce them to be.

Jane, who wasn’t of a high enough social class to be permitted to marry Rochester without bringing upon shame and alienation for both of them, was left with the option to become his mistress. She chose to not become his mistress out of self-respect, dignity and pride. Throughout her story we see that she tries to fight the social conventions while at the same time keeping true to her own morals.

Catherine became very influenced by society’s social norms and what her society expected from her. She then had to make the choice between the safe and secure road; Edgar, or the dangerous and passionate road; Heathcliff. She chose for the safer road, as this is what she was raised to choose. But in the end her decision to choose Edgar is what brought her to her end. These two completely different women both made different choices. Catherine chose society’s road, and ended up hitting her downfall out of pure misery, and Jane who always kept true to what she felt was right, ended up marrying the man she loved, and not as his mistress. These two show what a great impact society’s norms and conventions have on its people, and on the decisions they’ve made. We can see that it was hard for Catherine to make the right choice, and she didn’t stay to true to what she really wanted, a major decision like the one she made would set someone’s entire life in that time. “Why shouldn’t you suffer? I do! Will you forget me – will you be happy when I am in the earth?” [9] Catherine is expressing her pain to Heathcliff, she feels as if she’s the victim, as if she’s been tricked into making the wrong choice. And she wants to know if Heathcliff will still remember her, why only she has to suffer under her mistake. Her selfish personality comes out in this quote, one of the qualities that got her to make the wrong choice in the first place. By looking at these two women we see that society destroys Catherine and that Jane is strong enough and perseveres because she always stays true to herself and her morals. “Reader, I married him. A quiet wedding we had: he and I, the parson and clerk, were alone present.” [10] Jane ended up finding her happiness with Rochester, unlike Catherine and Heathcliff. The novels tell us that staying true to society over staying true to yourself will let you meet your end.

There lies a certain irony in the fact that what the community wanted for its women was what brought one of these women to her doom. One must wonder, why would a society want something that stopped people from staying true to themselves, and barred out the option of them ever being happy? Society is what forms these women, but the Brontë’s show that they still have a choice left to make for themselves. It would seem that the red thread that is flowing throughout these novels has one great similarity, which is that there is no happiness to be found if one cannot be true to themselves.


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