Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s Taste in Heroes

As one might expect, Charlotte and Emily have many things in common. Their novels challenge social values and also reveal the limitations of earlier love stories, endowing their fiction with the intensity of Romantic poetry.

Their male characters are descendents of the Byronic hero—difficult and dangerous, yet also powerfully attractive. Although of an earlier generation, Byron was an important influence on both sisters. The sisters were drawn to the idea of a hero who had the potential for great evil as well as great good.

portrait of Lord Byron
Lord Byron, the Anglo-Scottish Poet

They were also fascinated with the effect of disappointment and resentment on such a person. Byron’s heroes have often done wrong, but they have just as often been wronged, or at least misunderstood, and their relationship to other people is deeply vexed as a consequence. The Byronic hero is also a quester, a searcher. Dissatisfied with social norms and social values, he seeks something far greater—a connection to the largest and most powerful forces in the cosmos.

Charlotte’s Rochester

Like the Byronic hero, Jane’s master and eventual husband, Mr. Rochester, can be violent and domineering.

Like the Byronic hero, Jane’s master and eventual husband, Mr. Rochester, can be violent and domineering. He has led a dissolute life, wasting much of his potential, and thus feels himself undeserving of happiness.

For ten long years I roamed about living first in one capital, then another. … I sought my ideal of a woman amongst English ladies, French countesses, Italian signoras, and German gräfinnen. I could not find her. Sometimes, for a fleeting moment, I thought I [had] caught a glance, heard a tone, beheld a form, which announced the realization of my dream: but I was presently undeceived. You are not to suppose that I desired perfection, either of mind or person. I longed only for what suited me … and I longed vainly.

All of that is straight out of Byron—roaming, seeking, but never finding, catching a glimpse, but losing the spell, longing and longing vainly.

Emily’s Heathcliff

While Rochester is a good example of an updated Byronic hero, Emily’s Heathcliff is even more complex. Heathcliff can be loving as well as cruel—the other characters in Wuthering Heights often describe him as a monster or a ghoul.

After Catherine’s death in the middle of the novel, she claims that she’s died at his hand and, in some sense, that’s probably not an exaggeration. Heathcliff refuses to accept any kind of separation from her. Indeed, he would rather be haunted by her than separated from her. In this passage, he begins by cursing Catherine, then goes on to declare that she’s both his “life” and his “soul,” welcoming the chance to be haunted by her. “‘May she wake in torment!’ he cries to the dead Catherine, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. ‘Why, she’s a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there—not in heaven—not perished—where?’”

Here, I think Heathcliff is struggling with the feeling we often have when we’re confronting death. How can this other person be gone? They must be somewhere, but where? He turns to Catherine herself and says:

Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe—I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!

Different kinds of love stories appear in works from Richardson and Austen to Dickens and Thackeray, but never before have British authors written anything remotely like this. Never before have love and hate been so closely connected. Never before have we been asked to consider the possibility that human emotions might somehow transcend death itself.

Two Very Different Sisters

sepia tone sketch of Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë, the English Novelist.

Despite their similarities, it would be a mistake to treat the sisters as a unit, to lump them together and leave it at that. In the end, these two writers are fundamentally different from one another. Although Charlotte is indeed capable of expressing anger, she seems cautious and conservative by nature. Charlotte upholds the comedic conventions of the English novel tradition. By the end of her story, her angry, outcast heroine has been promoted into the ruling class.

For many readers, this resolution is deeply satisfying. Jane finds love, a home, security, and peace. For other readers, this ending is deeply disappointing. They see the rebellious, fiery Jane quite literally domesticated, insisting that she lives entirely and fully for her husband. The important point is the comedic nature of this resolution. Poetic justice is indeed achieved; Jane gets what she wants and deserves and so, finally, does Rochester.

detail of a group portrait showing Emily Bronte
Emily Brontë, the English Novelist

In comparison with Charlotte, Emily Brontë seems much more daring. Her vision is broader, taking in two families and two generations. The action of the novel spans a period of decades starting in the early 1770s and ending around 1802. The turning point of Wuthering Heights is Catherine Earnshaw’s decision to marry Edgar Linton instead of Heathcliff. Unable to accept this decision, Heathcliff runs away for a period of three years. When he returns, he’s almost completely transformed, having mysteriously gained a fortune of his own.

Upon his return, Heathcliff devotes his life to revenge. He gains control over Catherine’s brother and enters into a loveless marriage with Edgar’s sister. Later, after most of his own contemporaries are gone, he continues to seek power over their children, eventually tricking Catherine’s daughter into marrying his son. At the end of the novel, however, Heathcliff and Catherine seem to be reunited in death. There is no suggestion of poetic justice in Heathcliff’s death; he welcomes it.

A Victorian Tragedy

Although both works are remarkable, Wuthering Heights is ultimately the more distinctive of the two. Wuthering Heights confounds the usual novelistic distinctions between love and hate, birth and death, and creation and destruction. Emily Brontë’s major characters transcend conventional notions of good and evil, and the death of those characters is a precondition for the survival of the rest.

There’s often an element of scapegoating or sacrifice about tragedy. For the good of the community, the tragic figure must be expelled or eliminated. That certainly seems to be the case in Wuthering Heights, for it’s not until Heathcliff and Catherine are both gone that the members of the next generation can begin to find peace or fulfillment.

A century earlier, Richardson had produced a great tragic novel in Clarissa, and about a half-century later, Hardy would produce tragic novels such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Between Richardson and Hardy, Wuthering Heights stands alone—one of the few Victorian novels with the shape and scope of a tragedy.

From the lecture series The English Novel
Taught by 
Professor Timothy Spurgin, University of Virginia