(Charlotte Reynders ’19 wrote this as a paper for HUM 218-219 last spring. The paper opens with a passage from the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.)
“‘I have run the whole way from Wuthering Heights!’ she continued, after a pause. ‘Except where I’ve flown – I couldn’t count the number of falls I’ve had – Oh, I’m aching all over! Don’t be alarmed – There shall be an explanation as soon as I can give it – only just have the goodness to step out, and order the carriage to take me on to Gimmerton, and tell a servant to seek up a few clothes in my wardrobe.’
The intruder was Mrs Heathcliff – she certainly seemed in no laughing predicament: her hair streamed on her shoulders, dripping with snow and water; she was dressed in the girlish dress she commonly wore, befitting her age more than her position; a low frock, with short sleeves, and nothing on either head or neck. The frock was of light silk, and clung to her with wet; and her feet were protected merely by thin slippers; add to this a deep cut under one ear, which only the cold prevented from bleeding profusely, a white face scratched and bruised, and a frame hardly able to support itself through fatigue, and you may fancy my first fright was not much allayed when I had leisure to examine her.
‘My dear young lady,’ I exclaimed, ‘I’ll stir nowhere, and hear nothing, till you have removed every article of your clothes, and put on dry things; and certainly you shall not go to Gimmerton to-night; so it is needless to order the carriage.’
‘Certainly, I shall,’ she said; ‘walking or riding – yet I’ve no objection to dress myself decently; and – ah, see how it flows down my neck now! The fire does make it smart.’
She insisted on my fulfilling her directions, before she would let me touch her; and not till after the coachman had been instructed to get ready, and a maid set to pack up some necessary attire, did I obtain her consent for binding the wound, and helping to change her garments.”
From young Heathcliff’s tattered garb to Catherine Earnshaw’s dresses of lustrous silk, clothing is essential in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Even the storyline itself is “clothed” in two layers of narration, which closely shape the expressive outcomes of the novel as a whole. While Lockwood establishes an overarching framework for the novel, Ellen (“Nelly”) Dean is largely responsible for the substance of his account, and it is she who directly determines which details to expose and which to conceal. However, towards the beginning of Volume II, when Isabella escapes from Wuthering Heights, she seems to tear through Nelly’s narrative fabric, destabilizing the housekeeper’s effort to maintain aesthetic order. This particular scene, through its emphasis on Isabella’s clothing and aspect, communicates the feebleness of static external appearances against the necessity of human catharsis. Although Isabella’s fleeting appearance at Thrushcross Grange sets the stage for her permanent withdrawal from the scope of the action, her character provides an enduring embodiment of the violent, interwoven, and ultimately uncontainable energies that underlie the text in its entirety.
On the most fundamental level, Isabella’s disruption of external appearances finds its realization in the mechanics of the passage itself. Visually separated by dashes, Isabella’s isolated phrases convey fragmentation as she describes her process of traveling from the Heights to the Grange. After first exclaiming, “I have run the whole way from Wuthering Heights!” she qualifies her claim with a breathless modification: “Except where I’ve flown – I couldn’t count the number of falls I’ve had – Oh, I’m aching all over!” Not only the evocative terms “flown,” “falls,” and “aching” but also the dynamic combination of exclamation points and dashes express the chaotic physicality of Isabella’s journey across the moor. Her direct speech, jarring and interruptive, stands in stark contrast to Nelly’s narration, which is distinctive in its syntactical continuity. In fact, throughout Nelly’s physical characterization of Isabella, semicolons and commas string her statements together in long, cumulative chains, illustrating her preference for seamless unity. Even in isolation from content, the formal elements of the passage point to Isabella’s role in destabilizing seemingly cohesive external appearances through the life force of her cathartic expression.
As Nelly begins her description of Isabella, her use of the term “intruder” not only emphasizes Isabella’s function in disrupting veneers of stability but also addresses the charged interplay between inclusion and exclusion that pervades the novel as a whole. Importantly, when Nelly first deems Isabella an “intruder,” she refers to the young woman as “Mrs Heathcliff,” drawing an association between her marriage and her status as an outsider. In this moment, Isabella, like Heathcliff, is a stranger in her childhood home. Because she is married, her return to the Grange appears anomalous and retroactive, and she becomes, at once, both “insider” and “outsider.” As such, she challenges the static propriety associated with Thrushcross Grange and incarnates Heathcliff’s struggle for power and identity. In this sense, Isabella’s character serves as a concentrated representation of an intergenerational strife that plagues the Earnshaws and Lintons alike. Such strife can only be contained for so long; as soon as Isabella arrives at the Grange, her appearance forces Nelly to separate herself from the quiet rituals of caring for young Cathy and confront traces of a far more fraught and ambiguous truth.
By emphasizing the physical effects of the inclement weather that Isabella has faced on her journey to the Grange, Nelly’s physical characterization of Isabella further calls external identities into question. A testament to the severity of the natural setting, Isabella’s “hair stream[s] on her shoulders, dripping with snow and water.” Here, the verb “stream” evokes the melting snow that has drenched Isabella’s body and garments, but it also imbues the description with a sense of dynamism and fluidity. Similarly, the term “dripping” produces a moving image, an animated representation of Isabella that vividly conveys the fragility of fixed external identities. Just as the harsh environs disrupt the order of Isabella’s appearance, the violent tensions that brim beneath the surface of the Heights descend upon Isabella, causing her veneer of conformity and propriety to dissolve. On a more general scale, repeated allusions to flowing water connote the free-flowing expression of suppressed energies. In this sense, the impact of the natural setting on Isabella’s appearance may imply that the catharsis she enacts is both natural and necessary.
While a lexical field associated with fluidity and flow accentuates the fundamental expressive force that impels Isabella’s journey to the Grange, Nelly’s description of the flimsiness of Isabella’s clothing with respect to her surroundings communicates even more closely the insubstantiality of external façades. For instance, Isabella’s “frock” has “short sleeves,” and she wears “nothing on either head or neck.” Furthermore, the “light silk” dress “cl[ings] to her with wet” while “her feet [are] protected merely by thin slippers.” Such details paint Isabella as a victim of the elements; exposed, she is at once clothed and undressed, which complicates the role of clothing in the novel as a whole. Because Isabella’s clothes are sufficient neither as a mechanism for protection nor for concealment, it seems that she is incapable of evading both external and internal manifestations of familial violence. This insufficiency of Isabella’s everyday garb in the context of her experiences at Wuthering Heights may point to her character’s representative function in the novel. She embodies a cathartic turning point at which the psychological and physical violence surrounding Heathcliff’s presence becomes uncontainable.
Such a turning point is further evidenced in the loss of innocence that Isabella’s clothing and comportment imply. For instance, when Isabella first arrives at the Grange, she is “laughing,” which, in isolation, might establish an air of youthful irreverence. However, in context, Isabella’s laughter, much like her dress, reflects “her age more than her position.” Nelly’s use of the term “position” may refer to Isabella’s social class, which would suggest that her “girlish” clothing and behavior are incompatible with the status of her family, both biological and by marriage. At the same time, “position” could allude more generally to the conditions that have shaped Isabella’s experiences and, perhaps, have brought upon a loss of innocence. That is, Isabella’s “girlish” dress belies the weight and scope of her victimhood.
The passage insinuates Isabella’s victimhood (and, thus, her loss of innocence) through a combination of sexual undertones and allusions to physical violence. In particular, the suggestive image of the thin silk dress “cl[inging] to her with wet” confirms that her marriage to Heathcliff has facilitated her transition from feminine youth to sexual object. Because Heathcliff’s claim to Thrushcross Grange ultimately depends upon his fathering of a Linton heir, Isabella, his wife, embodies the uncontainable intergenerational tensions that fuel his quest for power. In fact, in this scene, as one can infer from the remainder of the second volume, Isabella is pregnant with that very heir, Linton Heathcliff. Given the centrality of a male heir to Heathcliff’s claims to property, the sexual emphasis of the description effectively presents Isabella as a pawn in his aggressive pursuits. Meanwhile, her “girlish” external identity yields to the corporeality of her figure, introducing new complexity to the relationship between surface and substance.
Moreover, when Nelly takes note of Isabella’s “deep cut,” her “white face scratched and bruised,” and her “fatigue,” she illustrates the profound incongruity between Isabella’s innocent, youthful persona and traumatic existence. Although Nelly seems to be engaging in an objective process of direct observation, the term “deep” suggests that she is beginning to acknowledge the severity of the dangers from which Isabella has escaped. In fact, Isabella ultimately reveals that Hindley Earnshaw caused the wound by throwing a knife at her head (Brontë, 182-183). Such extreme violence is not directly apparent in the passage at hand, but Isabella’s injuries are so conspicuous against her “white” complexion that it is no longer possible for Nelly to craft a unidimensional portrait of her subject. Far from cohesive, Isabella’s appearance shows signs of the crazed momentum of a bacchante, the warped giddiness of a young girl, and the underlying horrors of domestic life. Rather than uphold ideals, Nelly is forced to confront the unresolvable multiplicity of Isabella’s identity and of the violent tensions that she personifies.
While elements of Nelly’s characterization point to her recognition of Isabella’s precarious circumstances, it is important to note that Nelly’s overarching project within the scope of the passage is to maintain appearances and “clothe” signs of strife. For instance, Nelly’s attempt to establish decorum and order is evident in her statement that her “first fright was not much allayed when [she] had leisure to examine” Isabella. Here, Nelly avoids defining her initial “fright” and, in so doing, underplays the unsettling inferences that she has made upon her observation of Isabella. Not only Nelly’s narration but also her direct speech suggests her will to limit and shape Isabella’s external identity. In response to Isabella’s request that Nelly summon a “servant” to assemble clothing for her journey to the nearby village of “Gimmerton,” Nelly adopts a singsong, vaguely condescending tone, as if she were reprimanding a child. Addressing Isabella as “my dear young lady,” Nelly insists that she put on “dry things” and forbids her from traveling to Gimmerton that night. Inherent in her language is an effort to slow Isabella’s momentum and repair her external façade. However, as the two women negotiate Isabella’s appearance, Isabella defies the narrator’s attempt to dress and contain her.
By claiming control over her own body and clothing, Isabella facilitates her departure from the closed system of Wuthering Heights. As a result, she emblematizes the futility of exterior façades against the natural forces of human catharsis that challenge such guises from the inside out and from the outside in. For example, after Nelly asserts that Isabella “certainly…shall not go to Gimmerton,” Isabella reclaims and repurposes her language, replying, “‘Certainly, I shall.’” Through the process of transforming Nelly’s words to align with her own intentions, Isabella not only makes certain her own liberation but also redefines the symbolic role of her clothing. This act of redefinition is evident in the fact that she only admits of having “no objection to dress [her]self decently” after she has already declared the inevitability of her departure—“‘walking or riding,’” she will leave for Gimmerton, regardless of whether Nelly chooses to comply with her requests. So long as she is free to recontextualize herself outside the oppressive turmoil of the setting she now inhabits, she has no qualms about cultivating her wardrobe, but she refuses to remain where she is and allow her clothing to conceal the reality of her existence. Instead, Isabella “insist[s] on [Nelly’s] fulfilling her directions” and has a suitcase assembled, transforming her dry clothing from a static screen of guileless propriety to a symbol of mobility and agency.
Lastly, Nelly and Isabella’s disparate responses to the wound on Isabella’s neck confirm on a microcosmic level the necessity of emotional release in response to physical and psychological violence. Although Isabella acknowledges her will to “dress…decently,” she interrupts herself by drawing attention to the gash, which has begun to bleed. Rather than conceal the evidence of Hindley’s violence, she exposes it willingly: “ah, see how it flows down my neck now!” Even her first utterance suggests an intuitive release of tension and expresses a combination of physical discomfort and relief. Moreover, the image of “flow[ing]” blood evokes the terminology used to characterize Isabella’s wet hair and clothing earlier in the scene. As a result of this parallel, the wound itself seems to encapsulate Isabella’s place in the passage and in the novel as a whole. Just as the wound cuts through appearances and forces interior and exterior worlds to converge, Isabella challenges containment and decorum, expressing violent interpersonal strife that requires release. In this scene, Isabella herself is an undressed wound, antagonized by the “fire” of a fraught domestic life; she signals a moment of transition in the text at which domestic horrors become uncontainable. Ultimately, Isabella permits Nelly to “touch her,” “bind the wound,” and “change her garments,” but such rituals are only superficial. While Nelly’s efforts may stop the “flow” of blood and the “stream” of melting snow, they cannot contain the emotive force of Isabella’ escape.
Isabella’s arrival at the Grange may seem to cut through the surface of the narrative only temporarily; however, in reality, her character leaves a permanent and penetrating scar on the text as a whole, embodying the irrepressible nature of domestic turmoil. In consequence, Nelly’s preoccupation with binding Isabella’s wound and changing her clothes suggests the ultimate insubstantiality of her efforts to control external appearances. In this sense, the moment at which Nelly defers to Isabella’s commands has a stake in Nelly’s overarching system of storytelling. Despite her apparent sway over the course of events, from Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship to the growth and development of young Cathy, she wrests a limited degree of control over characters’ (and readers’) perceptions of the truth. As the keeper of the keys, she seems the ultimate arbiter of knowledge in Wuthering Heights, but, fundamentally, like each character in the novel, she is an outsider.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.