Bronteana: Bronte Studies Blog Archives

March 1, 2006


Filed under: Uncategorized — by bronteana @ 8:27 pm

The Brontes as Propaganda?

From The Tyee:

I’m calling it the propaganda novel, for the lack of a catchier term (which will no doubt surface). Of course, it’s true that all novels (and I would argue all art) are propaganda in the original sense of the word, in that they direct audiences to see the world through the artist’s eyes. Charles Dickens seduced us into that annual shopping festival, Christmas. William Gibson spelled out just why corporations are so darn scary. And the Brontes have a lot to answer for in convincing young women that angry, abusive bad-boys are sexier than nice guys.

Well? Are all novels propaganda? And more seriously, have the Brontes brainwashed women into devoting their lives to abusive losers?



  1. Zuh?! That’s nuts. Any account of Rochester being actually abusive is purely speculative, and certainly Jane wouldn’t stand for it.

    And nobody actually likes Heathcliff. And I can’t see anybody liking abusing men in The Professor. And I’m sure I’m forgetting other things too, but I’ve got a pounding headache right now.


    Comment by Glaukôpis — March 1, 2006 @ 8:45 pm |Reply

  2. Re: Rochester, the only time he actually verges on violence is in the scene when Jane leaves him but people often have the impression that he’s an ‘angry man’. Let’s not get into the film representations- that’s a whole other sorry story… But I’ve even had professors stating that he did thus and so, when there’s no such thing in the book. Everyone forgets how he is often described- peculiar, with gentlemanlike manners, with changing moods which are easily explained by his situation. I defy anyone to live under similar stresses and turn out like Mr. Bingley- they would be scary indeed, and probably not at all sane.

    The attraction of Heathcliff fascinates me. A LOT of people like Heathcliff, Glaukopis! 😉 I am not convinced that the attraction is at all based on his brutality. But even if we say that people are attracted to him because he is ‘bad’ (unlikely), did Emily actually want her readers to be attracted to abusive men? Or is there an abusive romantic hero in her book?

    Crimsworth… Ugh. No, I hate him with a passion, especially because of his patronising ways with Frances. I’ll have to give The Professor another read. None of the abusive men in that book are at all likable anyway- like Edward Crimsworth? Ridiculous…

    And what about Anne’s novels? I know some people admit to an attraction to Arthur Huntingdon but they also admit that he’s repulsive at the same time. And again, Anne certainly doesn’t want people to admire men like Huntingdon!

    Comment by Brontëana — March 1, 2006 @ 9:11 pm |Reply

  3. I happen to be one who really likes Heathcliff. And it is not because of his brutality, but rather for what he represents: infinite passion.

    Emily herself had a cruel side to her nature (for example, burning herself with the iron like Shirley). Even if she had not intended for readers to be drawn to abusive men, if readers are drawn to her regardless her character, it is inevitable that they would be drawn to her characters in some measure as well. I do think though that there is the abusive in the good. Virtue cannot exist without vice, as Milton would argue.

    Comment by mysticgypsy — March 1, 2006 @ 10:06 pm |Reply

  4. What you say makes sense. Although Emily’s character, if I had to describe it in a word would be strong not cruel- she was very kind, especially to animals which are so often most vulnerable. I can’t see her ever admiring someone for strangling a dog!

    Abusive in the good? I’ll have to give that some thought. But the Milton reference reminds me of Mr Rochester’s question of whether St.John’s goodness comes from his ‘prowess in virtue’ or a ‘guiltlessness of vice’.

    Comment by Brontëana — March 1, 2006 @ 10:27 pm |Reply

  5. Emily firstly has Isabella fall in love with Heathcliff and she has characters scold Isabella for her stupidity in believing a romanticised image of Heathcliff.

    I don’t think Heathcliff is meant to be loved – he is part of a cycle of abuse that, in the end, he chooses to break. If Heathcliff is cruel then Cathy and Nelly are even more so for suggesting that, despite his station, he may stand a chance of winning Cathy over.

    The book makes us question just who is a victim – there are a couple: Hareton (??? – don’t have the book to hand but the younger Catherine’s eventual husband) definitely but aside from him?

    I’d say in any case that Wuthering Heights is more cautionary tale than sadomasochist propaganda but I think it also is important that Heathcliff is not a “villain born”, but rather everyone makes him into one. He makes choices, but from the moment he arrives he is earmarked as trouble.

    As for Rochester – I don’t think he’s violent. He’s moody certainly, and we might disapprove of his method of treating his wife in a modern context, but considering what he went through he never becomes a cruel man.

    We might as well call Austen a propagandist for vain, detached and pompous men.

    Comment by Aidan Brack — March 1, 2006 @ 10:30 pm |Reply

  6. To Aidan:

    This post is far more exciting than the seminar course I’m taking 😉

    You are the WH expert! It does seem to make good sense to me. I had some blogging friends tell me how much they adore Heathcliff while I read it for the Bronte seminar. I was reminded of them when Isabella came on the scene. It seemed to me that she was indeed a cautionary figure. I also think Charlotte was right in describing H as being an example of what happens to a bad character that is never given a chance to be anything better. He isn’t good- never was good, but he had some good qualities in that he could love so deeply. His treatment set him against improvement and made a villain out of him. Hindley is worse, I think. He has no reason to be so brutal to H.

    So, then, you also don’t agree that ‘all novels’ are propaganda?

    Comment by Brontëana — March 1, 2006 @ 10:51 pm |Reply

  7. No, I don’t think they’re propaganda. A novel is polemic maybe, reflecting the social views of the writer, but propaganda is too strong. If a novel has no real substance to it then it will not be remembered for long. The novels which last need a certain brilliance to them, even if they are simple and formulaic.

    Heathcliff has a huge deal of potential. He is able to amass a fortune in the space of two or three years to rival that of Edgar and exceed Hindley’s. He is smart, cunning and has huge capacity for a very strong and sincere love. Plus he does some things out of sheer humanity – catching Hareton when Hindley drops him on purpose over the bannister. The tragedy is one of class (and the way he is treated because of it) and I do maintain that Nelly is incredibly cruel to get his hopes up in the way she does. Cathy is too interested in her own security to commit to him, however much she loves him. She’s selfish – they’re both selfish.

    Isabella is right – Heathcliff has a sense of brilliance about him, but a woman cannot change a man’s direction once he’s committed to a course. She knows he loves Cathy but she hopes that if she is good to Heathcliff he will change and love her with that intensity. It’s a romantic game to her, and so she accordingly gets hurt.

    There is a scene early on in the book that I mentioned to you before, when referring to Heathcliff’s destiny. Joseph gives Cathy and Heathcliff each a religious tract to read – Cathy is given “The Helmet of Salvation” and Heathcliff is given “The Broad Way to Destruction”. Heathcliff is damned from the minute he enters that house because no one gives him the chance to be a good man except Cathy and Hindley’s father (who dies early and probably does Heathcliff a disservice by favouring him over his natural children).

    It’s a fascinating book with so much social depth to it. It’s about a world on the edge of a revolution (industrial), in which men of no social standing like Heathcliff can make their fortune and tear down the older establishments at a whim (essentially saying that if society does not treat the underclasses well then when the underclasses get power they will destroy the priviledged). It touches on Calvanism (Joseph is a Calvanist – hence why his giving books shows his perception of the recipients’ destinies), the relationships between men and women. In a world of science and industry, Cathy and Heathcliff represent nature. And there’s a lot about the nature of love – it’s the first really strong representation of a visceral, painful love affair.

    Heathcliff is not someone we should love – he’s a demagogue – but he is brilliant and he is an amazingly romantic figure. Unlike Rochester the reader should not fall in love wholeheartedly with him, but then Wuthering Heights is more a tragedy than a romance.

    Comment by Aidan Brack — March 1, 2006 @ 11:20 pm |Reply

  8. Mr Rochester’s question of whether St.John’s goodness comes from his ‘prowess in virtue’ or a ‘guiltlessness of vice’.

    In this lies the heart of Milton’s question. In “Areopagitica” he argues that virtue is never virtue until it is tested with evil. Also, this relates to the story of the Fall. If God wanted everyone to be virtuous, the Fall would not have happened. But because it did, the truly virtuous can stand out and prove themselves. So the bad actually turns out to be a blessing.
    So St.John is only
    deceptively “good”. Isn’t deliberately NOT allowing himself to be tested a sign of vice?

    Whether it was Emily’s intention to make Heathcliff lovable or not, he even trascends his role by winning the admiration from many readers. This is precisely why I think he is so powerful as a character. He defeats all notions of convention, even when it comes to “rational” choice. But what is “rational” anyway?

    Comment by mysticgypsy — March 1, 2006 @ 11:34 pm |Reply

  9. Aidan..I would disagree with you here I am afraid.
    I think Heathcliff has just as much potential to make readers fall in love as does Rochester. I do think however, that their merits are on a relative scale.

    Do you mean Wuthering Heights is romantic as in the literal sense of the Romantic genre? I do think that Emily Bronte draws a lot of her themes from the Romantic period, especially Coleridge’s version of the Gothic and even Dorothy Wordsoworth’s despondency on Nature.

    Comment by mysticgypsy — March 1, 2006 @ 11:41 pm |Reply

  10. Re: St.John not wanting to be tested:

    So, in that light do you think his missionary project is a denial in some sense? Is he running away from the temptations of a life with Rosamond?

    Well, I think again this comes down to the individual. And if ever a book witheld judgement it is WH. No one can saw what exactly it is trying to tell us. I personally am not at all attracted by Heathcliff, although I do find myself hoping to excuse him somehow. I’m not sure if I have or not… Charlotte does seem to want to excuse Rochester, however, and gives us plenty of opportunity to do so. Emily is not so generous with H, I think. He could have expressed his plight more sympathetically but we don’t get to see it often- it might be that there is no goodness there but he’s interesting because you wonder how much of his brutality is a result of his treatment.

    I also think this is why so many adaptations stop at Cathy’s death. Heathcliff is far more sympathetic before he spends decades tormenting innocent people (and dogs- but then he always had it in for dogs).

    Comment by Brontëana — March 1, 2006 @ 11:55 pm |Reply

  11. I see the Austen-like romances as being “classical” as opposed to the more “expressionist” gothic of Wuthering Heights and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (I love Coleridge too – particularly Kubla Khan and Christabel). I was really talking of romances rather than the Romantic (which as you say, tends towards the gothic).

    I think we can fall in love with Heathcliff but I think that at the same time we fall in love with the idea of what he could be or could have been. I don’t think it’s as unconditional as the sort of love we might bestow on Rochester who just makes a very stupid mistake in how he deals with Jane. 🙂

    Comment by Aidan Brack — March 2, 2006 @ 12:00 am |Reply

  12. *giggles* He hated them thar dogs.

    I think the second half of the book is much harder to film and Heathcliff becomes odd and haunted. He is desperate to capture the slightest sense of Cathy (hence his oddness when Lockwood has his vision). I think he is redeemed to an extent in his final days when he realises that he’s destroying the sort of love he had for Cathy in the next generation and when he allows himself to fade away.

    Comment by Aidan Brack — March 2, 2006 @ 12:02 am |Reply

  13. So, in that light do you think his missionary project is a denial in some sense? Is he running away from the temptations of a life with Rosamond?

    I believe that it could very well be the case. He does seem to resist Rosamond, claiming that he would succumb to “temptation” if he remained in Morton. His attraction to Rosamond complicates his desire to remove himself permanently and go to India. If Rosamond was not in the picture, one would be tempted to view him more along the lines of a faithful missionary.

    Milton’s argument is fascinating because it stipulates that all people have to choose to be evil (and subsequently unearth the inherent good in themselves).

    Comment by mysticgypsy — March 2, 2006 @ 12:11 am |Reply

  14. I love the fact that Wuthering Heights is not resolved. Just like Christabel and Kubla Khan, it too is a finished fragment.

    Comment by mysticgypsy — March 2, 2006 @ 12:15 am |Reply

  15. Plus Wuthering Heights really plays with perspective. It’s a framework narrative with a romantic narrator and a gossip – as such, in the end, what exactly in the story can we trust?

    Comment by Aidan Brack — March 2, 2006 @ 12:19 am |Reply

  16. to mysticgypsy:

    I’ve always thought that St.John’s attempt to make Jane ‘turn the bent of nature’ was a little vengeful…

    Also, it is interesting that you bring up Milton. Among other things… you know, the Broadway musical of Jane Eyre has about 6 ‘texts’- different scripts. And then there are different works alluded to in the 6 versions! Paradise Lost is one of them, in the later versions. Jane and Helen read it together and Jane has memorised parts of it by the time she is in Morton (St.John reads some of it to her on the moors).

    Comment by Brontëana — March 3, 2006 @ 9:52 pm |Reply

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