Marxism and Bronte: Revenge as Ideology
by Meredith Birmingham
© 2006 Meredith Birmingham. All rights reserved.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights was published a mere four months before
Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto. Even so, one is more likely to think of
Byron and Scott in relation to Bronte than Marx. With Bronte’s rich educational heritage
of the Romantics, it is tempting to picture Wuthering Heights in all the glory of a gothic
romance, rather than in the context of social and economic forces.
Even so, such a view of the novel actually helps to expand our understanding of
it, and specifically, of characters’ motivations throughout the novel. Such an
investigation also provides a perspective on why Bronte wrote the novel as she did.
Heathcliff’s motivation throughout Wuthering Heights is obsession with taking
revenge on his old enemies, Edgar Linton and Hindley Earnshaw, as well as their
descendants. Marxist theory provides a perspective on the way in which he goes about
seeking his retaliation: social and economic hegemony. Heathcliff’s method of taking
revenge on his enemies is to degrade them socially and dominate them economically.
The Marxist notion of ideology provides readers with a basis for perceiving
Heathcliff’s behavior. Louis Althusser explains that “ideology represents the imaginary
relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”i He goes on to say that
this imaginary reality is usually imposed on a population by a small group of people who
use the false reality to oppress that population.ii
In the case of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is at once the deceiver and the
deceived. His hegemony puts him in the seat of power, but in using his power, he
deceives himself, not others. He convinces himself that vengeance will bring him
satisfaction; vengeance is the ideology by which Heathcliff fools himself into believing
he can find contentment in life. Such is not the case, as he admits later—after causing
much grief to his enemies, he avoids another opportunity (that of separating Hareton and
young Catherine), saying: “I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction.”iii
Heathcliff’s obsession with taking vengeance blinds him to the realities and
possibilities of the world around him. This idea is best described by the way in which he
‘I am afraid, Nelly, I shall lose my labor,’ he muttered to me. ‘Miss
Catherine, as the ninny calls her, will discover his value, and send him to
the devil. Now, if it had been Hareton—do you know that, twenty times a
day, I covet Hareton, with all his degradation? I’d have loved the lad had
he been some one else. But I think he’s safe from her love. I’ll pit him
against the paltry creature, unless it bestir itself briskly. We calculate it
will scarcely last till it is eighteen. Oh, confound the vapid thing!’ (194).
Heathcliff regards his son in humiliating and dehumanizing terms: “the ninny”, “the
paltry creature”, “the vapid thing.” Even Linton’s personal pronoun changes from a
human “him” to an inhuman “it.” Such references demonstrate the social hegemony that
Heathcliff wields over his enemies. Linton, because he is connected with Edgar, is a
target of Heathcliff’s retaliation, which he exerts by reducing him in social importance
from person to object.
Such a demotion of status is in keeping with Heathcliff’s purpose for his young
son: to use him as a commodity to augment his economic power. Heathcliff thinks of
Linton in terms of “his value”—his usefulness as a pawn in a marriage scheme by which
means Heathcliff can gain control of the Grange. He even talks about his anticipation of
Linton’s future in materialistic terms, saying he “calculate[s]” his life expectancy.
Heathcliff includes Catherine in his world of materialism. Assuming that
Catherine will think as he does, Heathcliff worries that she will “discover [Linton’s]
value” and decide not to marry him, at which point Heathcliff will “lose his labor.”
Heathcliff supposes that others will take the same pragmatic view of the situation as he
Perhaps, Heathcliff’s assumptions about Catherine’s materialistic tendencies are
based on his prior experience of his own marriage to Isabella. Heathcliff marries for
purely mercenary reasons. Hoping to gain control of the Grange by marrying into the
Linton family, he woos Isabella and allows her to believe he loves her (143).
Catherine’s motivations for marriage, on the other hand, are not darkened by
materialism. Although naive, she does genuinely seem to love Linton. There is sincerity
in her attempt to explain her feelings to Nelly. When charged with forwardly pursuing a
connection with Linton, Catherine exclaims: “I didn’t! I didn’t! I didn’t once think of
loving him till—” (201). Presumably, she meant to say that she didn’t love Linton until
he pursued her. In any case, the distress expressed by Catherine conveys an air of
Catherine’s involvement with Linton could not be further removed from thoughts
of money. She has a “capacity for intense attachments”, as Nelly tells us, which she
demonstrates by her treatment of Linton (171). She tells Nelly that she is “certain Linton
would recover quickly if he had me to look after him” (213). Such a demonstration of
(naive) selflessness immediately places Catherine in another sphere than that of
Heathcliff, who was obsessed enough with the idea of vengeance to use the institution of
marriage to reach his goals.
While Heathcliff’s life revolves around the idea of attaining retribution at the cost
of any and all in his way, Catherine’s outlook on life is much more compassionate.
Therefore, it is wrong of Heathcliff to assume that Catherine would automatically leave
Linton due to his peevish behavior; instead, it is quite possible that she would take it on
herself to remedy his attitude by care and attention. Heathcliff’s way of seeing
everything in the tainted light of economic power is not the way of young Catherine.
Heathcliff’s treatment of Hareton also reflects his fixation on economic and social
power. He explains to Nelly that he “covet[s] Hareton, with all his degradation.” First of
all, “covet” brings to mind the idea of jealously desiring something that belongs to
another. In fact, Heathcliff has only himself to blame for the divide between that which
he covets and himself. The reason for Heathcliff’s separation from Hareton is
Heathcliff’s overpowering drive for vengeance on the Earnshaws. He has retaliated
against Hindley by degrading his son, denying him an education and relegating him to the
position of a servant in what is, by tradition, his own household. Desire for revenge
overpowers Heathcliff’s desire to befriend Hareton and even look upon him as his own
son. Thus, while in one sense Heathcliff has power—to take revenge—he is left
powerless to form emotionally satisfying relationships.
Resigning himself to the methods of retribution, Heathcliff decides to “pit
[Hareton] against the paltry creature [Linton].” Hareton, whose emotional claims on his
master are brushed aside, has once again been designated a weapon in Heathcliff’s
Yet, it is important that Heathcliff describes Linton as “paltry”, which means
“contemptible” or “petty”, but also can mean “of worthless nature.”iv As has been
discussed, Linton is certainly not worthless economically; his value as a trading object for
the Lintons’ property is great. Perhaps, Linton’s worthlessness is an emotional one; his
father can never have regard for him. Such an idea returns readers to Heathcliff’s
comment that he would have loved Hareton had circumstances been different. Heathcliff
simultaneously respects and exploits Hareton, while all he can do to his son is exploit
him, since he can never respect him. Heathcliff’s overriding desire for retribution blinds
him to the possibility of a meaningful relationship with a son-like figure.
Thus, the influence of vengeance as an “ideology” on Heathcliff’s actions—where
vengeance will supposedly make all right—has led him to several grievous errors. He
views people not as humans but as commodities (Linton), is blinded to the true intentions
of people (like Catherine), and suppresses his own better feelings (like his regard for
Hareton). Such misconceptions of reality result from, as Terry Eagleton puts it, the
“delusory freedom of exploiting others.”v
Other characters base their actions on vengeance, but not to the same extent as
Heathcliff. For these characters, vengeance is useful, but not deluding. Unlike
Heathcliff, they realize that revenge will not actually satisfy them.
The older Cathy, for example, willingly revenges herself on Heathcliff for his part
in her sufferings. When she is dying, she verbally tortures him, accusing him of having
essentially killed her and of being liable to forget her after she dies. Heathcliff responds,
pointing out that she will have the peace of the grave while he suffers from her cruel
words for the rest of his days. Cathy’s response: “I shall not be at peace” (149). Even as
Cathy retaliates against Heathcliff for his desertion of her and his part in the development
of Cathy’s illness, she realizes that such retribution will not bring her peace.
The younger Catherine likewise prides herself in being able to take revenge while
still realizing its fruitlessness. After marrying Linton and discovering the true horror of
her situation, she speaks to Heathcliff of the dark joy she can derive from her bleak
situation. She explains that she loves Linton despite his bad attitude, and that this fact
gives her the joy of knowing that she has the ability to love, unlike Heathcliff, who loves
no one. Catherine enjoys Heathcliff’s misery as a form of revenge while simultaneously
recognizing that she has nothing much ahead of her but the cruelty of her father-in-law
and the bad temper of her husband. Revenge is a consolation, but not a solution to her
Thus, other characters are not blinded by vengeance, but instead recognize its
downfall: it may maim an enemy, but in the end it will not solve the problems of the
The notion of ideology is not only useful for delving into the characters’
motivations, but also becomes important when considering why Bronte wrote Wuthering
Heights as she did. The society into which Bronte brought her novel was steeped in
ideologies which presented problems for the writer. The ideological power found in
Victorian society’s morals, for example, was influential on Bronte’s writing techniques.
The reviews of Wuthering Heights expressed the offense caused by the novel to those
who upheld such morals. One reviewer called the book a “disagreeable story” and
denounces the author for seeming to “affect painful and exceptional subjects.”vi
Emily Bronte’s sister, Charlotte, assessed the situation succinctly in her preface to
the second edition of Jane Eyre: “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is
not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.”vii What society approves is not
always right and what hypocritical religious devotees believe is not necessarily right,
either. Thus, to attack conventionality and self-righteousness (which Emily does
implicitly in Wuthering Heights) is not the same as being immoral or irreligious.
In the light of such ideology, it is interesting to consider the very structure of
Wuthering Heights. It is composed in a way that attempts to shield the author from guilt
due to too close an association with the events of the novel.
The nested narratives remove the author from the action of the novel; readers are
told the story by Mr. Lockwood, who hears it from Nelly Dean, who sometimes has her
version of the story from another source. Mr. Lockwood is an outsider from the city;
Nelly is a cool-headed observer of events. Nelly’s detachment from the highly emotional
nature of various events is particularly striking. For example, Nelly witnesses Heathcliff
violently bashing his head against an oak tree with the words: “It hardly moved my
compassion—it appalled me” (155).
The fact that these two characters are emotionally detached from the events of the
plot—and therefore not culpable for any social conventions those events may ignore—
makes them less objectionable to readers. By distancing her narrators from the action of
the novel, Bronte is consequently protecting herself by not linking herself too closely
with the unconventional and even revolutionary nature of her novel.
Althusser, Louis, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, in Literary Theory: An
Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell
Publishing Ltd., 1998, pp. 294-304).
Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Bronte, Emily, Wuthering Heights, second edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003).
Eagleton, Terry, “Myths of Power: A Marxist Study on Wuthering Heights”, in
Wuthering Heights (second edition), ed. Linda H. Peterson (Boston: Bedford
Books, 2003, pp.394-410).
Gérin, Winifred, Emily Bronte: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).
“paltry, a.”, Oxford English Dictionary (second edition), ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C.
Weiner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989, p. 114).
“Review of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey from the Athenaeum, 25 December
1847”, in The Brontes: A Life in Letters, by Juliet Barker (New York: The
Overlook Press, 2002), pp. 175-176 (p. 175).
i Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited
by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 1998, pp. 294-304), p. 294.
ii Ibid. p. 295.
iii Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, second edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), p. 276. All
further references to this text will be from this edition.
iv ‘paltry, a.’ Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, edited by J.A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 114.
v Terry Eagleton, ‘Myths of Power: A Marxist Study on Wuthering Heights’ in Wuthering Heights (second
edition), edited by Linda H. Peterson (Boston: Bedford Books, 2003 pp.394-410), p.402.
vi ‘Review of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey from the Athenaeum, 25 December 1847’ in The Brontes:
A Life in Letters, by Juliet Barker (New York: The Overlook Press, 2002), pp. 175-176 (p. 175).
vii Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 3.