Oh, Sister: Eagleton’s Marxist Comparison of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights

Through a great deal of anecdotal evidence and lived experience, I have formed the opinion that biological sisters in most societies will never exist as separate entities with their own strengths and merits, but will always be viewed through a lens comparing each to the other. Edith is more plain than Mary in Downton Abbey. Mary Kate is the funnier Olson twin. And, in Terry Eagleton’s view, while Charlotte Bronte’s literary masterpiece¬†Jane Eyre¬†merely “constitutes Victorian bourgeois consciousness” in it’s “aesthetically appropriate form” her sister Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights “represents a more penetrative, radical, and honest enterprise…a finer artistic achievement.” (395) Eagleton feels that Emily’s work is more realist in it’s display of the “fundamental contradictions” present in the pursuit of love and passion vs. survival and comfort. (396) So, ignoring the struggle to gain an education in the blank and depressing boarding school Eyre is shipped off to, the moral quandary of trying to avoid living in sin with Mr. Rochester and putting up with his crazed wife in the attic or ¬†remaining as a ‘kept woman’ who would be comfortable, loved and engaged in meaningful work raising the impish Adele, choosing the struggle to go out on her own once again and earn her bread virtuously, and her heroic return to care for the crippled and struggling Rochester who insulted her by lying to her and trying to trick her into bigamy or keep her as a mistress, he sees a lesser internal struggle between what Eyre desires and what she thinks is right- her love and passion vs. her desire for survival and the comfort of having stood by her morals. In contrast, Eagleton claims Catherine and Heathcliff’s selfish, destructive and dependent behaviors which poison life at Wuthering Heights well into the next generation displays a greater internal struggle between love and survival, passion and comfort, though for the star-crossed lovers, none of these things are sustain ably achieved in their lives.

Aesthetically, these are both beautiful novels. Wuthering Heights is considered more daring in it’s portrayal of human nature, country life, social class, restrictions and revenge. Jane Eyre, though cut closer to the Victorian novel’s cloth of poor girl following her heart to moral superiority and, at long last, socially acceptable love, is no less moving, passionate, socially complex or enthralling. Neither of them are all that realistic- Catherine and Heathcliffe’s spirits serve as book ends to the real action of the plot, haunting the grounds with the memories of their sad, beautiful, tragic love; Eyre after years of abuse and neglect is thrown out in the world and instead of ending up a school teacher, laborer or seamstress, just happens upon a handsome, rich, seemingly eligible bachelor and his adorable little girl secluding themselves from society and yearning for a young, naive, beautiful mother figure and wife to improve their isolated lives. Eagleton is inclined to read Emily’s work as more realistic because he feels one cannot have it all, especially in a system so rigidly designed to keep people in their own social standing and only holding on to their allotted portions in life. However, that does not make Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre more or less of an artistic achievement than the other. It makes them two different achievements produced by two different women with different outlooks on life, whom chance made sisters, and so by some sick twist of human nature we feel compelled to imagine and further a sibling rivalry, characterizing their life and works by who is the more brilliant or artistic one.

 

 

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