Marxist Criticism and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

April 13, 2022 by Essay Writer

Emily Bronte’s classic novel, Wuthering Heights, is not simply the tragic love story it may appear to be on the surface, but is an example of class differences and the role of capital in eighteenth century Victorian England. Using Karl Marx’s essay Wage Labor and Capital, one can see the ways in which Wuthering Heights uses the rise and fall of Heathcliff as a reminder that one cannot change his socioeconomic status in this society, and that no matter how hard one tries to climb the socioeconomic ladder, he will only be left with misery in modern, capitalist society. 

In Wage Labor and Capital, Marx writes about the processes through which wealth accumulates. He argues that in a capitalist economy, the wage laborer is trapped within a system that does not reward him for his work. Marx argues that the class structure of society is based on the capitalist system, and that one cannot change his or her position in society. When discussing the relationship between the capitalist and the wage laborer, Marx writes, “The capitalist, it seems, therefore, buys their labor with money. They sell him their labor for money. However, this is merely an appearance, because in reality, they sell their labor power to the capitalist. 

Labor power, therefore, is “a commodity, neither more nor less than [any other product]” (659). Marx emphasizes that there is a difference between being paid for labor, and collecting capital. The laborer exchanges his commodity, his labor power, for the capitalist’s commodity, money. The capitalist does not pay the laborer’s wages with the money he makes from the product, but from capital which he has already accumulated. The money invested in the materials and tools used to make the product as well the labor all come from “money already on reserve” (660). This means that while the capitalist is making money from the product that the laborer produces, by selling it, the wage laborer is making less than the value of his product and often only enough money to survive.

Laborers spend their wages on food and shelter, while the capitalist has money reserved for that and is not using the money he makes from the product on the cost of living. Within this system, the wealthy remain wealthy and the poor remain poor. Marxism is based on the idea that the world in which we live is broken up into a base and a superstructure. The base is the material conditions of society, and the superstructure is the social world dominated by our culture and ideology. Marxism argues that we need to study the base, and it’s impact on our lives. Our ability to survive in society is dependent upon our material conditions.

With an understanding of the ideas presented by Marxist criticism, one can turn to Wuthering Heights and see the way in which Marxism is represented through Heathcliff’s misery. At the onset of Nelly Dean’s story about the Lintons and the Earnshaws, the reader is introduced to Wuthering Heights, where the Earnshaws have adopted the wretched orphaned Heathcliff. There are several significant  differences between Heathcliff and the rest of the family. Heathcliff was found wandering the streets of Liverpool by Mr. Earnshaw who brought Heathcliff home with him. His background is unknown to the family, and his skin is of a darker color than theirs, leading the family to believe that he is not a native of England. This lack of a background, as well as the fact that he was adopted, means that he is different from everyone else in the novel. He remains of lower in class than the Earnshaws, but a higher in class than the servants, putting him in an awkward position. When Heathcliff is first introduced to the family, Nelly Dean says,

I was frightened, and Mrs. Earnshaw was ready to fling it out of doors: she did fly up – asking how he could fashion to bring that gipsy brat into the house, when they had their own bairns to feed, and fend for? What he meant to do with it, and whether he were mad?

 The master tried to explain the matter… seeing it starving, and houseless, and as good as dumb in the streets of Liverpool where he picked it up and inquired for it’s owner- Not a soul knew to whom it belonged, he said, and his money and time, being both limited, he tought it better to take it home with him. (51-52)

It is clear that Heathcliff is not seen by the family as human, more so as a piece of property which can be discarded if not wanted. Not knowing where to put him for his first night at the Heights, Nelly Dean puts it “on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow” (52). Not only is Heathcliff treated by the family (excluding Mr. Earnshaw) like a stray dog who they hope might run away, but he is referred to as a thing rather than a human. Mrs. Earnshaw sees Heathcliff as a burden to their own economic status, and possibly as a threat to their social status as well. 

Once several years pass, Heathcliff and Catherine become friends and the two start to wander around the moors together. One day, they reach Thrushcross Grange, where they are caught by the Linton’s who release their dogs on Heathcliff and Cathy. Catherine is taken in by the family after their dogs injure her, but they throw Heathcliff out of their home, because he is rude to them, and his lower class origin is evident in his dirtiness. Catherine remains at Thrushcross Grange for five weeks as she recuperates from her injury. When she returns, it is evident that she has raised her social status by acting as the Linton’s do. 

Cathy stayed at Thrushcross Grange five weeks, till Christmas. By that time her ankle was thoroughly cured, and her manners much improved. The mistress visited her often, in the interval, and commenced her plan of reform by trying to raise her self-respect with fine clothes and flattery, which she took readily: so that, instead of a wild, hatless little savage jumping into the house, and rushing to squeeze us all breathless, there lighted from a handsome black pony a very dignified person…

Hindley lifted her from her horse, exclaiming delightedly, “Why, Cathy, you are quite a beauty! I should scarcely have known you – you look like a lady now… (63)

By staying with the Linton’s, and by eventually marrying Edgar Linton, Cathy is able to raise her socioeconomic status. She is able to “class up” and move from Wuthering Heights, a farm, to Thrushcross Grange, an estate. In doing so, Catherine became “worth more” in the eyes of the men in this society. Women, similar to Heathcliff at the beginning of the novel, are considered property. The women themselves aren’t capital, but if a man were to marry a woman, all of her assets become his, and the woman becomes a means for accumulating more capital for the man. Women at the time of the story were not allowed to own anything, meaning that if a man were to marry a woman who put him in line for property, then he would increase his capital. 

When Catherine marries Edgar Linton, Heathcliff mourns the loss of his one true love and runs away from the Heights, only to return three years later a much wealthier and more dignified man. Heathcliff plans to exact revenge on the Earnshaws for treating him poorly, and on the Lintons for stealing Catherine away from him. According to Marxist theory, within a capitalist economic system, somebody has to lose for somebody else to win. A man can only increase his capital at the loss of somebody else’s, and this is true of Heathcliff in this narrative. Although we are never told how Heathcliff comes into his money, we do know that Hindley loses the Heights to Heathcliff when the two are gambling together. Heathcliff takes advantage of Hindley’s gambling problem and gains capital, reversing the capitalist-laborer dynamic, in the process. 

The guest was now the master of the Wuthering Heights: he held firm possession, and proved it to the attorney, who, in his turn, proved it to Mr.Linton, that Earnshaw had mortgaged every yard of land he owned for cash to supply his mania for gaming; and he, Heathcliff, was the mortgage.

In that manner, Hareton, who should now be the first gentleman in the neighborhood, was reduced to a state of complete dependence on his father’s inveterate enemy; and lives in his own house as a servant deprived of the advantage of wages, and quite unable to right himself, because of his friendlessness, and his ignorance that he has been wronged. (171)

Capital outweighs inheritance in this instance, and Heathcliff is able to raise his class, at least for a short while. Not long after this, Heathcliff marries Edgar’s sister Isabella, bringing him closer in his plan to take Thrushcross Grange as well as the Heights. Heathcliff acts as a capitalist in that he treats the people around him as laborers that he can use to generate even more capital for himself. 

Not even Heathcliff’s own son is spared in his quest for social capital and revenge on the Earnshaws and the Lintons. Isabella’s son, Linton Heathcliff, stays with Isabella, away from his father, until she dies, upon which the boy is returned to the Heights. Heathcliff also looks after Hindley’s son, Hareton Earnshaw and treats him like an animal, degrading him as revenge for his own degradation at the hands of the Earnshaws and the Lintons. When his son is returned to him, Heathcliff does not even pretend to love him and even refers to his mother, Isabella, as a “wicked slut.” In Heathcliff’s eyes, both Linton and Hareton are his property and are simply pawns is his plan to take both estates and bring each family to ruin.

Heathcliff serves as a reminder that as hard as one tries to change his status in society and raise his class, forces will push downward towards misery against his presumptuous rise. The story emphasizes the Marxist argument that in a capitalist society, the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. As hard as Heathcliff tries to accumulate capital and take control of the properties of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, in the end he is left with nothing other than the misery of knowing that he hurt everyone around him and will die alone.

Heathcliff realizes this in his final days and says that he can no longer bear to exact his revenge on Cathy and Hareton as they remind him too much of Catherine and himself. At the end of the novel, Heathcliff dies, leaving behind all he owns to Hareton, who plans to marry Catherine. Hareton, who was once homeless, had no capital, and no education, now owns everything at the end of the story. He has a wife, money, and he owns both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Unlike Heathcliff, who had to overcome his class, race, and ethnicity, Hareton did absolutely nothing and had no desire to attain his capital, but he of course is only returning to the social status that he was born into as the son of Hindley and grandson of Mr. Earnshaw. 


Works Cited

Bronte, Emily. “Wuthering Heights.” Wuthering Heights: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Linda H. Peterson. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 25-288. Print.

Marx, Karl. “Wage Labor and Capital.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 659-664. Print.

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